Shopping Effectively Means Shopping Like My Mom

(me and my mom, 1981)

My mom’s current (modest) salary, as a Junior College professor, is the most she’s made in her life, and living alone in San Francisco it still barely qualifies her for the middle class.  Despite that, her home is filled to the gills with beautiful things, and her wardrobe is, too.  Our home was always full of beautiful things, even when I was eight or nine, and she was working her way through graduate school as a single mother in her 40s.

Partly, it’s because she’s got taste, which she’s developed over many years.  In large part, though, it’s because she’s a truly great shopper.  She’s taught me a lot about how to get a lot for a little, and how never to want, even when you’re broke.

What I’ve learned from her can help you build a wardrobe, no matter what your income level is.

Here’s how you can shop like my mom:

Know what you need. My dad can only shop for one thing at a time.  He can shop for a new Accord and find a good deal, but if he was on his way to buy lettuce and saw a mint ‘56 Chevy for sale for $1200, he wouldn’t be able to wrap his head around buying it.  My mom always knows what she needs, and what she’s going to need… and, for that matter, what everyone close to her needs.  I can tell her that my wife and I need some napkins, and two months later, a bag appears at my doorstep full of linen napkins from the 50s that my mom bought for a dollar.  My mom keeps a running tally in her head of what she’s low on, what might need replacing, what holes have sprung up in her material world… and when the opportunity presents itself, she strikes.

Accept that you might not get it now. If you look at your purchasing decisions as a problem that needs an immediate solution, you’ll always end up at Target or Ikea.  When you actually give some consideration to what really is a “must have it now” item (roof repairs) and what’s a “when it comes along item” (new sweater), you can buy from a position of strength.

Plan ahead. A reader emailed today asking about where he could get a good, affordable winter hat.  It’s November right now,  and winter hat prices are at their peak.  If the reader had bought a hat in February, he could have shopped at Saks instead of H&M.  It’s even OK to have a little surplus of things that won’t go bad — you can buy the big box of Bisquick, or and you can buy two classic cashmere toques when they’re marked down to $19.

Used is your friend.  Remember that the biggest drop in value comes when you drive that new car off the lot.  The time investment may be slightly greater, but the savings is huge when you buy used, and if you know how to buy things that aren’t “used up,” (either functionally, as in pilling sweaters, or aesthetically, as in out-of-style clothes), you will benefit.  You want things that are worn in, not worn out.

Buy things for less than they’re worth. My mom is a hustler.  When she sees a chance to buy low, she does - when you’ve got things of value you can always trade or sell them.  Don’t confuse this with buying cheap things, or even things that are marked down.  A high-school friend’s dad used to buy marked-down VHS movies at the Wherehouse.  He had a house full of videos, and they were all cheap, but none of them were good enough to watch, to say nothing of being good enough to sell.  I know when I buy an Oxxford suit at the thrift store that if I decide I don’t like it, I can always sell it for more than I bought it for.

Buy things that hold their value.  Generally I’d say buy things that increase in value, as good art or furniture does, but with clothes, that’s tough.  Fashions change, and clothes are easy to damage.  Remember, though, that when you tear the tags off of that shirt from H&M, its value goes from $20 to $1 in an instant.  The naval peacoat I bought at a garage sale in high school is still worth two or three times the $20 I paid for it.

Buy things that are repairable. Good shirts can have their collars and cuffs replaced.  Good shoes can get new soles.  Good luggage can have straps replaced.  Whenever possible, buy things that can be fixed, rather than discarded.

Don’t confuse price and value. Quality correlates to price, but it certainly doesn’t correlate to price directly.  There’s plenty of expensive crap out there, and there are plenty of big markdowns that aren’t very useful to you.  It can be tough to resist that orange cashmere sweater marked from $490 to $49 - that’s 90% off.  But how valuable is an orange cashmere sweater to you?  Unless you’re in a community theater production of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, it may be less than $49, no matter what the original price sticker says.  Similarly, brand has gone from a shorthand for quality to a shorthand for, well, brand.  A tag that says “Coach” used to mean the best in leather goods.  Now it means you can afford to buy Coach branded leather goods.  Or knockoffs thereof.

Put yourself in a position to win. My mom’s a creative shopper.  She gets up early to go to estate sales.  She has tons of saved searches on Ebay.  She stops at garage sales.  She puts herself in a position to find something amazing, and when it comes up, she’s ready to buy.  Serendipity is the child of persistence.

Know what’s good. This one’s about skill.  Skill’s about talent, in part.  My mom has a great natural aesthetic sense.  But it’s also about knowledge.  She can evaluate whether the piece of pottery in front of her really is pre-Columbian, and she knows the names of the best leather goods makers in England.  What’s great is that her knowledge and experience don’t just make her a walking reference book, they also make her guesses much better.  Memorizing the best makers can help you spot pieces by those makers, but learning to spot quality means that you can be confident in your own assessments.

Don’t confuse quantity and quality.  When you get an $1800 sportcoat for $300, you have not bought the right to buy five $300 sportcoats.  You’re living within your budget, or you’re saving money for another day.  You don’t want to end up with a house full of VHS copies of Prayer of the Rollerboys.

Move up the ladder. If you have something decent, don’t buy another piece of comparable quality.  It’s redundant.  Buy one that’s better.  You don’t want more: you want better.

Buy amazing things.  My mom looks at a lot of things in a given month.  When she sees something - once or twice a year - that she truly loves, she buys it.  Even if it’s expensive.  Then she figures out how to pay for it.  If something really speaks to you, it’s worth the money.

So… think about what your ideal wardrobe is.  Learn about quality.  Put yourself in a position to catch lightning in a bottle.  Be patient.  And make it happen.