Making the Most of a Hand-Me-Down Wardrobe
I have a lot of little boys in my house. Three of ’em. I also have four nephews and a ton of friends with little boys. This means I have approximately three million tons of little boy clothing. Three. Million. Tons. Barely exaggerating.
I’m sharing a few tips, tricks and general ramblings about hand-me-downs and how to keep them awesome — money-saving for you and exciting for your kid.
1) Stay organized.
Your efforts to recycle a wardrobe are doomed to miserable failure if you don’t keep the clothing organized. I’ve learned this one the hard way, repeatedly. This winter I determined that all the size 6-12 month clothing we had was off-season and summery. So I bought some warmer clothes for the baby and then literally tripped over a mislabeled box in the basement as I was pulling the new stuff out of the dryer. We had plenty of clothing for him, but for some reason had it in a cardboard box (labeled “COATS”) far away from the other hand-me-downs.
The best and most space-efficient way to store a lot of clothing is to separate things out by size AND season, then use those vacuum-sealed space-saver bags. I like to also include a written list of the contents and put it on top, so I can scan the bags if I’m looking for some specific (sweaters, hoodies, socks, etc.). But I also keep several roomy plastic bins in the kids’ closets for tossing outgrown or out-of-season clothing in between the big sorting/organizing extravaganzas. This way I can keep all usable clothing in one place so I’m not perpetually trying to permanently store stuff only to find yet ANOTHER stack of 2T shirts the minute I seal a bag up. When the plastic bins are full, that’s when it’s time to sort and store. (And usually time to pull out the next size/wave of clothing anyway.)
2) Be honest.
You probably don’t need to keep every. Single. Thing. an older child wears for his younger siblings. Particularly if you’re getting hand-me-downs from other friends and relatives. Some of it might not be to your taste, or maybe always fit kind of strange, or is looking a little worn or stained. Do I really desperately need to hold on to allll these saggy-butt cotton jammies? And if you never put it on your kid the first time around, you probably won’t put it on the second or the third. (Ask me about my box of immaculate shoes with laces that never stayed tied or were a pain in the butt to get on!) Your stash of clothing can rapidly become more of a hoard, so don’t feel guilty about donating stuff your kid technically COULD wear again, but probably won’t. Better to give the clothes off to someone who will, for sure.
3) Sun solves almost everything.
It happens every time, especially with baby and toddler clothes. I lovingly pack clean, nice-looking clothing away and then pull it out much later to find it’s yellowed and gross. Spit-up and poop stains that I swear weren’t there before…are. For organic baby-related stains, let those clothes dry outside in the sun (or at least on a hanger rigged up in front of a sun-facing window) and they’ll look as good as they ever did before.
4) One shirt, two seasons.
You know this style shirt for boys? The kind that’s meant to look like they’re wearing a tee over a long-sleeve shirt? They’re everywhere, in every possible style. They’re also the most easily recycled shirts in the world — just snip the long sleeve part off and you’ve got a perfectly-usable short-sleeve shirt.
I do this for three reasons: 1) the seasons change but my child’s clothing size has not, 2) my hand-me-downs are the right size but the wrong season (i.e. I need spring stuff in 3T but all I mostly have is winter), and 3) my children absolutely DESTROY the cuffs and sleeves of their shirts — particularly white ones. After a few months of messy preschool art projects and snacks, the cuffs and elbows on a lot of their long-sleeve shirts are hopelessly stained and worn out. But buying the faux sleeve style means I can still reuse the rest of the shirt. (Then I add the cut off sleeves to my emergency scrap fabric pile…you never know when they’ll come in handy.)
5) Know when to spend money and when not to.
After I had my second boy, I had a brief spell of “I’m buying nothing but AMAZING clothing for my first because I can use it all again! Wheeeeee!” I was justifying this because up until that point (he’d just turned three), he was remarkably easy-going on his clothing. I was able to pack away most of it. But then…I don’t know. Preschool. Three years old. A lot more rough-and-tumble going on at the playground. Suddenly his clothes were wearing out before he even outgrew them. And I realized that there was absolutely no increased chance that the $25 pair of jeans would last any longer than the $10 pair. Sure, maybe the less-expensive jeans were a bit more worn in the knees, but guess which ones he was bound to be wearing when he got his hands on a permanent laundry marker?
Things I will “invest” in are now pretty much limited to outerwear — a good coat (be it winter or spring) will last like nothing else, and is absolutely worth the money. I also don’t skimp on shoes (though I do love a good sale on good brands)…not because I have much luck reusing them from kid to kid anymore, but ill-fitting shoes are never a good idea, and as quickly as kids’ feet grow, I’ve learned that buying super-cheap shoes can mean I’m buying a second pair in the same size because they’ve worn out so fast. (And I HATE THAT.) And once a year I do splurge on nice holiday clothes for my boys. Coordinating sweaters and shirts and such for photos. These have all held up beautifully and I’m now able to buy just one outfit for my oldest and let the younger ones wear hand-me-downs that still technically match. Because the holiday stuff? Is always pretty much the same year after year.
Everything else is bought to be worn hard and played-in hard. If it lasts — and so much of it does, despite the cheap price tag — bonus. If it doesn’t, at least I know I’ll get my money’s worth and not be annoyed that I overpaid for something that got destroyed in art class.
6) Boost the hand-me-down inheritance with some personalized new stuff.
While I suppose it’s true that little boys don’t care about their clothing to the extent that many little girls do, I do buy clothing that I know my oldest will like. Especially in the graphic tee department. He liked trains, so I bought him a lot of cute train shirts. Snoopy, Smurfs, Star Wars, etc. When he went through a Harry Potter phase he insisted on every shirt being red. It’s not fair then, to just expect my younger son to be just as excited by these clothes. He didn’t like Thomas or Elmo, but he loved Yo Gabba Gabba and fire engines. So I always try to pick up a few inexpensive t-shirts that I think will excite him, and be something he enjoys wearing. He gets to pick out his own shoes (be it at the store or from the hand-me-down box) as well. I basically try to give him control and choices whenever possible, even if it’s just handing him two pairs of mittens to choose from.
Right now he’s pretty chill about wearing everything that comes out of the hand-me-down boxes. It’s all new and cool to him. Sometimes he declares that he doesn’t like something, and if I think he means it, back in the box it goes. Life’s too short to fight over a pair of track pants, even if I know they were barely worn twice. Plus hey, I’ve got a whole other little boy to dress in a couple years, maybe he’ll think they’re awesome.
Now, we’d love to hear you make the most of your kids’ wardrobes. Where do you save and splurge?
Published February 9, 2012. Last updated October 29, 2017.