How to Identify a Bargain

How do you know if something you want to buy is REALLY a bargain? Tips in this post!The clearance rack has such a specific siren song, and it can feel impossible to resist. But have you ever contemplated what constitutes an actual bargain? Believe me, it’s not just a rock-bottom price. If you spend $10 on a skirt but NEVER wear it, that’s a waste, not a bargain.

Here’s a little quiz you can take next time you’re browsing the sale merch to make sure your money will be well-spent. Most are questions you’ve heard before, but all bear repeating.

Would you pay full price for it? Walking away from something that is dirt cheap can feel foolish, but it seldom is. I certainly get suckered into buying items simply BECAUSE they’re so inexpensive without contemplating how they fit into my overall style. So, as many have said before me, a great way to test the “why” of buying is to ask yourself if you’d ever paid full price for the item in question. If not, why are you so eager to snap it up now?

Is it a quality product to begin with? Cheaply made items sold at cheap prices aren’t bargains. They’re just cheap. Fabulously well-made items sold at cheap prices are actual bargains. Check seams, construction, materials, fasteners, fit, and durability.

Is it versatile? It might seem harmless to blow $4 on a pyramid-studded tank-top, but something that specific will likely have limited application. Ask yourself: Can you wear it to work AND on the weekend? Can you wear it during the day AND at night? Will it work through multiple seasons? Not every item has to be appropriate in every possible circumstance, but the more ways it can be worn, the more of a bargain it becomes.

Do you already own items that will compliment it? Those suede platform boots may be marked down to 70% off and calling your name … but if you have to buy a new pair of tights, a new dress, and a new jacket to make them work, they’re no bargain. Items that will work within the context of your current wardrobe are bargains to be sure.

Image courtesy abbyladybug.

Originally posted 2010-09-09 05:10:00.

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38 Responses to “How to Identify a Bargain”

  1. Chalkdust and Boots

    It's funny that you posted this because I was JUST on the Gilt website dithering over whether or not to buy a pair of gorgeous turquoise earrings (which would go with…all of my jewelry) simply because their original price was $100 and they're being offered at $45. The criteria match most of your points, too.

    …I think I'll wait until my tutoring job starts and I'll get a weekly salary supplement. 🙂

  2. Darling Petunia

    Well, I can't use the "would I pay full price for this" question, because I don't pay full price for anything!

  3. La Historiadora de Moda

    Oh, yes! Too often I have been suckered into buying something on clearance or at the thrift store because it is uber cheap and seems like something I might could wear. Only too often it then gets worn once and sits in my closet taking up space. I'm trying to get better about this. These are great tips!

  4. Stephanie

    Mostly I agree. I have trouble with the first one only bc I almost never pay full price at anthro and a few other places bc they are really over my price range. I guess it still applies though bc I totally think the garments are worth the price they are just more then I'm willing to pay most days.

  5. Rebekah

    Good guidelines! I completely agree, and I've ignored ALL those pointers in the past and regretted it. Live and learn.

    I would add "Is the piece special?" I sometimes buy very basic clothing, thinking I can jazz them up with accessories, but this rarely works. For me, pieces that are interesting on their own are the safest investment.

  6. Ashe Mischief

    God, this one got me in SO much trouble when I worked at an Urban Outfitters: Would you pay full price for it?

    Because me, and the other team leads, would have a bad habit of saying, I like it for $4. Then I'd end up with clothes I'd never wear.

    I remember an article in In Style once said, "If you don't want it enough to pay full price for it, you don't really want it." Now, I don't entirely agree with that, because I think Sale shopping is amazing. But there's some kind of truthiness behind it– if you CAN afford to pay full price for it and you think you want it– why aren't you?

  7. Linda

    "If you don't want it enough to pay full price for it, you don't really want it"? Mmmm. To me that sounds like a fashion magazine's way of trying to convince you that if you really like some item, you should meekly fork over whatever crazy-ass price someone has arbitrarily decided to see if they can get for it. Sure, something you NEVER wear is not a bargain at any price, but there are countless things I'd buy for $X but not for $Y.

