How I shop for toddler clothes

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Red jodpursMost of my son Tavi’s clothes are hand-me-downs, or come from our local Goodwill. I don’t wear much vintage myself, so I’ve never really been a “dig through the racks” kind of person — but when it comes to finding clothes for my son that are uber-cheap but non-offensive to my aesthetic, I’ve developed a rack-hunting technique.

Here’s what I do:

  1. Go to kids’ section, starting at the boys racks and working into the girl’s racks.
  2. Look for bright colors, mostly red, bright orange, true yellow, and grass green. Avoid pink (eliminating 90% of girl clothes), and dark shades of blue, brown/tan, and grey (eliminating 80% of boy clothes).
  3. Based on colors, start pulling things out to assess for text, sports, recognizable characters, or vehicles. Eliminate any items that include offending themes.
  4. Confirm item isn’t blatantly designed for a girl (ruffles, flowers, hearts, ribbons, little straps). If it’s not blatant, I don’t care — and Tavi certainly doesn’t.
  5. Confirm item is structurally sound and unstained
  6. Confirm item is at least one size too big
  7. Confirm item is less than $3
  8. PURCHASE!


Using these methods, I’m developing a great stash of brightly colored, unbranded, gender-neutral stuff for Tavi to wear up until about age five. At that point, he’ll have his own opinions about his clothing, and he can help me dig through the racks to find shirts with dump trucks and spider men barfed all over them, or princess dresses, or whatever else he might like. Until then, he’s my brightly colored boy. (More on brightly colored boys next week … I’ve got a post brewing!)

Obviously, my tastes and techniques aren’t everyone’s — what methods do you use for finding cheap kid clothes that don’t offend your fashion sensibilities?

Comments on How I shop for toddler clothes

  1. My method is essentially the same, except that my boys (2 and 4) like things like cute monsters and robots and such, so I add stuff like that in…and I get a lot from off season clearance racks, spending between $1-3 for an item, brand new. I always thought that I’d do more thrifting for them, but I save more money this way than I would at our local thrift stores…and since my sons are two years apart and born in the same month, all of the older son’s cast offs fit the younger one perfectly when the time comes. I always have a trash bag or so brimming with new stuff to grow into (we call it our “grow bag”) and save a lot of money on really cute clothing! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Absolutely on the “grow bag”! Now that I have 2 boys, the clothes I buy the older one are bought with greater pickiness because I want them to be so awesome I would dress multiple kids in them ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. You might find that he develops an opinion earlier than 5! I know I was surprised when Alice, at 2.5, started to express clear preferences for certain outfits, combinations of articles of clothing, colors, etc. A lot of it is just toddler independence but it’s been fun! I only guide her in terms of weather appropriateness and insisting that she wear a top AND a bottom. ๐Ÿ™‚ Since most of her clothes are hand-me-downs from cousins, my strategy, when I do buy her new/old clothes, are to get things that semi-coordinate with stuff she already has.

    • I never did the princess thing so imagine my surprise when my little one decided she wanted to be a princess at two!

    • Yeah, now my boy is 4 and he has VERY strong opinions about what he wants to wear. Something hard is that he wants things with numbers but I really can’t stand buying 20 shirts with sports themes. I’ve slowly built a collection of numbered shirts that we’re both okay with… but soon he’ll be at an age where he’ll just flat out deny me even that much influence!

    • My 4 year old son is all about the accessories. Hats, shoes, belts, ties, sunglasses, bracelets (yes, bracelets), all of it. He dresses himself and is pretty good at coordinating clothes but then there are days when he looks a hot mess. But I figure, he’s little once, might as well let him have fun with it!

    • My nephew was about 9 months old when he fell in love with a pair of shoes from Target. When he got them, he crawled around the house demanding that we “ook, ook, ook.”

      At age 2, he was giving me thumbs up and down on outfits.

      At age 4, he cried when told he had my fashion taste- because I didn’t have any.

      At age 5, he told him momma his favorite store was the one that sent things in the mail for him to try on.

