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.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Singin' the Post-Holiday Blues (Shopping When Broke)

Post-holiday bank account giving you the blues? Join the club! I'm so broke, I feel guilty about buying excess household items at Target. Normally, I save big bucks by buying in bulk. A 15-roll pack of paper towels is usually priced cheaper than a 6-pack. But lately, I've had to scale down to economize. I have to think as I stand in front of the tissues, do we need a 3-box set now, or can I redivide the current tissue stock to replenish the box that just finished? Will the fabric softener last another 2 weeks until I get paid? I mean, the stupid Downey is ridiculously expensive these days, but I refuse to shop uneconomically and get the smaller bottle which costs more per ounce and won't last as long. Can the cat just eat tuna and will he eat the chili that we just made (probably not), or do I absolutely have to go out and get him a 12-can pack of cat food? You see that absurdity in which I now find myself.

Despite this depressing situation, I can't fathom the thought of not shopping for a whole month (or more!). Some people have a shopping habit. I have a fiendish shopping addiciton. I simply can't not shop. If I don't feed the monster, I might just claw some rude clerk's eyes out or run over someone who insists on crossing the road when my light is a clear shade of green and an armada of cars is speeding ahead. Or hunt down a telemarketer at dinnertime, break into his house, and hang him by his toes. Depriving my shopping habit isn't a good thing, not for me, and not for society. I get restless, I get grumpy, I get desperate, and people suffer. So it's rather untimely that I'm hit with a dangerously low checking balance just when all the winter sales are going on and spring fashions are starting to bloom. But I've twice now paid off all my credit cards, and I vowed never to buy anything on credit that wasn't an emergency again. And no, finding that the diamond-emblazoned watch of my dreams just went on sale for half-price isn't an emergency, as much as I would like it to be. Thus, I spent the first five days of the new year resolute to not shop until I had the money.

Needless to say, I almost went nuts. I tried experimenting with some new baking recipes. But whom are you going to stuff with indulgent food right after the dreadful holiday overeating? Particularly when your significant other insists on returning to phase 1 of the South Beach Diet (no carbs, no sugars, no nothing -- no kidding!). Baking went out the door, as did most of our bread and comfort food. Okay, maybe I should visit my mother. Still lounging on the beach in Florida. My uncle -- still skiing in Utah. My neighbor (the only one I know by name since I bought this house 2 years ago) -- in Mexico. Darn. It seems like everyone escapes during the first week of January. My hubby and I did take advantage of the extended tropical heat wave that appears to have found a new geographic home to take care of some home improvement projects. It rechanneled some of my energy. However, there's only so much home improvement you can do without spending significant money on new parts or supplies. And we've pretty much reached that threshold for the time being. Well, I guess there's always writing. I can always write about, uh, not shopping? In a blog about shopping, that's hardly exciting. How can I brag about scoring fab deals if I don't score anything? And besides, my brooding behavior was starting to concern by better half. So he let me out for a night.

So out I went. I would like to say with a foreboding feeling of doom, but actualy, it was more like unleashing a killer shark into a reef filled with little schools of fish. My, where to start? All the fish look so tasty.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
and be one traveller, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent into the undergrowth.

Then took the other as equally fair,
but having perhaps the better claim,
because it was grassy and wanted wear
but as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay in leaves no steps had trodden black.
Oh, I took the first for another day...

First, I hit the mall, which is packed with terrible temptations. What was I thinking? With all the Lord & Taylor coupons and Macy's sales, I couldn't not go crazy. Understanding the full risk before me, I expertly guided myself out through an auxiliary exit so I wouldn't have to walk through the rows of fashion that beckoned me at the department stores. Next, I hit DSW to try to use the two coupons that were burning a hole through my pocketbook. One never really has too many shoes. There's always a color I need, a style I lack. I'm happy to report that I didn't need to work hard to find deserving shoes to rescue with my coupons. With two worthy specimens, I made is safely home. Happy with my finds, I looked forward to an occasion to showcase my quilted chocolate BCBG ballerina flats ($50 with coupon) and my Nicole cognac bow-trimmed contrast-stiched ballet kitten heels ($40 with coupon). Not bad!

Oh, I took the first for another day,
but knowing how way leads onto way...

