Back to school shopping is a $27.5 billion industry in the U.S., with the average household spending nearly $700 each year. But having the best wardrobe for the school year doesn’t have to break the bank. Thrift store shopping, or “thrifting,” remains popular with high school and college students – and their parents.

Even for those who’ve already completed their main purchases at the mall or department stores, it’s not too late to supplement one’s fall wardrobe through thrifting, and also keep an eye out for winter, and other out-of-season finds.

At the South Hill Puyallup Goodwill store, high school and young adult staffers design displays and work with younger customers to find brand names or create their own unique looks. “We’re between two large schools, Rogers and Emerald Ridge, so it made sense to talk to young people and get their ideas,” says Manager Georgann Johnson. “Our junior girls’ sales have gone up and now we’ve taken a section of our men’s department and devoted it to young men.”

Whitney Adams, 23, is part of the South Hill Goodwill team. After posts of her “outfit of the day” and what it cost started going viral on Instagram, Johnson suggested that Adams advise younger customers on shopping. “I show people how they can shop thrift and still be fashionable,” says Adams. “People are often surprised by our prices. We have Citizens of Humanity and Rock Revival Jeans that are normally $60 for only $35.”

Goodwill expects a surge of last minute fall fashion sales on Labor Day (Sept. 3) when clothing, accessories and furniture will be half-off. Donors of clothing and household items can also receive a 30 percent off coupon for an in-store purchase at any time during the fall.

Tacoma’s Value Village also hosts a huge sale on Sept. 3, offering half-off prices on clothing, shoes, backpacks and accessories. “It’s generally a big sweep that a lot of parents do to get their kids set for school,” says General Manager Sarah Knapton.

Shoppers looking for higher-end items at Value Village need to explore the area behind the showcase, says Knapton, which houses well-known brands like Guess and Lucky jeans. “We have a lot of new items that still carry the original tag from places like Nordstrom.”

Customers are also impressed by the bargains they find at Granny’s Attic in Puyallup, but the reaction comes with a twist. “Once people see the great things they can get for low prices, they want to keep this place a secret,” says Store Coordinator Zana Lee. Until recently the customer base skewed older but now that’s starting to change, she notes. “We have people of all ages coming to visit us.”

To get the most bang for your buck, Lee advises shopping for clothes that aren’t currently in demand. “People tend to donate right before a season begins or right after it ends,” she says. “Right now, our clearance rack is still full of sweaters and we’re getting an influx of winter clothes. If you shop out of season, you can get some great finds.”

Just ask high school sophomore Peyton Scott. She was shopping at Goodwill’s South Hill store last year when she found a cashmere Burberry sweater for the unthinkable price of $7. Despite the season (it was spring), she knew that the full retail cost of such sweaters is typically hundreds of dollars, so she grabbed it. “I bought it for the winter and then I just wore it,” says Scott.

In a similar vein, Jiannaka Limonta, 20, found a yellow zip-up North

Face jacket in perfect condition while thrifting last summer. “I wasn’t willing to pay full price for one, but I bought it for $6.99,” she says. “I use it all the time.”

Limonta, who works at South Sound Goodwill along with Adams and Johnson, says thrifting can make a real difference for families on a budget. “I see parents with three or four young kids and they have to buy them all new clothes,” she says. “When they come here they’re able to get so many items for under $100 for the whole year.”

Parents of children who are still growing can maximize their spending by looking for items that never go out of style, like jeans and t-shirts, and accessorizing them with items that allow their kids to express themselves. Asking tweens or teens to pay a portion of the bill when appropriate makes them more likely to choose clothes they’ll wear more than once and fosters an appreciation of bargains.

College students are another group looking to achieve style without draining their bank accounts. Staple items like comfortable athletic wear for early morning classes, a semi-professional outfit for making presentations, and versatile clothes that can be worn to class or for a night out can all be found or supplemented through thrifting.

Of course, not everyone returning to school is a child or even a young adult. Older students and faculty may not want to imitate their juniors but can still learn how to be fashionable. Jeff Pratt, an instructor at Goodwill’s Culinary Skills program, consulted Adams when he needed a new outfit for the upcoming school year. “It was pretty educational,” says Pratt. “She suggested ways I could look cool without seeming like an awkward dad and she let me know about what might go together.”

The important thing when thrifting is to keep an open mind, says Adams. “If something pops out at you, even if you can’t wear it right away, get it. The deals are great, and you can’t pass that up.”

Top 10 Fall Student Fashion Tips for 2018

Goodwill 2nd Annual Fall Fashion Forecast with Peyton Scott (16), Whitney Adams (23) & Trenten Spicer (17)

  • Vintage Lives. Look for old-school bomber jackets, velvet, 90’s era chic, 70’s throwbacks and denim jackets, which have never gone out of style. 
  • Distress Signals. Distressed jeans, i.e. those that look worn and full of holes but are in fact brand new, are hot right now.
  • Brands Matter (more to guys). Shirts, hats and shoes are all ways to show what you’re into, says Spicer. Brands like Thrasher and Supreme dominate the shirt market, while on the shoe front, surf-inspired Vans, plus Nikes, OBEY and Adidas are popular with different groups.
  • Cozy Casual is not just for houses. Oversized sweaters, comfortable clothes and yes, kimonos, are all currently in style. Go for something casual, oversized and cozy.
  • Embroidered Truth. Jeans, shirts, jackets and more with embroidered designs and patches remain popular.
  • Stripes, Plaids and Ultraviolet Rule. Hopefully not all at once. Stripes are always everywhere, and the color of the year is ultraviolet. Plaid is still essential.
  • College freshmen will also discover a wealth of ideas for how to save money without compromising fashion. Wardrobe staples should include comfortable athletic wear for those early morning classes, a semi-professional outfit for making presentations, and versatile items like plaid trousers that can be paired with a simple sweater or dressed up for a night out.


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