Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How to Shop for Free (or Close to It)

Not even half a month into the new year, I'm already sabotaging my efforts to slim down my shopping. I'm desperately trying to save money and replenish my non-existent savings account. But the pangs of shopping addiction continue to ache sharper than any substance addiction I know. I just can't seem to stop! Even being broke hasn't deterred me. I can make it work, I convince myself. Lower and slimmer are my mantras -- and they don't refer to waist measurements or numbers on a scale. I'm talking about going lower in price, lower than I ever thought possible. Slimmer bargains, let's trim all excess fat off those prices. Macy's sale a good buy? Not any more. DSW a safe harbor? Not without my coupons (well, maybe the back clearance section and only with a 40% off sticker). Even Marshall's is too high with those $199 Coach purses and $99 Cole Haan shoes. It's time to dig through the clearance bins at outlets, buy the unwanted on ebay, visit garage sales. How low can I go? That's the question I'm posing this year.

Surely, there must be ways to shop without the financial loss and heavy afterguilt. Staying awake one night this week, I mulled over the options. Desparate beyond desperation, yearning for new things but unable to find the financial resources, I reached into the depths of my creative imagination to uncover ever-novel ways of satisfying the urge to splurge. As I thought of one idea, another good idea popped into my head. I jotted down ideas after idea and found myself carving a whole new path into future shopping territory. By 2:00 in the morning, as my beloved blissfully snored away, I pored over 10 pages of notes I had written to myself (not on legal pads, mind you, just on my little bedside notepad) and felt at peace. Here was my plan to shop to my heart's content this year without the slighest pang of shame, and hopefully, with minimal financial expenditure. If you're in the same boat as I am, you can appreciate the magnitude of this breakthrough.

For your benefit -- and for mine -- I have written down my ideas. Here are 10 ways to shop for almost free:

1. Post an offer on Craigslist to barter goods or services for items on your wish list. Just make sure you let people know that you'll only perform legal goods and services. I've seen the barter section go awry...

2. Organize a clothes swap and invite your friends. Don't limit yourself to clothes. Include bags, accessories, costume jewelry, barely-worn shoes, etc. Remember -- one girl's trash is another girl's treasure. Plus, it will be an fun way to get the girls together for cocktails or brunch.

3. Go shopping in mom's and grandma's closets. Or your sister's, aunt's, cousin's. Or all of them. They will appreciate the unexpected visit, you can bond over bagels, and you could score some great finds. Vintage is so in -- think retro chic. You could even find modern goodies that go unused. And, you'll save them a trip to the charity drop.

4. Have a late nite eBay bidding session. Weeknights are prime time to win stuff. Did you know that a high incidence of web surfing actually goes on during daytime working hours? Shocking, I know, but not everyone can keep their nose to the grindstone. You know who you are. Anyway, browse after 10:00 p.m. and identify items that have 2-3 hours left to go with low reserves and no bids. Even better for those who live in the Mountain and Pacific time zones, because by 10:00 p.m. California time, it's 1:00 a.m. in the Big Apple and most die-hard shopaholics have called it a night -- at least on a Wednesday. Stalk your wanted merchandise and wait it out till the bitter end, or turn in after putting in a bid and check your luck the next morning. You could win that gorgeous BCBG coat you drooled over last season for a fraction of the price. Sure, you may be groggy the next day, but isn't that worth an almost-new half-price Marc Jacobs bag?

5. Sell items on eBay. From clothing to retro collectibles to office products to household items, there'a a market for everything on eBay. Get an early start on spring cleaning and set aside that metallic wallet you just couldn't leave at the outlet store last year, the fuschia python belt that screamed your name but has hung silently since, or the books you bought on clearance that will never be read. Been shopping in other people's closets? Gain more points! Take an extra load off their backs (and clear more space for their future acquisitions) by offering to take their items that could fetch a few pennies on ebay, even if they don't fit you or aren't your style. The nice thing to do is to give them the proceeds from the sale of their items, but if you tell them how broke you are, they'll probably feel guilty and let you keep all the dough. The more you sell, the more you can buy. Too busy to spend your weekends posting items for sale? Take them to an auction drop and let the pros do the work. Sure, you'll bite some of the revenue, but at least you'll convert unwanted items into cold hard cash. Some money is better than no money.

