Money Talk - Smart Shopping 101: Frugal back-to-school

From right to left: Lisa Fan, 16, Sophia Bainbridge, 16, and Kyle Gross, 16, model outfits found mostly on sale or at stores with good deals.
Photo By: Leah Sorensen
Many teenagers go shopping on a regular basis as a way to spend time with friends or because they are addicted to it, and will ultimately end up buying things they don’t need because they are tempted by what they see.

Are you a teen looking to save money on clothing? You are not alone. According to, teen retail spending is down 14 percent this year. But it is not necessary to sacrifice your style to cut down on spending. Here are 12 easy ways to spend less and still look good:

Take advantage of sales and other store promotions

Often, stores will have sales on one particular type of clothing. For instance, a store’s entire stock of jeans may be on sale one week, and another week, all tops may be on sale. Most stores also have promotions that will give you a discount or a free gift if you spend a certain amount of money.

“Stores are doing a better job of taking care of their customers these days and giving them an incentive to come in,” said Allison Kaplan, shopping and style columnist for the Pioneer Press.

A good way to find out about these sales and promotions in advance is to look on the Internet.

“If you’re an American Eagle fan, go to the American Eagle Web site and sign up for emails from them,” Kaplan said. “It’s a good way to get coupons and find out about sales in advance and get special offers. There are also websites like, which is a place where you can type up your favorite stores and your favorite brands, and they’ll send you emails and let you know when a sale is happening.”

Look for items on clearance

After a certain period of time, if a store can’t sell an item, that item is put on clearance and the price is marked down, so you can pay less without sacrificing quality.

Sophia Bainbridge bought her
sweater from Kohl’s where
it was originally priced at
$30, but went on sale for $12.

Photo by Leah Sorensen

Buying something on sale at a higher-end store for $20 is often better than buying an item at a regular price at a cheaper store for the same price, because the item at the higher-end store is worth more. Also, if you see a brand new store item that you like, wait a couple weeks before buying it and it will most likely go on sale or clearance.

It is also helpful to know the layout of the store so you know where the clearance section is located. In general, clearance racks are usually located at the back of a store.

“When I go in a store, I never even look at anything in the front of the store because that is their main and new thing that won’t be on sale,” said Sophia Bainbridge, 16, from Cottage Grove. “I always go to the back of the store to find the better deals.”

Use coupons

Using coupons can save you a lot of money when you’re shopping, and there are many different places you can go to find them.

“I usually go online for coupons,” said Angelica Birch, a junior at the University of St. Thomas. “There are a couple different Web sites that I go to where you can search for the things you want. Online, sometimes in newspapers, you get all those different ads from Target and Walmart or whatever.”

According to Kaplan, you just need to know where to look for coupons. “If you go to an outlet mall, like the Albertville outlet mall, you can go to their customer service office and pick up this whole brochure full of coupons, just by asking,” Kaplan said. “The Mall of America has a coupon book that I think you can buy for just a few dollars, and if you are shopping there a lot, it has lots of discounts.”

Shop out-of-season

Another good trick is to know when the sales will hit. Most stores tend to have good sales in between clothing seasons and after Christmas.

“Any end season is a good time to go shopping because most clothing stores are in between two seasons of clothing,” Birch said. “Like at the end of summer, stores are in between their summer and back-to-school stuff, so they have sales to get rid of all the summer stuff so they can fit in all the fall stuff. So in between any season change is a good time to shop.”

Have a budget when you are spending

It is helpful to plan how much you are willing or able to spend before you hit the stores. Keep this spending limit in mind and stick with it when you are buying things to avoid overspending.

“Budgeting is always good. I usually set a limit and will not go over it no matter what,” said Eddie Chen, 16, of Plymouth.

Laura Abrass, 16, of Cottage Grove, also budgets. “Usually my budget is about $20 because I don’t have a job,” Abrass said. “I either try to buy one item at a time, or a couple, as long as it stays in the budget. If I am not totally in love with it, I keep looking.”

Check out thrift and consignment stores

Another option for those who are on a budget is to shop at thrift stores. Thrift stores are stores that sell used merchandise for a reduced price.

Leah Sorensen, 17, of Saint Paul
likes the “thrill of the hunt” at thrift
and consignment stories, but also
shops there to not be “irresponsible
with the amount she spends
on clothes. This summer dress she
bought new on clearance at Opitz
Outlet for $20. The dress was
originally $200, Leah said.

Photo by ThreeSixty staff

“I do a lot of thrift and consignment shopping. There’s this great place in St. Louis Park called Opitz Outlet where I got my $360 designer prom dress for $36. I like nice clothes and I love shopping, but I tend to think that spending a lot of money on clothing is pretty irresponsible,” said Leah Sorensen, a senior at Saint Paul Academy. “I guess that part of it is the whole ‘thrill of the hunt.’ Even if I go looking and I don’t find anything good, it is always fun.”

