Shopping Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Shopping for clothing, shoes, and accessories can be incredibly fun and rewarding … but it can also be hazardous to your health. Your mental health, emotional health, financial health, ALL of your healths can be menaced by the mall. Because when you shop, you become vulnerable: Influenced by ads and marketing, nudged by sales associates or friends-in-tow, convinced by your own inner voices that you absolutely do need orange platform sandals that are half a size too small. Or yet another black cardigan.

And while I am just as vulnerable as you are while shopping – both in person and online – I also have accumulated some tips and techniques for avoiding and combating the most common pitfalls. Each potential threat can be neutralized by forcing yourself to walk through a simple checklist.

Buying something that almost fits

Bottom line: Just don’t. Shop for your today-body, dress that body fabulously right now so that you can respect and celebrate yourself just as you are, and avoid any clothes that fail to make you look and feel amazing. But since your head can get a bit foggy when those barely-buttonable jeans are on clearance, here’s your checklist:

  • Ask yourself: Do I want this because my body is currently in flux? If so, won’t there be something equally awesome once I’ve leveled out or reached my goal?
  • Ask yourself: Can it be altered easily to fit properly? Figuring in the cost of alterations, is it worth it?
  • Ask yourself: Are there workarounds? Is it a button-down shirt that won’t button, but can be worn over a tank top? If so, make sure there are at LEAST three possible outfits in your closet that can utilize this piece.

Buying something you already own

Those of you who possess the lauded “small, well-edited wardrobe” probably don’t have this problem. But if you’re a clothing collector like me, every shopping trip generates a risk of snapping up an item with a twin already living in your closet. Here’s your checklist:

  • Before you shop, take inventory.  Make a habit of it.
  • Ask yourself: How similar is this to my other _______s? (Insert item: Dresses, boots, blazers, etc.) If it has three or more features in common, skip it.
  • Ask yourself: Do I love this because it’s perfectly “me” or because it’s incredibly familiar?

Buying something just because it’s on sale

This is the doozy, am I right? The, “Would I pay full price for this?” test is great in theory, but we all know that it fails in practice. So try this instead:

  • Ask yourself: What will happen if I don’t buy this? Will I remember that I wanted it in two weeks?
  • Ask yourself: What about this item thrills me?
  • Ask yourself: Can I envision at least three outfits that will work with this?

Buying something that you can’t return

You always check return policies before shelling out, RIGHT? Of course you do. So if you’re about to splurge on something marked, “final sale,” run through this checklist:

  • Ask yourself: Is it completely free of flaws? Does it fit perfectly? Do I love it to pieces?
  • Have a backup plan: Consignment, a good friend or relative who wears your size, eBay.
  • Ask yourself: If this fails to work for me, will I feel OK about trying to earn some of my money back or passing it along to someone else for free?

Buying something for a single use

You can buy your wedding dress and never wear it again. I’ll give you that. But buying a dress for that cocktail party coming up next week? THAT dress should be a multiple-use garment. Here’s your checklist:

  • Ask yourself: Can I envision at least three outfits that will work with this? (I KNOW, but it’s a good habit to cultivate!)
  • Ask yourself: Will this work layered? For multiple seasons?
  • Ask yourself: Can this be dressed up or down?

Buying something to make yourself feel better

I’m guilty of this one, and often: Shopping to fill an emotional hole. Which, of course, somehow never gets plugged up no matter how many thrifted dresses I throw into it … but I’ve curbed my habit in recent years, and here’s how:

  • Ask yourself: Am I hungry, angry/anxious, lonely, or tired? (HALT, an acronym for emotions that will always cloud judgment)
  • Ask yourself: Will I want this item as much in a week as I do right now? Can I wait to purchase it?
  • Ask yourself: If I regret this purchase, can I return it?

Image via weheartit.

Originally posted 2011-03-16 06:31:44.

Next Post
Previous Post

54 Responses to “Shopping Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them”

  1. Stephanie

    I’m sure I do some of these too but my biggest problems are buying something that I like but isn’t really me and buying something that looks great but I have no use for whatsoever.

  2. Couture Allure

    I run into these pitfalls at thrift stores too. Except the rationalization is, “It’s only $5. What’s the big deal?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve donated stuff back to the thrift store that I’ve only worn once or twice, or worse, not at all.

  3. coffeeaddict

    Wow! This list should be printed, laminated and made into a mandatory must carry with you at all times item!
    As a seamstress I find myself buying less and less apparel but still manage to trip over the usual weakness, see article no2: buying too many similar items.
    I’ve noticed that over the past few years I’ve casually accumulated too many wedge sandals (but they are so pweeety) and way too many jackets/coats, outerwear in general.
    On the plus side, I am no longer swayed by items on sale. If it doesn’t work, I don’t care if it’s Gucci, D&G or whatever, I can pass it without as much as a blink.

