Mindful Money: What price fashion?

By Mir
January 12, 2010

I was just browsing around at Dillard’s, because they’ve just taken another round of markdowns and their online clearance is one of my favorite places to buy dresses. As I mentioned earlier this morning, I don’t have to look presentable all that often, but sometimes I do, and I enjoy having pretty things to wear when I actually, you know, bother to get dressed.

More and more in our “recession economy” I heard a lot of “don’t buy it on sale if you wouldn’t have paid full price for it” as a mantra for smart shopping, and as I looked at clothes this morning I found myself thinking about that. And you know what? I think that’s stupid.

People, if I never bought anything on sale I wouldn’t have cheerfully forked over full retail price for, I would buy nothing at all. Ever.

Now, I’m not saying everyone has to shop like me (I mean, feel free, but I’m not naive enough to think my methods are for everyone), but I know so many women who put nice clothing for themselves behind everything else—clothes for the kids, household items, even kibble for the pets—that I think this is a topic worth addressing. Let’s forget glib proclamations like “don’t buy it on sale if you wouldn’t have paid full price for it” and talk about practical guidance on this.

Don’t spend what you can’t afford. It’s never a good purchase if you can’t afford it, period. That should go without saying, but I’m all about declaring the obvious, so there you go.

Don’t spend what you can afford on items that you’ll never wear. If it’s a killer deal on mesh minidress and you’re, I don’t know, say, over 21 and not a stripper, it doesn’t matter that you can afford it. You’ll never wear it and you know it, so put it down and walk away. The sort-of exception to this rule is killer deals on things you’ll wear infrequently; no one I know wears ballgowns daily, but it’s not a completely ridiculous item to own even though you may only wear it once every few years, especially if you get it on a great deal. Similarly, if you only own one suit (assuming you have occasion to wear a suit periodically) you want it to be a quality one, even though it may not get much wear.

Don’t spend what you can afford on items that don’t fit you well. The biggest mistake I see most bargain-seekers making on clothing is buying/keeping items that were “such a good deal” even though they don’t fit properly. If it can be tailored, great—do that. If it can’t, don’t get it. It’s not a bargain if it makes you look like a bag lady, or if you never wear it because you periodically take it out of your closet, put it on, and remember that the armpits gap funny or that the hem is just a little too short.

Know your value scale. The main reason the “… unless you would pay full price” thing annoys me is because there are plenty of great items in my closet that I simply couldn’t afford at full price. Just because I had to wait for it to go on sale, I shouldn’t buy it? Okay, maybe that’s not what they mean by that; my closet is also peppered with items I wouldn’t have paid full price for—regardless of what I could afford—because I wasn’t entirely sure about them at time of purchase (say, I was buying online and I wasn’t certain it would really work for me), or because I don’t pay full price for items I won’t wear all that often. To wit: I will buy a beautiful $150 dress for $30 without much thought, even though I won’t get to wear it all that often. While I believe the dress is worth $150 and I might have $150, there’s no way I’m spending that when most of the time I’m at home in my pajamas. See?

Know your risk scale. Buying online is a great way to find discounts and values, but you don’t get to try things on before you purchase, and sometimes colors or other details look different on your computer screen than they do in real life. One way to mitigate the “risk” is to buy from a store that offers free or inexpensive shipping and allows in-store returns. (I do this with Kohls and Macy’s, for example, but I don’t have a local Dillard’s so I’m taking a chance, there.) Another strategy is to buy brands whose fit and construction is pretty consistent and which you already know to fit you well. (I usually don’t have to worry about things I buy from Ann Taylor Loft, for example.)

Spend more on timeless styles, less on trendy items and things that will wear out. Part of your decision process when it comes to clothes should be “how trendy is this” and “how often will it need to be replaced.” I don’t spend much on t-shirts; I wear them all the time, and they get grungy and wear out within a year or two. I’ll spend a lot more on a classic white blouse, because I’ll wear it less, it’ll last longer, and it’s never going to go out of style. Trendy items are fine, but spend less on them; ruffles are huge right now and I have a couple of cute tops with ruffles, but of course I spent less on them because when ruffles go “out” I don’t want to be stuck with something expensive that’s now looking dated. (Also: My promise to myself if I actually take off the weight I’m currently working on losing is that I will bend to the trend and get a pair of skinny jeans. But I won’t pay nearly as much for them as I would for a timeless denim straight-leg trouser that will always be in style.)

If you play it conservative with clothes, play with your accessories. I know we always talk about my love of shoes, but part of the reason I love fun shoes is because they’re a very easy way to change up an outfit. Shop right and they don’t cost much, and I can go a little trendier on shoes (and belts and other accessories) and feel like I’ve brought my “classics” up-to-date. It’s also an easy way to keep a wardrobe of mostly neutrals from becoming boring; make a statement with the shoes!

