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How to Shop: Sticking to a Budget

The best accessory I acquired in the past decade was getting out of credit card debt.

My Experience:
When I worked in retail, I found it far too easy to shop. I was spending at least 45, usually closer to 65 hours a week at a mall. Lunch hours were spent strolling through other shops, sipping on an overpriced coffee drink, or treating myself to a very nice lunch at a nearby restaurant. As a personal shopper and visual merchandiser, I felt I had to be a perfect example of style and current fashion and made sure to have the latest shoes, makeup, accessories and always a perfect professional manicure, pedicure, haircut and highlights. When our shop was thisclose to making the day’s sales goal, they could always count on me to purchase something from the new line to get us over the hump.

When I left working at Express, they gave me my associate purchase logs. In one year, after my employee discounts, I had purchased $7,000.00 worth of their clothing. When I maxed out my Express card, I opened a Structure card and used that (hey it was the late ‘90s/early ‘00s when Structure still existed). When I maxed that out, I found out that I could use my Limited or Victoria’s Secret cards and shop at Express. I won’t even go into details about the major credit cards I used for salon treatments, binges at Sephora or Nordstrom, and many a steak salad at the Nordstrom Café.

As women, we are constantly attacked by media telling us to spend, spend, spend. The dress that will get you the guy. The moisturizer that will make you look ten years younger. The bag you must have this season. The five or ten or hundred items every woman must have in her wardrobe. And then of course, the purchases you need so that you can be as lovely as Anne or Mila or Kate. Magazines like Lucky are completely geared towards assisting women on shopping, while glossies such as Vogue and W bring couture to Middle America, encouraging everyone to feel that they too need a fancy label on their dress to be special.

As you know, I love fashion. I love clothing. I find it to be a great way to express your personality, your individuality, your passions. Fashion can also help you feel more confident and more beautiful. But no garment is worth falling into debt. A woman cannot be strong if her finances are crumbling around her.

So how do you achieve personal style while sticking to your budget?

When I got to the point where I was fearing every telephone call, thinking it was a debt collector, I knew I had to make a major change – FAST. For me, it was changing careers. I had to get away from that which was causing the debt – easy access to current fashion. However I still had mountains of debt and wasn’t willing to sacrifice style along the way.

This was when I started understanding wardrobe staples. Pieces slowly collected that could multitask and make a woman ready for any event in her life. I looked at women I knew as stylish and really examined their wardrobes. They didn’t own a lot of clothes, they seemed to wear the same things over and over. And those clothes they wore were perfect. They were well tailored, high quality, flattering. Few prints, few trendy details. Classics like cashmere turtlenecks, crisp dark jeans, white tailored shirts, simple sheath dresses, elegant black leather pumps, simple pencil skirts. They would add their own look to these staples with accessories like scarves, bold jewelry, and belts.

I thought back to the exchange students we hosted when I was in high school – how they could survive weeks in another country with just a small suitcase of clothing. Even with their small wardrobes, they were ready for any event in the US. Their wardrobes were of simple pieces that mixed and matched with one another – pieces of similar fabrics, colors, and silhouettes so they made a true collection.

I looked in my own closet – spangled knit tops to wear out to clubs that still had tags on them, a dozen cocktail dresses, four pairs of leather pants (and one pair bright red!), three pairs of tall black boots, over 20 pairs of jeans. Who the heck needs 20 pairs of jeans?

I obviously had plenty of clothes at that time, and really tried to make do with what I had. My new job required me to wear all black, so when I didn’t have the right item in my wardrobe, I stalked sale racks until I could find what worked at the lowest price. I often bought in bulk – who cares if you’re wearing the same black pants every day as long as they are clean and fit well?

Over time, I got a grip on my finances, but realized yet another new profession and a changing figure required me to shop again. I decided to keep those stylish women and my exchange students in mind. I looked through my closet with fresh eyes and decided to purge. Gone were all the spangled club tops, the evening gowns, and any clothes that didn’t fit and flatter my current frame.

However for purchasing, I needed to figure out a budget so I wouldn’t get back into a financial mess. Before I went shopping, I took a month or two to look at where my money went, and what were my priorities. Thanks to my sister who is the Excel Spreadsheet Queen, I started tracking where all my money went – that pack of gum, that latte, that issue of Marie Claire. I didn’t just note how much I spent on groceries, but what exactly I purchased. I saw that a lot of my money went to food – dining out, alcohol, and purchasing items at the grocery store that I don’t really need (hello another lip gloss) or that I can’t afford (artisanal cheeses, sushi, out of season produce). I decided to adjust my current spending before shopping to see what I could cut and still lead what I felt to be a joyful and comfortable life.

