Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.
Admit it, you love shopping for clothes. You love going to the mall and browsing the shelves for new skirts and shirts at stores like Gap, Banana Republic and Talbots. You spend evenings online, browsing the latest fashions. But you are not rolling in the dough. How can you buy a lot of clothes with just a little money?
Follow my top tips for saving money when shopping for clothes and learn how to maximize your purchases on a minimal budget.
1. Buy in store, not online
I wouldn’t take online shopping completely off the table, but I will say that prices are often much lower in retail stores than they are online. My theory on this is that stores don’t have the physical space to hold that many clothes so they are much more likely to score points whereas online stores use large warehouses and they are less rushed to lower prices. I do almost all of my shopping in-store, and often find the exact same pieces up to 70% cheaper in person. (And, you can try them.)
2. Use coupons and promotions
Before heading to the mall, I recommend taking a moment to collect coupons and bring them with you. My favorite method is to create a free email account and sign up for emails from your favorite retailers. Then check your inbox for coupons just before you go. You can also try coupon websites like RetailMeNot and CheapSally, or collect coupons through the mail and browse the pile before you leave home.
Do you always come back empty-handed? Do not hesitate to ask the store manager if there are promotions that day. I often find that they have discount codes that they are willing to share, and there is more wiggle room and bargaining potential than you might think. And if you qualify, don’t forget to ask for student and/or military discounts.
3. Pay attention to the schedule
Black Friday might be the perfect time to shop for electronics, but it’s not necessarily the best time to shop for clothes. There are two main seasons in retail, and it’s when those seasons change that there are the two best times to save money. These changes occur just after Christmas/New Year and at the end of June.
I often save my budget and spend more during this time to get more bang for my buck. On Black Friday you will see many promotions, but during seasonal changes you will see markdowns and promotions, which will result in prices up to 50% lower than Black Friday.
4. Determine the retail cycle
Beyond the two main retail seasons, stores have shorter retail cycles as they buy new merchandise and mark down old items. When new clothes are sold at full price, old clothes are reduced; this is the perfect time to find deals. A few weeks later, stores begin marking the new arrivals, with smaller discounts. Now is the time to buy the new arrival shirt you like on sale, so you don’t wait too long and miss it. A few weeks later, stores are gearing up for the next shipment and a lot of the merchandise goes on sale – another great time to get bargain deals.
How do you know where you are in the cycle? You just have to ask. Questions like, “When will your next set of markdowns be?” or “When does the new line arrive?” are both fair. Stores are happy to share this information with you. More general information such as the days TJ Maxx gets new merchandise or the day of the week that Gap does markdowns can also be a big help.
5. Predict future markdowns
Knowing how long an item has been in store can help you decide if it’s time to buy it. If a store just received the item, but there are only a few left, you probably won’t get a clearance price and a coupon or promotion is your best bet.
BUT if an item has been in the store for a while and there are plenty left, you can usually expect that item to be even lower. If you’re willing to take the risk, I recommend checking back in a week or two, and you’ll often find this item still 20-50% off.
6. Look outside the display
As a shopper on a budget, it can be easy to put on blinders and run to the back of the store and only look at the clearance section. But you actually want to look elsewhere for your best deals.
When retailers have tons of leftover items, they often place them together on a shelf, not mixed with other clearance items. So look for sale signs throughout the store, not just sales at the very back, as the items that are left over are usually the cheapest in the store.
7. Check multiple stores
If you find the deal of your life but it isn’t right for you, don’t give up. Find out if another store in your area carries the same item in your size. A short drive might be worth it, and some stores will even ship this item to you directly from a nearby store.
8. Recognize regional differences
I travel a lot and try to buy seasonal items that are less popular in the city I’m visiting. I buy summer clothes in North Dakota and can earn big on winter coats in Florida. It also means recognizing the cost of living. I find shopping in Florida at the same retailers I love in Boston is much cheaper, so keep in mind where you are geographically.
9. Sign up for credit cards
We’ve all been harassed by well-meaning salespeople to sign up for the store’s credit card. If you don’t shop there often, aren’t good with credit cards, or are working to improve your credit score, it’s best to say no. But if you’re spending a lot of money at that store and paying the balance in full every month (so you’re not paying very high interest rates), then it’s something to consider.
Stores often give cardholders exclusive coupons, and even better, some send you rewards, like $10 for every $200 spent. Look for this option for the one or two stores you like, for additional savings.
10. Make friends with a manager
Many high-end stores will put you on a mailing list for exclusive events and sales that are local to you. If you befriend a store manager or associate, they’ll be more than happy to keep tabs on an item for you and/or let you know when specific markdowns occur. Having a friend in the store can really help.
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