Clothing (along with food and shelter) falls in the "basic necessity" category - you can't exactly choose to go without it, no matter how tight your budget is. And it can be a real budget-buster if you let it - I've read that the average North American family spends about $3000 per year on clothes.
Although I haven't tracked our clothing expenses super-closely until I started this blog, I know we've always averaged less than $300 per year on clothing (or $75 per person) for our family of four. That's one tenth of what the average family spends! And although we hardly look like we're going to be strutting down the runways of Paris, we look like a fairly typically dressed family in our middle-class neighbourhood. So how do we do it?
Here are the strategies we use to keep our clothing expenses as minimal as possible:
Welcome hand-me-downs: I ALWAYS say yes when a friend or relative asks me if I'd be interested in some clothing they no longer need. I want everyone to know that I happily accept hand-me-downs, and if I say "no" once, they may decide that I'm uncomfortable or offended by the offer, and never offer again. After all, it's pretty easy to pass along anything we don't need to someone else. I hardly bought any clothes at all for my boys for the first few years of their lives, due to the generosity of friends with older boys passing items along. And hand-me-downs aren't just for kids - we've received some great articles of men's and women's clothing from friends, too! Freecycle is another great source for potential free clothing items; my husband received some gorgeous dress shirts through Freecycle a few years ago that are still looking great today! Just make sure to "share the wealth" and offer items back to the Freecycle community that you no longer need.
Buy secondhand as much as possible: We buy nearly all our clothing secondhand, with the exception of undergarments and socks (for obvious reasons!). I *have* actually found a few pairs of boys underwear with the tags still on at thrift stores, and I'm perfectly okay buying them in that type of situation. Our primary source of secondhand clothing is our local Value Village stores, and we almost always wait for 50% off days to do our clothes shopping. We do two big clothes shopping excursions per year, one in the spring for spring and summer clothing, one in the late summer for fall and winter clothing. Other good sources of secondhand clothing are yard sales, church rummage sales, and online classifieds like Kijiji or Craigslist. Secondhand does not have to mean second-rate; we've found many fabulous items of clothing over the years through secondhand sources. On one Value Village outing last spring, my hubby scored several like-new dress shirts by Ralph Lauren, Eddie Bauer and other expensive labels (for an average of about $3 a shirt!).
Know what you need: Another key way to save money on clothes is to make sure you only buy the items of clothing you truly need. Most people wear 20% of their clothing 80% of the time, so why not focus on that 20% and forget about all that seldom-used stuff? This saves a ton of space as well as money! I try to keep good tabs on our clothing situation so I know what items I need to be on the lookout for, and what we have a surplus of and don't need at all. Before we head out on a major clothes shopping expedition, I do a detailed inventory so I know exactly what items each person in our family needs to fill in any wardrobe gaps.
Think classic and coordinated: I usually only need to buy a few new items of clothing per year for myself and my husband, to replace items that have worn out. This is because we buy clothes in classic, basic styles that always look good (most of the time I think the "trendy" looks are pretty ridiculous, anyway!). We also both stick to a few coordinated colours so we have a mix-and-match wardrobe (my clothes are mostly black, white, red, light blue, navy, sand, and dark denim).
Consider borrowing seldom-needed items: I don't have a big need for dressy clothes as I don't work outside the home or go to a lot of formal social events. I did manage to put together a decent holiday outfit for my husband's work party for under $10 at Christmas, and in that case I bought a top and shoes to work with a skirt I already had. Another good option would have been to borrow something from one of my friends with a more extensive wardrobe than mine.
Care for your clothes gently: Making clothes last as long as possible is another key piece of keeping your clothing budget low. Harsh detergents and the dryer are your clothes worst enemies! Firstly, don't wash your clothes until they actually *need* washing. Items like pants and sweaters can usually be worn several times before they need washing. Treat any stains as soon as possible to make sure they come out. Wash with a gentle detergent (I use soapnuts) and line-dry clothes when possible. Mend any small tears or ripped seams as soon as you notice them, so they don't become large, item-destroying tears.
"Cycle" your clothes: Clothing goes through several phases in our house. It starts out as the "good" stuff that is meant for public consumption. When it starts to look a bit shabby, it gets relegated to the work clothes pile for doing yard work, heavy cleaning, etc. When it gets REALLY bad, it gets relegated to the "wear it for painting and other extremely messy and clothes-wrecking tasks" pile. When pants get too worn out around the cuffs, they become shorts. Spent T-shirts become rags or T-shirt yarn (I'm hoping to accumulate enough of this to knit some throw rugs out of it!).
Buy name-brand undergarments: I've learned my lesson on this one over the years - cheap socks and undies fall apart quickly! We wait for a good sale on name-brand ones and stock up.
What is your family's clothing budget? Do you have any great tips for saving money on clothes?