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Back To School : Getting the Jump on Fall : It won't be quick or painless, but you can outfit your kids for an entire school year without losing your sanity or your life's savings. Just ask this mom.

September 03, 1993|GAILE ROBINSON | Times Staff Writer

I know three little words more irritating than sand in your bikini bottom and more frightening than a front-seat ride in a Viper. They cause children to cry and adults to groan in anticipation of a hemorrhaging bank account. Whisper the words, for they are powerful: back to school.

Say them aloud and you can almost hear a large metal door slamming shut on summer. The good times are over.

For parents, September means new clothes. An entire wardrobe of clothes. Not just pristine Reeboks and clean tube socks but everything a child wears.

No matter how much you'd like those shorts and T-shirts to stretch through the fall, it's not going to happen. Chasing ice cream trucks and rolling around in the dirt at Little League games seem to make children grow just enough so June's blue jeans are too short in October.

I know of no way to counteract this. My elementary-school-age children continue to grow, and I even let them eat Pop Tarts. But I have learned a few ways to keep the family finances intact when reupholstering kids for the school year:

* I buy in bulk.

* I spread the financial horror over several months.

* I buy several thermal bottom layers, then allow the children to pick out the must-haves: shoes and backpacks, hair bows and T-shirts, costumes and party clothes.

* I shop thrift stores, consignment shops, discount stores and sales.

* I avoid trendy children's stores that carry adorable $95 fringed cowpoke jackets.

* I use chicanery to sell my fashion plan, employing the terms Barbie pink, Terminator pants and just like Ariel's as sales tools.

I'm not saying I'm the thriftiest of school-clothes shoppers--I usually spend about $150 per child. I'm saying that when I'm done, the wolf is not at the door, he's only circling the block.

Sometime this month I'll take the children, a Size 12 boy and a Size 10 girl, on a reconnaissance shopping trip to the mall. Under no circumstances do I mention school, school clothes or new clothes , as I do not want to scare the male child.

Casually maneuvering them through the children's department of a major department store, I will monitor my son for any signs of interest in any apparel; a sign may be as subtle as a nanosecond of pupil dilation.

Meanwhile, I try to decipher which of the twirly skirts, vinyl vests, bow-bedecked jeans, glittery sweat shirts, rhinestone sunglasses, rainbow tights, and fake fur coats my daughter insists she must have I might actually buy.

This is the last time the three of us will shop together. Later, I will take each child on a separate expedition for shoes and backpacks. Otherwise, I'll fly solo to outfit the two extremes: My son, who considers clothing a necessary social evil, and my daughter, who thinks dressing is performance art.

There will come a day when both my children will want to be more involved in their clothing purchases. I've been told this by mothers of teens, whose tastes lean toward baggy jeans and Doc Martens. I look and think: There is the answer, there is my shopping fantasy. Those heavy-duty, orthopedically correct shoes that will last forever. Those jeans four sizes too big that will fit this year and next. I just might be able to do away with back-to-school shopping some day.

Excuse me? Is that the parent of a teen I hear snickering? I said it was a fantasy.

The Bottom Layer

Strategy: I buy the basics of their wardrobes in bulk. Besides stocking up on underpants and socks--white athletic styles for him and brightly colored anklets for her, to make laundry-sorting easier--I buy long-sleeved Ts, sweat shirts and sweat pants in lots. Each child gets at least four of each in solid colors (no ninja turtles or mermaids). My daughter also gets a selection of leggings and tights. I buy as these items go on sale, usually beginning in mid-fall.

Sources: At Santee Alley (behind Santee Street between Olympic Boulevard and Los Angeles Street), a downtown shopping bazaar, you can haggle over the price of tube socks. Other good sources for socks and underwear are K mart and Target. Pic 'N' Save often has low-low prices on Gitano socks and Carter's underwear. I get the sweats at Sears and Target. T.J. Maxx has excellent prices on children's basics, too. After the Stork, (800) 333-5437, a children's wear catalogue, offers discounts on sweats if you buy in multiples. I go to Mervyn's for tights and leggings. Their leggings, priced at less than $7, wear longer than other brands I've tried.

The Lost Layer

Strategy: The best way to dress for fall weather is in layers. But when children shed, clothing gets lost. So I shop thrift stores for unisex items--vests, sweaters and jackets--that expand a child's wardrobe at a minimal cost. Sources: Goodwill and Salvation Army, with stores citywide, have yielded some wonderful finds: a navy blue wool blazer for $2.99, a purple knit vest for less than $1, a lamb's wool sweater for $1, a red vinyl raincoat with a Dalmatian-print fake fur lining for $10.

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