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How to get a grip on kids’ clothing costs

Up-to-the-minute teen styles can be both pricey and controversial. Dr. Ruth Peters tells how to keep fashion finances under control.

Q: I am constantly getting into arguments with my 13-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son about clothes.

Apart from the fact that I don't particularly like some of the things that they want to wear, there is the matter of how much clothing costs. For instance, even though my 16-year-old has a part time job, he still expects me to chip in for expensive jeans and ridiculously overpriced athletic shoes.  My daughter is not much better. She doesn’t work and expects me to buy clothing at mall stores several times a year.  This is getting out of hand!

I don't feel it's fair for me to have to pay exorbitant prices just so they can keep up with the latest styles. Any hints as to how to deal with this?

A: Buying clothes for your kids takes planning, especially if you want to avoid drama at the mall. Here are some things you should consider before the shopping begins:

Clothing is often one of the most important ways that kids, especially tweens and teens, define who they are and what kind of crowd they wish to fit in. If you’re a prep, then you may choose collared shirts and khakis, and shop for name brand shoes, purses and accessories. If your child wants to be seen as a jock, then only cutting edge athletic shoes will do, as well as team jerseys and jeans. The nonconformists go to great lengths to conform to the unwritten rules denoting creativity, individualism or Gothic styles. Concert T-shirts are similar to billboards, announcing what music and bands your child is interested in, and what values they admire.

In a similar fashion to the way that the military employs uniforms to separate rank, adolescents tend to use clothing style to represent values and interests (and to separate them from those not in their own crowd). The incredible pressure to fit in with a group during the adolescent years, as well as the teen’s attempts to define where he or she fits within the hundreds of peers at school, encourages dress as a bid for acceptance, a flag of defiance, or a definition of who they are.

So, before hitting the mall, consider your child's personality and what clothing represents. There are at least three types of kid personality styles that seem to encompass the majority of the adolescents that I see. First, there are those who want to look like the popular crowd — only the latest styles in clothing and shoes that their friends are wearing will do. These are often adolescents who check out the advertisements in teen magazines and drool over the styles seen on MTV. Clothing, for the fashion conscious, is often seen as a ticket to popularity, a necessity in order to be included in the group.  Although this may have a bearing on some friendships, your child needs to learn that it takes more than a garment to be genuinely included in friendships. Loyalty and empathy go a long way in cementing relationships, but teens can lose sight of this in a frantic effort to be included. These kids are high maintenance and expensive, as name brands and designer jeans carry a hefty price tag.

Then, there are the incredible individualists who go to great lengths to look different from their peers. These teens can be found lurking in the aisles of thrift shops and military surplus stores in an effort to find items that are different and unconventional. And yes, some of their outfits are one-of-a kind and downright weird! These teens tend to spend much less money on clothing, unless they are shopping at fad stores specializing in Goth-like fashion.  That can get expensive, and is often not allowed within school dress codes.

The third group of children that I come in contact with really doesn’t think much about clothing and fashion. You have to practically drag them to the store to buy a few pairs of jeans and T-shirts, underclothes and a pair of athletic shoes.  They aren’t concerned with style as a means of self-expression and tend to focus upon other interests such as computer gaming, volunteering within the community, or working at a job to communicate what’s important to them. These kids are usually easy on the clothing budget, but you may have to periodically sneak some of the threadbare, worn articles out of the bedroom to make room for some new pants and shirts a few times a year!

It sounds like your children fall within the first category, that of the fashion conscious. And yes, I would imagine that the pressure upon you to buy expensive clothing can get out of hand.

With fashion-savvy teens, I’ve had the greatest success employing an earned monthly or quarterly clothing allowance. Determine what you can afford for clothes on a yearly basis (a good guesstimate is adequate) and divide by twelve (monthly) or by four if you’re employing the quarterly method.

Make sure that the amount is reasonable and not too much — giving kids a large amount of money usually backfires, leading to a sense of entitlement. And, excessive spending is often not appreciated, with clothing left on the floor and in disarray. Consider setting up a monthly or quarterly clothing allowance that the child can budget — spending too much on a designer outfit will eventually get old when other articles of clothing are needed and the money is gone.

Please have your child earn the clothing allowance by completing both individual chores (cleaning the bedroom and bathroom) as well as helping with some of the family responsibilities (emptying the trash, picking up the younger kids at school). Try your best to stick to the rules and the budget, not giving extra money when pressured, and expect your child to stick to his or her end of the bargain by completing the chores in a timely manner.

Since your son is working, expect that he’ll be contributing to his clothing needs, especially when he insists upon $130 sneakers! Encourage your daughter to get some baby-sitting jobs to chip in whenever she can. Suggest shopping at an outlet mall so that they will see that buying on sale yields great benefit.

The best way to teach budgeting is to let them be in charge of their own budgets, and allow the chips to fall where they may. I’ve dealt with many a whiny kid who had to learn the hard way that frivolous, expensive items are a waste. And although you may be capable of helping out when new sneakers really are needed and the cash has been spent, please refrain from purchasing on your own. It sounds like your children need to better understand the value of money, and having to wear worn shoes won’t hurt them. In fact, it’s better for them to learn to deal with financial issues and disappointments during adolescence, rather than later in life when credit card debt could become a factor.

You will also need to consider style and school dress code.  Ground rules are necessary — the tween or teen should not be allowed to buy clothing items that he or she is not allowed to wear, such as profanities written on T-shirts or clothing not complying with school rules.

Dr. Peters’ Bottom Line: As with many parent-teen squabbles, clothing choices are a sign of increasing independence. Like other issues, you need to walk the fine line between imposing reasonable standards and not alienating your child.  In addition, you can use this as an opportunity to establish good budgeting skills, one that your child earns and must learn to live within.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.