To most parents, back to school means back to spending. More than $14 billion worth.
A recent nationwide survey for the Marshall's chain of 450 stores found most parents spend 43 percent of their children's annual clothing budget on back-to-school clothes, shoes and accessories.
Whether your outlay is above or below the $375-per-family average the survey found, there are ways to make your budget stretch and to get the most value for your investments.
Here are some tips:
Inventory: Go through your child's wardrobe. What needs to be mended? What's outgrown and ready to be passed on to another child or donated to charity? What does your child need?
It's helpful if your child participates. Talk about likes and dislikes, from colors to styles to fabrics. Make a list of what you have, including colors, and what you want.
While you're taking inventory, take time to measure your child's height, chest, waist and hips. Keep these figures in your wallet for times you're shopping without your child and run across a good sale.
Research: Pay attention to the advertisements in newspapers and magazines as well as catalogs. This gives you an idea of what's out there, what prices are and which stores are having sales and specials.
If you haven't already heard from your children's schools, check with them to see if there are any clothing restrictions or recommendations on colors or items to avoid. In areas with gang activity, wearing the wrong color or an accessory such as a bandanna can actually endanger your child.
Budget: Decide in advance what you're going to spend and stick to it. If your child is old enough to understand, talk about the budget and how it will be spent. You might even use this as a math lesson, suggesting your child do some comparative price shopping via ads.
There are no rules that all school clothes must be purchased before Labor Day. If money is tight, look at what you need now and what can be postponed for purchase a month or two down the line, such as jackets and sweaters. Keep some money in reserve for popular, must-have items.
Don't sacrifice quality for price, because in the long run it can cost you more. Before you buy any garment, look at the inside seams for broken stitches or hanging threads. Both indicate poor workmanship. Check that seams and necklines give a bit to accommodate your child's head and movements. If you're buying a print, look at the reverse to see if the design shows. If it doesn't, it will eventually wear off or fade after repeated washings.
Check to see what sort of warranties are offered where you shop. Reputable stores will take defective merchandise back.
Sears' free KidVantage program pledges that if children split, rip or wear out their clothes or shoes before outgrowing them, the chain will replace the item in the same size for free. This warranty applies to all clothes and shoes sold by Sears. Additionally, KidVantage has a frequent-purchase plan that, for every $100 spent on a child's clothes or shoes, gives you a 15 percent discount on the next purchase.
Shopping: To keep back-to-school shopping from becoming a pain in the aisle for you and others, try some of these techniques when shopping with younger children.
Confine shopping to a brief period of time; a whole day is usually too much for child and parent. If possible, shop for one child at a time. Consider going to two stores and then breaking for lunch, or go in the afternoon and finish with a movie as a treat.
Know where you're going before you leave the house. Know which store you want to shop in and have a couple in reserve in case the first one doesn't have what you want. Don't overwhelm a child with too many stores and choices. Go to a store with a good selection and invite the child to choose; don't ask them to remember choices from one store to the next.
Encourage your child to stay by your side. If the child is unwilling, this is a clue that you may have shopped enough for one day.
Dress your child appropriately for shopping. Have the child wear shoes and clothes that are easy to slip on and off.
Listen to what your child says. If a shirt is itchy, pants are tight or the color is wrong, taking it home isn't going to change that.
Make sure your child understands not to put merchandise in a pocket or to take things from one department to another. Young children sometimes don't understand that their actions may be misinterpreted, and it could be very traumatic to have store security stop them even when it's obvious that no harm was intended.
If there's a special item your child wants, that should be the final purchase. This helps ensure the child's cooperation throughout the shopping trip.
Sew: If you sew, making your child's clothes can be less expensive than buying them. Pattern companies and fabric stores are quick to pick up on fashion trends at all age levels.
If you're going this route, ask your child to help pick out patterns, fabrics and trims such as buttons or braid. Be sure to buy all the fabric you need for each outfit at once, since dye lots change.
If you're short on time or skill, look for "easy to sew" patterns and talk to fabric store personnel about which fabrics are easiest to work with.
Care: Once you've spent money on school clothes, keeping them clean and looking good prolongs their use. A good guide to children's clothing care is the newly published 12-page "Caring for Kids' Colorful Clothes" from Vivid color-safe bleach.
It includes basic advice on what colors are most flattering to different skin tones and eye and hair colors, a guide to codes on garment care labels and general laundry tips. It does include a plug for the product, but the advice is good no matter which laundry products you use.
For a free copy, send your name and address to "Caring for Kids' Colorful Clothes," Ultra Vivid, Sept. 800-PK, P.O. Box 78980, New Augusta, Ind., 46278.