Only then, could I figure out my fashion budget. Some months, I spent that money. Other months, I saved it up so I could get something really special. I stuck to my list of essentials, and decided I would only buy fun items when I got a work bonus, birthday cash, special events. This way, I not only stayed on budget but I was even more careful with my money and those special items not only were nice to buy, but had special meaning behind them.

Each woman’s budget will be different, but it is important to first pay yourself before you do any shopping. Pay off your debt, save and invest your money. Prepare for the unexpected. Yes, a great pair of shoes can make your day, help you land a job or perfect your wardrobe but shoes won’t pay the rent if you get laid off. Shoes won’t buy you a new car when yours dies on the side of the highway. Shoes won’t give you independence and freedom.

If your budget is small, that’s actually a good thing. Small wardrobe funding requires one to do homework to find the best quality for the price, to really get to know one’s body and lifestyle and only purchase that which makes sense. Keep your wardrobe small, hard-working, classic, elegant.

Tips to Stay on Budget:

  • Have a Life Budget. No point in having a clothing budget if you are blowing your paycheck already on other items. That being said, have priorities. Clothing is probably higher on my priority list than the list of many other women. Each woman is different – some budget for world travel, some budget for books, some budget for art supplies, some budget for home renovations. It’s important to first be true to you – prioritize and then figure out where fashion fits.
  • Make a List, Check it Twice. If you have an actual written list that you carry with you, you’re less likely to get off track when you hit the mall.
  • Do Your Homework. You need a black suit? Go to the mall, try on brands, and then go home. Research online for coupons, deals, maybe the same item on eBay or in a thrift or vintage store. Never accept full price unless it is absolute perfection, absolutely necessary, and still fits your budget.
  • Stay Away from Shopping Triggers. For me, it’s malls. I only visit a major shopping mall once or twice a year because I can get lost in there and leave hundreds poorer. Maybe for you it’s Target (can always justify another tee or a $19.99 sundress but it adds up), possibly an adorable boutique in your neighborhood or maybe it’s Net-a-Porter. Whatever it is, accept your trigger and control your visits. Schedule them according to seasons – maybe only allow one visit each season, or maybe once a month.
  • Cancel the Magazine Subscriptions. I am a magazine-aholic, but I know that when I read them, I end up shopping more. Magazines do a great job of making items look amazing, and seem necessary. The most recent Vogue made me spend an hour of my life looking for a certain Brahmin bag – something I don’t need, can’t afford, but loved upon first sight. I did stop before purchasing, but if I hadn’t received that magazine, I would have never known about that orange bag and would have still lived a happy and stylish life. For some, it may be fashion blogs instead of magazines – even if it’s my blog that encourages you to shop, unsubscribe and just visit maybe once a month or every other week.
  • Play “Which Would You Rather.” Sally McGraw of Already Pretty often hosts a “sudden death” question on her Facebook page – which would you rather do – wear only white for a year, or wear your high school colors for a year, and only your school colors. It’s a good exercise for shopping – which would you rather have – that It Bag, or a sushi and sake date night with your mate once a month for a year? Which would you rather own – the perfect pair of black leather pumps, or six pairs of sandals from Payless? Which is more important, your morning Starbucks, or a pair of riding boots? Break down the price of the item and compare it to other items in your life.
  • Get Creative. No one knows you’re wearing the same black pants every day if you switch it up. One day, wear with a tucked-in blouse, the next day with a blazer and shell. Another day wear a cardigan over them and belt the cardigan to change the silhouette. Use your small wardrobe as a brain teaser – who needs Sudoku when you can take the dozen or so quality pieces in your wardrobe and make dozens of outfits from them.

A woman should get fitted for a new bra every year. She should have the perfect LBD in her wardrobe to be ready for unexpected social events. And she should be able to sleep well at night, knowing full well what is going on with her finances. The best accessory I acquired was getting out of debt – the best accessory any woman can wear is self-confidence, and confidence comes from being true to one’s self, feeling strong, and being financially solvent.

Be sure to check out the first of my How to Shop Series: An Introduction

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How to “Read” Fashion Magazines

Pre-pubescent women below 100 lbs. showing off dresses in the thousands. Ads for Armani, Versace, Missoni, Chanel and any other brand you couldn’t possibly afford (and possibly couldn’t even find for sale in your neck of the woods). Crazy outfits of sheer blouses without camisoles, plaids with polka dots, turquoise false lashes and 6″ platform wedges. How are these magazines supposed to help the typical woman in America? How can Vogue, W, Bazaar and Elle assist you in your journey to the suburban shopping mall?

