How To Save Money On Clothes

I may not be totally confident in my ability to put a stylish outfit together, but one area I feel very qualified in is scoring amazing deals at the mall. In fact, this little talent was the main reason I started blogging! Years of working in retail and as a secret shopper (mostly in college), coupled with crazy frugal tendencies has lead to me having quite a few tricks for making those dollars stretch. Today I'm sharing my Top 10 tips for saving money at retail stores* (think $14 cardigans at Banana! $15 silk shirts at Ann Taylor!). You can also watch me give these tips on TV here.

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. (Plus 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 come 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 when those seasons switch are the best two times to save money. These switches occur right after Christmas/New Years, and at the end of June. I often save my budget and spend more during that time to get more bang for my buck. On Black Friday you will see lots of promos, but during the seasonal switches you will see mark downs 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 where they get new merchandise in, and mark old items down, and so on. When new clothes go on the floor at full price, the old stuff is reduced (= great time to deals). A few weeks later, they start marking down the new stuff, with smaller discounts. (= great 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, they get ready for the next shipment and a lot of the store goes on sale (= another great time to get deals). 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 game. Stores will be 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 awhile and there are tons 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 really 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, that 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, then 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 that city. I shop for summer clothes in North Dakota, and you 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 loved in Boston are much cheaper, due to the lower cost of living in this state, so keep in mind where you are geographically.

9. Sign up for credit cards. We’ve all been harassed by well-meaning sales people 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 card-holders exclusive coupons, and even better, some send you rewards like $10 for every $200 you spend. Look into this option for the 1-2 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, and if you befriend a manager or store associate, they 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.

What are your tips and tricks for saving money at the mall?

*This post is specifically about saving money and getting the best prices at retail stores such as Gap, Banana, Limited, etc. It is not about saving money overall. For tips along those lines see this post.