Back to School Doesn’t Have to Mean Back to The Mall

by Katy on August 9, 2014 · 23 comments

American families are in the thick of back-to-school season. With page long school supply lists and an expectation from retailers to buy an entirely new wardrobe for the kids.


Did every piece of clothing disappear into a puff of smoke on August 31st? Did last year’s scissors suddenly become non-functional on the last day of school?

I do have fond memories of being taken back-to-school shopping when I was a kid. We’d go to JCPenny to buy knockoffs of whatever shoes were popular that year. Famolares in 1977 and Nikes in 1981. And that was the pair of shoes for the year. One pair to replace the Newberry’s sandals we’d destroyed over the summer.

I choose to do things differently.

Although my kids are 16 and 18 and therefor take their own selves shopping now, it wasn’t that long ago that I was in charge of the task. But since I follow The Compact and only buy used, buying everything all at once just isn’t possible. Clothing needs to be bought when it’s found. A great pair of jeans here, the perfect jacket there.

Yes, we’re all being inundated with back-to-school clothing ads right now, but that shouldn’t matter. I don’t exactly buy a new mattress every Memorial Day and a big screen TV the week before Super Bowl. I’m a critical thinker and hope I’m able to cut through advertising pressure to make my own purchasing decisions.

Breathe, Katy. Breathe . . . .

If you are choosing to buy a new wardrobe for your kids’ back-to-school, I encourage you to think outside the mall and hit up area thrift shops, consignment shops and garage sales. Buying new mostly supports a garment industry that irresponsibly produces poor quality clothing in unsafe factories staffed by shamefully paid workers. Profits go to overpaid upper management and I would rather support a non-profit thrift shop any day of the week.

So please give the secondhand market a chance and bypass the mall.

It’s just so much better.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

surviving and thriving on pennies August 9, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Couldn’t agree more! Since I have 4 girls here is what I do. Check their current wardrobe and see what they do need, hand down to their younger sisters and donate what is left to friends/family. I then call friends & family and tell them we will take anything that will fit my girls from anyone. We also hit up garage/yard sales and whatever we do buy we save in a box for when school starts. Its not new clothes but they look forward to wearing new to them clothes just like everyone else does. If I need anything at all that I still cannot find I will go to a thrift store to buy it. MOST the time we don’t spend much $$ on school clothes.


coleen August 9, 2014 at 3:12 pm

How did you handle the school supply list? This year the list is brand specific. UGH!


livingrichonthecheap August 9, 2014 at 4:59 pm

My thrift stores seem crazy busy with parents doing just as you suggested. No breaking the bank at the thrift – outfit the entire family for under $100 easy. What makes me angry is some of the requirements the schools have made over the years – then come to find out kids never really needed the item at all. A certain expensive calculator for algebra comes to mind.


Kim from Philadelphia August 9, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Ah, I will never participate in the back- to-school buying frenzy. My dons current shorts and tops will do just fine until the colder weather hits. Then Ill pull out the hand- me-downs from my coworker’s son as well as items bought at a thrift store last year. He gets new sneakers only when he outgrows or out wears his current pair- that’s it!

When it comes to school supplies… I always salvage what I can from the previous year; colored pencils, crayons, folders. Currently I’m working on a homemade pencilcase for my 8 year old, crafted out of a leg of my worn-out corduroys. I just might embarrass him to death with that creation!!!


Julia August 10, 2014 at 2:05 am

Don’t forget the schools themselves. If a list is brand specific then you may find the school parent committee do a sale in June or July. This raises school funds.
With two girls leaving a school I have found families happy to receive skirts and blouses and blazers. My second daughter never understood the point of buying her new things for school and happily wore her sisters outgrown items. My problem was I did not know parents at the school before hand, and having tall daughters even the cast offs from those three years ahead were not big enough, however… I have passed all I can on.


NMPatricia August 10, 2014 at 4:17 am

I so appreciate that you continue to remind us of buying USA (if not local) and to buy quality. It is finally getting to be more automatic for me (can there be shades of automatic?). Totally unrelated, I was shopping at Target the other day and am looking for a new water “bottle”. Checking the bottom of all of them – Made in China. Pass. I will keep looking.


Lucy August 10, 2014 at 4:30 am

Long past having a student to buy for now, but when I did we “shopped” from boxes of hand-me-downs and garage sale finds. We also passed along things to friends. I’m pretty sure my son will do the same, as his bride is one of those we passed things on to.


Megyn August 10, 2014 at 8:56 am

We haven’t really done any back to school clothes shopping (still wearing/fitting into clothes from 3 years ago), but did get our oldest a new backpack, which we hope will last for quite a few years.

What pisses me off though is that my son’s school didn’t send him home with any of his school supplies other than used notebooks. We could have easily re-used his pencil box and scissors. I remember having my small Fiskars until I left for college. I hate this whole “must by new every single year” thing that seems so prevalent in our area.