  3. I haven’t actually had to do shopping until now, as I was given masses of girls’ clothing by a relative, but I’m about to run out as my daughter turns 3, so I’m having to start. I got a lot of gorgeous clothes, but it was rather on the pink side, so on the rare occasions I had to buy something I tended either to buy ‘boys” stuff or neutral to balance things up and also because it has a higher chance of being used for a sibling.

    NB, I am in the UK…

    I do look in charity shops whenever I’m in them, although it’s only been a few times I’ve found the right sizes (but they’ve been great buys). I’m stockpiling towards age 3 now, and take advantage of sales in pricier places that actually have colours other than blue or pink (Petit bateau, Polarn y Pyret etc – sadly a lot of affordable places do insist on the boy/girl thing) to buy nice, colourful stuff at a price I can afford. H&M is a good source of affordable, cool stuff. Our daughter’s Ramones t-shirt has been complemented by random strangers – one grouch, H&M – why were all your cool band t-shirts in the boys’ section? Can’t girls like cool music or something?

  4. I also look for bright colors and avoid logos. I have a little girl but want her to realize there is a rainbow of colors out there besides pink. I do buy pink occasionally but only if it’s bright pink (no pastels). I shop at Goodwill, Once Upon A Child, garage sales, or the clearance racks at Target or Macy’s so I usually get a lot of variety as far as styles. When she is old enough to make her own choices I look forward to setting her free in the stores after telling her she can where whatever she wants!

  5. I’m part of a hand=me=down chain, I get items from a friend with older girls and I pass everything on to a neighbour’s daughter. I also trawl charity shops, sale racks and ebay, although with ebay you have to buy lots of stuff from the one person to make it financially worthwhile and be prepared to let stuff go if the bid gets too high.

    The age varies when they start to want some input into their clothing. My eldest is nearly 5 and is still pretty pliable, although she has a thing for pretty dresses and Tinkerbell, I can often get her in skinny jeans and a funky t-shirt. My youngest, however, got fussy at 2yrs of age and prefers to wear a hideous Dora dress I was given in a bag of hand-me-downs.

  6. kids develop tastes way before five! try around two… i hope you will allow it when he starts to show preference. do you care if it is cute or not or just if it is colorful? and what happens if he only wants to dress in blue and gray and like a boy when he gets older?

    i shop at the thrift store all the time… you might even say i am a junkie. i am there (every single one in my town) once a week. i only look at kids clothes. i am picky but in a VERY different way. it has HAS to be brand name (everything is 75 cents where i shop) or i don’t buy it. it is silly because i would never buy it at the store… i have to look at every kids rack to be sure i didn’t miss anything. usually i end up spending three to five dollars a week at most for five kids.

    • Why does “looking like a boy” require the colors of blue and gray? I think Tavi looks great in his colorful clothing…and still very much like a little boy. And why only brand names? Just wondering.

  7. We do a lot of yard sale shopping during the summer months. In my town a lot of people will put out bags and boxes of clothes and ask $5 so if I see a good amount of stuff i like in said box, I buy it and donate anything that doesnt meet my criteria.
    I also had way too much fun dying some white clothes that I found the other day, she needed an orange top to math some pants and bought and since I couldnt find one to buy i dyed a white one instead!

  8. At 3.5 my oldest has a very clear preference for most things punk/rock or pirate. Generally when shopping I let him have free reign in choosing what he wants. I’ve never had much luck with thrift stores they always seem to be either too well worn or dominantly pink so we constantly hit the clearance isles and buy the next size up or I let him choose fabrics and make clothing for him.

  9. I tend the do the same thing as you but I leave in the neutrals and dark colors. So, really, I’ll buy anything that isn’t OBVIOUSLY girly. I ALWAYS check the clearance racks, but I will rarely buy anything over $2. I will spend more on “outfits” or pajamas, but usually I stick around $2 per piece.

    We also go to Once Upon a Child, a second hand store. Though, our store tends to be higher priced than I would prefer so I stick only to the $1 bin and whatever tag color is currently on sale.

