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Spend Smartly, Not Sparsely Comments

Why I value being picky over penny-pinching

smart shopping

A friend of mine recently landed a new job as an HR generalist, a role that’d require her to trade in the jeans-and-sweater combo she’d come to rely on for something more structured, to show she means business. I offered to take her to my secret lair: an upscale consignment shop where I regularly score designer duds for pennies on the dollar. She happily obliged, and we set a date to go hunting. 

Except, when it came time to cruise the racks, she hit the brakes. “No,” she said when I held up a seriously underpriced Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, a steal at $100. “It’s too much.” “How about this?” I said, pulling a basic, yet elegant, black number off its hanger, a piece from a contemporary designer regularly sold at places like Bloomingdale’s. “It’s a four-season dress. You can wear it with a cardigan, and—”

“How much is it?” she demanded again, and before I could showcase further benefits, like how it’d look just as great with flats as it would with a 4-inch stiletto, she reached over to glance at the price tag. “$70,” she said. “No.”

I knew then I had my work cut out for me. 

It’s not that my friend is cheap — if anything, she’s one of the most generous people I know and regularly devotes a fair share of her time to handling the neuroses of a particular freelance writer — it’s that to her, a $100 dress is a $100 dress, triple the amount she’d have spent at places like Old Navy and Target. It didn’t matter — at first — that the dress would have retailed for three times that amount at a boutique, or that she could wear it at least once a week to work; it was more than she was willing to spend on something she’d wear in a cubicle, period. And yet at the end of the day, those fast fashion pieces cost more. Who hasn’t witnessed the plight of an H&M skirt that slowly but sadly shrinks into the size of a dinner napkin after just a couple of washes? (I won’t judge if you still tried to wear it, anyway.)


A mentor of mine recently told me she’d sooner give up groceries than forego her weekly salon blowout, and I totally get it: There’s real value added when we invest in ourselves. A $70 bimonthly facial feels good, sure, but it also means I don’t need to wear as much makeup ($45 Make Up For Ever HD foundation that stays on all day with nary a touch up, if you’re curious), which, in turn, keeps my complexion clearer and my rear end out of my dermatologist’s chair, save for annual checkups. She shoots, she saves! My $400 Frye boots — which, by the way, I scored on eBay for $200 — help me pound the pavement without the nipping pain accompanied by poorly made shoes, critical for a city-dweller whose car rides consist mostly of sitting in the backseat of an occasional Uber

Even when my reserves are dwindling, I make room in my budget for organic produce, the bulk of which is pulverized into a 32-ounce green smoothie that I drink every morning without fail. “That’s an expensive breakfast,” my mother commented after listening to me count off the pieces of fruit and vegetable I use in each serving, a woman whose frugality kept our middle-class family afloat during difficult times growing up, but who also has a weakness for sales at J.C. Penney and more scarves, sweaters and winter coats (last count: eight) than one could feasibly wear in an entire winter. Instead of shooting back a pithy remark about coupons and strip malls, I pointed out the health benefits that would come to serve me for potentially the rest of my life. She nodded, and changed the subject.

That’s the trick, though, if you want to call it that: Show and tell why it’s worth spending more on a few well-made things instead of maintaining an overflowing closet full of cast-offs. Not plead and beg. Sometimes, our brains place a psychological grip on us and keep us in our comfort zones, even though it’s just a change of view that will help us go big. I knew if my friend could see how fabulous she’d look, and eventually, feel, in a better-made frock, that it’d be a no-brainer to take it home. I pulled another wrap dress from the rack, this one $40 and by a lesser-known brand and half-guided, half-pushed her toward a fitting room. (By the way, it’s never about the label; it’s always about the cut and quality.) “Just see how it looks,” I said. “You don’t have to buy it.” 

A few minutes later, she emerged, and there it was: a polished, beautiful woman who stood beaming in a dress that seemed to be made just for her, someone who would no doubt be taken seriously in an office full of professionals. Like my mother did when I was a kid, I checked the seams and buttons to ensure everything was in working order while my friend angled and posed in front of the mirror. “I look good,” she admitted, smiling. “No,” I said. “You look amazing.” 

She bought the dress and another one — a lightweight printed sheath, perfect for spring and summer months — and on our return trip to the train station, stopped by Sephora, where my friend conceded to a $19 travel-sized tube of Smashbox BB cream after seeing its transformative effect on the back of her hand. (Seriously, that stuff is a cosmological wunderkind.) 

I also declared a small victory in convincing my sister to return a wallet she bought on a flash sale site that, price-wise, was a good buy, but she simply didn’t love. Because that’s the other thing: We’ll always be bombarded with endless options, whether it’s what we wear and eat, who our friends are, and even where we live. But if we choose well, we'll always get our money's worth.

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