How to Save on Special-Occasion Clothing for Kids

by Julie Rains on 10 January 2011 2 comments
Photo: JulieWeiss

At least a few times each year, my kids need to dress up for special occasions such as school or county-wide band concerts, awards ceremonies, and weddings. Acquiring appropriate attire can be time-consuming and costly, especially as children seem to outgrow clothing and shoes quickly.

Over the years, I have discovered some ways of keeping my dollar outlay for special-occasion attire low for my children (both boys, now teenagers).

Determine What Kind of Attire Is Truly Needed

School-sponsored events often have published guidelines, which should be read carefully.

Admittedly, some instructions are vague, asking parents to dress their children in clothing that is typically worn to church, which would mean letting my kids wear t-shirts, shorts, and sneakers to a special event. Similarly, some event sponsors caution parents not to buy new items or incur a financial hardship to acquire appropriate clothing. These instructions make me wonder if I am the only parent who does not always have formal clothing and dress shoes available at a moment’s notice.

Fortunately, most guidelines are more precise. The band director at my youngest son’s middle school, for example, specifies dress shirts with ties, slacks, and dress shoes for boys and dresses for girls. My scrutiny tells me that a suit jacket is not required. Paying close attention and distinguishing requirements from suggestions are first steps in saving time and money.

There are many occasions that have no requirements but rather a social obligation to dress appropriately, such as a wedding or high school graduation. Consider the desires of family members or close friends who are hosting these events. Think about whether professional photographs or family photos may be taken, and factor the significance of these images in choosing dresses, suits, etc. for your children and teens to wear.

Check Your Closets

You may have precisely what is needed somewhere in your home. A few days ago, my son asked me if he had a pair of khaki pants for a special event the next day; his question instigated a panic. I quickly realized that he did have several pairs of pants readily available (hand-me-downs from his older brother who attended a multi-day event that required these clothes, purchased at Goodwill).

Even if the hanging-up clothes (dresses, slacks, suit jackets) in your daughter’s or son’s closet are too small, there may be appropriate clothing in another family member’s closet. Consider what is ready to pass along from one sibling to another or which items a child can borrow from a parent. For example, my youngest son is able to borrow dress shoes from my husband as they currently wear the same shoe size.

Decide What You Want to Buy New

Review your family’s calendar to check upcoming events. If you happen to have several special occasions in the span of a few months, then your cost per-wear for purchases will seem reasonable compared to buying a dress or suit that may be worn just once. Keeping this approach in mind, select items that will be appropriate for as many of these events as possible.

Consider what items are essential and which are less important, and shop accordingly. Depending on your needs, you may want to spend most of your budget on a pair of well-fitted slacks and save on shoes.

Buy Ahead

Buy dress-up clothing in anticipation of special occasions, if you can find a bargain.

My favorite sources have been children’s clothing consignment sales sponsored by local preschools and community groups. When my kids were younger, if I noticed a dress shirt for $5 or less, then I would go ahead and buy it; I gambled a few dollars that the clothing would be useful in hopes of avoiding much higher prices later. If the price was much steeper, say $25 for a nice pair of pants and jacket (no matter what brand or condition), then I would pass on the deal unless I was certain that my kids would need the items for a special event.

When shopping these types of sales, I noticed that there were designer and upscale-brand dresses priced much lower than retail but still fairly high. These items were not as popular as sellers anticipated; most parents couldn’t justify paying even $30 for a $100 item if they weren’t positive their daughters would wear the dress later.

Borrow (and Share)

If either of my sons had some special occasion attire that would fit a friend’s child, then I’d gladly share. This arrangement works well for not-so-personal items such as dress shoes or a clip-on tie.

Learn to Sew

My visual-spatial capabilities and lack of patience with fashion details have prevented me from sewing my children's clothes. But many people find sewing to be a wonderful frugal alternative to purchasing new items. Even if you don’t want to create an entirely new garment, you can alter clothing yourself rather than paying someone else to do this task.

Activate Your Frugal Shopping Habits

You may have tactics for snagging deals on clothing and shoes for yourself; do the same for your kids.

I have done well on occasion at thrift shops. One of my shopping excursions to Goodwill enabled me to buy several pairs of slacks for my son that were in much better condition than the ones purchased brand-new for my husband. Other trips have not been quite as successful but yielded an acceptable, if not elegant, suit jacket and tie. Some parents may frequent vintage shops and consignment stores.

Hit your favorite stores for off-retail pricing and special sales. My shopping preferences are online at sites like Overstock.com for dresses (for myself, not my kids) or recommendations by ShopItToMe.com.

Listen to Your Kids

Your children will often tell you of upcoming activities that may require special clothing. If you can anticipate these needs, you'll be more likely to find the right attire as inexpensively as possible, rather than having to rush to the mall to buy what they need the day before a big event.

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J.

Here are a few more ideas:

A vest adds a lot to a boy's outfit, making the dress-shirt-and-slacks combo suitable for a wedding or other special occasion. I always pick these up when I see them for a few dollars at a thrift store. They look especially adorable on little boys. When my boys wear vests to services, they always get complements from the old ladies :-). A vest costs much less than a suit jacket.

Costco and other large retailers sell school uniforms at closeout prices in the fall, after school has started. This is a good place to get white dress shirts and black slacks and khakis, which are very versatile.

I try to buy dark-colored sneakers and sandals so they can be used as dress shoes in a pinch (not to a really fancy event, though).

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks for tips. The vest tip I love and reminds me that boys can also wear bow ties, which can get oohs and aahs when they are younger.

I hadn't seen the uniforms on sale but snatching up those bargains is useful as khakis and collared shirts can be worn on many occasions.