shopping nitty-gritty

I’ve always assumed that there are two ways to shop: my list-and-research intensive way and the “no questions asked” way.  By “no questions asked” I mean she wants something; she runs to the store; she buys it, not really caring what it costs.  I assumed that, by contrast, everyone watching their budget did another set of things (the same things I do) but now I don’t think that anymore.  I’ve had a couple recent conversations with friends I consider to be good shoppers, by which I mean they dress stylishly without breaking the bank.  But their habits are different from mine and each other’s.  So I thought I’d share my strategies with you, then hopefully you’ll share yours with me!



Hold onto your hats, ladies; you are about to think I am certifiably insane.  I have a list of all the items I own, organized by color.  A few weeks ago I printed it out in the tiniest font I can read (6 or 8 pt, I think) and attached each color’s list to the back of its paint chip in my little wardrobe-at-a-glance guide.

color swatches color swatches with clothing inventory

So, for example, when I was in the dressing room debating the wisdom of purchasing these navy blue shorts with little white dots…

navy short shorts

…I flicked through my paint chip guide and read from the back that I had: an embellished olive tee, a spruce green tee, a gray tee, an emerald sweater, a mustard tank, a mustard shell, a mustard sweater, a red-and-white striped tee, a hot pink/red tee, a beige tee, and a beige-and-white striped tee that I could pair with these new bottoms.  So, yes!  Shorts, come home with me.

I know making a list like that sounds nuts.  It took me a couple hours, and I admit I felt kind of stupid sitting on the edge of the bed furiously scribbling down the name of every clothing and accessory item I own.*  Stupid partly because before I could scribble down the name I had to come up with a name–one good enough that, from a far-off dressing room where I’d have to imagine the item paired with potential purchases, I could remember salient details, like the fact that the gray blazer only has 3/4 sleeves.  This desire for specificity led to labels like “empire waist scoop neck knee length racerback tank dress.”  Here’s a picture of that one.  Looks a lot simpler than it sounds, huh?

black dress with purple necklace

To help me focus, I decided that unless I find something outside the rules but mind-bogglingly perfect, my purchases for the foreseeable future will be in certain shades of the primary colors: true red, a dark pink-red I call “berry,” mustard yellow (in both its greenish and brownish varieties), and navy; along with green (emerald and olive), and neutrals (black, gray, and ivory–I don’t like the way I look in white, wedding dress notwithstanding).  I discovered through trial and error that all these colors are ones I will wear.  I used to buy lots of royal blue, which is lovely and looks okay on me, but for whatever I reason I would not wear those pieces.  So, like a genius, I decided to quit buying them.

*I only included things others might see me wear, so pajamas etc. were not on the lists.  Neither was jewelry because it’s so easily mix-and-matchable.

Master List

There’s also a fashion Master List.  It includes everything I need to keep in mind as I make new purchases.  For example, I’m trying to stay really focused with new purchases after years of using “the more the merrier” as my wardrobe philosophy.  (And “the cheaper, the better” as my runner-up philosophy.)

donation pile

The Master List expands upon the basic color guide, specifying things like which patterns I like/am looking for: stripes and florals top the list while animal print is under cautious consideration.  This list also details the materials I prefer and the way I want clothes to fit–for example, cardigans must fall right at my hip and have some structure to them.  Cropped, boyfriend, and shapeless are out!

Along with each description of how something should fit, the Master List specifies pieces I am hunting for–so in the Pants category my list includes “olive pants” and “leggings,” since my current pair have sprung a couple holes.

At the end I’ve listed some upcoming things I need outfits for–summer weddings and trips, plus other activities, like working out, that I have really nasty clothes for and would like to have cuter ones that I actually want to wear.  Because if I have cute workout clothes I will finally exercise, right?  (Hahaha.)

Outfit Recipes

I love to cook, bake, and plan the perfect menu for company, and I approach getting dressed in a similar way.  Certain combinations of ingredients win every time, even if the ingredients are simple.  On my Outfit Recipes list, I’ve saved some ideas I return to time and again–and new ones that have inspired me.

I name all these too, so I can remember them later.  Here are a few:

trifecta—three solid colors together (I believe fashion bloggers prefer to call this “color blocking.” I think “trifecta” is a much cooler word.)

