Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Mama Told Me ...

In honor of Mothers Day, I feel I should dedicate this space to the fundamental guiding principle that my mother instilled in me. Sure, she taught me and my sister to be fair and kind to others. She taught us to express ourselves and honor our intelligence. But above all else, throughout our whole lives, she has drilled one core commandment into our very beings: Whatever you do, wherever you go, no matter how successful you are, never, ever, EVER pay full retail.

I began my professional life in the mean streets … er, indoor sidewalks of a suburban mall. I worked in several different clothing stores, including a mid-level menswear outlet where I learned one of the basic rules of retail: everything is made in the same place with the same stuff, they just put different labels on it. Now, this isn’t true in all cases – there are definitely variations in fabric quality among different retail tiers, for example – but it’s a good basis for determining what something is really worth. And what I’ve come up with, ultimately, is that 99% of clothes should fall into one of the following categories: “Under $5,” “Under $10,” “Under $15,” or “I might pay around $25.”

This isn’t what the tags say, of course, but I am no respecter of tags. I scoff at tags. Sometimes outright, like if I walk into Old Navy and a knit shirt says it’s $24.50. Ha! That is a solid Under $10 item, and on a good day, Under $5. Which is why you won’t ever see me looking on the main display tables or front-of-store shelves at any store. When I walk into a clothing store, I head directly to the clearance rack in the back.

Actually walking into a store is rare for me, though. Most of my shopping is done online. This can be overwhelming, considering the number of possibilities out there in the inter-ether, but I prefer to keep my focus on a small handful of my favorites. I sign up for their email newsletters, which notify me of specials and events. And then I wait. Every retailer works in a sales cycle, and it can take a couple months to get the hang of when the best prices are available. So when I see a “30% off new items” deal from Ann Taylor Loft, I don’t get excited, because I know in a month that stuff will be on sale for 30% off, and then I’ll get the “40% off all sale prices” notice two weeks later.

It’s definitely a shopping method that takes patience and does not satisfy the urge for instant gratification. Instead, my payoff comes from saving myself a big pay-out. I love adding up the original marked prices of what I buy and then subtracting my actual cost. I hold myself to at least a 50%-off standard, but can sometimes get more than 80% off retail.

What separates me from the slightly-disturbing ranks of Extreme Couponers is that I only buy what I really like and I never buy-to-save. I resist the temptation of “$25 off when you spend $100,” because that’s still a pretty weak discount. I’ve also had to get used to missing out on things because they’re out of stock before the best deals come around. It’s a sort of Zen exercise. Except for, you know, the total materialism part of it. But all in all, I have a constantly rotating closet full of clothes on a budget of less than $300 a year. And although that doesn’t overshadow my kids or job or hard-earned education, it sure does make my mama proud.

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