Tool of the Trade: A Shopping Equation

shopping equation2018 Updateshopping equation - how to always get a great deal on clothes for work and beyond - image of sale signs via Flickr: We still stand by this shopping equation, and we’ve made some updated graphics for it — but also note that the readers had a ton of great suggestions as well. You may also want to check out our most recent discussion on fashion math.

We’ve talked before about how to get great deals on clothes, but we’ve never really delved into The Shopping Equation.  (Pictured:  Big trouble, originally uploaded to Flickr by jakerome.)

Basically, before we buy any piece of clothing, we do a general assessment — a shopping equation, if you will:

How many seasons can we wear it? — Is the fabric or color going to leave you stuck in one season only?  Is the quality of the piece high enough that it’s going to last you (if you take care of it well)?  Is the piece too trendy? Subtract $5 for each season you expect to be able to wear it in.  So, for example, the $295 BOSS skirt from earlier today — we would expect something like that to last at least three years with proper care, and it can be worn for all four seasons.  So we’d subtract $60 from the perceived cost of the piece.

How many compliments will you get on it? Add at least $5 per compliment.  (This comes in handy if you’re considering a new bag, or a trendier piece like a Balmain blazer or the like.)  (In practice, we find this works better in the reverse — after buying an item of clothing we’ve found some pieces to be absolutely irreplaceable because the actual cost of the clothing was so dwarfed by the number of compliments we received on it.)

What is the care for the item? If it’s a natural fiber like wool, cashmere, or silk, we will almost always take our chances and wash it in Woolite eventually — and so far, with good results.  On the other hand, “dry clean only” labels should really (probably) (so they say) be taken at their word — meaning it adds a cost of $5-$10 for every time you have to dry clean it.  Sometimes there’s no way around this, and it doesn’t add that much to the cost of the item because you don’t have to dryclean it more than once or twice a season.  (Winter coats — wool suits — etc.)  However, if you’re considering a rayon “dry clean only” sweater shell for $20, be aware that the actual price to you will be much higher.

How many DAYS will you wear it? We did this math when we were considering buying a fancy watch.  Let’s say you wear it 5 days a week for five years — it’s a statement piece and you’ll be glad to have it every day you wear it.  Let’s say that you’re so glad to wear it, that you’d be willing to drop $2 in a bucket for each day.  We’d subtract $2600 from the perceived cost of the watch.  ($2 a day, five days a week, for 52 weeks, for 5 years.)  (The corollary here:  how long have you wanted it?  If you had put $2 a day aside every time the thought crossed your mind, that Vuitton bag starts looking downright reasonable.)

What interest will you incur on it? Finally — we talk a lot about splurge items on this site (every Monday!) but part of the equation when buying clothing or accessories should always be:  do I have the money in my bank account to pay for this right now?  Your clothes purchases should never put you in debt.  If there’s some circumstance you just can’t resist, you should add your credit card’s interest rate onto the purchase of your clothes.  That “deal” may start to look a lot less appetizing.

Readers, those are some of our factors — how do you decide whether to buy something?  When to splurge?  When to snap the deal up?

Every woman has a shopping equation that plays out in her head -- her way of figuring out whether the price is right (particularly if it's a sale item). So: we shared our shopping equation for workwear! After all, if the piece needs to be dry cleaned or ironed and you only look "meh" in it, that's a good reason to step away from it... Great discussion with the readers on how they think about prices for workwear, as well as when to splurge and when to save...


  1. The care required for the item is really one of those under-considered costs of the outfit. The cost of a sweater dress increases dramatically if I only wear it once per season because it’s going to sit in my laundry basket for weeks before I hand-wash it.

    • This is so true — and the reason why I don’t purchase dry clean/dry clean only sweaters.

    • I use Dry-El for all my wool sweaters and have had good luck. Wear a cami or some other sort of liner underneath, and you can usually last for a few wears, so I only Dry-El them twice a season.

