I'm planning to write a series of entries about this - first, the basics. Then individual entries on shoes, accessories, clothes, and finally, housewares/decor.
So how does a girl with a very modest salary have a closet full of designer shoes and clothes?
I'll tell you! (Because I know you're just DYING to know...)
The key to bargain hunting is about planning and strategizing to optimize your shopping time. I won't lie - a good trip out usually takes several hours, and visits to at least a few stores, so save it for a dull evening or a weekend. Take a buddy with you if possible - s/he will be able to tell you if those pants suck, and laugh with you over the ugly old lady shirts (or even uglier 80s throwback day-glo fingerless gloves). You'll also have someone to have a coffee with at Starbucks when you take a much-needed break.*
There are 5 basic words/phrases you should always have in your mind when out on the prowl:
4. REWARDS PROGRAM
5. CLEARANCE (it's definitely worth mentioning twice)
So, rule #1 - ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS hit the clearance racks/tables FIRST. This definitely does take time and patience, but let me give you some examples of the crazy deals I'm gotten by investing time in this. $350 Givenchy wedges? I got them for $60. $248 Ellen Fisher pencil skirt? I got it for $15. And $120 Ralph Lauren sweater? I got it for $5. And that was NOT from a second hand store (er, not that I'm dissing the Goodwills of the world - I got a Diane von Furstenberg suitcase at Goodwill last summer for $8, and it was in super good shape!).
Best places to hit the clearance racks (in my experience) - DSW, Stein Mart, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, Macy's, Target, Kohl's, JC Penney, Old Navy, and New York & Company. Honorable mention goes to QVC (see Rule #5 for online purchasing/shipping), Nordstrom Rack, and Saks Off 5th.
Rule #2 - BEFORE leaving your house for your excursion, check the web (and your junk mail pile, both in e-mail and your snail mail) for coupons. You can get some crazy good deals this way. For example, if you get a $25 off $75 coupon from New York & Company, and THEN hit the clearance rack, you can get A LOT for your $50. It all goes back to strategy. Some places will even send you coupons that are more like gift checks - you get $10 off with no spending limit. I get these from DSW all the time - you get $10 off any purchase, and you can just spend $10, and basically get a free pair of shoes, unlike my previous example where you have to hit $75 in order to get the savings.
Rule #3 - Sales are great, but proceed with caution, and be careful not to get carried away. When you are a seasoned bargain hunter, you know that certain stores (*coughcough* Target *coughcough*) usually put things on clearance after about a month. If you can be patient, that sweater that was marked down 30% will likely be down to 50 or 75% off within a few weeks. Sales are usually most effective when combining with coupons. Believe it or not, you can usually combine sales with coupons - just be sure to read the fine print. As much as it SUCKS, you really can get great deals on holiday weekend sales - especially at Kohl's and Macy's! Black Friday, Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Memorial Day weekends are all great times to hit the sale racks... if you can tolerate the madness.
Rule #4 - Sign up for any and all free rewards programs, because that will entitle you for special sales, extra coupons, and sometimes even cool things like birthday gift coupons! My favorite store, Anthropologie, is not exactly a recessionista's friend (well, at least not when it comes to apparel), but I do always treat myself to something from their sale table during my birthday month, because they send you a 15% coupon (I know it's not much, but hey - it covers the damned sales tax!). And DSW? A $5 gift check!
I will give this warning - do NOT sign up for a store credit card unless you are a) super duper uber responsible and/or b) know without a shadow of a doubt that you can pay off the whole thing by the next billing cycle. My sister is awesome at using her store credit cards to get even *better* deals (she was a math major in college, and can figure this crap out in her head in seconds), but I am way less confident than she is with this, and tend to avoid this particular method.
Rule #5 - When shopping online, always try to get free shipping! OR, combine orders with someone to split the shipping. If you're buying something from an online source, check to see if you can make a return to the store in person instead of shipping it back at your cost. If you can, sometimes you can get free shipping by hitting a spending amount (for example, I think Old Navy's's is $50), then return the cardigan you don't want at the store. You get the free shipping and that item you really wanted without breaking the bank on UPS. Or USPS. But as with sales, read the fine print first on the return policies! I try to reserve online shopping for stuff I absolutely MUST have (either because they are practical, or because I just can't imagine my life without it ;-)), and stick to in-store shopping as much as possible.
Rule #6 - Check the warehouse clubs (Costco and Sam's)! They don't usually have clearance (but always check!), but you can get cheap basics - I've gotten 3 Calvin Klein tanks for $15, Kate Spade sunglasses for $35, and a London Fog trench in cherry red for $35! My sister has gotten Nine West jeans for under $20. Also, I ALWAYS get my glasses prescriptions filled at Costco because of their amazing designer frames selection - I got $400 Fendi frames for $99!
Added benefit to all this? It is a serious calorie burner! I once used an exercise calorie burning calculator that estimated a 4 hour shopping trip burned about 750 calories. AWESOME.
*As a bonus, I'll throw in my Starbucks money-saving tip! Instead of getting a flavored frou-frou latte/mocha/macchiato, get a regular coffee (hot or iced) with a flavor shot, and add plenty of milk or half & half. The savings add up, believe it or not! Also a breakfast sandwich from the Bucks is a cheap alternative to a bigger lunch out.
So... where have you found your best bargains?!