How Bargain Shopping Secretly Undermines Your Budget

BargainShopping_slide01Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
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There are few things I love more than finding a good deal.
This passion of mine took root early. As a middle schooler and teen, I would often accompany my mom on trips to discount stores like Ross and Loehmann's to partake in what we called guilt-free shopping. We'd leave with bags stuffed with $14 sundresses and $20 shoes (that we both knew we didn't need), energized by the deals we scored.
As an adult, I still relish my regular Ross trips (though now I've expanded my shopping repertoire to the home goods section, a very dangerous place indeed). But, this dedication to deals means that, after years and years of bargain shopping, I have a really hard time paying full price for anything. If someone comments on my new bag or throw pillow, my gratitude for their positive feedback always includes something to the effect of "I got it on sale," or "You'll never believe it was only [insert minuscule amount here]!" As if the low price of the item not only justifies my purchase, but elevates its worth to new, awe-worthy levels.
Not only have I developed the knee jerk (and cringe-worthy) habit of broadcasting how little I spend on nearly everything I buy, in fact, I have found that rather than saving me money, bargain shopping is putting a significant dent in my bank account. The problem is multi-layered. First of all, I am stuck in the mindset that shoes (and even jackets, for that matter) should never cost more than $100. Say I want a pair of leather boots, I'll spend time searching for the best pair I can find for the cheapest price possible and buy those. Makes sense, right? But, the problem with this practice is that, pretty soon, the novelty of the deal wears off and then I'm stuck with a pair of boots that I don't really love or even want to wear. Eventually, I end up buying another pair. And, it starts to add up.
Not only is this a money issue, it's also a time-suck. I can get so fixated on finding the absolute lowest online price for a given item that I find myself wasting hours on endless web searching. Though I'm committed to my frugality, my inability to resist a good deal also prompts me to buy a lot of things I don't actually need. (Which is why I no longer allow myself to have the RueLaLa app on my phone.) As a result, I have a closet full of items I got good deals on, but don't absolutely love, which keeps me forever unsatisfied (and on the hunt for the next great bargain).
Recently, on an impromptu trip to one of those overpriced sunglasses stores, I spotted a pair of tortoiseshell cat-eye sunglasses by Kate Spade that were far out of my price range. Out of curiosity, I looked up the style on Amazon and — lo and behold — there they were, over $100 cheaper, and free two-day shipping to boot. Obviously, I one-clicked a pair right on over to my hot little, deal-loving hands. Did I need new sunglasses? Nope. Was I enamored by this particular pair? They were cute. Were they still out of my price range? Most certainly. But, the deal seemed, as they say, too good to pass up.
As I assessed my closet, I realized that my obsession with deal-making was actually counterproductive. Not only had it left me with a closet full of clothes I felt only lukewarm about, but it was actually costing me both time and money. How to break this cycle of bargain binging? Fashion consultant Colin McDonald offers five rules of thumb.
Invest in pieces that will last a long time
One of my bargain-shopping issues is that I've been unwilling to elevate my budget for certain items like boots and sweaters that will get a lot of wear. So, I often end up with cheaper items that fall apart or don’t feel or fit right. McDonald suggests splurging on essentials when it comes to your closet — the things that you most likely will wear over-and-over, year-after-year. "Why spend $50 on a pair of boots that will only last you one season, when you can splurge a little more and cherish them a lifetime?" he says. "I'd rather have a rack full of quality pieces than a closet full of clothing that just continues to give me a headache." On a cost-per-wear basis, that strategy will actually save you money over the long run.
Don't buy anything you don't absolutely love
Often, I realized, I would buy things I don't love, or even need, just because I’d found a good deal (Exhibit A — those aforementioned Kate Spade sunglasses). Talk yourself out of these kinds of purchases, McDonald says, with this simple mantra, "If you're buying it because of the price and not because you love it — don't buy it." Otherwise, these items will wind up sitting in your closet, unworn. That’s a waste of money, no matter how little you paid for them.
Know when you're actually getting a bargain
If a given item isn’t 50 to 70 percent off retail price, it's not really a deal, McDonald says. (Don’t be tempted by those 10-percent-off mini sales!) And, before buying any clothing item, he suggests having thorough knowledge of the designer or brand. Find out where the clothes are made, then check what materials each piece is made with, and look at the stitching and detailing. Having a sense of the quality of each garment will help you determine just how good a bargain really is.
Be friends with your favorite brands
If there are stores or designers you really love, but you can't always afford to shop with them, sign up for their websites and follow them online, McDonald says. Many offer their fans exclusive deals only through social media shoutouts or newsletters. You could also sign up for a free service like ShopItToMe, or Hukkster, which automatically lets you know when items from certain brands or stores go on sale.
Automate your deal finding so you don’t lose something else equally valuable — your time
Because I find myself checking and rechecking prices to see if I can get a "better deal" on items I already purchased, I asked McDonald if there are any trusted automated services he recommends. He says that the best way to score the lowest deals when it comes to shopping around without wasting a ton of time is to download apps like Retailmenot, Flipp, and Redlaser. They're all easy to download directly to your smartphone, conveniently allowing you to scan coupons and flyers from your favorite stores to compare prices. "The best part is, if the price is lower at another store, many retailers today are willing to match the price both in-store and online," he says. "This eliminates any additional trips to other stores."

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