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CLOTHING BUDGET CAN PUT LID ON BACK-TO-SCHOOL COSTS

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Dear Dr. Tightwad - I have just spent hundreds of dollars to outfit my kids with clothes and other back-to-school paraphernalia, and I'm in shock.

This time of year is getting to be as big a financial strain as the holidays, and just as commercialized.I know it's too late for this year, but do you have any advice on how to keep future back-to-school budgets under control?

Answer - Persuading your children's school to require students to wear uniforms would cut down on both spending and bickering over styles. If that's out of the question, try these suggestions on for size:

- SET A CLOTHING BUDGET. Clothes, after all, are your biggest expense, and kids freely admit they'll keep bugging you for more as long as you're willing to keep buying.

Even if your children are young, they can be part of the process if you tell them they're going to have to make choices about what they want. Buying a pair of expensive jeans, for example, means settling for fewer shirts.

Take the kids for a trial run by having them search through catalogs to come up with a wardrobe that fits your budget.

Once your children are responsible enough, it makes sense to give them a seasonal clothing allowance and let them do their own shopping. If they want more, they can supplement your quarterly or semiannual allowance with their own money.

Never turn them loose with your credit card and an open-ended directive to "buy what you need."

- SPREAD OUT YOUR SPENDING. Don't try to do it all in the fall. Styles and sizes can change almost overnight.

If your kids see a nice sweater or shirt that doesn't fit into the budget, file it away as a possible holiday present. You're going to be buying them gifts then anyway, so you might as well get something practical that you know they'll like.

- DON'T SWEAT THE LITTLE THINGS. If your child needs a lunchbox and wants one with a picture of Batman or Pocahontas, go ahead and buy the character of choice. It's a cheap thrill. So are new notebooks and pencils.

Going back to school can be a downer, and kids get a psychological lift out of starting the year fresh with pristine paper, pens that don't leak and crayons that have points.