  4. Stacey

    Iam guilty of quite a few on the list but mostly buying to feel better. I’m ashamed to say I don’t ask myself anything – just forge through on raw emotion then deal with buyers regret later. I will add this questions to my repertoire and maybe I will have less buyer’s regret. Great blog!!!

  5. Chalkdust and Boots

    Thanks for these tips, Sal! I’m mostly guilty – especially recently, when I don’t really have the funds or necessity to do “major” shopping – of the last pitfall. Last week, when I was down about lack of job stuff among other stuff, I bought myself two different necklaces. Fortunately, they’re both beautiful and I expect to get a lot of use from them for years to come, but it was kind of strange to suddenly realize that I apparently get acquisitive when depressed and had no qualms about engaging in retail therapy when I hadn’t done anything like that in months.

  6. Bekaloves

    Great article! I thought I would let you know about a cool iPhone (don’t know if it’s aval. for android phones) app called closet (has a red hoodie on the icon) that is fantastic for this. Basically it organizes photos of your clothing in categories and you can plan outfits, but I use it a lot when I’m shopping to see if I really need an item or have things to match it. It’s great for someone absent minded like me who tends to buy the same things over and over!

  7. Corinne

    As usual, timely (for me) comments! I was determined to to buy no more clothes or shoes. It’s been such a difficult month or two, so I tried to fill the hole. Sadly, I bout 6 pairs of shoes the other day. When trying to describe them to a friend I couldn’t even remember one Pair! And….the hole is still there:)

  8. Fer

    excellent text. I should have it laminated and kept inside my wallet just to read it every time I’m not 100% sure of what I’m about to buy.

  9. Theressa

    Great article Sal! I am guilty of more than one of these shopping pitfalls. I started off 2011 pretty good with “restrained shopping” meaning only what I needed or sang to me. Then things got a little stressful and I found myself self-medicating with shopping, and the budget was blown out the window.

  10. melissa

    One thing I try to do if I’m shopping and want something I’m not sure about is to leave it at the store, and if I still want it in a few days I’ll go back for it and if it’s still there I figure it’s meant to be. Or I make sure that it’s fully returnable for a refund(this applies mostly to store like Marshalls and Winners, where stock changes daily)

  11. Jane

    What’s interesting to me is that if you’d asked me what my major shopping pitfall was, my automatic response would be “Buying things I don’t need” — not in the sense that I already have a duplicate or can’t think of outfits for it, but in the sense that it’s not strictly necessary because I already have enough clothing to get by.

    I don’t think I’ve seen you address this at all in your blog, and I’m thinking that perhaps it’s because this mindset reflects something about me. After all, when I think back about the things I’d put in this category, they’ve all been things that I wear regularly, could easily afford, and that make me happy when I wear them. There’s no real reason to classify these items as a pitfall, but it’s become reflex to do so. Hmm…definitely given me something to think about!

    Of the ones you listed, “buying things because they’re on sale” and “buying things to make yourself feel better” are not necessarily problems for me on their own, it’s when they combine that I get tripped up. Those “1 day only” sales are especially problematic, because I end up thinking OMG I HAVE TO BUY THIS BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE –and if I’m already in a bad mood and the sale ends in 10 minutes, it can definitely lead to some poorly-thought out impulse buys.

    • lisa

      Oh I know exactly what Jane is talking about. It’s particularly bad with online shopping because if you’re on eBay or Etsy or a sample sale website, there’s that sense of urgency that if you don’t buy it now you’ll never have a chance to buy it ever again. When I get into that mindset, I rein myself in with these two thoughts:

      1. Is this the last vintage handbag/cute top/fantastic necklace that I’m EVER going find, ever? No.
      2. Will I die if I don’t have this? No.

      Usually #2 does a great job of bringing me down to earth. Yes, I can go on living even if I don’t buy this item right here, right now. 😉

  12. Nique

    Great post. I think I am guilty of all of the above. I do a lot of shopping online, so that is where I get into trouble. One thing I have learned to do to help decrease some of the above pitfalls is I put the coveted item in my shopping basket, but I don’t buy it right away. If I can’t get the item out of my mind, I will go back and get it a day or two later. It’s funny, though, because oftentimes I forget about the item, and I will go back to a store to shop, and I see what’s in my shopping basket, and I can’t even remember why I wanted it in the first place. This has saved me lots of money and regrets.