6. Visit the tailor. I'm willing to bet that there are at least 3 things sitting in your closet that you don't wear because they don't quite fit right. You bought them because they were at the end-of-season clearance, but they weren't exactly your size. Now they hang in the hinterland of your closet in danger of being sacrificed to charity. Not that there's anything wrong with charity -- I clean out my closet quarterly and donate religiously. But right now, you're the one in need. So get those pants hemmed. Shorten those jacket sleeves. Take in that dress. The same goes for shoes that have seen better days. It's a miracle what shoe repair shops can do to your woefully ailing, scuffed and worn out suede Jimmy Choos. While the repair marathon won't be free, it's surprisingly inexpensive, and it sure beats the heck out of paying for a new seasonal wardrobe. Plus, you'll feel good about not letting some otherwise excellent articles go to waste.

7. Pimp your low-riders. Take a clue from Missy Elliott, the queen of embellishing. She has her stylist detail her tracksuits, tennies, and jeans with ornamentations galore. Often the after-market bling costs more than the clothing itself. And she only wears each outfit once! Sometimes, the only thing that stands between you and a sassy new pair of flats is a shiny jeweled centerpiece. How about adding a contrasting grosgrain bow to a boring tee? Or, why not tie a bright scarf or satin ribbon around the middle of your blouse or loop it through your jeans? Kick up the glam factor of a basic black jacket or staid gray cardigan by replacing the buttons or cinching a chic leather belt around the waist. The only adornment I tend to despise is sequins. But aside from the latter, there are countless add-ons available for your designing pleasure. So perform surgery on your lackluster garments and you'll get double therapy: an outlet for your creative juices and a new piece to wear that is guaranteed to be unique.

8. Become a charity case. Hit Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Scour the thrift stores. But beware of many upscale resale establishments, as they often charge almost full retail prices for secondhand goods. Instead, make a beeline for thrift stores that serve the poor. Your good works will be twice rewarded: you'll find fabulous threads for phenomenal prices, and you'll support charitable organizations with much-needed cash.

9. Moonlight. It's not for everybody, but if the thought of clocking in an extra 10-15 hours a week doesn't make you break out in hives, it could help build a nice cushion of spending money that you can do anything you want with. Find the least miserable job that you can hold down or post an ad for your services. Like dogs? Offer dog walking for less than the major companies charge hourly. Biological clock ticking? Get your babyfuls by the dozen with babysitting gigs. Wash cars. Do people's taxes. Use your caligraphy or graphic design skills. There are endless possibilities for earning extra cash. Please, I beg you, don't sign up for telemarketing jobs or work-from-home scams. In this job market, you should have no problem finding a suitable retail or corporate position to supplement your income. Double brownie points for landing a job at your favorite store -- you'll earn extra dough plus take advantage of great discounts. If there's ever a season to disappear for one Saturday or a few nights a week, it's winter. You may be a social butterfly, but I assure you that your social calendar will suffer less when it's cold and your friends are couch potatoes than when spring and summer beckon everyone back out. A couple months of extra income could fetch you some fresh goodies, and you won't be paying them off 6 months from now. Think how giddy you'll be the first time you sit on your stunning leather sofa. The first time you unleash your charming new Chloe bag. Or the first time you sparkle in your real diamond earrings. All those days you spent getting paper cuts, folding underwear, picking up doggie doodoo, or addressing other people's wedding invitations will be worth it when you're the proud new owner of a 42-inch plasma screen TV or a hot-off-the-rack Burberry trench coat.

10. Buy now, pay later. No, I don't mean whip out your plastic and go to town. I mean take advantage of stores that still offer layaway plans. You'll be happy to know that many fantastic stores still do. Hit a Loehmann's 3-hour sale (by the way, the end-of-season fashion clearance will be Feb. 27-March 4) and can't leave that Tod's bag behind? Eye the cutest pair of Cole Haan kitten heels at TJ Maxx but don't get paid for another week? Spot that Prada jacket in your size (for once) at Filene's Basement but are all shopped out till next month's budget? That's what layaway was invented for! When you shop at discount stores, you know how fast merchandise can disappear. I've let many a Coach bag slip through my fingers because the designer merchandise is here today, gone tomorrow. You'll get paid in another week, and in 2 weeks again. So swipe those suckers off the shelf and proceed to the layaway counter where you can hold today, pay tomorrow. Plunk down a deposit and pay as much as you can per installment. Before you know it, you'll be sporting the coveted Nanette Lepore satin top and BCBG Maz azria gold python clutch that your friends are drooling over.

If all else fails, beg your significant other or parents for an early birthday present. Birthday not for another 11 months? Start doing more household chores and helping with tasks to rack up some goodwill points. Maybe you'll be able to cash them in for some goods on your list.

If you have more ideas on how to shop for almost no money, please send them to me. To paraphrase the late Mary Kay , if you have one idea and I have one idea, we each have one idea. But if we share our ideas, we'll each have two ideas. Make sense? Let's swap shopping ideas.

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