Monday, September 01, 2008

MacGuyver Monday: Back to School Wardrobes

What does a homeschooling family know about Back to School shopping? More than you would think! We didn't always homeschool, so there was a time when I had to get six people fully outfitted every August. I still try to celebrate these little cultural rituals, although the pressure is definitely lower. So how am I keeping this big family in stylish clothing? The same way I ran charity events and the same way I manage a writing career: by being organized and making lists.

The list making comes first. Your first list should be a "need" list for each child. Never mind what they have, just list the bare essentials of a passable back to school wardrobe for your area and social class. For a homeschooling family in Central Washington, this might look like: 5 everyday/play outfits, 3 nice outfits, 2 church outfits, tennis shoes, boots, coat, snowpants, 3 pair pajamas. For a family in school, you would probably need 'nice clothes' every day, so adjust as needed.

Now, inventory all of the potential school clothes you have on hand from last year, hand-me-downs, and the deals you find here and there. I am always on the look-out for free and cheap clothes, so I usually have a substantial pile for each child. Have your children try on their clothes. Things that are too big go back to your clothing storage (whatever that may be), and things that are too small get passed down. Compare your "have" lists to your "need" lists and note any shortfalls. This is your shopping list.

If I was determined to spend no money, I would now begin looking for ways to repurpose. My love of pillow case dresses is legendary, but pillowcases also make nice skirts and jumpers. Pants with torn or worn knees can be cut off and hemmed to make shorts, or sewn into a cute skirt like this one. Sewing clothing is usually more expensive than buying, but if you have fabric on hand, even in the form of unwanted sheets and curtains, free patterns are all over internet. You can also request clothing on Freecycle, or ask friends what they are doing with their children's cast-offs.

Next, I would hit thrift stores with a very specific list of what I need. I actually did this today and my list read something like:

White turtleneck--Grace
Hot pink top--Rachael
Off-white top--Rachael
Black snowboarding pants--Tyler

And so on. It was a long list.

A tip: do not buy anything not on your list at this point. List items are receiving priority because they are immediately needed.

Another tip: many thrift stores regularly publish coupons or have special days when certain items are cheaper. Don't be afraid to ask!

If you have tapped the thrift stores and still have items on your list, move on to cheaper stores like Target, T.J. Maxx, and Old Navy. If you have an outlet mall nearby, hit that as well. I find amazing deals at Nordstrom Rack, so check there if one is near you. I know there are environmental and social implications to buying mainstream retail garments, but if you have managed until this point to get everything used, a few fill-in items will have minimal impact. As for WalMart, I avoid it like the plague because I need my stuff to last.

Done? Hopefully you have found everything you need at this point. I did this routine today, and my Back to School shopping came to $56 for four kids and their clothes horse mommy. Not too shabby! There are a few items I'm still keeping an eye out for, but we'll all be on-trend when we sit down to the kitchen table for Latin tomorrow morning.

A tip on buying ahead: I buy things before I need them, but without a framework, I would end up with lots of disconnected items that don't translate into outfits. My policy is to limit buying ahead to basics (like jeans, khakis, polos, cardigans, etc) and matched outfits. If I see something adorable at a great price, I'll pick it up, but only if it is worth having to buy a matching piece at full retail price. Of course, if it's free, just take it and say thank you. Another good way to weave scattered clearance deals into a cohesive look is to plan a wardrobe theme. Not everything has to match the theme, but, for example, my 6 year old daughter loves animal prints so I bought her leopard print ballet flats, skirts, and tops as I found them.