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 racks of new skirts and shirts at stores like Gap, Banana Republic, and Talbots. You spend evenings online, browsing the latest fashions. But you’re not rolling in dough. How can you buy a lot of clothes with just a little money?
Follow my top tips for saving money while shopping for clothes and learn how to maximize your shopping on a minimal budget.
1. Shop in-store, not online
I wouldn’t take online shopping completely off the table, but I will say that prices are often a lot lower in retail stores than they are online. My theory for this is that stores don’t have the physical space to hold as many clothes, so they are much more likely to mark things down, whereas online stores use big warehouses and they are in less of a hurry to cut prices. I do almost all of my shopping in stores, and I often find the exact same pieces for up to 70% less in person. (And, you get to try them on.)
2. Use coupons and promos
Before you head to the mall, I recommend taking a moment to gather coupons and bring them with you. My favorite way is to set up a free email account and sign up for emails from your favorite retailers. Then, check your inbox for coupons right before you leave. You can also try coupon websites like RetailMeNot and CheapSally, or collect coupons via snail mail and go through the stack before you leave the house.
Still coming up empty-handed? Don’t be shy about asking the store manager if there are promos going on that day. I often find they have coupon codes they are willing to share, and there’s more wiggle room and potential for negotiating than you may think. And if you qualify, don’t forget to ask for student and/or military discounts.
3. Pay attention to the calendar
Black Friday might be a great time to shop for electronics, but it’s not necessarily the best time for clothes. There are two main seasons in retail, and it’s when those seasons change that are the best two times to save money. These switches occur right after Christmas/New Year’s, and at the end of June.
I often save my budget and spend more during that time to get more bang for my bucks. On Black Friday you will see lots of promos, but during the seasonal switches, you will see markdowns and promos, resulting in prices that are up to 50% less than they were on Black Friday.
4. Determine the retail cycle
Beyond the two major retail seasons, stores have smaller retail cycles when they get new merchandise and mark old items down. When new clothes go on the floor at full price, the old stuff is reduced; that’s a great time to find deals. A few weeks later, stores start marking down the new stuff, with smaller discounts. Now is the time to buy the new arrival shirt you love on promo, so you don’t wait too long and miss it. A few weeks later, stores get ready for the next shipment and a lot of the merchandise goes on sale — another great time to get deals on bargain finds.
How to find out where you are in the cycle? Just ask. Questions like: “When is your next round of markdowns?” or “When is the new line coming in?” are both fair game. Stores are happy to share this information with you. More general info such as what days TJ Maxx gets in new merchandise, or what day of the week Gap does markdowns, can also be a big help.
5. Predict future markdowns
Finding out how long an item has been in the store can help you decide if now is a good time to buy it. If a store just got the item, but only a few are left, then you probably won’t get a clearance price and a coupon or promo is your best bet.
BUT if an item has been in the store for a while and there are many left, then you can usually count on that item being marked down even lower. If you are willing to risk it, I recommend coming back in a week or two, and you will often find that that item is marked down another 20%-50%.
6. Look outside the sale rack
As a budget shopper, it can be easy to put on blinders and race 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 one item left, they will often put them on a rack together, not mixed in with other clearance items. So look for sale signs throughout the store, and not just clearance in the very back, because those items with many left are usually the cheapest items in the store.
7. Check multiple stores
If you find the deal of a lifetime but it doesn’t fit, don’t give up. Find out if another store in your area has that same item in your size. A short drive could be worth it, and some stores will even ship that item to your house directly from a nearby store.
8. Acknowledge regional differences
I travel a lot, and I try to buy seasonal items that are less popular in the city I’m visiting. I shop for summer clothes in North Dakota and can score big on winter coats in Florida. This also means acknowledging the cost of living. I find that 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 credit card. If you don’t shop there often, are not good with credit cards or are working on improving your credit score, then it’s best to say no. But if you spend a lot of money at that store and pay off the balance in full each month (so you’re not paying super-high interest rates), then it is something to consider.
Stores often give cardholders exclusive coupons, and even better, some send you rewards, such as $10 for every $200 you spend. Look into this option for the one or two stores you love, for additional savings.
10. Make friends with a manager
Many higher-end stores will put you on an email list for exclusive events and sales that are local to you. If you befriend a manager or store associate, they are more than happy to keep an eye on an item for you and/or let you know when specific markdowns are happening. Having a friend in the store can really help.
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