It's almost cruel. It seem as if no sooner does school let out for the summer than we see our first back to school sale advertisements. This is particularly the case here in the Northeast, where schools typically don't let out until well in to June. Meanwhile retailers have their eyes on other parts of the country where school start in August - and they just take us along for the ride.
This also means that when the time finally does come to do some school shopping, we are more than aware of the current trends, this year's must haves, and so on. Our children are well aware, too, and only add to the pressure. While I know some parents that go all out with back to school shopping, we keep it light. I tend to keep eyes out for basics on sale throughout the year and as my kids need them - but a couple or three new items near the start of school seem to be inevitable.
What you really need
Before going off to fill up the shopping bags, take a good look in your kids closets and drawers and figure out what they really need. Check sizing and general wear, and get too small and/worn out items out of the way - either handed down to siblings, sent off to charity or turned into cleaning rags if it's that worn.
Now take a pass through the closet putting together outfits with what your child does have, maybe making some new pairings along the way. Then make two lists: what you have and what you need. That way, when you get into the shops you can focus on what you need and identify what you have that it will go with - rather than getting sucked into to the items on the end display racks that probably won't go with anything.
Watch for sales and make a plan
The economy is pushing retailers to discount products sooner and sooner in the season. If you don't jump into back-to school shopping at the first ad, you may well get to take advantage of some awesome sales. The downside is that if you wait too long, selection won't be as good.
Regardless, before shopping, be clear with your child about expectations. Set a budget, and if your child's age and developmental stage warrants it, set guidelines for appropriateness. While some kids don't really care what you get for them, others are very opinionated - try to head off conflict before it starts.
Try not to go shopping when you are particularly tired or hungry, and give yourself a time limit. Once in a shop or in a mall, it can be easy to be sucked into the energy and the advertisements, and you are even more vulnerable to the triggers when you are tired.
If you can't find just what you need, don't buy just anything. Better to wait and make sure what you do purchase will be usable and well-used than waste money - and even if you return the item, wasting the money in gas getting back to the store.
Something for fun and respecting local trends
Even amid all this care and money saving, making room in the budget for one fun or slightly frivolous trendy (if not too pricey) thing can be very much worth it. Is it a funky hat your daughter just loves? Or a pair of sneakers so your son can feel like he fits in with the other guys at school? Remember that these trends are kind of like unofficial uniforms for the kids, and go a fair bit of the way to fitting into the larger social dynamic. As long as the items are not inappropriate or horribly expensive, I'm willing to bend a little bit on this front.
The pressure to shop for back to school is nearly constant in the second half of summer. Instead of banning all media, learn to manage the pressure and have your kids looking great for back to the classroom.
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