Also, why can’t schools buy in bulk to reduce waste and price and just ask the families for the money? I’m sure it would be less than these shrink wrapped sets they sell for 2x the cost of just buying the supplies yourself.


Diane C August 11, 2014 at 10:08 am

Was there something preventing your son from taking his school supplies home himself? Does the school not allow children to keep their own supplies for future use? Perhaps I’m reading this wrong, but couldn’t this situation be remedied by asking your son to bring his stuff home rather than expecting the school to monitor this?

As to bulk buying, I generally find that I can do better myself by keeping an eye out for things that I know will be needed all year long. Not likely that the school system would be as frugal as you are.


Linda M August 10, 2014 at 12:44 pm

My children are grown…when they were in school they had to keep a pair of tennis shoes there for physical education and they had to be new. We had bought our daughter a pair and she had worn them twice before school started and I had cleaned them up nicely….how bad could they be only worn twice. The school required me to buy a new pair. Obviously, by the end of the school year they no longer fit her for any length of time….what a waste. And at that time in our life, it was a financial stretch. Made no sense to me! And I think their policy is still the same.
My grandchildren’s supply list must have all new things….and they are so long….things like hand sanitizer, three or four boxes of tissues and really odd items their teacher may come up and are hard to find. Ugh!


JD August 10, 2014 at 6:25 pm

Back to school is a tough time here, because the school system constantly changes the dress code, in spite of loud complaints from parents. Their latest brainstorm is to have uniforms — only they are not uniforms, they are just modest clothes that must be in the school’s colors — solid bright orange or solid cobalt blue. Have you ever looked for cobalt blue or bright orange for a young girl’s clothes? They don’t exist. Oh, but they can also wear white — which stays white for about 2 wearings on young children. One year they can have small logos on clothes, the next year they can’t. One year they can wear mid-thigh shorts, the next year they can’t. The stores here do their best to keep up with the changes, but they are usually a year behind. Obviously, we have a lot of parents rushing out to buy new clothes at the last minute, when the latest change is finally announced just as school is starting. The school supply list changes from teacher to teacher and grade to grade, too, so last year’s stuff may be nearly useless this year. They even changed rules about back packs at least three times in recent years — they can have them, they can’t have them, they can have them but they have to be clear…. it’s a nightmare. We vote new school board members in, but the insanity carries on.


Barb @ 1SentenceDiary August 11, 2014 at 5:08 am

My kids seem to have their biggest growth spurts in the summer. For example, my daughter can no longer wear the shorts we bought her in May — 3 months later and they are waaaaaaay too tight. She doesn’t want to wear athletic shorts and sweatpants every day. So back-to-school clothes are a must, as she really doesn’t have much to wear at least in the area of pants and shorts. I do look at the thrift stores but I find that takes a lot of time, and I do not enjoy shopping. (It’s not about the thrift stores — I don’t enjoy shopping at any stores. Shopping is not a pleasurable activity for me.) So often I get her just one or two things, and then I wait for the sales. The sales come so early (are people really finished with back to school shopping by August 15? school doesn’t start around here until September). I agree with Katy that this still supports the garment industry which produced cheaply made clothing by underpaid workers in often terrible conditions. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of choices. I do use my sewing machine and I fix and re-fix clothes for as long as I can.


Rosa August 14, 2014 at 8:18 pm

my kid foils all attempts at back to school shopping by having a giant growth spurt every September.

Unfortunately, he grows all year so twice I’ve bought new shoes in August because while he was wearing sandals all summer I didn’t notice he outgrew his tennis shoes (no sandals for gym class!) and then he outgrows the new shoes in a month.

Oh well, someone has to donate the barely-worn shoes other people find at the thrift store, right? And he’s still little enough his shoes aren’t super expensive.


Stephanie August 11, 2014 at 6:48 am

I don’t even have kids but the frugalista in my can’t resist when JCPenny sends me a back to school $10 off a $10 or more purchase coupon. That’s basically a free tee shirt or maybe pair of shorts!


ms.p August 11, 2014 at 9:23 am

I excited I don’t have to do the school dash to the store this year. My daughter will be doing schooling online. Long story this is the best option at this time in our life for her.Next year may be different. The only thing she needs is shoes. When the weather starts to change will go and get a few items. By then none of her pants will fit. Going faster then I can keep up.


CW August 11, 2014 at 11:22 am

This is my first fall without back to school shopping. I always found that my daughter’ s clothes were either worn out or too small by fall. We are a tall family, so she was out of children’s clothes and shoes before she was out of elementary school. Not many second hand shoes and long pants in a small town!
As a teacher, I would guess that supply lists are becoming brand specific because many low priced supplies are cheaply made. Pencils are a good example. If they are made in China, stay away (no matter how cheap). Much class time is wasted when students’ pencils keep breaking and will not sharpen properly. It is worth it to pay a bit more. In Canada, my favourites are Dixon and Staedtler. I bring old pencils from home to avoid time wasting, but that is my choice and should not be expected of teachers.


