Bargain or Bust?

My husband, Mr. Frump, is a fan of the five-dollar shirt.  He’s made a few lucky finds over the years, so now he thinks that all shirts should cost five dollars.  When I try to suggest — ever so gently — that this may not be a realistic goal, he grumbles at me and walks away.

Yeah, he’ll pay more, if he has to, but he’ll always feel that he was cheated.  And, since he resists even trying shirts that cost more than $14, his shirt-buying opportunities are limited.  Fortunately for him, he receives some very nice shirts as gifts every year.  They cost one hell of a lot more than five dollars, but he doesn’t have to know about it, so all is good.

So I was understandably amused when his sister recently approached me and said, “You should do a blog post about four-dollar shirts!  I’m wearing one now!”  Apparently she had just made a major clearance rack score at Macy’s.  The best part is that she had no knowledge of her own brother’s five-dollar shirt fetish.  She got a great bargain; I got an adorable reminder of the (often unknown) resemblances that occur between siblings.

Now, me, that’s another story.  I don’t have a great history with five-dollar shirts.  Sure, I’ve picked up a few over the years.  My frugality has been noted for the record, and I’ve purchased many of my fashion staples on sale or second-hand from consignment stores.  But overall, percentage-wise, clearance racks are not my friends.

The problem is well-known by most women who’ve ever seriously thought about their purchases.  It has been well-documented in the Fashion Literature.  When we see those red clearance tags, all rational thought leaves the brain.  A primal impulse takes over — ooh, this was supposed to cost X, but I can get it for Y.  I’ve beaten the system!  I’m getting away with it!  I must leave the store quickly, before somebody figures it out and stops me!

Later, after the euphoria wears off, it’s just you, alone in your room with a shopping hangover and an item that may never be worn.  Maybe it doesn’t go with anything else you own.  Maybe it doesn’t fit that well.  Maybe it’s just not really “you.”  But at that price, you had to buy it, right?

Well, no.  No, you didn’t.  The idea is simple:  if you would not have been willing to buy it at full price, you don’t really love it, and you’re not going to wear it.

Now, of course, every rule has its exceptions.  And the exceptions to this one are pretty damn compelling.  Sometimes, when you’re paying sale price, you take risks that you otherwise wouldn’t.  Sometimes, this allows you to emerge from a fashion rut and move into rich and fulfilling new territory.  Sometimes, you stumble upon an item that is, as they once said on Seinfeld, “more you than you’ve ever been.”

It’s happened to me.  Some of my most treasured items were purchased on sale.  I never knew I needed a slim-fitting, stretch denim, just-below-the-knee tapered pencil skirt until I owned it.  I never would have bought it at full price.  Now, it goes with everything, and somehow makes everything else look better.  I also never thought I wanted a wool skirt, let alone a gray tweed one, until I saw it on sale for $20 at Ann Taylor.  Now, this perfectly-fitting, just-above-the-knee skirt is not only the most professional-looking thing I own — it is also surprisingly cute and fun and vibrant and youthful.   Who knew????

The question is, do these exceptional miracles make all those other wasted purchases worthwhile?  Well, that is between you and your God.   But when I look in the mirror and force myself to be honest, I have to admit that most of my clearance purchases are discarded after fewer than five wearings.

I immediately repress the memory of most of these mistakes, but I do recall a few.  There was the seemingly sophisticated long black dress pulled from a Gap clearance rack.  There was not one single setting or occasion for which this dress worked — the silhouette was too formal to be dressed down while the fabric and design were too casual to be dressed up.  It also fell off my shoulders and dragged on the ground. If it hadn’t been on sale, I might have realized these things.

Those red sale tags also blinded me to the defects of a jacket that I once took home.  It was sophisticated!  It was beautiful!  It had a lovely silver color that matched nothing and was completely wrong for my skin tone!  And how did I not notice that the sleeves hung practically to mid-hand?  Rather than throw good money after bad by visiting the tailor, I wisely donated this one.

Or how about the gorgeous dressy black skirt, purchased with great excitement from the Saks outlet, that sat in my closet for 6 years waiting for a black-tie occasion that never occurred?  Well, that one might have been worth it.  But you get my idea.

