Don’t be a back-to-school spendthrift — pop some tags at the thrift shop instead

    Back-to-school spending is out-of-control. But why? Not only are second hand clothes cheap and unique, they're also making a come-back in pop culture.
    Rosena on her first day of first grade. (WNV / Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer)
    Rosena on her first day of first grade. (WNV / Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer)

    Back to school. The words sent a wave of terror, thrill and itchiness through my body. The thrill and terror should be fairly universal, but the itchiness deserves a word of explanation. Every year, right before the beginning of the school year, our family spent the weekend at a retreat center in the Poconos. The adults prayed, did “life-sharing” and discussed nonviolence. The kids played capture the flag and hide and seek, climbed trees and fought apple wars. There was lots of poison ivy.

    For the first day of school, the kids at my school set the bar pretty high. The name of the game at Mount Royal Elementary Middle School was color coordination. Kids came back to school looking like they had spent all summer matching their pants to their shirt to their socks to their shoes. And everything was brand new — the clothes, of course, but also the tennis shoes, lunch boxes, thermoses and backpacks.

    The problem with matching, though, is that it’s hard to do if all your gear is second hand. As die-hard Catholic anarchists and peace activists whose monthly salary was in the low hundreds, my parents were no more going to buy us new clothes than start working for Lockheed Martin or the Pentagon. Every summer, we spent one stressful unsatisfying day shopping with our mom to get ready for school. We bought new (off brand) shoes, underpants and socks and then hit the thrift store for clothes. Mom was not looking for the trendiest brands or the most stylish threads. She made sure they fit and were not worn out, and that was pretty much it. I tried to be fashionable, but it wasn’t easy.

    Of course, the poison ivy made everything more difficult. My efforts at thrift shop stylishness were always hampered by having to work around itchy, oozing, red splotches all over my body. Should I wear long sleeves to cover the poison ivy? It looks better, but then the fabric sticks to the itchy patches and September in Baltimore is still high summer. It was hard.

    Once I jazzed up the previous year’s brown tennis shoes by sticking reinforcements all over them — like the little white circles used to extend the life of three-hole lined paper in a Trapper Keeper. Do you think anyone asked me where I got my awesome shoes? Not a chance.

    When Shaker knit sweaters were the thing (actually, the year after they were the big thing), I showed up wearing two — along with two matching pairs of socks scrunched just so beneath my rolled-up jeans. Red and yellow? Blue and green? I can’t remember, thankfully. And, I have another dim memory — best forgotten — of showing up to one first day of middle school wearing a three-cornered hat. It was the coolest thing I had ever owned right up until the moment the other kids saw it.

    I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I was way ahead of the curve. Have you heard the strong anti-conformity messages being piped out of your radio today? My man Macklemore is making bank singing about shopping in thrift shops and wearing your grandfather’s clothes. And Cee Lo Green and the Goodie Mob have a back-to-school-worthy anthem called “Special Education.”

    I don’t wear the clothes you wear
    I’m just different and I don’t care
    It’s kind of sad and it’s a shame
    Everyone wants to be the same.

    Lest you think I am super hip for these au courant culture references, I heard the Goodie Mob song on National Public Radio earlier this week and my father-in-law introduced me to Macklemore. My geekness remains in good standing.

    It doesn’t sound like most people in the United States are getting Cee Lo’s message. Back to school spending in this country is out of control. Only the capitalist craze of Christmas is a bigger bonanza to retailers. This back-to-school season, the average U.S. household will spend $634.78 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics according to the National Retail Federation. That is down more than $50 from last year. Total spending on back-to-school merchandise is expected to reach $26.7 billion, but when combined with back-to-college spending, the total will climb to more than $72 billion. How many Trapper Keepers do we really need, people? Do we really all want to wear the same clothes?

    But, here is the statistic that staggered me: “95.3 percent of those with school-age children will spend an average of $230.85 on fall sweaters, denim and other chic pieces of attire. Additionally, families will spend on shoes ($114.39) and school supplies ($90.49).” It’s no wonder Americans have so much credit card debt. My husband Patrick and I, however, did not keep up with the Joneses on this one and our credit rating thanks us for our miserliness. We bought his daughter Rosena some new (to her) clothes, as well as a new backpack. And her mom bought her new shoes. But that was all.

    Patrick is with me 100 percent on this one. He remembers wearing his first ever brand new pair of jeans (a size too small) on his first day of junior high.

    We walked Rosena to her first day of first grade on Wednesday. She looked great (and more importantly) felt comfortable in her thrift shop finery. She was a little nervous and very excited as we got closer to her school. But all the nervousness disappeared when she saw the other kids. We could hardly get her to stand still to say goodbye to us before she ran off to join the throng.

    Watching the kids scamper into the building, I heard the Goodie Mob refrain and was heartened. No two kids looked the same. They were a riot of color and pattern — stripes, especially, were big. Some were dressed up, but mostly kids looked clean and fresh and comfortable and ready for the fun of learning. Also, a bonus: Rosena did not have poison ivy. It was beautiful.

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