Looking Sharp Without Gutting Your Wallet

I have a job interview tomorrow, so that inspires me to talk suits. Even though we're in the 21st century, skirt suits are still a safer bet for women. However, pant suits are just more versatile for the everyday workplace. What's a girl to do? Mix and match, of course. It's cheaper than getting 2 suits.

Easier said than done. Here's the dilemma--one suit alone is inherently expensive and it's not something you'd want to skim on. Being me, I demand great quality for a mid-tier price (which is more realistic than the usual "rock bottom pricing.") Around March or so this year, just weeks before my first set of interviews for a summer job, I set out looking for a suit. My goal was to spend less than $100. I didn't think it was going to take more than a few trips. I was wrong.

I started rummaging through the sales rack of several department stores in several different cities. It took many hours spread over 2 days. No go. My rail-thin figure complicates matters--even the x-small's at several places, including Ann Taylor, were too big for me. Too bad, since Ann Taylor had a suit sale at the time--theoretically you could get a really nice suit for around $70, or even $50 at the best-case scenario, if you can find a jacket and skirt that matched. Alas, I was not that lucky. The next weekend I went to a huge outlet mall. That didn't work out for me either. The week after that, I went to a smaller outlet mall. I tried on different jackets at the BCBG outlet, which were marked down an additional 40%. They actually fitted quite well! Could have been more fitted, but the cuts were so good that even a size 2 draped over me nicely without looking bulky. Over the next hour or so, I went around the store trying to match the color of the jacket to a skirt. That wasn't easy--dye jobs often don't match. Some are a bit faded and carried a greenish tint. Even if the colors match, the size often doesn't. I was quite surprised that their size 0's were so fitted--in fact, a little too fitted. I had to settle for a size 2 that sat on the hips...low-rise skirt suit, but as long as I kept the jacket buttoned up, no one can tell. It was better to have a "longer" skirt anyways. At the end, an ensemble that could have cost about $400 became $106, including tax. Definitely a good investment.

I went back to the store last month in hopes of finding a good charcoal gray suit, but I was told that suiting won't come in around Fall, which is now! So if you're in a desperate need for a suit NOW and don't mind paying a little extra for the quality (which I can assure you is good--LOVE the fabric), then go for it. Another option (for those from LA) is to just try things on for size and wait for the BCBG sample sale in November. It's a really long wait for the opportunity to rummage through a really huge warehouse, with no try-ons (yes, they actually have people patrolling the aisles), but the deals are excellent. When I went last time, jackets were going for $50 and skirts/pants were $25. If I get lucky this year, I can get a suit for $75 and that complete 3-piece suit for $100! Yet another option is to wait until Spring, when they're clearing out the suits. Also, sample sales and fundrasing sales for high-end clothing is another way to score a good deal. If you don't mind gently-used clothing, you can hit resale stores or other special sales; in LA, TV studios and costuming companies occasionally sell off their wardrobes, which may include expensive suits that have only been worn a few times. See, so many options!

If your plan to build your suit through the piecemeal method, it'll be tricker. Black is the easiest to match, and unless your interviewer has a magnifying glass for an eye, it's hard to discern inexact matches. Make sure you wear your jacket or pants to the store--the downside to these outlets is the "final sale--no returns" stamp on the receipt, so be careful.

Usually buying things online tend to be cheaper, but unless you know exactly which suit you want, or you're just looking for something for work, I'd caution against it. It's better to be able to feel the fabric, look at the seams, and see the fit.


Picks from Macy's 1-day Sale

I love the Macy's clearance section because of the big selection, but I love it even more when there's an extra 25% off. The shoe section is usually the first that I dash for. The downside is the shipping and tax...if you live in certain states like CA, you'll get docked for it. Unlike other sites with flat-rate shipping fees, Macy's pro-rate according to how much you buy. It's one of the few instances where buying less is better. Shipping is $4.95 for under $25, then $6.95 for $25-50, then $8.95 for another range. To maximize my savings, I try to limit myself to a few items that are severely marked down. Good way to keep myself from spending too much.

I really like these cute little boxer shorts. They're great to lounge in, and I usually wear one underneath mini-skirts as a safeguard against accidental exposures. They offer better coverage and hey, even if you do walk over a vent, you can show off these cuties. The best part is that they're $5 each (instead of $14) and available in different sizes. Not quite rock-bottom prices, but they're still cheaper than boxers at American Eagle (even when on clearance) and at sample sales. I got a $5 pair from a Calvin Klein showroom--really cute, but there's a big fat "sample" stamp on the back.