Some fashion magazines are more helpful than others. Lucky magazine not only tells you what is hip, but where to purchase these hip items. They categorize trends, with a page dedicated to the lace trend, a page dedicated to wedge shoes, a page dedicated to croco bags. While encouraging the shopper to visit New York boutiques, a few chain stores are mentioned. Even if you cannot afford the Prada skirt, you can see the length, fabric and cut and can look for a similar version at Macy’s.

Bazaar is one of my favorite magazines. They show celebrities and socialites in what’s hip for the next season, have all the hot new ads from the most luxurious brands, but also breaks fashion down for the Every Woman. So the trends for Spring are a bit of cowgirl, a bit of nautical and a bit of safari? Bazaar will show how a woman in her 20’s can wear the trends, a woman in her 30’s and all the way up to her 70’s. They also will have a spread informing the reader about the hot new trends. As always, they have a What’s Hot/What’s Not on the very last page.

Every fashion magazine can be beneficial to you, no matter your age, dress size or income. It’s not about going into debt for a Dior bag or even for trying to replicate a Dolce and Gabanna ad with pieces from Target. No, it’s getting concepts.

Look at the ads. Really examine them as you would a painting in a museum. What colors are being worn? What does the shoe look like? What kind of fabric? Is there a specific print that is the theme? Now flip the page and look at the next ad. Is there any similarity? Though each high-end designer has their own signature style, there is often a theme for each season that resonates on the runway and in the ads. Maybe it’s lace trim, maybe it’s wood heels on the shoes. It could be a lot of black – it sure was this winter. Don’t look at these ads and roll your eyes over the age or weight of the models, the astronomical prices and ridiculousness of the garments. See it as art, and then break it down.

Be Realistic. If the magazine says every woman needs the new Fendi purse, don’t buy the Fendi purse if you don’t make enough money to buy a Fendi purse for fun. The purse will be passé in a year. Don’t go on a street corner and buy a faux Fendi purse. It will look fake, and it will look tacky and desperate. Don’t wait two years and buy a cheesy knock-off of what the Fendi purse was shaped like from Wal-Mart. Again tacky and desperate. Instead, break it down. What makes that bag new and hip? Is it the oversized shape? Use of silver hardware? A short handle? Croco leather? White with black trim? Take those details with you when you go shopping. Look for something that is beautiful on it’s own, fits your lifestyle and needs, but may incorporate those details. I for one adored the Balenciaga Motorcycle bags that celebs like Nicole Ritchie and Jessica Simpson were sporting. I couldn’t afford the bag, and didn’t want to look like an idiot with a faux silver or turquoise pleather wanna-be bag on my wrist. Therefore I analyzed the look of the bag. What about it did I like? The hardware. The large size. The short handle. The way the leather looks a bit crackled and a bit glazed. When I went to buy a new purse I found a slouchy oversized purse with lots of hardware and metal detail in a similar leather finish and a color that complimented my wardrobe. Not Balenciaga, couldn’t be mistaken for a Motorcycle bag, but receives many compliments, holds all my stuff and keeps my image current.

Don’t be a Label Whore. I was in an elevator yesterday with a woman. A gorgeous woman with a gorgeous figure. Her beauty was not the first thing I saw. She was wearing a puffy Baby Phat coat with a faux fur trim in a weird olive/taupe color. She had on extremely tight Seven for All Mankind jeans that were too low on the waist and too long on her ankles. She had on a Tiffany bracelet AND a Tiffany necklace. She had on a Coach logo purse – quite large and quite pink. Under her coat was a black fitted tee with “Bebe” in rhinestones across the chest. She had on false eyelashes, very pink glossy lips and barely any other makeup. Her hair was in a formal updo with tendrils around her face, her hair obviously meticulously highlighted, lowlighted and streaked on a regular basis. And then on her feet were those high-heeled Timberland-esque dress boots. Her outfit probably cost a ton of money, but she looked terrible. Her clothes didn’t compliment her figure, or one another. She was a walking fashion victim, a slave to the name brands. By caring so much about the names, she lost sight of what the brands were trying to create – FASHION. I highly doubt you are going to the Academy Awards any time soon. No one is going to stop you walking down the street and say “Who are you wearing?” Even if they do, how cool would you be by saying, “This old thing? I picked it up at Target last season.” Think Sharon Stone when she wore a Gap tee shirt to an awards ceremony. No one wrote her off as cheap or tacky. Instead she was celebrated for that fashion move.

