Recycled-clothing stores such as Plato's Closet and Crossroads Trading Co. are doing brisk business as families tighten their back-to-school budgets.

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Azaiha Carew is on the hunt for an essential staple of her back-to-school wardrobe: True Religion jeans. For the uninitiated, the upscale brand of jeans can set a shopper back $200 or more — per pair.

With her mom, Marisa Carew, helping in the search at Plato’s Closet in Lynnwood, a store that sells slightly used clothes, the Woodinville teen had success locating the coveted jeans and a few extras during a recent outing.

While Azaiha, 14, loves “the cute clothes” at Plato’s Closet, her mom says she likes the low prices.

“You can get a lot of the same stuff that you’d get at Nordstrom Rack or the mall,” Marisa Carew said. “I have four kids so I have to spread the budget out.”

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Back-to-school shopping is something of a rite of passage, an end-of-summer ritual that gets students ready for the coming school year. But with the lethargic economy and rising gas and food prices cutting into household expenses, many families have trimmed their back-to-school budgets and are turning to discount retailers and thrift stores.

A recent survey by Deloitte Consulting confirms that most consumers are cutting back this year, as 71 percent said they will spend less on back-to-school items and 48 percent plan to reduce their overall spending by more than $100.

Thrift stores and retailers like Plato’s Closet and the Crossroads Trading Co. — both of which pay cash or store credit for brand-name used clothing — are doing brisk business as students look for the season’s trendiest finds on a limited budget.

“You get good clothes for a fair price,” said Lynnwood mom Terri DeRosier at Plato’s Closet, during a recent school-shopping trip with her daughter, Brittanie. “I never pay full price.”

The DeRosiers shop at the store every few months and on this day Brittanie was looking for some shirts and jeans.

“Everything they have is in good condition,” the 14-year-old said. “I like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch. They always fit perfectly. Here you can get them for a good price.”

“Recycled” clothing buys you more

What allows these stores to keep their prices in check is that they offer “recycled” clothing and accessories purchased directly from customers. Plato’s Closet pays roughly one-third of what they will sell the items for. So a T-shirt on the racks for $10 will yield the seller a little more than $3 in cash (store credit is also possible).

Plato’s Closet sells trendy items from several premium clothing lines: Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, True Religion, 7 for All Mankind, all in excellent, nearly new condition and at a fraction of the original price.

A pair of True Religion or 7 for All Mankind jeans sells for $50 or less at Plato’s Closet. Hollister tops and tanks run about half of retail. A Free People tank top can set you back more than $50 at regular price; at Plato’s Closet: $10.

“Parents can’t afford to pay $700 to clothe all their kids,” says Heather Rangel, manager of the Lynnwood store and corporate merchandiser. “They can come here and pay 50 percent less and get 50 percent more. As long as kids don’t care about wearing used clothing, they’ll get everything they need.”

Back-to-school business has been strong at the Value Village in Edmonds, too, a trend supervisor Phyllis Cooke attributes to the sluggish economy.

“You get a good value for what you want,” Cooke said.

And the best day for bargains: Mondays, when the store offers a slew of items for 99 cents (watch for the 50-percent-off tags Thursdays-Sundays).

Patience and time

Patience is a virtue to get the most out of thrift-store shopping.

“Have the time to shop so you can take the time to look and try things on,” said Cooke, who added that late summer is a good time to buy cold-weather items, such as long-sleeved shirts, jackets, hats and scarves.

Similar to Plato’s Closet, the Crossroads Trading Co. offers discounted used clothes from brands as diverse as Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen to Banana Republic and Old Navy. Customers who trade in clothes receive 35 percent of the sale price if they want cash or 50 percent if they opt for store credit.

If you don’t have much to spend, say less than $100, Kristina Cullen, who manages the Crossroads store on Broadway on Capitol Hill, suggests three pieces: jackets — “huge statement pieces” — boots and accessories.

For those reluctant to purchase secondhand clothes, Cullen said to think of it as affordable fashion.

“I don’t think of our store as a thrift store,” she said. “When shoppers get a sense of the clothes we carry, the thrift idea fades away.”

Tina Potterf is a freelancer living in Seattle.

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