    • I dry clean just about all work clothes (which are generally wool, silk or cotton). The fact that they never shrink, wear out or fade is a logevity factor for me. It costs more, but I recoup the expense in the extended life of the garment. I would rather buy 2 sweaters and pay for dry cleaning than 5 that I have to wash and iron.

  2. My buying decisions are more of a subtle weighing of how much I like the item against the cost and whether I have a need for it. I do have one relatively recent rule I impose on myself, which is that if it costs more than ~$20 it must be the sort of thing I could wear with a strand of pearls. My attempt to stop reinforcing my casual wardrobe of mostly t-shirts.

    • Not to destroy your efforts at frugality – but pearls with a t-shirt looks classy in my book.

    • I’ve done just about the same exact thing!! For things under $20, I recommend Century 21 in New York, H&M, Forever 21 (young, yes, but I actually have some cute tops from there if you look hard enough, trendy accessories for super cheap, and a pair of $12 jeans that have now lasted for over 2 years), Old Navy for sundresses, and various sales online.

      • Love Old Navy! Wish we had Century 21 here — I loved them when I was in college.

        Anyone get the wisdome of adding to the cost for compliments? Seems like that would decrease the perceived cost or be irrelevant altogether.

        • I didn’t read that as adding to the cost. Think she meant that you can pay an additional $5 for any item if its going to get one additional compliment.

    • These days, I make a concerted effort not to buy things I can’t wear to work (apart from obvious things, like swimwear) unless they are really cheap – as you say, more than ~$20.

      I figure that I spend 5 1/2 days at work about 1/2 day out and about and a full day at home. I figure the money is better spent on something I can get away with wearing 7 days a week.

      • i meant *not* ~$20. eep.

      • I started doing the same thing.
        I am lucky enough to have a smart business casual work environment.
        I can buy tops and cardigans for work that would be lovely on my (only) pair of jeans.
        I feel very happy when I can wear an item in various settings.
        I also have a 20-30 $ rule for weekend wear

      • I try only to buy tops I can wear both to work and on the weekend. Most of my t-shirts are solid-colored and soft cotton rather than logo or graphic shirts, and I tend to buy cardigans rather than jackets. I only own 3 pairs of jeans and all of them are more than 5 years old.

    • Amen! All my going out/fun tops come from the clearance racks at TJ’s/Filene’s, etc. or from knock-off stores like H&M. My at-home lazy lounge wear is mostly from Old Navy, and also a few pieces from clearance sales or outlets at higher end stores.

  3. The year I graduated from law school I splurged on my first pair of $165 jeans and a $250 handbag. It felt extravagant, but then something interesting happened: I didn’t buy another pair of jeans or another handbag for 3 years, because every time I was, e.g, at J.Crew and saw a pair of jeans on sale for $40, I would remind myself of the $165 pair and resist.

  4. Ooh, I love this topic. My rule is not to buy anything that I don’t expect to wear once for every dollar of the price. As a result, I rarely can justify paying full price for anything. I own very few items that cost over $30. I manage this by shopping sales fairly aggressively and stocking up on things instead of waiting until I realize I need something – buying sweaters in May and a winter coat in March, or a swimsuit in September, for example. I also never buy anything of low quality that looks like it would fall apart in a few wearings. My shoes are real leather, not synthetic, and my jewelry is by and large real. My $98 Chantelle bra seems a lot less pricey when it still has its shape after I’ve owned it for 2 years, as do my $125 indestructible Danskos. This strategy won’t work for women who like to follow trends, but if you have more of a classic style and don’t care to change your look very often, it will work great.

    The exception to my rule is formalwear and formal business attire, which unfortunately you have to shell out for despite only needing to wear them infrequently.

    • If you consider potential resale value, buying formalwear becomes painful.

      By the way — using the above calculations, the two $65 Wacoal bras I just bought were practically free.