  13. Bubu

    Absolutely terrific post, especially as we are headed into spring and all its temptations! I love the HALT acronym – good for all kinds of destructive behaviors that might be engaged in for emotional reasons, will try to keep that one handy. Thanks!

  14. FutureLint

    I need to like print this out and carry it in my wallet! My main problem would I guess be a version of the “sale” problem – when things are $3 at a thrift store, I just buy them, whether or not I really NEED or LOVE them. They’re there! They’re cheap! I’ve gotten a lot better, but still need to be reminded sometimes!

  15. Marie

    Wonderful advice as always, I should have printed this out and carried it with me several shopping trips ago! I am guilty of twin object purchases often.
    Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge

  16. Evelyn

    If I see something I like and I’m not on a shopping trip specifically to get that sort of item, I often do like melissa does and leave it there. If I’m still thinking about it in a few days, I’ll go back and get it. Most of the time, I don’t go back. The times that I do go back, I have built up anticipation and get even more pleasure out of the item.

    • Sal


      Just last night I was killing time in Macy’s, waiting for a watch to be repaired, and I found two amazing pairs of shoes on sale for less than $30 apiece. I’ve been spending like a madwoman lately, so I scrutinized them carefully. I said to myself, “Will you even remember these shoes in two weeks time? What will happen if you don’t buy these?” The answers were, “No,” and “Nothing.” So I left ’em behind!

      But those ones that get left and remembered? They’re super fun to go back and purchase. With the knowledge that you’ve given yourself some decent emotional distance from them.

  17. Riv

    Great advice! As a plus sized, non hourglass shaped person, I’ve only recently gotten over the “omg, it fits on my weird body, so that means I’m obligated to buy it!” mentality. It used to mean I’d get things that didn’t particularly flatter me or make a coherent style, just because they were the rare things from the mall that I could fit into. Now I’ve gained more confidence and the beginnings of a sense of style, and I try to do most shopping in stores with a wide selection of options in my size range–that way I have fewer scarcity mentality moments.

  18. Cedar

    My issue is shoes that don’t quite fit, or shoes that appeared to fit really well in the store, but once I actually wear them for a few hours in real life, they’re terrible. And even once I realized that, it’s difficult to get rid of them.

  19. Jill

    Great post!
    “Do I love this because it’s perfectly “me” or because it’s incredibly familiar?”
    I think I had a little revelation over that statement alone.

  20. Katy

    I think buying something that ALMOST fits is one of the worst things women do. When I worked in retail so many ladies would come in and buy something that was too snug to fit right, with the thought they would lose weight or they were having a fat day – because heaven forbid you go up a size. I always tried to stress that we look better in a size that fits properly no matter what the tag says. – Katy
    PS For me I catch myself in the check outline and then realizing I own something way too similar to the thing I’m about to get.

  21. Ravina

    This is exactly what I needed to read today! I’ve been unemployed for a couple months and though it is partly liberating it is also depressing. I’ve taken to going shopping a lot because it gets me out of the house and gives me something to do… but then I end up buying things with my dwindling funds. These tips are just what I needed – especially the HALT trick! Going shopping when hungry is my ultimate downfall. =)

  22. eyeliah

    I tweeted as well, great tips to remember, I’ve bought many things I didin’t need in the past and try not to repeat the mistakes. Also I’d say buying something made of cheap synthetics, it will only last a few wears.

  23. Tracey

    Love these common sense tips. I was just introduced to the rule of 3 (new items must go with at least 3 things in your closet) a few weeks ago. It was like a light bulb moment. My other learning is if I have that niggling doubt in my stomach then I need to walk away. 99% of the time I have that little doubt I end up regretting my decision.

  24. Maythe

    A big pitfall for me is buying for the person I want to be, rather than the person I am. Not just in terms of bodyshape, but confidence levels and attitude too. I also buy individual items I like, whether or not I have an outfit they fit into. I’m getting better though.

    This reminds me I need to have a big wardrobe clear out before my next shopping date with my Mum and Sister! Any hints on that front?

  25. rb

    I think I suffer from all of these pitfalls!

    My big one I think falls into the emotional category, but it’s not exactly to fill a void. When I have a rare hour or two to myself, I often treat myself by taking me shopping. I have only recently realized this is a pattern with me, and I’ve been trying to come up with other treats that don’t involve food or shopping, but it’s difficult! I think a lot of marketing is geared toward the “treat yourself” mentality, and I am very susceptible to it.