  8. tinyjunco

    those are all really good questions! and an important topic – i'm very big on knowing where your $$ is going and what you're getting for your effort. another thing i do is factor in the time it takes to find the item – if you have to visit your local thrift store 5 different days for and hour and a half each day to find that pristine, perfect sweater for $5 – the sweater is costing you $5 PLUS whatever your hourly rate is times five. if shopping is a hobby you enjoy, take that into account as well, but…it's better to be honest with yourself. are you saving money on clothes or more being entertained?

    another perspective is to look at Cost Per Wear – it kind of rolls durability, versatility, and 'will it work with the rest of my wardrobe?' into one easy acronym : ) will these three factors allow you to get enough wear out of the piece to justify the price? or are you paying $30 for a 'cheap' pair of shoes you'll wear one time only?

    these 'bargain' factors are, ironically, why i stopped thrifting….i'm hard on clothes so pre-worn ones fall apart in no time flat, and i'm very hard to fit and flatter, so i can spend hours and hours thrifting with nothing to show for it. Especially when i'm broke i don't have the time and $$ to throw away like that. plus i don't like shopping anyway.

    when i think of 'bargains' my L.L. Bean bomber jacket i got fifteen years ago always comes to mind…though i paid full price for it ($350 – i was flush for once!) it always looks great, it's versatile (opera, camping, family reunion), warm, room for a sweater underneath….CPW is down to about a dime now. i use it as a blanket for picnics or when i'm cold in my sleeping bag – i even used it to block the light during an ER trip for a nasty migraine! it's pry the most i've ever spent on one item, but it's just always perfect and still going strong.

    i also tend to think of pieces i make for myself as bargains – you get good construction, fit, whatever style features you want and durability for so much less money. and i like the creativity of it too.

    great questions to ferret out the hidden costs of 'bargains', Sal!!

  9. cora♥

    When I shop in a thrift store I go through the racks quickly, evaluating the fabric by touch, and reading the brand tags. Only if something stands out I'll have a second look at it and consider the fit, color, style…
    I think your advice is valid for any shoping, be it thrift, sales o "normal". No difference.

  10. gingerR

    The cost per wear measure is a good one, but items that make it to 15 years of wear are pretty rare.

    If you don't change physically then the style (even classics do this) changes, or your lifestyle changes and it's in the Goodwill bag.

    The "how many years will I wear this" factor is pretty hard to get right. For me, if I wear a clothing item frequently for 5 years I'm usually ready to replace it, no matter what.

    I think "cost per wear" and "investment dressing" are also phrases cooked up by fashion editors to get you to part with more of your money.

  11. rb

    Oh this is so my issue. My specific weakness is very expensive items marked down to 50% off (which, by the way, is still expensive!)

    Yes, the fabric is gorgeous and the construction is sublime. Yes, it's my size. Yes, it's 50% off. But what I forget to ask myself is, is it really my style? What will I wear with it? Do I already have something just like it?

    I need to keep this in mind. Thanks for the timely post.

  12. Sal

    It's fascinating to me to hear that cost-per-wear and the full price test strike some of you as schemes hatched by fashion mags to strip you of your life savings.

    To me, the point is not to ACTUALLY pay full price for things, but to use those questions as a way to measure want, need, and value. When something looks like a bargain, contemplating its usefulness and value in our lives can fall to the wayside. Our brains get clouded by the notion of getting something good for pennies. And I think mulling over why the sale price is tempting you is a good practice.

  13. Sidewalk Chalk

    Excellent advice, Sal.

    I can't say that I would pay full price for anything, because I haven't in a long time. But I do try to turn over items, checking their durability, fabric, etc. and try to discern whether it will last. I also try to figure how how I'd wear it with whatever I already own.

    It's so funny you mention studded tank tops, because those are so often the kind of things that Target has on their clearance racks — and sometimes they're what I consider purchasing because they're cheap. Must get that out of my head!

  14. Marianne

    For me, and I assume a lot of other people who sew, a bargain is something that costs less than it would to make, in terms of materials, time, frustration, etc. So, because skirts are easy for me to make and don't take much material, I generally won't pay more than $15 for a good quality one.

