Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shopping frugally in a consumer utopia

This being Tuesday, my focus is frugality, but given the onset of the new semester at My U, I want to talk a bit about style and shopping.

In case you weren't aware, the Big D is a consumer utopia, where shopping is a sport. I have never lived anywhere with so many malls, gallerias, strip malls, big box stores, chain stores and high-end luxury chains (if you can call Chanel, Hermes, Jimmie Choo, and Tory Burch "chains"--but aren't they? Chain boutiques?) in such a concentrated area--which the DFW areas is, despite sprawl.

The big boxes and chains have replicated, moreover, until one doesn't have to drive ten miles in order to shop in a major anchor-department store, discount big box, or mall chain. One does have to search out the small and concentrated areas where the high-end chain boutiques live, but they are, basically, within 3-5 miles of each other, clustered in Dallas, in Fort Worth, or in the suburban enclave where the rich hang out.

And the farther from Big D's center/downtown you drive, the bigger the stores: H-U-G-E. Like our churches, in fact. The suburbs apparently cater to tremendous crowds gathered at once, while in town not so much.

This is the culture. It extends not only to clothing and accessory shopping, but to restaurants and gourmet food sites, home decorating sites, and technology. DFW-ites SHOP.

That said, DFW is not a "style" mecca. Shopping is encouraged--nay, required, but style is not. It is more elusive, just like everywhere else.

I used to live in NYC and shop like the best: daily, rigorously, and ruthlessly. Even on a starter salary in book publishing, I shopped... hence, credit card debt but a fabulous array of accesories and shoes I still wear every week. That was the old me, however: the new me wants style without debt.

Here's the first in a series of frugal tips I have learned by living in this shopping utopia, each of which applies, I think, to anyone living in our American consumer culture:
  • Stay out of stores, malls, and gallerias if you don't want to spend money: don't browse, "stop in," or "take a quick look." I always walk out with something, and whether it is a $5 bottle of body lotion or a $300 pair of shoes, it is an impulse buy. I will be sorry. Then what?
  • I don't go to T.J.Maxx or SteinMart or Marshall's anymore. This is a personal decision, sparked by two things: the constant condition of chaos and sloppiness in every outlet, and the fact that every buy I make is an impulse, drawn on what "might" be there when I stop in, not careful thinking about what I actually have and what I can afford, right now. Again, whether it is a $5 or a $300 impulse, it is a waste of my money. And time, later, when I have to donate/sell/trash the item. 
  • I shop catalogs of stores I like, then go in and try on only the pieces I've picked out as possiblities--with the rock-hard knowledge that I probably won't buy anything. I take the catalogs with me and use the salespeople as resources. If they don't have the item in my size or color, which is the closest outlet that does?
  • I go to the mall to look for one specific item. I did this last year for a "white button-up blouse": before I went I wrote down what I wanted from the blouse (basic design details about cut, collar, needs), and which stores I would visit. I blocked out an entire morning (not a weekend one!), parked close to the most likely store, and looked at nothing but white blouses. Tried them all on, went back and bought two from the same chain--one a kind of boyfriend style, one shaped--and was happy that I had spent my money well. Bonus: I now know which stores fit my shape and size best--no need to waste time with the ones really tremendously wrong for me. Cancelled their catalogs, too.
  • Basically, a store is a last resort--once I know what I want to buy, or at least have a very good idea.
  • If you want help, do not go on a weekend between 11 am and 330 pm.
  • If you do not want help, go on a weekend between 11 am and 330 pm.
That's it, for now. Just a starter smaple of some pretty simple ideas about how to avoid debt, impulse buying, and to give an end-run to consumer addiction. We all have to buy things every day, but I find that the more conscious I am about how I buy something, the better.

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