    I try to go to garage sales but it’s hard with two little ones and no one to watch them on Saturday mornings. I do, however, make special plans if my town is having a big kid’s yard sale event because of the large number of sellers in one location. I will either take the kids in a stroller or ask my mom to come watch them.

    I think I am going to take your advice and go into the girl’s section a bit more. I’ve seen some nice white, yellow, orange, brown, etc… items that would work for a boy. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I have dressed all 4 of my kids in second hand mostly from thrift stores…the only time they get something new is one thing on the first day of school (and they usually decided to get it from the vintage shop anyway). We had a very strict “NO PINK (or brown)” policy for the girls until the could have a say….and my oldest girl did go through a very serious princess phase (wearing her tiara everywhere – even in the bath & bed). But now at nine, I would KILL to have her clothes…red & black kilts, stripy tights, black hoodies, biker jacket (all thrifted!)

    As for my son, I shopped in the girl section for as well as the boys…there is only so much beige and blue I can handle. There are some great colours to be found in the “girle” area- my favourite find was a pair of deep purple crushed velvet leggings….I called them his Rock Star pants. And I got to reuse the 3 more times for my girls! Don’t disregard entire portions of the store – there are treasures everywhere and sometimes people put hide things in the wrong spot!

    As for designer…I run the other way, but some love the savings. My MIL compulsively buys it all – it doesn’t matter to her that it is butt ugly – as long as it a brand name.

  11. So hard to find items without characters and huge logos, even brand new… Having no luck in the boys section of the thrift shop. Any stores that anyone has noticed that carry a lot of clothes that don’t offend my similar tastes? (in Canada especially, but even US)

    • If you have a Superstore or Loblaw’s that carries clothes, Joe Fresh is fantastic. Lots of brights and patterns (stripes, polka dots), and cheap, too. A lot of the kids stuff is less than $10, and goes on sale at the end of the season for less than $5.

      The boy stuff skews toward the typical brown/blue/grey/army-green, but The Children’s Place and Please Mum are pretty good about plain clothes in bright colours on both sides of the store. Old Navy sometimes turns up gems, too.

      • LOVE the Joe line for kids! I buy my daughter stuff from both the girls and boys sections when it’s on sale, it’s perfect for both our tastes (and at 2.5 she has a strong opinion!)

      • Joe is awesome. Always adorable, always on sale!!! I love the girls shoes. Really I love all of it. And the sizes are good too. But I also love to troll Value Village. Especially the ones in the ‘burbs… goldmine!

        • What is really funny is, at least in my city, I find the baby clothes at Value Village are the same prices as clearance new clothes. Our Goodwill is much cheaper and I got him some great little stuff there.

    • h&m is logo free, and usually don’t have tv characters either. and the sale rack is super affordable.

  12. I’ve always been a thrift store shopper– partly for the price. Another big element is the treasure hunt… I live next to a thrift store and its like a big aggregate of stuff I would never find in a major store, or would at least have to do a lot of digging to find. Every once in a while I get a strange reaction about second hand shopping, but for the most part people are just surprised at what I’ve found there.

    And yeah, one thing I love about the thrift store I live next to is how they color-bunch the clothes… I can pretty much skip the colors my boys have a ton of. I always feel this little spark of happiness when I look in the boys’ closet and see how much variety it holds.

  13. For my son I try to stay in a blue/brown/gray color palette so everything goes together. I’m not really a fan of bright colors so I tend to avoid those – I don’t feel strongly about being gender neutral either. I also avoid sports and car themes, and go more towards plain or animal themes. Once he’s older, though, he can wear whatever he likes.

    I’ve had limited success at the thrift stores around here, maybe they’re just too picked over? I like the clearance racks at Target, and I’ll stop by garage sales once in a while (I’ve only had limited success there too).

    My favorite place is the free store in our town – there’s a shack set up by a local store where people bring stuff they don’t need, and then take what they like. A lot of the items are stained, but I’ve had some good finds there – and you can’t beat free!