Gladys (The Pinay Mom) August 11, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Yes to second-hand stores! Our preschooler doesn’t need any brand new clothes or shoes,we bought her few nice outfits at Goodwill last weekend.


cathy August 12, 2014 at 12:07 am

I was just talking to my kids the other day about how “I don’t do back-to-school shopping.” If they need something and August is the best time to get it, I will. But I don’t feel pressured to buy them new clothes just because school is starting again. (I also have boys who are into comfort, not fashion, and don’t want to shop.) Ever since reading The Tightwad Gazette so many years ago, I’ve kept a clothing inventory. It’s mostly filled with hand-me-downs from friends and family and my oldest son. When someone needs clothes, this is the first place we “shop.” Fortunately, the school that has a uniform has had the same policy for years: easy-to-find colors (though logo-free isn’t always easy). I’ve got a big bag of uniform clothes ready to donate to the school for kids who may need them.
We’ve been lucky with school supplies. The lists have been fairly moderate, and often we have many things on hand. School fees–especially high school–are a little harder to swallow. I just got one kid registered and I’m thinking I should be relieved I couldn’t pre-pay his SAT exam at the same time.


Chicago Mom August 12, 2014 at 9:43 am

I wanted to pull my hair out when we had a “back to school” experience. We enrolled our child in a Catholic school for two half day a week “preschool”. The supply list I was given was insane. Two pages long with very specific brand name requirements. It immediately gave me insight into how the school was run that I couldn’t see during the open houses.

My Husband and I realized right away that the values being taught in school were not congruent with our family values. I too wondered why there wasn’t a one time purchase of a “classroom set” of scissors, why every single child had to have several bottles of brand specific hand sanitizer and 6 boxes of brand name facial tissue (um, seriously in our house we just use toilet paper to blow our nose). There were even requirements for multi packs of paper towels, crayons, markers, construction paper, etc.

The school uniforms were only available through one supplier (made in Bangladesh of cheap polyester) resold at just under $70 per jumper. Weirdly enough, there were apparently several “jeans days” per year that were actually a fundraiser. The children could pay $2 to wear jeans on certain days. That just blew my mind! The purpose of a uniform is to ensure students focus on learning, not on fashion…unless of course they PAY for an exemption. Then there were the usual expectations to shake down your relatives and coworkers for cheese and sausage, wrapping paper, candy bars, blah blah blah blah. The tuition was 8K a year! CRAZY!

This is after we spent MONTHS visiting schools and interviewing teachers, going through one “application process” after another. This was one of the “good” schools available to us. Ugh.

The hyper consumerism of “school” (even a private one that was supposedly religious) made us decide to opt out of preschool entirely. We got the message that “school” wasn’t really for learning or even socializing our child. It was a crash course in cult like marketing. At the end of the day the goal was to “market” the school as opposed to educate and instill values in the children who attend. There were all the hoops to jump through, and stupid fees, and cult like fundraising pressure…

Before we even had our child attend there were non stop emails badgering us to leave positive ratings on school review sites, and tell your friends about this school to achieve full enrollment, and put this sign on your lawn or bumper sticker on your car, etc.

Years later, we stumbled across a small privately run, affordable, non consumerist Waldorf school for “Kindergarten” that we adore. Every toy is used and well loved, the teachers are frugal while at the same time showing children that there is more than enough, in fact an abundance of everything! Clothing can be well mended and there is no way to “buy” your way out of the dress code. Fundraising is dealt with only by the adults, the children are not turned into slave salesmen.


Katy August 13, 2014 at 9:45 am

Wow, that’s crazy! My kids went to a co-op preschool that was run by the parents, although there was a hired teacher. There were no school supply lists, as the needed stuff was bought using the money made from tuition and fundraisers. (Selling Chinook Books and an annual auction which they stopped doing after we left as it was too much work.) Clothes were grubby and I now appreciate it more than ever.



Mrs. GV August 13, 2014 at 10:26 am

I think my sister is doing a great job with her son. He is in first grade and since she has never done back to school clothing shopping with him, he doesn’t expect new things in August. Shoes are bought throughout the year as they wear out or he outgrows them. He is using his lunchbox from last year, and any school supplies he had left over. He did get a new backpack since his old one was no longer usable. One thing that helps? Neither my sister’s house nor mine (where he hangs out 4 evenings a week while she works) has cable, so he doesn’t see any back to school ads. When he gets older, we will see how his wants change, but so far he understands it is much cheaper and better for the environment to buy clothes and other things used!


Kathy Blume August 21, 2014 at 6:13 am

Good god! Famolares!

You just caused some serious neurological whiplash as my memories of 5th grade came rushing forwards!

Had ’em! Loved ’em!

You’ve also caused me to remember something I can only dredge up as Rope Shoes. Very high wedges wrapped in twine or something… I’ll have to ask Google about it…


Katy August 21, 2014 at 8:37 pm



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