I’m not a person who thinks a lot about clothes, or, more accurately, I am not a person who enjoys shopping for clothes. I meet the change of the seasons with a certain dread, knowing that my wardrobe for the next few months is probably not up to snuff.
I was not a teenager who spent free time at the mall, even when I had a car. I fumed and whined every time I’d be pulled along on a shopping expedition with my mom, who treats shopping as a low-level sport. Not in a 5th Avenue kind of way—her aim is to look great without going on a spending spree.
As much as I hate shopping, I still want to look like an adult who knows how to dress herself when I leave the house. Despite all my teenage moaning and foot-dragging, my mom still managed to teach me everything I know about buying clothes without spending too much money.
Shop early and often (but don’t feel the need to buy anything)
Nothing brings out the tyranny of choice for me than a mall. Malls make me dizzy, and after an extended period of time facing store after store blasting house music, I end up with a headache. I’ll decide everything looks too similar or boring in one store, and then go into another store and decide everything is too weird, or ugly, or not boring enough.
This situation has played itself out several times—especially when I need new clothes, but have no idea which items to buy. (Or when I waited until Dec. 20 to shop for Christmas gifts at Macy’s in New York’s Herald Square, because that’s what panic does to you.)
My memory may be exaggerated, but on average, my mom would go to the mall/some store once a week when I was a kid. She would browse or look across specific sections, but most of the time, she wouldn’t buy anything.
But she was on sales like a hawk. She’d see something on the 30 percent off rack, but not be quite sure about it. She’d come back the following week, and it might be on marked down further to 50 percent off and: sold.
I would never spend that much time shopping, but the principle stands: If you put all your shopping eggs into one shopping basket, you will lose out on deals. I don’t always avoid doing this, but when I do, it looks more like this: Either I have a very specific plan, or I dip in randomly when I have a limited but reasonable amount of time (say an hour).
Several months ago, I needed a semi-formal dress that I could buy with $75 to wear at a banquet, and summer weddings. I had three hours, and a specific list of places to go to: Marshall’s, my go-to consignment store, and a boutique located between the two other locations. I found a shiny purple dress in Marshall’s for $50. Done. If my boyfriend is getting his haircut, I’ll decide to kill time by walking to a store nearby and look at what’s on discount. Oftentimes, I’ll find nothing. Walking out without spending money feels like its own accomplishment. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted time—I’ve saved my money to spend on things I actually want.
Buy quality (except when you don’t)
It’s 1999, I’m trying to find some shirts at Express. Mom is wandering around the store, pulling up random things, and asking if I like any of them. I almost always don’t—but when I end up pulling something off the rack, she grimaces.
“This isn’t very good quality,” she says.
This was my mom’s shopping refrain whenever we’d go out together. Good quality meant clothes lasted longer, and overall, we spent less money. With the hindsight of time, and a few items she’d managed to keep in good condition since the ’80s, mom was thinking of the long haul. I was 13. There was no long haul for me—I wanted a sparkly-but-not-too-sparkly tank top.
When you’re 13, it’s hard to pick out few nice pieces for the next decade, so my mom compromised. Now, with enough money to buy a professional wardrobe, I try to spend money on stuff I won’t wear out in one season, but occasionally go for the cheaper items.
Try on stuff you normally wouldn’t (then wear it at the first opportunity)
The single best thing my mom has ever done for my shopping routine is to emphasize that I try something on that I initially cringe at. More often than not, my initial thought was right, but I’ve ended up with some of my favorite pieces this way.
But the awkward mental association of “thing I didn’t like” is still there for me, unless I break it, fast.
“Don’t you want to save that to wear for a special occasion?” is another one of my mom’s sayings, but I almost never do, unless it’s a nice dress I bought, for, yes, a special occasion. Putting the item in my regular rotation means it’ll be less likely to linger in the back of the closet. Mom would often buy something, and then wait for some unspecified special time to unveil it. That’s changing for her now, and I’d like to think I had a little something to do with it.
No one ever looks at your shoes, unless you make them look at your shoes
There’s a picture of me playing dress up at three years old, wearing classic, comically- oversized black heels. It’s hard to pay attention to anything else in the photo, and I’m pretty sure that’s how my mom feels about how important shoes are to an outfit.
The pair of heels I keep under my desk are one of the few heels I’ve ever felt comfortable wearing for long periods of time, and the color, a burgandy-ish red, goes well with almost everything I wear.
I paid $50 for them, and I’ve worn them for at least four years. But now they’re cracking and showing white lines underneath the red patina.
If mom saw the state of those shoes, she’d drive the hour and half from her house with a pair of her own to replace them (we still wear the same shoe size), but I’ve never gotten more compliments. Either everybody in my office’s vision is going (possible) or, as one person told me after I sheepishly mentioned the cracks, “they have character.”
That’s what I’ve realized style without spending gobs of money is: looking for character. It’s something that you’ll wear into the ground, but then replace without feeling guilty about the price. It’s not panicking and buying the first shirt you sort of like. Finding that special piece requires a bit of time and work. My mom taught me that.
When I visit my parents, mom regularly has items she’s seen on her (now less often) shopping trips that she thinks I might like, or shoes that she bought for herself and then decided against. Sometimes, I like them, sometimes I don’t.
“Remember we can always return it.” That’s my mom’s ultimate shopping adage.