  26. Ruby

    This is a great idea for a post and these are a great checklist. I’ve made too many online purchases under the influence of HALT and wishful thinking about sizing (after I lose 5 lbs, it’ll look perfect) and have become uncomfortable with my relationship to shopping (consumption as fun). I’m trying out a shopping diet for six months while still trying to celebrate dressing as fun. Your blog is very inspiring to me for outfit combinations and ways to work with the ample amount of clothing I’ve already got.

  27. Maria

    Great advice! Actually I’ve been following the “leave it at the store for a day or two and if you keep thinking about it, go back and get it” philosophy since my childhood – came in handy with only meager funds (pocket money) from the parents. But when I started earning and could afford myself a lot more… well, I am sure you can imagine what followed then LOL I am trying to bring myself back to using my childhood philosophy but my major pitfalls are indeed thrifting (OMG, it’s cheap and it won’t be here tomorrow!) and shopping while travelling: while I do like to shop in different cities/countries, since clothes/shoes/accessories serve also as a memento and give me warm and fuzzy feeling when I wear the stuff back home, I also tend to buy more since “I won’t come back here and I will probably regret not buying it”. i am working on it, using HALT as well )))

  28. stephani

    As always–great advice!
    I fall into the emotional shopping pitfall–whether it’s shoes, lipstick, new jeans (although, who doesn’t always need new jeans? hm. I guess I need to examine that thought.), a new DVD, whatever. I feel the urge to buy something I might not otherwise purchase because I’m emotionally unsettled. Usually, at least. Used to be I’d buy something because I felt bored. Sometimes it’s the anxiety of having an event and having nothing to wear that’s appropriate or that makes me feel good–or the perception of this condition.
    Except when it comes to fabric shopping–then I tend to fall into the “someday….” pitfall. As in, someday I’ll use this to make something fabulous–after the 20 other sewing projects I’ve already got waiting in the queue. But that’s how fabric stashes are formed.

  29. Angela

    Amazing – I literally bought orange platform sandals that were half a size too small a couple of months back. Good example! In my defense, they were my actual size, but the sizing ran small on that particular shoe and return shipping costs were astronomical…

  30. SarahN

    This is great, Sally. I think I do pretty well avoiding these traps, but my methods have been more external:

    A good tailor: My wardrobe is by no means “well-edited” but I have learned to appreciate and wear what I already own, rather than constantly shopping for something new. Finding a good tailor has been instrumental with this: when the clothes you already have fit properly, you don’t need to buy more.

    Have a savings goal: I watched a Suze Orman program on PBS last week and something she said really struck me: “The pleasure you get from saving needs to exceed the pleasure you get from spending.” I’ve spent the last year saving up for a big down payment on a new car lease, and I also paid off a credit card in that time (I do still have a balance on another card). Having a savings goal and accomplishing it has made a huge difference. I feel like I’ve turned a corner in my financial health: seeing that zero balance on my card when I do my online banking feels GOOD. It feels better than a new dress or pair of shoes. Does that mean I haven’t bought anything in a year? Definitely not. I’ve bought more than a few vintage frocks on Ebay in the past few months. But I try to pay cash, and I try to run through all those questions before buying. I think of my tailor and my consignment shop as my safety nets.

    A budget: Another turning point for me was creating a household budget. It’s amazing how a simple spreadsheet can keep you honest about your spending habits. Having to enter that random emotional purchase in the “debit” column feels BAD. It feels bad MORE than a new dress or pair of shoes feels GOOD.

  31. Marcy

    My husband and I have a tactic of leaving the store without the item. If we contine to other stores and love it enough to go back for it, we get it. It gives you time and distance to think about how much you really liked the item.

    I am just building my wardrobe so your question about 3 outfits it would work with won’t help me personally. Instead I have a list of outfits I’d like to own (inspired by you, Audi, and Headlines and Hemlines) and I try to look for the items I need to have that wardrobe. I’m not much of a shopper and not into trendy clothes, so it may take me years!

  32. Mortira

    This is some great advice! Shopping should be just as fun after the fact as it is when you’re doing it. I use questions and checklists like this for all kinds of shopping, like craft supplies, home decor, even groceries. New foods have to pass the “will it be good left over?” test.

  33. Kate

    These are great tips. The pitfall I most often fall into is shopping to make myself feel better. I have gotten into a very bad habit of doing that in the last couple of months and it really isn’t making things better for me. Time to face the problems head on instead of escaping to a mall.

  34. Emma at Daily Clothes Fix

    HALT is fantastic. I am so bad at buying for these reasons rather than having a gap in my wardrobe that needs filling. Then I end up with stuff I don’t need that ends up at clothes swaps.