Shopping inevitably leads to a desire to do more shopping. Once you see something that you like, you start to get other ideas about what else you might like. Pretty soon, you just have to have it, and you can't imagine how your life will go on until you get it. Making up some poorly-constructed excuse about having to run some errands, I slipped out again, this time headed to the Talbots outlet. I had heard from my mother-in-law (the queen of cheap -- in a good way, of course) that the outlet was good source of cheap finds. After circling around the confusing Springfield Interchange trying to find the entrance to the obscure strip mall, I finally stumbled into the correct parking lot.

Now, Talbots has a paltry selection of clothing to offfer a girl of my tastes (youthful, sophisticated, and well-fitted). I don't know why, but every article of clothing I've bought from Talbots just can't seem to hug my body in the right way -- either the pants are too baggy in the leg and too narrow in the waist and ankles, or the button-down shirts hang too low and drapery-like past my ribcage. The gorgeous silk dresses look like sackcloths on my hourglass figure, choosing to bulge in the midsection and squeeze the upper and lower sections like a bloated watermelon. This includes the petite sizes, which are not cut for any petites I know. Even the t-shirts are shaped like squares rather than curving to conform to certain areas that women prefer to accentuate (i.e. cleavage), instead highlighting the not-so-sexy stomach.

But the accessories -- ah, those are a different story. I ogle the catalogs when each season's shoes come out. Sumptuous suedes in ripe colors, rich leathers in supple yet sharp designs, all the right embellishments without too much silly or grungy stuff. Of course, I wait for the sales. I mean, who wants to buy $98 jeweled croc slingbacks when you can buy them 4-6 weeks later for $60, or 12 weeks later for $39? Well let me tell you, the Talbots outlet is a shoe lover's dream! Shelves and shelves of shoes sorted by size, all out of their boxes and stacked on display. The prices are from heaven. Those $49 croc slingbacks? Take an additional 30% off. Those juicy sherbert colored ballet slippers that finally made it down to $39? Slash an extra 40% off of those. But wait, there's more: a clearance section which holds unwanted and "as-is" shoes for 50-70% off. I totally hit the jackpot! Snatching up 2 pairs in the "as is" section and a pair in the "past season" section (but soon to be back in season?), I took home the coveted jeweled croc slingbacks, baby pink dress skimmers (which I'm sure will be perfect for spring), and suede bow-trimmed ballet flats in a mouthwatering shade of coral. My total for the day's efforts? $29 for the slingbacks, $8 for the pink skimmers, and a whopping $4.75 for the coral ballet flats. Score 3-Penny Princess! And kudos to my mother-in-law for the tip.

As luck would have it, the temperature rose an unexpected 25 degrees, ushering in a widespread hope for an early spring. I had the perfect opportunity to test one of my new prizes during an impromtu social get-together. Maybe I'll take the baby pink skimmers out for a spin. After a few attempts to squeeze into the supple leather flats, I was faced with an unpalatable truth -- the shoes, being AA width, were much too narrow for my chunky toes. I felt like Cinderalla's stepsister trying to squeeze into the delicate glass slipper. Ouch! They were going to need professional stretching if they were ever going to encase my feet. What a pity! I was feeling really pink that day and was hoping to kill two birds with one stone by parading my new pink silk Italian scarf. No such luck.

Instead, I opted for the coral ballet slippers and hastily changed my top to play up the fresh shade. Perfect! Comfortable, stylish, and spring-like, I skipped out to my lunch gathering. The shoes were a hit! They really perked up my outfit, not to mention my mood. A few hours later, however, as the sun started to fall (it was still January, after all), I noticed a small problem. One of the ballet slippers was a slightly different shade than the other. It hadn't been noticeable in the softly dimmed glow of my bedroom, nor the generic flourescent lighting at the outlet store. But now, in the unforgiving final hours of outdoor daylight, it was undeniable. No wonder the shoes cost only $4.75! Darn that flourescent lighting. Oh well, I'm keeping the shoes anyway, at least to run errands in.

But I learned my lesson. If you're going to buy shoes for $8 and $4.75, be ready to do a little surgery on them. The pink dress skimmers may never fit me at an AA narrow width, even with stretching. And I don't know where I can buy coral colored shoe dye to correct the mismatched suede ballet slippers, so they may have to remain house slippers or quick-errand shoes only. Be careful when buying outlet shoes, as some are non-returnable. Thankfully, Talbots has an outstanding return policy -- you can return any item to any store for any length of time. You can even return merchandise purchased at the outlet to a regular retail store. So for now, I'm keeping the pink skimmers. But if they don't stretch with the Chinese torture device I've fitten them into, I'm definitely taking them back!