Another pick is this sporty jacket. I definitely won't pay $50 for this, and I still won't pay $25. At $18, I probably would (but I won't because I already have another sporty jacket). This is pretty cool because they have 3 different colors AND different sizes. Usually you don't get that choice for closeouts. Yes, it's "clearance," but perfect for the Fall and goes with everything...

...which brings me to another "soapbox moment." When I shop, I don't believe in buying outfits. Even if the item you're coveting is "cheap," it'll be money wasted if you'll have to get something else to match. So keep a mental inventory of what's in your closet. If what you're looking at is a top, see if it'll either match with denim or black/gray/brown pants, since those are the most basic combinations. If not, and you don't have anything else that would match, it's time to move on.

Experimenting with clothes that you normally wouldn't try will open your eyes to a whole new fashion horizon, but online shopping is no place for it. Stick with safe stuff that you know you'll wear for the next few years.


How NOT to get rich

A multi-car traffic accident on the 105 Freeway in Hawthorne, CA, was apparently caused by money flying around on freeway this afternoon. People got distracted when attempting to catch the bills as they fluttered by. In the end, it's not worth it--not only are their cars totaled, but a few people wound up with serious injuries. It took about an hour and a half to clean things up and gather the money.

At least the person who lost the money will get most of it back, since a bank deposit slip was found on the freeway. If the driver got hurt while retrieving the money, I bet he/she would be pissed. Now they'll probably have to give that money up if they were found to be negligent.

Doubling the buzz for half the bucks

Nothing wakes me up better than a fresh double shot of espresso or its milk-laden derivatives. I made myself a latte this morning and I'm still buzzing (it's now close to dinner time). Since good caffeine can be so pricy, I used to wait until I can get gift cards before I hit the coffee shops. Fortunately, thanks to the generosity of my friends, I now have an espresso machine of my own.

A friend of mine has a great way to get as much buzz as possible in a latte that costs $1.50 or less. That's almost unheard of! A regular brewed coffee costs that much already! So what's her secret? She gets a double shot of espresso, then add milk to dilute it. If you're a coffee afficionado, I know that you're not gonna like this, but for most of us, presentation doesn't really matter since the coffee will be hidden in a cup anyway. It's all the same stuff as a latte, macchiato, or cappuccino anyways--all 3 names sound fancy, distinguished only by the proportions of foamed or steamed milk in each.

An added benefit of a latte as opposed to a straight shot of espresso is that your caffeine will lasts you longer, which means less money spent throughout the day. With a shot, it's not good unless you down it, well, as a shot. You might run the risk of being so jazzed up that it becomes hard to concentrate, and you might even crash hard--that'll seriously backfire if you have a deadline. With a mixed drink, the buzz is much more sustained. It's more like a steady IV drip.


How to maximize your generosity

Instead of blowing your bargain savings on another shopping trip, think of people who have no money to buy even the most basic of necessities. Donating your money to fellow human beings is the best use for your money. Not only do you feel good about it, it really does help people get back on their feet.

Getting the bang for your buck is great for your stuff, but it is just as important when it comes to charity. One way to maximize your donation is to look for groups that are willing to match. You'll be surprised by how far it'll go. For example, I was trying to decide how much to give and which charity to donate to when one of my professors gave us a challenge: he wanted us to each bring in $2 for a goal of raising $250 total. In turn, he would match it and then bring it to a place that was willing to match as well. The response turned out to be overwhelming: I could only afford to give a humble $5 (which eventually turns into $20, if you do the math), and some others gave $30 and even $125. The class (of around 100 people) raised a whopping $1,152! The prof matched it and brought it to the place that would match and donate all the money to the Red Cross. At first, the person there thought the prof collected it from his colleagues, but she was stunned to learn that it all came from us debt-ridden students.

If you find old clothes squeezing your new bargain finds out of your closet, or see old appliances lying around, consider cleaning them out. Many schools and community groups are accepting donations of clothing or practically anything else. One of my classmates has family in New Orleans, and many of her relatives have absolutely nothing, so she organized a drive that takes anything and everything. Things like extra school supplies or desk lamps will go a long way for many people. Even if the drives in your community have ended, Thanksgiving is coming up, so keep that in mind.

And if time is money, you can certainly give that as well. If you're in a major metro area, chances are evacuees are in your area. Your local Red Cross might have shelters serving them, and I'm sure they'll appreciate help serving food. If you have special professional skills (or training for them), I know that various law schools and medical schools are organizing free clinics. For example, Public Counsel, one of the country's biggest pro bono firms, is training lawyers and law students to help fill out forms for public assistance and provide other legal services to those who need them.

