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Go to the Head of the Store: A+ Back-to-School Shopping Tips

Select a winning wardrobe that won't break the bank.

Learning Benefits

Even if your child isn't thrilled that summer vacation is almost over, she may not be able to resist shopping for brand-new stuff. But the array of choices in the children's department can be intimidating, especially when your little fashionista claims she needs those chunky pink suede platforms for 2nd grade. Prepare for shopping day by tucking this checklist and these insider tips in your wallet and get ready for a shopping spree you'll both enjoy. 

Get your child involved by preparing a budget with your little shopper. He'll learn a lesson in responsibility and be less likely to get upset if you can't afford something he wants. Agree to let your child pick out a couple of special items that he likes, even if you don't. If he doesn't like his clothes, he'll feel uncomfortable or self-conscious at school, or worse, he may refuse to wear them.

What to Buy:

  1. Underwear — 10 pairs. This might also be a good time to buy your pre-teen daughter her first bra. She might not need one yet, but if her friends do, a pretty camisole or training bra will make her feel more grown up as she starts the school year.
  2. Socks — 10-14 pairs. Buy at least 2 pairs of every color you choose — that way, when your child loses a sock (and he will!) "you'll have three left," advises Mary Wilson, editor of Kids Creations magazine. To avoid sock-swapping confusion between several children, buy a distinct style or brand for each child.
  3. T-shirts — 6-10. Classrooms can get pretty toasty, so your child will want to take off heavy outer layers once she's come in from the cold. Wilson explains that t-shirts are a practical choice for younger children because "long sleeves get dirty at the wrists." Older kids might refuse to wear anything but t-shirts, and since it's one of the cheapest ways to accommodate trends, Wilson suggests buying a variety of inexpensive designs.
  4. Sweaters and Sweatshirts — 2-3. In the early fall, your child can throw a long-sleeved shirt or cardigan over her trusty T-shirt and add a hooded sweatshirt to keep extra warm. Nicole Paden, a manager at GapKids in the Mall of America, Bloomington, MN, likes sweatshirts because they stow easily in her kindergartener's cubby without wrinkling, and since they're comfortable, they're popular with older kids too.
  5. Pants — 5+ (preschool); 3 (older children). Preschoolers "still spend a fair amount of time on the floor," says Wilson, so their pants wear out faster. Choose a durable fabric like denim. Elastic waists are essential for little ones, who get frustrated when they have to deal with snaps or zippers at toilet time. For an older child, start with three pairs: not only will you prevent him from growing out of his pants before he wears them, you'll leave a little extra money in your budget for the jeans he begs for in November. Wilson notes that "life in general is more casual these days," so a clean, unscuffed pair of jeans with a nice shirt will usually do the trick for dress-up. "If they feel good in their clothes, they will be more comfortable, so they will smile and look good," says Wilson.
  6. Skirt and Coordinating Top — 1. Your child should have one pretty skirt for special events, to wear with an appropriate sweater or blouse, though older kids might prefer to dress up jeans with a classy t-shirt. Dresses and skirts are a pain on the playground, but if your little one insists, Wilson suggests something simple — no ribbons or frills — with a pair of snug-fitting knit shorts underneath.
  7. Shoes — 2 pairs. Most children are perfectly happy with sneakers for everyday wear, but check with your school to find out what's appropriate. Paden suggests "versatile shoes with a rubber sole on the bottom and a dressier upper" if your child can't wear gym shoes all day. Dark colors don't show dirt, and Velcro's easiest for little fingers.
  8. Boots — 1 pair. Sturdy waterproof boots are necessary in rainy or snowy climates — if your child goes for a trendy pair, make sure it'll keep her feet warm and dry.
  9. Coats — 1 fall (optional), 1 winter, 1 raincoat. If your middle schooler refuses to wear a winter coat, there's not much you can do — as Wilson notes, "they'd rather be cold." But make sure that younger kids are fully outfitted to withstand the elements. A good hooded sweatshirt or fleece should be fine for fall, but cold winters demand a good wool coat or down parka. Look for a flannel-lined raincoat to keep your child warm as well as dry, and avoid fitted models that are "just fashion items," — it should be roomy enough to go over clothes and maybe a backpack.
  10. Hats, Gloves, and Scarves — Wilson advises stocking up now on inexpensive waterproof gloves and mittens (try the dollar store) since "if you run out in January or February, there are none in the stores." Avoid knits and wool, which don't dry easily. Neckwarmers — tubes of fabric that slip over your child's head — stay put better than scarves and are safer too, since there are no loose ends to get caught. Keep heads and ears covered with hats or fleece headbands. In the fall, when the sun's still bright, protect your child's face at the bus stop with a baseball or fisherman cap.

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