  35. GNee

    I wish I would’ve know about Rule #5 last summer. I was invited to aGraduation/Happy Divorce Party at a Fancy Club and it was the first time in years that I had to purchase a ‘party dress’. At the time, I had just started losing weight so I only thinking of looking presentable for that ‘that evening’. Big mistake. I now have a strapless orange, white and black multi-tiered dress that is several sizes too big for me and I don’t even think I can use it as a fun skirt (which was supposed to be an option when I bought it). The only bonus, I did end up with a pair of orange platform sandals that match several items in my wardrobe. Tangerine orange is one of favorite colors.

  36. ulterior banana

    When I was a young teenager, I lived near the mall, so every time I had a fight with my parents, I could run away melodramatically, slamming the door behind me, and end up with a brand new hot pink dress from forever 21 to ease my angsty soul.

    That, along with the door slamming, was something i always greatly regretted the next day.

  37. Lyddiegal

    I am very guilty of shopping to fill emotional holes, and buying the same thing over and over again. Usually because I am searching for “the perfect one” but everyone I come across in the mean time I buy just to hold me over until “perfect” finally comes along. Which is how I ended up with 10 striped shirts – but I’m pretty certain my most recent one, with the sequins, is perfect.

  38. Aza

    I am definitely guilty of stress shopping. Being a university student in engineering, school often gets stressful and sometimes when I really feel the pressure and want to cry, I end up consoling myself by buying a few shirts…

    Also I will buy something cheap even if it’s not perfect. If that one cute dress is just a tad loose but is only $10, I won’t mind…

  39. Angeline

    Love this! I am a serial returner, so I ALWAYS check the return policy before I buy. You never know why you might just change your mind (and you should definitely get the money back if you do).

  40. Lydia

    I window shop lots — I walk into a department store to use the washroom, or have a coffee nearby. Problem is, I ~DON’T buy stuff, and I can tell you this is as frustrating as buying too much. It is a running joke in my family that I can spend hours in place and not buy a thing.

    I actually get super annoyed with myself because it is a waste to set aside time to find work pants for example, and come up empytyhanded again and again. I do go through phases where I find lots of outfits that work for me all at once, and then I feel as bad, because I want balance not extremes.

    My shopping pitfall when I do find things though, is to look for a bargain. I have a magical price point in my head that I will pay for somthing. Then again, when I find that perfectly imagined item, I will just dive in and buy it, but it takes days and days to make a decision, and by then, I have driven my husband nuts with all my indecision.

  41. Rachel K

    Great post! I can completely empathize with Jane – buying things I don’t need, just to buy them. Which could also fall into the Buying to make myself feel better category. I’ve gotten a lot better about this since my husband has been unemployed and shopping trips have been cut from a monthly occurrence to, well, never. Not having any money to spend on (unneeded) clothing has made me realize what an abundance of clothing and shoes I have. I went 3 weeks without doing laundry to save on the electric/water bill and surprisingly could have gone another week and still had clothing left to wear. I counted and I have 37 pair of shoes. RIDICULOUS! It actually made me feel embarrassed because I’m always whining that I don’t have $ to shop.

    I definitely fall into three of these categories: Buying to feel better, Buying b/c it’s on sale & Buying similar items that I already own. I feel like when the time comes that we are more financially blessed than we are now, I will be much more conscience of my bad shopping habits and reverse them. I’m also bad about thrifting items that I never wear – I initially love them, then don’t have the courage to wear them b/c I typically thrift unusual or vintage pieces.

  42. beautybets

    The single most important rule for sale shopping:
    If you wouldn’t consider buying it at full price, don’t by it on sale.

    The question I ask myself before buying any item of clothing:
    Is this going to be my new favorite thing to wear? If the answer is no + it’s not a basic, then PASS.

  43. malevolent andrea

    Late to the party, but my shopping Achilles’ Heel is online discount codes. I get the email: 30% off! Free shipping! Extra 20% off clearance items! and I’m clicking over to the website to look, because, OMG, it’s a great deal and I’m sitting at my computer anyway… Lots of impulse purchases are made this way, and while sometimes impulse purchases turn out great, other times, not so much. And the amazon model where you get free shipping if you spend x amount? It’s embarrassing how many times I’ve bought $20 items I didn’t need and didn’t particularly want just to save $7 shipping charges.

  44. dotty

    this is such a great post! every once in awhile i buy something that i just can’t take off. really, i should ONLY be buying things that i like that much!

  45. Joanne

    Love your site! Just something to think about when wondering whether to purchase that gorgeous dress, pants or blouse: can it be washed or is it a dry clean only item? It can be a pricey piece if dry clean only!