There have been many, many others, but fortunately I don’t remember them all.  About a month ago, I bought yet another item that I fear will go on this list eventually.  It’s a long-sleeved, unstructured jacket-or-maybe-shirt-or-I-don’t-know-exactly-what-you-call-it.  Very flowy, very pretty, beautiful subtle pattern in a green/gold color that I’m trying to get into my wardrobe.  $17, down from, oh, I don’t remember, but at least $40 maybe?   Here is a (very bad) picture:

I have NO idea what I’m going to wear it with.  The pattern is probably only going to play well with solids in very neutral colors.  It was probably meant to be a wrap over a simple cocktail dress, which I of course do not own or, more importantly, need to own.  It would look great with black slacks, probably, but I never wear those nor do I plan to.  Brown skirt and brown top, as seen at left?  Maybe.  All my other brown trousers, which have stripes or tweedy patterns?  Probably not.

Furthermore, the arms are very tight, in a not-very-breathable fabric, but they are also somewhat sheer.  So I’m thinking: if it’s warm enough for sheer fabrics, it’s too warm for those tight long sleeves.

But this piece does have a free, flowy vibe that I just love.  I’m really hopeful that it’s going to be one of those life-changing, wardrobe-expanding, “more you than you’ve ever been” items.    But if it isn’t….. at least it was on sale!

PS:   If you have any tips how to wear this…. jump on in.  Help me decide:  bargain?  or bust?


About Anne @ The Frump Factor

Reflections on beauty and style, for women who weren't born yesterday. Bring your sense of humor and "Fight the Frump" with me!
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16 Responses to Bargain or Bust?

  1. Liza says:

    Somehow I equate bargain shopping with buying groceries with a coupon…it’s only a deal if you were going to buy it anyway. So, if you needed a pair of black pants and you scored a great pair off the clearance wrack, it’s a victory. Otherwise, like you…I might rarely wear what I buy…so I try not to. Thank you for visiting Middle Passages.

  2. haha yea do this all the time! love finding those $5 bargains!!

  3. Gail says:

    I think you could try it with a sleeveless shift dress; they were all over the runways for autumn and the jacket would be less formal than the usual structured sort of jacket.

    • Gail: Yeah, I think you’re right about that. What’s in the picture is sort of my improvised version of that…. but I liked how it looked in person much better than in the photo! Hmmmm….. wonder what that’s about?

  4. Grace says:

    The week I filed for divorce, my sister and I went to the Mall of America for a Christmas shopping trip. It was around the first weekend in November, and the Old Navy store was having a Veteran’s Day sale that was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. Shirts were 50 cents! Sweaters were $2.00! I was so angry at my cheating husband that I bought every person in his family a 50-cent shirt for Christmas that year.

  5. Thanks so much for stopping by my page. I would say if you question it too much, then walk away. It is only a bargain if you will wear it.

    I buy 3.00 Wal Mart T’s as I go through a lot of them when I walk all Summer, I SOOOOO get my 3.00 worth. I always search the sale racks and then edit myself…it must fit well, look great and be totally me or it does not come home, even if it is beyond cheap. I find LOADS of great buys at Khols and come home with wonderful bargains from there.

  6. Liz says:

    My impulse bargain buys often take the form of finding one item I really like and then, once it goes on sale at the end of the season, buying it in every other color. Lands’ End is usually the beneficiary of this irrational behavior . . . the past two summers, I’ve bought lots of identical shoes from them in different colors. They had some black strappy sandals this year that I’ve worn almost every day since they arrived in the mail. Will I find the blue pair that I bought a few weeks later (after the black was out of stock) to be as versatile? I doubt it! But, at least they were on sale.

  7. Annie Joy says:

    I like to think of it as a game. For me, the top score comes from the combination of a sale, my retiree discount from a nationally known retailer, a coupon for an additional 10-25% off, and points added to the retailer’s purchase points, enough of which will entitle me to a gift certificate the next month. If these are all present, I can certainly find something I need (even if it’s just towels or underwear). The best, of course, is when I find something I really, really want!

  8. Elle says:

    Ha ha ha! I found you on Twitter (Take2Reviews). This post made me laugh mostly because I hate clearance racks. Every go to a clearance rack, grab an item, pay for it, get it home and realize it has a rip in it? yeah…stupidity. Anyway, I agree with ya on this one!

  9. Kelsey says:

    I think that this is something we’re all guilty off. I have a tendancy to get over excited with children’s wear sales, because this means I don’t have to try the item on. I hate the try on part.

    Except then? I have a crap load of summer clothes that won’t fit my kids until winter. I never seem to be able to plan it right.


  10. Java says:

    I am all about the bargains…you can wear that with just about anything…a casual dress…jeans…a skirt….remember its how you pull it off…not how much you paid to pull it off!

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