  5. One facet of “how many days will you wear it?” is how well it works with the rest of your wardrobe – I carefully consider the color and style, and often decide against items that don’t work with the palette of clothes that I own – or will spend a bit more for say, a classic pair of nude pumps or a jewel-tone piece that works well with other things that I own. When you consider what you have, you can new find things to complement what you already love.

    • Absolutely agree with this one! It’s easy to avoid a whole “season” of the new look at J Crew/AT/BR if it doesn’t go with your existing wardrobe and/or doesn’t flatter your skin tone.

    • Totally agree! My mother is the queen of the mismatched “steal” from Ross or Marshalls. And then she tries to match stuff and it looks terrible. My father finally put his foot down–she was only allowed to buy complete outfits or outfits that match with stuff she already owns (and he would help her match–she’s just not good in that department. Anyway, my mother now looks MUCH better.

      I always try to think about how a beautiful, specific red, cognac or saddle color purse or shoes would fit in my wardrobe. And often, the answer is: I love this one piece, but I don’t know what it matches with!

  6. I ask myself if I’ll be able to wear it next year, and if the answer is no, and it isn’t dirt cheap I usually pass.

    Also, I use the rule of five – can I match it up with at least five current items in my wardrobe? If not, leave it. (Obviously does not apply to a dress which is an outfit in itself)

    Is it dry clean only? I leave it b/c I hate remembering to pick up/drop off and will drastically reduce wear-ability

    And finally I go with my first instinct – if I’m at all hesitant I leave it.

    Now, can someone please explain the wisdom of adding to the perceived cost if you expect compliments? Although I doubt I would use that as a reason to purchase/not purchase an item!

    • I think C’s intent is clear on this one, even if the words are not particularly — if you’re expecting lots of compliments, it helps to justify the purchase.

      • That’s not what she said though — to justify the purchase, one would take away from the cost (that’s what the previous instruction indicated), not add to it – hence my confusion. Perhaps a typo?

        • Perhaps settle down?

        • s in Chicago :

          I’m sure the idea is that getting compliments adds value.

          Forgive me for sounding odd on this one, but I would argue that it sort of seems like it should be the opposite if you’re looking at long-term value in terms of use. Particularly striking items that generate attention are some of the most fun purchases, but I don’t necessarily see them as a good investment. They tend to be the most memorable, thus limiting the amount of times you can wear—that lovely red dress quickly turns into “Dear heavens, she is wearing that red dress AGAIN.”

          That said, personally, I don’t think it should matter all that much one way or the other. If it makes you happy, that is what should be most important.

          • I guess it depends what aspect of a piece is being complimented. If it’s a very bold/obvious piece that is being complimented, yes, perhaps then getting twoo many compliments equates to the piece being too forward to wear all that often, making it a less decent value for the money.

            But if it’s a very neutral, but flawless, basic piece (for example, I have some light brown heels that I wear often in summers that get positive remarks almost every time I wear them), compliments probably make the piece a better value for money because they cement the fact that you’ve bought a really versatile piece that is also fabulous.

  7. Delta Sierra :

    I am horribly prone to bargain-fever. I’ve trained myself to think ‘would you consider it if it were full price?’ and if I mentally recoil and think ‘jeeze, no way’ I put it back.

    • So true — More to the point, yes its 50% off, but its still $100, and $100 is too much for this _____ is what goes through my head!

      • Im constantly trying to tell my mother, just because it was a “deal” doesnt mean it was a good purchase or that you should get it!

        Somewhere, maybe here?, I learned to ask myself “do I love it? Regardless of what it costs, do I love it? That has made many a decision for me.

    • Hmm.. I’m very prone to bargain-fever too. But I’m not sure asking myself this question will help me because heck, I’m very resistant to paying full price for anything. This will probably have me not buying anything at all.
      There are very few single items I own that cost more than $100.