{trifecta} with berry, mustard, and emerald

double take—repeat one color against a neutral backdrop (belt & shoes; cardigan & jewelry; hat & shoes, etc.)  Here it’s more subtle than I intended but the “repeat” is cognac leather.  My shoes, belt, and cuff are all leather, and I meant to grab my leather bag but I forgot!

{double take} mustard scarf, striped shirt, and leather accents

-neutral + sweet & soft (taupe + blush, ivory + coral/floral)

-neutral + big & bright (gray + yellow, taupe + tangerine, ivory/pink + emerald green)

That’s all pretty general, but this list has an exacting side too.  (Are you surprised?!)  To help me a.) envision outfits from my current wardrobe b.) see which pieces I could add to get more mileage out of what I already have, I’ve copied the details from some blog posts like Tania’s “8 Outfits, 1 Very Small Suitcase.”  Here’s what that looks like:

With these pieces:
-striped top
-white top
-checkered top (tiny plaid)
-solid scarf
-printed scarf
She made these outfits:
-striped top+blazer+jeans+belt+scarf+boots
-solid top+cardi+jeans+scarf+boots
-striped top+skirt+tights+flats
-white top+skirt+belt+tights+boots(opt: blazer)
-checked top+cardi+jeans+flats

“Wardrobe From Scratch” List

If you’re tired of my list of lists, feel free to skip forward! There are three more (counting this one).  This one is thanks to Audrey from Putting Me Together, my newest fashion-blog love.  She’s in the midst of writing a complete “Wardrobe From Scratch” series and I’m following along as she releases new challenges.  So far, at her prompting, I’ve listed my daily activities and defined my style preferences with the help of a big pinning session (here).  The analysis is in this list.  If you like Audrey’s blog, be sure to read the “Building a Remixable Wardrobe” series too!

The NO List

This list cracks me up!  Sometimes I write things on it in self-disgust–as in, “Self, why, fortheloveofPete, would you buy anything made of denim that is not in the shape of a pair of jeans?  Don’t even think about it!  In fact, write it on the NO list!”

This list keeps me in check when the trends are getting a little out of control.  It reminds me that no matter what InStyle, Kendi, and Pinterest say, pastels only look good on other people and overalls are just never going to be a good idea.  Sometimes on shopping trips I am liable to forget these really obvious things.  Having gone through the motion of writing it down helps cement it in my brain.  No hi-lo hem lines! No vertical stripes–bad call!

The YES List

Okay, it’s obvious what this is.  Shawl collars!  Rounded-toe flats!  Belted natural waist!  Everything on this list is a winner, so I try to look for more of these things–or when looking for things, make sure they have more of these attributes.  I also include things like “outfits with contrast” (e.g. short, long—natural-waist maxi skirt with fitted top/short shorts with long sleeved shirt/skinnies with a tunic//shiny, rough—sequined top with cable cardigan & jeans).  Thus concludes the list of lists.  We now proceed to…


Is it just me, or do you also make a beeline for the clearance rack before you look at anything else?  In most stores the clearance is furthest from the door–smart cookies, those retailers–but I always head there first if I’m shopping alone.  If I don’t like the prices there, the rest of the store is going to be a waste of my time.

I do this online too.  I always sort a search from lowest priced to highest priced.  This is not to be confused with lowest discount to highest discount, which some sites have–80% off an expensive item may still turn out to be a higher price than 50% off a less expensive item.  I’ll look through page after page of results until the price point becomes one I am unwilling to pay.  Then I haven’t wasted any time looking at, or falling forlornly in love with, items I can’t afford right now.  Which leads to…


I’m curious to know if anyone else has “magic numbers.”  I realize this is a really personal thing and it is not my intent to pry.  I just think we all come at this a little differently based on how we were raised, what our income is, and where and how often we shop.  I have mental limits for how much I will usually spend on certain items.  There are exceptions, but they’re rare.

$10 or less:

all tops including sweaters. To me these seem a dime a dozen.  Plus they’re easy to change out as trends come and go.  The same jeans can hold me for five years, but I’ll probably go through dozens of tops in that time so I don’t want to really invest in them.

scarves. They’re fun to have and they’re a great warm layer, but I just don’t see myself ever dropping the big bucks for a scarf.  I’ve found several pashminas (huge and soft!) for $6-$7 at a local consignment shop.  They make pretty table runners too, FYI.

bags. I always get bags at the thrift store because I switch a lot. I don’t need to find one purrfect investment bag because I’m not going to use and abuse it hard enough to justify the splurge. A little secondhand Talbots is fine with me.

jewelry. I love having lots of bright jewelry to make a plain outfit interesting, but I never want anything precious that would make me really sad to lose or damage. If I’m that attached to an object I’ve invested too much into it. My favorite pieces right now are bangles I got on clearance from Ten Thousand Villages.