Last but not least, please don't limit your generosity to times of crisis. Situations like this had been years in the making, and it's important for us to help resolve social issues before they snowball into a catastrophe. Hopefully the good feeling you get from opening your hearts now will inspire you to continue doing good. I know it sounds like a cliche, but believe me, it really does make a difference in the long run.


A cute skirt I won't allow myself to buy

I've already spent enough money on clothes. 5 bucks here, 5 bucks there. When I saw this cute Ella Moss skirt for $15, I thought it's a great deal (especially considering it was running around $100).

But still, I'm gonna have to say no. =( At least for now.

Yes, it's "only" $15, which is right at the border line of what I allow myself to spend for skirts. But I have to figure in shipping and then tax, so in the end it'll come out to $25. I mean, it's cute, but not too special. I can find another skirt that is similar. If I really want to, I can even put my own ribbon on it.

So whoever wants it, it's yours. Better off for me if it's gone, since it won't tempt me anymore.

Another petrochemical crisis

Pay attention when you're driving. With another hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, you just might run smack into another huge fossil fuel price bump. There are no outlet stores for gasoline and shelling out money for it is inevitable, but there are a few things we can do to save a few bucks (for another shopping trip, of course).

If you're a student living away from home (but not too far from it), visit your family once in a while. Besides getting fed and getting your laundry done without first worrying if you have enough quarters for the dryer too, you can also do some TLC for your car. Wash it with a garden hose in your drive way. That, along with the food and laundry money saved, will get you money for a few more gallons of gas. But the big pay-off is the gas price. The farther away you get from the metro area of a big city, the cheaper the gas prices are. In my case, the difference between where I'm living and where my family lives is about 20 cents a gallon. I don't have one of those Shell credit cards that gives rebates for gas, but if anyone does, let us know how well that works. Of course, the savings plan only works out if home is less than 50 miles away. Even if it's not, seeing your family, in most cases, will help reduce the bill for the shrink in the future. Being a student can really suck sometimes, but having family around once in a while helps.

Food in the suburbs is also cheaper. Those areas tend to have more Walmarts, Targets, Big Lots, and big and clean 99 Cents Stores that actually have good merchandise. Big Asian and Hispanic markets are also a good source for cheap produce and canned goods, but warehouse-style stores like Food 4 Less tend to have better deals for meat, bread, dairy products, and frozen stuff.

Cheap is now cool

Good to know the up-and-coming generation knows how to save money too.

This week's edition of Thursday Styles in the New York Times features an article call "Teenagers Shop For Art of the Deal." Here are excerpts and my commentary:

"GABY Yosca can stretch a dollar like a bungee chord. Last weekend, during an hourlong shopping expedition at a Salvation Army store in downtown Manhattan, Ms. Yosca, a 15-year-old sophomore at the Dalton School, worked with a budget that was modest but elastic enough in her expert hands to accommodate four dresses, an aqua-tinted tank top, a brown corduroy blazer, two silk shirts, two belts, a pocketbook and a volume on makeup. 'I scored,' she gloated as she watched the cashier ring up her haul for a grand total of $62.50...Ms. Yosca, as she may be aware, typifies a new breed of dollar-conscious teenager. Many are the offspring of affluent parents and have the means to pay retail prices for, say, a coveted Chloe Paddington Bag, Seven jeans or Ralph Lauren bed linens. But they would rather chase a deal."

It's refreshing to know that even well-off kids are saving money. Bargain shopping is a skill that came to me through necessity...I've been economically-deprived most of my life (and style-deprived until 2 years ago, when I finally fine-tuned the cheap-with-quality radar). There is a good chance that I'll make good money a few years down the line, but even if I do get rich,I'll still be cheap, and I'll teach my kids to shop the same way. Why? It's the economy, stupid. You never know when there's a rainy day. Also, conspicuous consumerism is just plain mean. Money alone doesn't make you a better person. Working for it and using it wisely does. Economic hardship certainly shaped my character and work ethic. Finally, it's a very marketable skill. Whether you're a CEO or a purchasing manager, having the ability to bargain shop will help your business thrive. Not to mention the possibility that you'll move up a few notches on the corporate ladder, assuming you're not already on the top.

"Call them cheapskates. They don't mind. For this group, pinching pennies is a competitive sport: a test of cunning and a point of pride."

Couldn't have said it better myself =) The economic social gap is still as wide as the Grand Canyon, but if being cheap is less of a stigma, hopefully the same can be said for being poor.

