It was probably somewhere around child No. 3 that I stopped caring. Jeans and pullover tops turned into my comfy daily uniform.
When my husband commented one day that I was dressing like an 80-year-old – a valid point since most of my clothes at that time were gifts from my elderly mom and aunt – I decided I had taken the casual look a little too far.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that clothes tend to fall into two categories: cheap in every sense of the word and shockingly expensive.
Following are some strategies that will make you look like a million bucks without scorching your budget.
1. Buy used … really
Before you turn up your nose at thrift shops and garage sales, know there are plenty of nearly new items just waiting to be snatched up for a fraction of the retail price. My local thrift store practically gives away its clothes, and there are some nice brand-name items to be found for those willing to search the racks.
2. Go to consignment stores — in person or online
If you’d rather not go on the thrift store treasure hunt, find a consignment shop catering to your clothing style. You can save even more by taking your unwanted clothes to the consignment shop and selling them there.
And now, as with most everything, there are online versions of consignment stores where you can get a vast array of choices and offload your past treasures. The RealReal, for instance, specializes in “authenticated” luxury goods. It’s not cheap, but it’s also far from full price on these designer items. Harper’s Bazaar ranks other fashion consignment sites along these lines, and explains how each one works. Swap.com, by contrast, is a consignment site with more mainstream and affordable clothing, as well as sporting goods, kids clothes, maternity items and so on.
3. Check out Craigslist
If you’re in the market for some high-end accessories or accents at a somewhat more reasonable prices, check out Craigslist offerings in your area. A quick search of the “clothing+acc” listings of the site in my area for instance, turns up several handsome designer bags for sale — including a Kate Spade New York handbag ($100), a Dooney & Bourke “hobo” style leather bag ($175), and a Coach Signature “wristlet” with sales tags still attached ($65) — as well as Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses ($40), a men’s wool sweater from Barney’s New York ($100), to name a few items. A friend of mine recently purchased a beautiful Filson wool coat off of Craigslist — paying $75 for the used (but virtually indestructible) item, which goes for more than $400 new.
4. Hold out for the sale
If you don’t want to go the used-clothes route, at least do yourself a favor and never buy retail. Some of the high-end designer boutiques won’t run traditional sales. However, virtually all the mainstream clothing stores do and many regularly discount products by up to 50 percent off.
Certain items tend to go on sale during specific months. Or, if you can hold out until the holiday shopping season, you can often find retailers that discount their entire stock by up to 50 percent.
5. Buy out of season
Even better than buying on sale is buying clearance items out of season. Summer clearance usually hits its peak around July as stores try to make way for fall fashions. October is when to look for the start of fall markdowns, while January can be prime time to pick up winter items. By April, many spring outfits will be moved to the clearance racks.
Clearance pricing is often progressive. Stores may start by dropping the prices 20 or 30 percent and slowly increasing the discount until it hits 70 percent or more. For the best selection, you’ll want to shop the clearance sales early. But if you’re not too particular or if you wear a less popular size that doesn’t sell as fast, wait until the end of the sale to save the most money.
6. Search for a coupon
You can make your own sale by finding a coupon to buy regular-priced items. Even better, combine a coupon with a sale for double savings.
Find coupons in your local newspaper inserts or sign up for your favorite store’s mailing list to have them sent directly to you. Many stores are increasingly offering discounts for signing up for text alerts as well.
For online shopping, search for coupon codes or other promo offers before making a purchase.
7. Go to a sample sale
If you live in the big city and covet high-end clothes, try your hand shopping a designer sample sale. Often held in a warehouse or similar location, sample sales are how designers unload excess merchandise. Sales may be advertised locally, or you can head to websites like Racked.com or TopButton.com to find them in major U.S. cities.
While sample sales can be a good way to pick up designer duds for less, not everything will be a deal. Research the brand for its regular prices before hitting the sale.
In addition, sample sales can be a different shopping experience from what you’ll find in a store. There may be no dressing rooms, but you’ll want to try on everything because these items may have been altered to fit models. Wear some form-fitting undergarments or a leotard you don’t mind the world seeing.
8. Follow online flash sale sites
Those who don’t live in the big city may never have the experience of stripping to their skivvies in a warehouse full of women during a sample sale, but they can get comparable savings at online flash sales.
However, like sample sales, you have to know your pricing because not everything is a deal. Plus most sales are final, so be sure you really want the item and have your sizing correct before ordering.
9. Shop the discount stores
Another way to get designer clothes for less is by shopping discount retailers like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. These stores buy excess inventory from manufacturers at a deep discount and then pass a portion of those savings on to customers.
You can find plenty of high-end brands, from Coach to Ralph Lauren. But inventory is constantly changing, so if you see something you love, better buy it now. The discounters work directly with the brands instead of liquidators, so you can feel confident you are getting the real deal.
10. Bookmark a few blogs
With so many sales circulating cyberspace and your local stores, it can be hard to keep tabs on all the deals. Rather than try to do it all yourself, let a blogger do the hard work. A number of blogs track fashion sales and post alerts when rock-bottom prices appear.
Here are some blogs worth bookmarking:
11. Choose quality over quantity
When I decided to update my wardrobe, I made the mistake of heading to the nearby superstore to browse the clothing section. The clothes were not the most modern fashions, but they looked OK and the price couldn’t be beat.
Unfortunately, the quality of the clothes matched the price. They didn’t wash well or hold up to repeated wearing, and left me feeling as frumpy as the shirts my octogenarian aunt had gifted me.
Rather than buying on price alone, look for value. Shop for clothes that are constructed well, even if it means you pay a little more upfront. In the long run, you’ll spend less on one good-quality shirt you can wear over and over again than you would if you buy a half-dozen cheap ones that don’t last the season.
12. Host a clothing swap
Finally, paying nothing is the ultimate way to dress for less. If you have a group of friends with similar taste and sizing, organize a clothing swap. These events can be as simple as inviting two or three friends over for coffee and asking them to bring a few clothes. Or, they can be as involved as collecting clothes in advance and turning your home into a virtual store for a couple dozen friends and acquaintances to “shop.”
Oprah Magazine provides more details on how to set up a successful clothing swap.
How do you stay fashionable without breaking the bank? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
Kari Huus contributed to this report.