    I've definitely struggled with the fourth guideline. I seem to end up with a lot of orphan clothing items that are adorable on their own merits, but don't really fit with the rest of the stuff in my closet.

  15. fleur_delicious

    here's another one I consider, especially if I'm hemming and hawing at the clearance rack: WHY is it on sale? I mean, especially if there are a lot of these items left, and if they're marked down 50% or more … I start to ask, "what's wrong with this item, that NO ONE has snapped up this amazing 'deal'?" I find it's a particularly useful question to ask when contemplating items that are on sale online – I'll usually check reviews (if the website offers them) posted by other shoppers, or go search for product/line reviews to look for hidden quality issues. Sure, it might be that that crazy skirt ONLY looks good on your body type, or that sweater is perfect for your wardrobe and NOBODY else's, but in general, I wonder: if nobody else wants it, why not?

    Also, for me, the most amazing bargains I've had are those that just HAPPEN. You know, where you don't have to debate. Example: I go to anthro to see if I can buy a swimsuit before heading to Vegas for a wedding (I can't). And surprise! They're having a sidewalk sale. And surprise! That dress that I love love LOVED but could NOT pay $200 for is there. And surprise! It's $20, because it's the only one in the store and they need to get it sold. And surprise! It's my size. I try it on, and I don't even hesitate. That dress is MINE.

    Though such finds are fewer and farther between (and seem to happen more often when I'm strapped for cash – Murphy's Law!!), I can always tell when the stars have aligned and the perfect bargain opportunity presents itself. Ever had that experience, Sal?

  16. tinyjunco

    hi ginger R! i wanted to respond, because 15 years IS on the rare side. but 5-7 years isn't, at least for me. i'm talking pieces i wear a couple of times a week, too, not special-occasion wear.

    i think it's partly because i've sewn for so long, thus i have a lot of experience in spotting and making garments that will last. it's important to me because i don't have a lot of $$ to spend on clothes, and i don't like having a lot of 'so so' items that i wear infrequently. a lot of clothes for sale these days are made expressly to fall apart quickly (imo) so that you have to buy more….there's my own conspiracy for you! : ) but quality these days is hard to find…i have a couple of 60-70 year old jackets (regular wear, nothing 'special') and the difference in quality with what you find today is mind-blowing.

    i've also stopped buying anything that doesn't fit my personal style. it is true that drastic lifestyle or climate changes can create a need to re-do your wardrobe. but….if you stay true to your style a LOT of things can be brought along and folded into 'the new you'.

    there's definitely a learning curve involved. but i don't see how thinking about CPW when you buy a piece, and figuring it out what it really was for various pieces after the fact, is going to end up costing you MORE in the long run….but i could be missing something.

  17. Smashing Ginger

    The question of whether you would pay "full price" for something is tricky, because lots of items are never actually sold for "full price". I just had this experience at JC Penney – new fall shirts were labeled $34.99, and already "marked down" to $19.99. I wouldn't have paid $35, but I was happy to pay $20.

    I agree with Linda. For me, what helps is to try something on and decide how much I'm willing to pay for it, based on fit and quality. Only then will I look at the price – if it's more than I'm willing to pay, I leave it behind.

    I do think about cost per wear. A post on Some Girls Wander mentioned a goal of no more than $1 per wear, and that sounds about right to me. I can get that ratio from Frye boots that I wear all fall and winter for 3 years, or for thrifted items I wear once on Halloween.

  18. orchidsinbuttonholes

    Great post, Sal – it's so true that money spent on a "good deal" that's never worn is never a good deal.

    I tend to stalk pieces I fall in love with. Only rarely will I pay full price for something, and since most things make it to sale and get marked down (and down and down), I almost always get the thing I want for a better price.

    Instead of considering cost per wear, I weigh cost against my value of a thing. Which may be the same way of looking at it… Any thinking before spending is, I think, a very good thing though!

  19. SarahN

    Learn to recognize the difference between a visceral "I love it!" and a lukewarm "It's cheap/It's cute/I like it/I should get it" response to an item. This is easier said than done, since the call of the siren can be overpowering. If you have to talk yourself into it, leave it on the rack.

