Lynne from BeingFrugal.net wrote an excellent guest post on Small Cents titled, “Frugality is a Frame of Mind.” She offers several stages of thinking that a frugal person should go through before making a purchase and defines frugality as “making the most efficient use of your resources for your priorities in life.” I love that definition because prioritizing your categories of spending can really help you make better decisions. Otherwise, you fall into the “I deserve it” mentality or think things like “but this $29.99 coffee pot is so much cheaper than the $5,000 version I saw in a magazine.”
Lynne suggests asking these two questions: “Where do I want to spend my money?” and “What’s the best value?” Here’s where Anthropologie and a few other upscale clothing boutiques pop to mind for me. If you’re not familiar with the store, it’s a clever amalgamation of various upscale brands with a “I just found this at a beautiful vintage store” ethos. Its sister store is Urban Outfitters for the “I love to shop at thrift stores” set. For most people, price points of $89, $129, and $189 seem ridiculous, especially when you can buy jeans at Old Navy for $14.99 or get six darling skirts for $5 a the local thrift store. However, it is one of my favorite places. I love the quality and the feeling that you’re getting something a little bit different when you shop there. Most pieces have an attention to detail that you just can’t find at J. Crew or Ann Taylor.
Now, I’ve run the entire gamut on clothes from sewing my own to making weekly hipster trips to the thrift store to Cinderella moments in Neiman Marcus. I know that there are lots of alternatives to expensive clothes. However, some of my “thrifty” choices have been stupid like all the fabric I bought to whip up clever cotton skirts for summer, especially since I never got around to sewing more than one halter top. Certainly some high-end purchases were quite dumb like the pink leather kate spade pumps I bought for New Year’s Eve. They cost more than my monthly car payment, I wore them exactly twice before my feet started aching, and I sold them on EBay at a loss. However, even middle-of-the-road choices haven’t always worked out, like a sensible suit from Loehmann’s for $59.99. After one year, the suit seemed tired and was too “outfit-ish” because I always wore it with the same white shirt. Boring! So, yes I know that you can spend basically any amount you want on clothing. Why do I choose to buy what many people consider overpriced clothes?
“Where do I Want to Spend My Money?”
I can’t help it. I love beautiful clothes. I love the feeling of wearing something has been carefully made from quality fabrics and stands out from the crowd. I have a couple of darling coats that make me feel special every day. In the middle of February in small-town Ohio, when I’m facing one gray day after another, that little moment for feeling nice as I put on a winter coat is well worth it. For me, clothes aren’t just about feeling special. Fashion is also an important language for women. A lovely outfit can signal to other women that you appreciate fashion, creativity, and style. On a practical level, clothes are great conversation starters. I’m not an extrovert by nature and “small talk” can be hard for me. The worst part is the opening line. What on earth do I say to a stranger to get us going? I’ve learned that a compliment on piece of clothing works wonders. There’s always a story behind it to talk about. And, it works the other way. When I’m wearing something fun, it opens the door for others to talk to me. Yesterday, I was out in the rain with my 1960s retro-bubble umbrella. When I got into a store, a woman asked me about it and told me all about how she used to love those when they were in style the first time. We had a lovely chat, and it made me smile to think about the days when umbrellas like mine were $2 at the local drugstore. So, there you have it, clothes are a priority for me. I certainly understand why they might not be for other folks, but they serve some very important functions in my life. When I’m able, I plan to spend part of my “fun” money on nice clothes.
“What’s the Best Value?”
As Lynne says, “being frugal isn’t just buying the cheapest product. It’s buying the best value for what you’re willing to spend.” Now, with clothing, we come to the very important cost-per-wearing calculus. Anytime I’m out shopping with friends, this formula comes out in the conversation. Basically, you take the price of the piece and divide it by how many times you think you’ll wear it. It helps you gauge when an item of clothing is really worth it or is just something trendy that you’ll wear once or twice. My kate spade shoes failed miserably because they came out to roughly $150 for each wearing. However, I have a denim skirt from Anthropologie that I bought five years ago. It’s knee-length, fits me really well, and has a darling little embroidery trim along the bottom. It’s stylish but not too trendy, goes with everything, and I can wear it year round. I usually wear it once every one to two weeks, and I bought it for $129. Lets say I wear it 30 times a year, so that’s 150 times over five years. The skirt is now down to less that $1 per wear and is still going strong! That’s a much better value than the brown pants I bought at Kohl’s a few months ago for $29.99: I wore them once, decided they were too flimsy and gave them away. So, a quality garment that fits certain criteria like fit, fashion-staying power, and versatility can really end up being the more frugal choice. Sometimes spending what seems like a lot of money can really pay off in the long run.
“What You’re Willing to Spend”
Now, for me, this is the tricky territory. The danger of the cost-per-wearing analysis is that it can easily misfire. In the store, you might think you’ll wear something forever, but when you get it home, you realize that you made a mistake. I had this happen with a Nanette Lepore suit. Or, you might think something is such a great price that you might as well just buy it. Then, when you get it home, it falls apart or looks cheap after wearing it once or twice, like my pants from Kohl’s. The other danger is that you use the calculation to justify something you can’t really afford. Certainly, I did this countless times in my 20s, and that has contributed to my current debts. Now that I’m saving money into my “fun” budget for clothes and travel, I have clearer limits on what I’m willing to spend. I can’t spend the credit line on my credit card, only what I have saved. That’s making me a more careful shopper. This spring, I usually would have already hit the stores for new spring clothes. However, I’m saving up to shop in San Francisco, so I’ve had to make do with what I have. From a wardrobe perspective, it’s been so cold that I couldn’t really wear spring clothes until this month. Now, I only have a few more weeks of classes, so last year’s spring work clothes will easily tide me over until my shopping trip. For me, being frugal is really about realizing my limits and making the best choices with those limitations.