"And she shops for vintage clothes and accessories at flea markets at the New Jersey shore, where she spends summer weekends. She has learned to practice fiscal restraint. 'I always test myself,' she said. 'If I see something in a magazine I really like, I'll put it aside. If I still want it in about four weeks, I'll actually consider it. By that time it might be on sale.'"

I'm not into thrift shops or the vintage thing ("vintage" just conjures up images of the Olsen Twins' Druggie-boho-chic...*shivers*), but since it's a money-saving trend, I'm all for it. What the girl said is so true; it seems like there's a sale at the mall every few weeks, if not every week. The pace of fashion is more like a sprint--things you find at Forever 21 3 weeks ago might already have been cleared out because people are "so over it" already. Sometimes it's a good thing, since removing glaring colors is beneficial to public health and safety, but sometimes it's annoying when sensible, comfortable clothes are no more.

"In a shift of priorities, many today are pressuring their parents to pay for such high-ticket expenditures as cable on demand, a satellite car radio system, TiVo or additional cellphone minutes. 'But when it comes to typical categories of big spending - fashion and beauty - they're just over it,' Ms. Wells said."

I guess I was wrong about my earlier comment on conspicuous consumerism. Fashion is still a status symbol, but electronics overshadows it by a factor of 10. At least electronics are useful. It never made any sense to me why people want pay money just to be a walking billboard.

"Web sites like eBay and Overstock.com are among the beneficiaries of frugal adolescents. 'In the past year or so we've noticed that a lot of our junior apparel has started flying off the shelf,' said Stormy Simon, the vice president for offline marketing at Overstock. Those findings, she added, were a surprise. She was equally taken aback to discover that in the last year the company has seen a 97 percent growth in users under age 24. 'We really haven't targeted
those guys,' she said. 'That category is new for us.'"

The last part really surprises me as well, since I just had a conversation with some guy friends about this. Apparently they have no concept of bargain shopping and would rather pay a hundred bucks for a pair of Diesel jeans. Maybe it's a sign I should forward this article to them, hint hint.


Have you hit the sales rack yet?

Just like the ants that invaded my apartment to stock up for the colder seasons, I've been strolling through sales racks (real and virtual) for things I can wear next spring or summer. Why? Because I'm cheap. Really cheap. That, and because Southern California weather allows me to eek more mileage out the clothes before I have to pack them up. How does it work? Well, I look for pieces that aren't too trendy but looks chic year after year. Sounds cliche, but that's how I've managed to look good and still have money for gas (to do more shopping or more constructive things).

Over the summer, I rediscovered the joys of shopping at Target. I went there to nab a couple of deals, such as a movie poster frame for $6.24 (down from $25). Only once (ok, more like twice on the same trip) did I break my rule of not paying full price for anything, but it was money well spent. I bought a pair of blue Mossimo sandals at $17 and Issac Mizrahi faux-croc pumps at $28 (which is a monstrous sum for me), and I got lots of compliments for them when I was at work. In fact, one of my co-workers liked the sandals so much that she went to Target that very night to get a white pair for herself. Now I want a white pair too--the thin straps look good year after year without looking dated. My blue ones really stand out, which may or may not be a good thing. At least blue is "safe" enough a color that it'll still see daylight in another 250 days or so.

Unfortunately, the sandals are no longer available in Target stores. I usually wait for further reductions, but nowadays Target move their old stocks out pretty quickly. They're on sale for $8.49. If my bank account isn't in danger of flatlining, I would have gotten the white ones already.

In anticipation of rainy season, I did comparison shopping for wellies. I didn't want monochrome ones that make me look like a fisherman, so I aimed for something with cute but not too kiddy prints. After an initial search for boots that had designs on them, Target was the next lowest price at $19.99. They were cute, but they ranged from overflashy (cabana stripes) to underflashy (polkadots that were too small to be appreciated). Bluefly had the next lowest price, but the Ralph Lauren ones starting at $25 a pop were just not "me." Boutiques had cute ones, but they were, of course, boutique-priced. Then I remembered seeing some cool ones from Esprit for $40. I had been eyeing them once in a while, just waiting for the price to come down. Lo and behold, it's now 50% off, up from 30% just weeks ago!

But even then I was debating whether I should buy it. If the price dropped to 70%, that's another $8 off. I'm accustomed to waiting it out and winning, but this time I wasn't so sure; by the time it takes the price to drop further, there might not be any left. Since the 50% price is still cheaper than Target, I decided to go for it. Good call, since my size was gone the next day. Those who wear Size 9's and above can probably wait another few weeks and snatch it up for $11.