  14. In addition to the thrift stores I wait for sales at threadless.com to get cute t shirts and onesies. They also have these adorable onesies with hoods they call hoodsies.

    • Eeek, I love threadless.com! I don’t have children, but I have bought multiple clearance onesies and hoodsies for my baby nephew (and politely asked his mother to pass them down in the future.)

    • They don’t have the really good sales that they used to! My girl is almost five months and I’m still waiting patiently; no big deal because she’s wearing her brother’s hand-me-down Threadless, but still! ๐Ÿ™

  15. My rules are no sexist crap for my baby boy. i.e., no planes, trains, cars, and sports. I have a preference for dark and bright colors. Too much pastel gets on my nerves. Those are about my only rules personally.

    • How are those things sexist? I am expecting, but don’t know yet if I’m having a boy or a girl. We’re requesting train themed hand-me-downs either way since we are big train riders in our house. Same with sports, I love them, my husband could care less. Maybe those things are gender suggestive, but I still think of them as unisex.

  16. My parents have so much fun buying him clothes at garage sales that I have clothes for at least a year. My mom goes for typically cute themes and natural colors. My dad prefers overalls and plaid or hawaiin shirts. They don’t spend much money and it makes them happy. (He wore a garage sale onesie home from the hospital.)

    We’ve also received several items as gifts. Not everything is my style, but I have fun mixing cutesy with funky: red sex pistols onesie, pastel yellow pants with duck appliques, green neon monkey socks and a gray gap sweatshirt.

    I’m looking forward to his input on fashion choices, when the time comes.

  17. I absolutely love his outfit. I am going to be surely using these tips when I go shopping for my son next week. I was given clothes up to 6 months but now I have to start shopping for him and I hate shopping.

  18. I go to one consignment sale that takes place twice a year and get everything then. I hate shopping, and so this one stop shopping is perfect. Most items cost around $3, so it isn’t super cheap, but it is a lot cheaper than buying new, and then it is OVER. For six months!

  19. We have the most awesome store, right around the corner, called Thrift Town. Its ALL organized by type AND length AND gender AND color AND size. And nothing costs more than 2 bucks.

  20. There’s a Goodwill sorting place here that sells clothing by the pound. It’s completely unsorted, so kind of a hassle to dig through, and you want to wash anything you get there REALLY thoroughly, but you can’t beat the price.

  21. holy crap! good call! we’re expecting baby #2 in late november/early december and will not find out baby’s gender until birth (go team green!), so this method will suit us well!

    kiddo #1 is male and 5.5 years old. many of his clothes were gifts or hand-me-downs, so we have a lot of boy-ish stuff that might not be suitable for a girl if we don’t want to be correcting nice baby oglers all day, every day. i will use this method to shop from this moment forward! thank you!

  22. God, I wish I could do that for my son. The thrift stores (or op shops, as we call them) in my Australian town of 40,000 have practically no clothes for kids aged 1-4. In one shop, the size 2 section had, no joke, five items in total. And four of them were pink. I know I can’t expect much, being in a relatively small town, but it’s pretty depressing when you have to buy everything from Target and pick through all the character crap to buy the same old plain blue and green shirts. Or pay top dollar to buy nice things online. *sigh*
    Regardless, this would definitely be a method I’d follow if I could!

  23. My boy is the 16th grand child in my partner’s family so humongous bags of hand-me-downs often appear. I have developed my own strategies to make stuff work. Logos and stupid words on clothes bring me out in hives, so I cover them up with shapes hacked from the good bits of otherwise wrecked tees. A well placed skull or splat shape covers a multitude of sins and if all else fails there’s always the dye bath or freezer paper stencil option.

  24. I haven’t had much luck finding baby clothes at thrift stores, but I think it depends on the town. I like to go to more affluent neighborhoods, when they have an annual grage sale event. I have found some really nice stuff that has probably had one owner!

  25. Terrific picture! My personal method is pretty much the same. I look for something that immediately I like, check the size, if it fits I inspect it further, try it on, then walk around with it while still shopping, final decision is made just before buying.

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