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The New Way to Go Back-to-School Shopping

Soleil Moon Frye
Soleil Moon Frye and her daughters goes back-to-school shopping at Target.Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Ah, back-to-school shopping. The mere mention of this annual rite of passage probably brings to mind squirmy, impatient kids desperate to find an escape hatch in the dressing room, or — maybe even worse — you sitting solo in front of the computer joylessly running up a gigantic tab. Ready to give this not-so-beloved family tradition a makeover? Follow these new ground rules to save you time, money and stress — consider it an I.Q. boost for your children’s closets.

New Rule #1: LESS IS MORE

Tough as it may be, resist the urge to bring home half of Old Navy. After all, notes Asha Dornfest, coauthor of Minimalist Parenting, it’s not like your kid is gonna suddenly require eight pairs of khakis immediately after Labor Day. “There’s no upside to getting a whole fall wardrobe at once,” says Dornfest. “Warm weather usually sticks around for a while — and when school starts, they’re going to be wearing the same shirts and shorts they did during the summer.” Accumulate pieces gradually, as the needs — and sales — arise. (Another upside to the slow-and-steady approach: It gives especially trend-conscious young’uns the chance to check out what their peers are wearing, then commit.) The exception to the bulk-buying rule? “Kids will often need all new underwear and socks before school,” says Dornfest. “It’s really easy to forget that they’ve outgrown those things when they’ve spent the last three months in bathing suits.”

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This isn’t Hoarders: Junior Edition. (Right?) “Too-full drawers and closets are the worst,” says ML Nichols, director of the nonprofit group Parent Connection and author of The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten Through Grade 5. “The trick is to always weed out old stuff before buying anything new, or it’ll get away from you.” Institute a strict one-to-one ratio. “If you want to buy three items, three have to go first,” says Nichols. To get your kids to contribute to the purging routine willingly, Dornfest suggests making them an offer they can’t refuse. “Tell them that anything they get rid of will be taken to a consignment or resale store, and they get to keep the profits.”

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You recycle juice boxes, so why not cardigan sweaters? Children come in all shapes, sizes and ages—which means that you’re surrounded by resources for preowned threads. “Every family has things to give away,” says Dornfest. “Organize a clothing swap, where friends and neighbors can get together and trade.” (Make sure to clarify that items should be clean and in good condition.) Bonus: If you host the gathering at the end of summer, it’ll do double-duty as a fun opportunity for the kids to reconnect and the parents to network. (Any takers for an a.m. carpool…?)

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