Consignment shops are also a good place to look. These stores offer gently used or sometimes new clothing at a reduced price. The merchandise is sold to the store by customers, who receive a portion of the profits from their items.

“There are a number of new consignment stores out there these days that are focused on teens and have cooler, hip clothes,” Kaplan said.

Heather Schommer, a recent St. Thomas graduate, loves thrift and consignment stores. “Stuff is way cheaper than in regular stores and so you save lots of money on anything from shoes and jewelry to jeans and jackets,” Schommer said.

“There is more than enough clothing to go around in the world that is already made, and so many times it seems silly to buy new when there is plenty of used clothing that is in great shape. It’s a great way to recycle! And you can find a lot of great unique stuff in thrift stores and consignment shops for cheap that a lot of other people won’t have,” she said.

Cut back on shopping at brand name stores

Teens often feel pressured to follow the expensive brand-name trends that they see at school. But as Kaplan sees it, fashion should be more about the style than the brand.

“Be less focused on brands,” Kaplan said. “Think about the style and how you want to look and not necessarily what brand it is, because you can end up wasting a lot of money on things you won’t really get a lot of wear out of … You can go to discount stores, like Marshalls and Nordstrom Rack and H&M, instead of feeling like it’s got to be from places like Abercrombie.”

Birch also recommended several stores that offer cheap but stylish clothes.

“Stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls are always really good to go to because they get designer name brand stuff that may not be selling as well in the designer store, so they give it to them,” Birch said. “Stores like Forever 21, Charlotte Russe are often mimicking designer clothing, so you can find something really expensive that you like, go to one of those stores and you’re likely to find it for like $50 to $60 cheaper.”

Shop around first before buying

It is a good idea to look around first and see what is available at several stores before making a final decision, rather than buying immediately. This way, you have an idea of the different styles and prices of an item from several stores and can choose which you prefer.

“Look at more than one store for a particular item before you buy it at one store,” Abrass advised. “You might find a better deal somewhere else and regret your purchase later.”

Know what you are looking for

Kyle Gross, 16, sports Etnies shoes,
($65 at a buy-one-get-one-half-off sale)
a Jimmy’z Brand T-shirt ($20), and Tony Hawk
jeans ($32) he bought with a 20 percent off coupon.

Photo by Leah Sorensen

Before you start shopping, think about what you have in mind to buy. Do you need a new swimsuit? Jeans? T-shirts and shorts? If summer is coming and your T-shirts have all gotten too small, focus on looking for T-shirts and don’t waste your money on hoodies you don’t need.

“Decide what you need or want to buy before you go shopping,” said Kyle Gross, 16, of Cottage Grove. “That way, you don’t end up spending money on clothes you don’t even need or set out to get.”

Knowing what you want before going shopping prevents ending up with too much of what you don’t need.

“I try not follow any impulse and have a clear idea in mind of what I want to buy,” Chen said. “That way, I won’t suddenly decide I want shoes when I already have ten pairs in my closet.”

Build up your wardrobe slowly

Stores tend to profit from the back-to-school time of year because it is the time that many teens go shopping to trade in their old wardrobe for the new. But to be a smart shopper, you should try to avoid doing so.

“A common mistake that students make is that they feel like they need to have a whole new wardrobe before the school year starts,” Kaplan said. “Sure, everybody wants to have a new shirt for the first day of school, but still, you want to see what everyone else is wearing and see what you really want. Don’t do it all at once. Spread it out and wait, and then you can make smarter decisions.”

Fill out online surveys

One method of saving that most people tend to miss is doing online store customer satisfaction surveys. Doing so takes little effort and can save big bucks.

“A lot of times when you buy something from a store, at the bottom of the receipt, they’ll give you a website to go to, and on this website, they’ll have you take a 5-minute survey about the customer service that you received there,” Birch said. “When you’re done doing that, they’ll give you a code to write down. If you go back to the store and use that code, you’ll get like 15 percent off. Sometimes you get free stuff from the store. I think that’s the biggest way that I go about saving money.”

And finally, don’t go shopping unless you actually need to buy

Many teenagers go shopping on a regular basis as a way to spend time with friends or because they are addicted to it, and will ultimately end up buying things they don’t need because they are tempted by what they see. So don’t tempt yourself by going shopping all the time. Going shopping occasionally, only when you need new clothes, helps cut down on shopping costs.

Support for this and other MoneyTalk articles comes from RBC Dain Rauscher and the Carl and Eloise Pohlad Family Foundation.