How to Shop on a Budget

Anyone can learn how to shop on a budget — all it takes is a little discipline (and a handful of coupons helps). Below are some great budget shopping tips to help you on your path to becoming a world-class budget shopper.

12 Strategies for Budget Shopping

1. Know what looks good on you

Just because it looks great in a magazine doesn’t mean it will look great on you. Be honest with yourself about your body. It will save you time and money.

2. Live by the cost-per-wear (CPW) concept

The price of an item, just reflects it’s price. The price of an item DOES NOT reflect it’s value. STOP and reread the previous sentence. You should base the value of an item, particularly in the case of shopping on a budget, on how much you will actually use the item. The cost-per-wear formula helps you assess this value through a very simple equation. Just divide the cost of the item by the number of times you will wear it in a given period. So a $100 shirt worn 20 times has a cost per wear of $5. The goal is to shoot for a CPW of less than $3.

The CPW is important because there’s a tendency for budget shoppers to focus only on the price of an item, which often leads to purchases based upon price (wow this is so cheap) versus usefulness (wow I wear this everyday).

3. Leave the debit and credit cards at home

I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, who views paying for purchases with plastic cards as not spending “real” money. Paying with cash gives you an instant visual indication of how much you’re spending.

4. Head to the outlet malls

Shopping at the outlets of your favorite stores and designers can save you a bundle. Some of my favorites are the Chelsea Premium Outlet Malls, Off Fifth (the Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet), the St. John Knit Outlet, the Donna Karan Outlet, and the Last Call Neiman Marcus Outlet.

5. Remember the 70/30 rule

Fashionistas with limited budgets should follow the 70/30 rule: 70% of your closet should be classic pieces, 30% trendy pieces. Go as cheap as possible on trendy items because they have a short closet lifespan; purchase these pieces at stores like H&M, Target, Forever 21, Wet Seal,, Zara, Bluefly , Urban Outfitters, etc. Go designer on classic pieces like black suits (Tahari, Donna Karan), coats (Burberry, MaxMara), evening (Armani, Tim and Linda Platt, Carmen Marc Valvo) and purses (Coach, Longchamp, Marc Jacobs).

6. Recycle fashion

Pay a visit to your mother and/or grandmother. While you’re there, offer to help clean out her closet. You’ll be amazed at the goodies you’ll find. While visiting my grandma in Milwaukee, I discovered a vintage Coach saddle bag, dating from around 1960, in mint condition in a box of old magazines. If you are unable to visit a relative’s closet, hold a clothing swap party with your friends. Ask everyone to bring unwanted, high-quality clothing to exchange for similar items from other party-goers.

7. Learn where and when to shop on a budget

July/August and late January/February are the best times to hit the stores for deals.  The top sample sales in NYC usually happen between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and after Christmas. Write down the names of your favorite stores, go to their websites, and register to receive coupons, special invitations and notifications of new products. Many stores, like Steve Madden, give coupons to shoppers for registering for their email list serve. Outlet stores are also great sources of designer goods.

8. Keep a shopping list

Making a shopping list will help you stay focused on the shopping task at hand and reduce splurge purchases.

9. Locate the nearest thrift store

Use thrift stores to add a bit of originality to your wardrobe. Print out my guide to designers and search for pieces like vintage jewelry, designer dresses and quality inexpensive coats.

10. Get Mobile Apps

There’s several top mobile coupon applications, available for smartphones (Blackberry, iPhone, Android, etc), that help you compare prices between stores, send you coupons, and more. Many charge $.99-$3.99 per month for the app, so make sure you use them frequently to get the most bang for your buck. For a list of awesome mobile coupon apps, head to our our list of top mobile coupon apps.

11. Know the names of sales associates

Sales associates are a great source of information on upcoming sales and have access to Friends and Family coupons, which offer up to an additional 25% off store merchandise. Some might even let you use their employee discounts.

12. Give yourself time and space to shop

Never go shopping when you’re in a hurry. If you’ve done this before, you know the outcome. You grab something off the rack that later turns out to be too small or too big or too expensive or too bold or too timid.

Learning how to shop on a budget takes time, because you’re not looking for the cheapest thing and you’re not looking for biggest discount. You’re looking for quality pieces you love so much you’ll wear them all the time. Oh, and the price has to be right. This is no small venture. Give yourself time and enjoy the shopping journey.

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Catherine Brock

Style Editor at The Budget Fashionista
Catherine Brock is a writer, editor and marketer who's been sharing wisdom online since 2002. She's been featured on, and ABC7 Chicago, FOX2News St. Louis and KCAL9 Los Angeles. Connect with Catherine on LinkedIn, Instagram, or Twitter.
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