  20. Candice Virginia

    I recently bought two pairs of jeans at Old Navy on sale for 19.00 each. I consider that forty bucks to be very well spent, because I will wear the jeans for years, they fit me perfectly, they do NOT have the trendy spandex stuff in them and they go with everything. They also make me feel pretty great about my body. 🙂

    Thanks for the great tips!

  21. The Waves

    The "would you pay the full price" question is a tricky one. In theory, I often would, but I wouldn't have bought it before because I wouldn't have had the money. Practically all of my higher-end clothing or shoes were on sale, and I wouldn't have been able to buy full price for them earlier. But you are right: to play with the idea of full price is valuable, just in terms of training oneself to consider what "on sale" even means.

  22. Maggiethecat

    Totally with you on the last, Sal. Until a little while ago, I had quite a number of items that I loved, but couldn't for the life of me figure out how to make them work with what I had available. Sigh. It's not that I regret getting these things, since it makes me happy to have them, but however reduced the price, in the end a bargain they weren't. So I definitely take that into account now.

  23. Jessica

    My problem is that I still haven't figured out my "style" (to me a top and bottoms are an outfit, I'm still working on it) so sometimes I'll end up buying something from the sale rack because I want to try out a fad/fashion/something I wouldn't normally pick up. So to that end, it's actually a bargain because I wouldn't have the guts to experiment at full price.

    Like a couple seasons ago I thought I'd try a decorative belt (in my world, belts are only functional) and it happened that an adorable silver bow-shaped stretchy belt was on sale at Target. I bought it and tried it out. Still trying to figure out if it actually looks good on me, but at least I'm experimenting!

    Now if only I could get somebody to tell me outfits to buy that fit my preferences and how to wear them!

  24. Jamie

    I was so interested by this post, and by people's responses, because I happen to have a page on my blog entitled "thrifty tips," and you and I mention a few similar criteria, such as looking for quality items and ensuring that the item is worthwhile in its own right, not simply because it is on sale.

    I think I would add one more factor: fit. I used to buy items at the thrift store with the intention of having them tailored to improve the fit. Most times, this ended up being a mistake. I almost never make it to the tailors, and I am afraid to try altering anything other than a hem, so more often than not, an ill-fitting item will sit unworn in my closet. Not a good bargain! I now look for clothing that I know I can alter myself, or, better yet, fits me perfectly the first time.

    Please feel free to check out my other "thrifty tips" posted at

  25. V

    I think Jessica's dead right that thrifting interesting but marginal pieces is a great way to experiment with pushing one's boundaries. Not everything has to be a prospective staple and last forever. I don't worry at all if I thrift something speculatively and then can't seem to make it work in real life — I just take it back to the thrift shop the next time I go. A few bucks buys you the chance to perform a who knows possibly useful certainly fun identity/style exploration in your own home with the benefit of your existing wardrobe to play with. It beats a cup of fancy coffee.

  26. Audi

    You're so right Sal — it's easy to be seduced by a slashed price, and end up owning something you'll never wear. However, sometimes I'll use the clearance rack as a way of testing out items that might push my boundaries a little; I might not be willing to pay full price, but for 10 bucks I'll take a chance on something and possibly expand my style a little. But I do still always ask myself what the item is worth to me.

  27. Anonymous

    I have an Eileen Fisher dress that's going on eight years and looks good as new. I would not have called it a bargain when I bought it, but I just might now. In terms of CPW, it can't begin to compete with the thrifted clothing that I generaly wear. But when I really have NO idea what to wear, it's always the one thing I turn to. It's worth keeping in the closet, because even if I don't wear it more than once a year, it saves me from having to wear something from the rest of my closet that really isn't right, or from having to overpay to get something that will work. Like tinyjunco pointed out, time is a resource too, and in that way this dress has saved me a bundle.

  28. whenlifehandsyouapear

    I think I need to print this post out and tuck it in my wallet next to my credit card!

