Popping tags: How to bargain shop without looking like you did

Everybody wants to save money, and buying clothes can get expensive. Thrift shops and outlet stores can be a good option, but most of us don’t want to look dated or shabby. Here are some tricks to help save money while still looking sharp.

  • Visit stores in neighborhoods that have money. Stores like TJMaxx and Marshall’s determine the inventory for individual stores partly based on the area demographics, so if the median income in the area of the store is higher, that store will get better items. That’s even more true of consignment and thrift stores, because people consign and donate where they live, and people who can afford to replace their things regularly tend to pass them on while they’re still in good shape.
  • If you’re buying in outlets or thrift stores, look for classics, not super-trendy items. Funky colors can really date an item. Pantone does their Color of the Year every year, and a lot of companies jump to produce in that color. That’s part of why two years ago everything was bright orange, and last year everything was emerald green. This year it’s a shade called Radiant Orchid. Statement colors come and go in a hurry, so it’s usually best to buy those in-season (and cheaply if you can). Likewise bold shapes or unusual stuff. It’s OK to do inexpensive pieces to make a statement (Target is good for those) while going classic with the rest of the outfit.
  • Look at how a piece is constructed. Are the seams even and straight? Does it hang on your body like it should? Are the teeth on the zipper plastic or metal? (Plastic can snap or warp more easily than metal, so it doesn’t hold up.)
  • Look at its condition, especially in a thrift/consignment/vintage store. If it shows signs of wear, put it back. That means stains, scuffs, creases in leather (especially common in purses and boots, and nearly impossible to get all the way out), tears, or anything else that makes it look less than new.
  • If you know what style and size fits you in an item, check for online specials. Old Navy runs specials all the time that give an extra percentage off the regular price for buying online. Not a great choice for blind buying, but if it’s a staple item in your wardrobe (for me, it’s the Perfect V-neck tee and the Sweetheart boot cut jeans) it can save you a good bit of money.
  • Look for rewards programs. DSW has a fantastic rewards program that gives you a $10 certificate whenever you spend a certain amount. (Shop with DSW in store, not online. They’ve made serious errors on my last two online orders, but the store staff at the location nearest me is always very helpful.) Lane Bryant, Kohl’s, and Sephora all have similar programs. If you have preferred retailers, get on their mailing lists. But do not fall for the “extra percentage off when you use your store charge” offers, unless you’re 100% sure you’re going to pay it off by the end of the month, because most of the time, you end up paying more in interest than you saved with the discount. I’ve also had excellent luck with MyPoints, which gives you points for every dollar you spend when you click through their site to one of their participating retailers, and gives you gift cards when you cash in your points.
  • Most importantly, ask yourself, Would I buy this if it weren’t discounted? If not, you don’t want it badly enough to need it. Don’t fall into the “but it was such a good deal!” trap, because you’ll end up with stuff you’ll never wear. Buy what you love, and if you get a good deal on it, that’s even better. But don’t buy it if you don’t love it.
  • A good selection of accessories can make the same outfit look different every time. Check stores like Charlotte Russe, Forever 21, and Aldo Accessories for details that are trendy without being spendy. For a slightly more exotic style, you can also find interesting items at World Market and Earthbound Trading Company (Earthbound doesn’t have an online store, but for local folks, there’s one at Concord Mills).

There are a lot of ways to save money without looking like the hipster on the corner, whom you’d mistake for homeless if he weren’t carrying this year’s iPhone and smoking American Spirits. With a little attention to what you buy and from where, you can pull your look together without paying a fortune.

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