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Make back-to-school shopping more affordable

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Every month of the year demands its big chunks of spending — December has Christmas, April taxes, July hamburger and briquettes.

August ushers us into the new school year, and whether or not the clothing from last year fits, it's time to buy the kids school clothes. Lots and lots of school clothes, judging from the advertisements and the subtle notifications from your children themselves.

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As homeschoolers, we never had much of a problem with this: if a child wore the same outfit two days in a row, the other students at the school said nothing, especially since, if they were older, they had probably worn the same T-shirt and shorts the year before. If they were younger, they were looking at a future wardrobe selection.

But even homeschoolers operate within society, and our children were subtly, or not so subtly, swayed by peer pressure, media manipulation and the latest musical sensation, and especially in the children's teenage years we found ourselves fielding insistent requests for this style or that.

Because we've always been oddly independent, it was easy to meet these demands by handing over most of the year's budgeted clothing allowance to the budding adult and allowing him or her to run with it (I say most because we reserved a third in case they made some really, really stupid decisions and wound up with the option of walking around naked).

The essential "trick" to saving money on clothes is to recognize who's in charge in the first place. No, I'm not talking about the dynamics of parent/child relationships, although that is a factor. From the beginning of parenthood, you need to be in control, not the people who are creating the fashions and selling them to you.

As long as the latest fashion element matters, you will be at the mercy of the people creating this fashion element — and they change it every year.

Look at it this way: if you have a daughter, and you want to buy her some fun, licensed apparel, will Hannah Montana's face be on the front? You can probably pick this stuff up used, really cheap, at a secondhand store. But your daughter won't make it through the first day of school, although five years ago, she would have been the fashion diva of the second grade class.

This is control — media and manufacturers influencing people of all ages to do the selling for them. So recognize this, don't fall into it yourself, and start teaching your kids. As you and your family gain confidence in yourself, here are some things to think of when shopping for clothing:

• Look at your child's body and buy clothes that complement it. If she has a tummy, belly shirts are not flattering. If he's built like a number two pencil, even slim jeans look baggy.

• Cheap clothing really doesn't save money. After each washing — sometimes the first — it loses shape, form and structure. Have you ever seen a sweater that is twice as wide as it is long? It didn't look that way on the rack, but mutated after a few launderings.

• Buy fewer, quality items of a basic nature that can be accessorized. Fashionable grown-ups on a budget do this all the time — think of the little black dress that, with a tailored jacket and flat heels, fits in the office; after hours, replace the jacket with a sheer silk scarf and stilettos, and you can head out for drinks. Of course, your 8-year-old won't be spending the evening in the bars, but the black turtleneck that goes over the skirt on Monday finishes Friday with a pair of jeans and a colorfully knitted bolero jacket.

• If you want name brand clothing, check out a quality secondhand or consignment store first. Yeah, the clothes have been worn before, but consider this: when you buy new in the store, wear it once and wash it, the next time you wear it you will also be wearing clothing that has been worn before.

• Cultivate friendships, even shallow ones, with people whose children are one or two sizes ahead of yours. There is no shame in wearing hand-me-down clothing, especially when the people handing it down shop at the finest establishments.

• If your child really, really wants the latest shirt with a face on it, buy one or two, just not an entire closet. Treat this purchase as what it is: a special, luxurious splurge.

Keeping it affordable. Following the very latest fashion. Being well dressed. As with any three options, you only get two out of three. I'd go for door numbers one and three.

Carolyn Henderson is a home educator of more than 20 years. She writes the blog This Woman Writes at thiswomanwrites.areavoices.com.

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