    I'm a sucker for what I consider a good bargain, but I do have a couple of those 'bargains' tucked away in my closet still sporting their insanely low price tags. 🙁

    I'm slooooowly realizing it's just not a great deal if it doesn't quite fit, or I have to buy something else to go with it, because chances are I'll never end up wearing it. And that $10 blouse or $15 skirt is just more money that I could have saved or at least invested in better quality items.

  29. Anonymous

    Over the last two years, I have only bought what I am pretty sure I will wear. It works most of the time, but occasionally I have lapses of judgement when I buy cheap things, that I wear right away, and then they simply no longer fit, work, or want to get along with my other clothing or seasonal items. Sometimes, though, the cheap items and bargains last forever, and work so well I don't want to get rid of them.

    I believe there is a 'magic' or ideal price for everything — What I mean by this is — if I really need a new pair of boots (I destroy them often & am hard on things), then I look for a pair for a reasonable price — if they are on sale, then bonus, if not, I still buy them, but for me, full price wouldn't be that ridiculous and usually within my means. If I really want and need an item, then I set aside a top amount, and if I see exactly what I want, what fits, and what I like, I will pay, if not — I keep looking. (sometimes I buy nothing after many shopping trips, which drives my husband nuts….)

    Anyway, after a couple years of pruning, and examining what I really want, I have a fairly organized closet, with some crazy bargains, some splurges, but hopefully all used, and all getting along. Overall, I mostly buy things on sale if I am just browsing shopping, but if I go with a purpose, I try and focus on finding the best item at the best price.

  30. crescat

    I totally agree with the "is it worth full price" criteria. Another thing I ask myself is whether it's the "perfect" example of what I'm looking for. I tend to make lists of items I'd like to add to my closet (for example, a white button down). I'm often tempted to purchase a version that's on super sale because it looks good, it's made well, and it's a bargain. But, I often find myself coughing up the money to buy a more expensive version that has all the details or the best fit, etc., later on. So now, I try to pass on the merely "good" stuff and only buy things if they make me look and feel "great", even if it means that I'll be waiting a bit for the perfect example to pop up.

  31. dotted lines

    I try to keep to a list, and if it's not on my list of things I need/want to expand my wardrobe with, then I start questioning myself. But as far as impulse-buying goes, I got a pair of jeans recently… my first pair in a couple years. Why? They were Levi's for $15, and they fit REALLY well. Surprisingly, I've worn them 3 times already!

  32. Bethany

    This is such a good reminder! I was thinking the other day that it would be really helpful to have a post of what types of fabrics count as "quality", or how to take care of certian fabrics so they last. I'll buy something that seems high quality, but after a few washes it looks old, and it feels like a waste! I never can tell what is going to last and what isn't.

  33. Anonymous

    to me a bargin is something I know I'll wear AT LEAST the number of pounds(dollars)If i buy something for £4 and I wear it 4 times to me that is worth it.

  34. mashiki0603

    Things here in Moscow tend to be so overpriced that sometimes even the sale price is way too much for the item (it's our local thing, I know), so the question about "would you pay full price for the item" induces nothing but bitter laughter… I do agree with those who said to take the item when you absolutely LOVE it otherwise more often than not it will stay an orphan among other loved ones 🙂 and the best advice of all – do think when you make a purchase, make that a conscious decision (when I think about all that money I blew on "bargains" my heart bleeds – I could've treated myself to at least 3 months of travel with all that money wasted, but fortunately, the lesson is learnt at last)

    Great post, Sal! I've linked to it on my blog.

  35. kurifurinkan

    Ahaha, this reminds me of my sister (she's a fashion designer and also a Sensible Person). I remember I was dithering over the online clearance racks,and I remember asking her "This shirt is kind of ugly, but it's only $5. Should I get it?" Her response was succinct: "Ugly is not worth five dollars, don't be ridiculous."

    Hilariously, if it was full price, I would probably have laughed myself sick at its ugliness and clicked the back button hard enough to cause myself an injury.

    I try to always remember that (and now this, too!) when the "OMG SALE" fog clouds my eyes. (My head also sometimes spins around backwards and I spit pea soup. I'm scary around sales.)