$20 to $30:

all pants. My favorite jeans I bought new are a.n.a skinnies from J.C. Penney. I paid $20.

a.n.a. skinny jeans

My favorite jeans I bought secondhand are CK jeans from a local thrift store. I paid $5.  It just takes patience.

dresses. I used to nanny so I bought about 20 dresses because they were easy, breezy, and well…not always that beautiful.  Some of them were truly regrettable little numbers, especially the one that snapped a strap while I was pushing the wee one on a swing at the park.  Now I demand a little more from my dresses.  They have to go with a few things–a cardigan, a blazer, a pair of tights, and flats, plus either boots or heels–no more one-outfit wonders.  And when I look at how sundress straps are secured, I now look for metal rings and double-stitching.

$20 to $60:

shoes. I will spend more money for a pair of shoes than for anything else in my closet.  Being comfortable is worth it to me.  I look for padded insoles, rubber (or other non-slip) outsoles, genuine leather uppers, and pleasing aesthetics.  This is a rare combo, which is why I buy shoes much more carefully than I used to.  My old pattern was to grab whatever was cute at Payless or Target, preferably for $20 or less.  Now not so much…but I have found shoes for $30 when they were originally $100, so I know waiting pays off.  I just never know when it will.


Part of my long hunting process involves looking online before I go to a store.  I like to touch things and try them on, and I’ve never been a sucker for the free shipping myth.  (It is a myth, believe me, much as I love Zappos.  They’re great fun, but you have to know what the item sells for elsewhere and make sure you aren’t paying extra for “free” shipping.)  I will do site-to-store shipping, though.  And I’ll pay shipping for something I really want that I don’t think I can find in a store.  For example, Sierra Trading Post is one of my favorite places to find shoes.  (The first I bought and sent back because the heel zipper dug in; the second I bought and love…and I paid much less than they are currently listed for.)

earth-paprika-sandal{SierraTradingPost} pajar-ice-boots{SierraTradingPost}

Online I check what colors are currently “in.”  Sometimes I look at a store’s website and see all pastels or all neons–for example, Target will often have a great deal on basic tee shirts but every single color option is one I know will look terrible on me.  They haven’t seemed to carry the “true” colors in a while.

Target teesIf that’s what I see, I won’t spend time in that store.  On the other hand, if I see something that interests me, I’ll note the online price and maybe experimentally add the item to my cart and proceed to checkout to find out the shipping price.  That’s the price to beat if I can.

In the store, if the item meets my expectations, I’ll look at its price.  Sometimes there are online specials that beat the store price even with shipping factored in.  Other times my local store is having a sale that doesn’t apply online–for example, a dress I looked at on Old Navy’s web site a couple weeks ago was “on sale” online for $27–plus shipping.  In the store the same dress was $25–no shipping.  (Duh; I know; I was just making a point.)

If I decide to buy online, I should always check Retail Me Not before I check out.  I say “should” because I sometimes forget.  Shame on me.  I recently missed out on a 30% discount at Sierra Trading Post because I clicked “Place Order” about five seconds before my Smart Shopper Alarm went, “BLOO!!!*BLOO!!!*BLOO!!!”

Oh well; I win some, I lose some.  I tried to just tell myself I was happy with the price, which is why I was ordering in the first place, but a miserable little part of me is still in the corner chanting, “But you could have been happier with the price!”

My last secret to shopping sanity is not getting too attached.  Sometimes they don’t have it in my size.  Or my color.  Sometimes I look at it in the morning, think about it during the afternoon, and go to order it in the evening but it’s sold out in stores and permanently out of stock online.

sold out

That’s just the way it is.  There will be another one someday.  Maybe a better one.  And I can keep my mind off of it in the meantime by, I don’t know, making another list?

How about you?  What are your tried-and-true strategies for finding a deal?  And how do you decide when a cheap item is a bargain versus a waste of money, or when an expensive item is an investment piece versus…well, you know, a waste of money?

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  1. Janene

     /  April 23, 2013

    I like this post for so many reasons! 🙂


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