The bottom line is that there are plenty of ways to outfit yourself so that you look and feel good without breaking the bank. And by thinking through your budget and priorities before you shop, you stand to reap the rewards of bargain-hunting without any buyer’s remorse.


  1. As another person who often works in pajamas, I agree 100%. When I do have to go out and meet actual people, I often get asked, “Where did you get that outfit?” when it’s just a plain, classic dress or trousers that’s been jazzed up with a belt, scarf or hat and slightly wild shoes. My arty daughter is even finding that some of Mom’s strange 80s clothes and shoes are really cool when mixed with her trendier jeans and tees. I think Etsy is a great place to go for the ‘statement piece’ that will draw attention and make the whole outfit. Plus, you’re supporting artists by shopping there!

    I’ve only ever forked over full retail on an expensive item for a denim dress (which I loved and wore to death) and a dark gray dress coat (ditto).

  2. I agree – I would own very little (mostly food) if I didn’t buy sale items that I wouldn’t have paid full price for. I think that’s kind of stupid, actually.

  3. Can you tell me where to find the clearance section? I am just not seeing it anywhere.

  4. I can’t even imagine who would have made up such a statement. It’s like telling me I shouldn’t buy that cull lobster at the seafood market for $5.99 a pound unless I’m willing to go to a certain other local store that has the exact same thing (plus an extra claw) for $12.99 a pound. WTF?

  5. I almost never buy clothing that isn’t on sale. To *me*, there just is no such thing as a dress worth $150.

    The first time I remember buying a “fancy dress” that I had no anticipated occasion for, it was 1 I found on sale for $23.99. Not only did it, eventually, make it to 3 or 4 weddings, at the last wedding I wore it to, it turned out to be remarkably similar to the bridesmaid’s dresses. They were a dark red sheath dress with a matching short jacket; so was mine, although mine was knit and the jacket had a little bit of beadwork.

    One of the bridesmaids had left her matching jacket at home in Japan. One of the others had not had the upper bodice of the dress altered, so without the jacket she was, er, overexposed.

    Can you imagine my surprise when my dear friend the groom asked me to loan a bridesmaid my jacket? Needless to say, that’s one wedding I’ll never forget!

    (And I decided after that to retire the dress. At $5 per wearer or occasion, I more than got my money’s worth.)

  6. I’ve always found that saying absolutely ridiculous. I would NEVER pay $30 for a pair of jeans for my 3-year old, but I sure will buy them when Gap marks them down to $7. It’s not that I didn’t like them when they were $30, I’m just not the brand of crazy that is willing to pay a lot for a pair of pants that will get destroyed.

  7. If I can’t find it on sale, I don’t buy it.

  8. I can’t find Dillard’s clearance either. I’m sure it is right in front of me, but I just can’t see it. Help!

  9. For those who have asked: Dillard’s doesn’t separate out their clearance (totally annoying). What they do is tack the sale items on to the final pages of any given section, each item marked in red font with “New Lower Price!”

    So, say you go to dresses and there’s 20 pages. Click on the 10th page and look for markdowns. If you see them, back up to page 9 to see if they start there. If you don’t, move up a couple of pages. Once you find markdowns in a section, you can easily go to where they begin and then view all pages to the end to see them all.

    Make sense?

  10. I think that’s the opposite of smart shopping! I would almost never pay full price for anything (unless, of course, it’s something that’s needed ASAP (like those black dress pants and white dress shirt my son needed for a holiday production at school that I found about 2 days beforehand). I ALWAYS scout the sales and compare prices at different stores.

    My daughter is a 12 year old budding fashionista who now eschews Justice and will only accept clothing from Aeropostale and Hollister. Would I pay $49.90 for a pair of jeans for me? Not likely, unless they magically decreased the size of my butt. Would I pay $49.90 for a pair of jeans for my 12 year old? NO WAY! So I scout the sales there, too, and am teaching her to do the same. We found a 50% off sale at Hollister the day after Christmas (and I would ONLY buy stuff there at 50% or more off) and just recently found skinny jeans at Aeropostale for $13.87 and at the time they had a promo code for 30% off on top of that, so they were like $9.87 each. She’s thrilled (and even more thrilled that they were so cheap!) and her friends think they are $50 jeans. Win, win!

  11. I get the sentiment, that you shouldn’t by something ONLY because it is a fabulous deal – that it should be something that you love, will enjoy and use. All of the points you mention above would apply to said purchase. That being said, I NEVER pay retail price for my clothing, partially because we’re a one-income family and partially because I think retail prices are like the rack rates at hotels 😉

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