It is understandable to want to buy luxury, to splurge on designer. You work hard, you want to reward yourself. I respect that, and I indulge in that as well. Just when you do, think about the rules you hold for all other aspects of your life:
Does it fit into your life?
Does it flatter?
Will it work for the long haul?
Is it worth it?

If you got that promotion, go ahead and buy a Coach purse, but buy one that will go with your current wardrobe, and will still be beautiful next year. My friend has a Coach bag that she bought herself after getting her degree in 1998. She still carries around that camel colored tote, and still gets compliments all the time. She bought something luxurious, something obviously a brand name, but something that fit her lifestyle, fashion style and something that works in the 90’s as well as the new millennium. A few years ago I found a beautifully tailored black wool coat from Calvin Klein. I put it on and felt like a socialite. I felt elegant, tall and slim. It was at a discount store, but still out of my price range. It was the first item I ever put on layaway. When I made the final payment, I still adored the coat. Now a few years later, I still love the coat, it’s cut, it’s feel. To me, it was worth the money. I wear it and look expensive, but I am not shouting “This is a Calvin Klein coat from 2001!” I am whispering “I am wearing an expensive, well made garment and it is designer.”

Again, look in the magazines. Look at the spreads of celebrities at galas and fundraisers. Are they showing up in head to toe labels? Unless you’re Kimora Lee Simmons or Missy Elliott, the answer probably is no. The women who look polished, elegant, sexy and expensive do not flash their designer labels. They wear what is stylish, flattering and beautiful.

Don’t Believe Everything You Read. When a magazine totes a certain top or moisturizer as great, it’s not always because it’s great. Magazines receive free stuff all the time, and are encouraged in different ways to promote this stuff. These freebies end up in fashion spreads, articles about great new things for the season, or advice columns. Don’t take what one magazine says as gospel. It’s best to have something to compare it with. Don’t worship Vogue if you won’t also pick up In Style. Don’t read Lucky without W. By reading more magazines (even in the line at the grocery or at the pharmacy while waiting for a prescription) you get a more well-rounded view of what is hot, what is trendy, and what is utterly ridiculous.

Make it Age and Shape Appropriate. Anyone over 27 and a size 4 should not be wearing dress shorts. Mischa Barton and Nicole Ritchie and Lindsay Lohan are all wearing short creased shorts to red carpet events. Well good for them. Are you built like Lindsay Lohan? Are you the age of Mischa Barton? If you answered yes to both, God Speed and Good Luck. For the rest of us, STEER AWAY FROM THE SHORTS. Just because it’s hip, doesn’t mean to wear it. We don’t live in the era of cut and dry fashion. My mom speaks of circle skirts, piped charcoal blazers and cigarette pants while growing up. They weren’t flattering on her, but she wore them because EVERYONE wore them. That, and nothing else. Fashion has changed and has become more flexible and forgiving. If this season is all about olive green and you look terrible in olive green, then don’t wear it. If magazines are telling you that leggings are hot this season (which they are) but you are over 25, you’re over 105 lbs. and you wore in an office setting you shouldn’t pick up a pair your next trip to the mall. If the new look is nautical, that doesn’t mean you need to go buy a navy and white striped boat neck shirt to make your torso seem twice it’s size. Instead consider pieces that may be more appropriate. Crisp white trousers with a solid navy sweater. A navy blazer with gold buttons paired with a white shirt and vintage washed jeans. There are different ways to incorporate trends without looking like a fashion victim or worse… unflattering.

Make a List. So you like the polka dots featured in Bazaar. You like the new width of jeans seen in In Style. You love how navy is coming back into vogue on the pages of Vogue. Write these things down, or tear out pages from your glossy magazines and take them with you on your shopping excursions for inspiration. When you get overwhelmed in a sea of fabric at Lord and Taylor’s pull out your list. It will keep you centered and less overwhelmed.
And finally, See Fashion as Art. If you stop looking at fashion as the unobtainable, you’ll despise it. The majority of our country cannot afford a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes, a Prada dress, a Chanel suit. That’s okay. Just look at that Chanel suit or that Prada dress in the magazine’s fashion spread and try to figure out why they chose to display it. Is it the color? The cut? The fabric? What about makes it less insane (because much high fashion is totally insane and unwearable in normal society) and more beautiful? Take that one thing with you as you go shopping this season. If you try to see the beauty and detail in fashion, you will be more likely to buy what makes you look more beautiful when you wear it.