  8. I try and look for the best deals and find pieces that are versatile and will work as part of many different outfits and I pretty much only ever shop in sales. I also think it’s a good idea to keep your options open. I have items from ‘young’ shope as well as far ‘older’ shops. The trick is to ensure you look timeless and classic. And it can be done fairly easily even on a budget – I do!

    Moreover, I only buy something if I love it. My ‘work’ wardrobe isn’t huge but I love every single piece in it.

    • Agreed. If it’s trendy, like the ruffles on everything this year, I’ll buy a few but spend less per item because I know I’ll only wear it for a year or two. Classics that I can wear forever merit a much higher price point. This year I bought a few silk/cotton cardigans at Talbots in the fall for $25 a piece on sale. They’re light weight, so they can go all summer, too. If I only wear them this year, that’s fine at that price. If I spend $100 on a sweater it better last multiple years.

    • ha! I should have kept reading!

  9. I try to think what I would be willing to pay for an item BEFORE I look at the price tag. If it’s in the ballpark (within about 20-25% of my estimate) I will consider the purchase. That said, something that looks fabulous may merit an exception now and then :)

  10. I do something similar to Cat. After trying something on, but before looking at the price, I judge how much I love it (in dollars). For example, I’ll say to myself, “how many dollars do I love this?” I think about all of the things that everyone has listed above (wearability in multiple seasons, the quality of the item, whether it makes me swoon with its gorgeousness, etc.) to determine how much I value the item. My answer might be, “I love this $50.” If the item is less than $50, I buy it. If its above $50, I don’t. This technique has saved me tens of thousands over the years.

  11. I have a two approaches.

    First, I have $100 monthly dedicatd clothing budget. Before, I was on a cash-only purchase budget, and while it kept me from overspending, it all meant that I never had cash. I love clothes – my cash disappeared almost immediately. So, as a compromise, I lowered my monthly cash allowance but have $100 I can spend dedicated only to clothes. I’ve found that this allows me to impulse purchase certain things, but also keeps me in check. And yes, Kat’s ‘proportionate amount of anticipated compliments’ factor definately comes into play with these impulse purchases.

    Second, I have a running list of clothing items I ‘need’ that will put me over my $100 a month allowance. Currently on the list are (1)navy suit, (2) leater tote big enough for files but not too breifcase-y, (3) fantastic brown heels, (4) classic trench. For these pre-listed items only, I’ll spent whatever it takes to get the perfect item. (Though, since I’m cheap, the “perfect” item will still be on sale, purchased partially with gift cards, etc). There kinds of purchases are rare (maybe twice a year) and usually the result of reserach and careful consideration.

    • I have a friend who goes cash only, but she puts the cash into different envelopes at the beginning of the month – one for groceries, one for restaurants, one for clothes, etc. When the envelope is empty, she can’t buy anything from that category for the rest of the month. Seems to work well.

      • I tried to do this multiple envelopes thing once but it was hard since I would go out for an errand (say to buy socks…) I wouldn’t feel like having three envelopes on me. Then end up buying groceries on the way home and a make up article… at the end of the day it was hard to split the spending and debit/credit the right envelope.

      • I’ve been doing this for the last month, and so far the main issue is not having the right envelop on me at the right time. What I’ve done to combat that is to simply pay for it with debit and put the receipt aside. When I get home, I pull out the receipt and just deduct the amount from the envelope, putting it into a “savings” envelope. It’s annoying when I go some place like Target, though, because my purchases are likely to span more than one category, so I have to break it down.

        Long term, this isn’t probably a good strategy, but for the situation I’m in now (grad student, so on a tight budget) this works. After working for a few years after college and not budgeting (other than my retirement savings) because I didn’t *need* to, this is helpful for me to get back into that budget mindset (and helping me reconsider things like, do I really need that $10 drink when my entertainment budget is X for the month?)

  12. I don’t have a formula per se. I used to buy just a few, very expensive things each season ($800 boots, $600 jacket). The recession has caused me to re-evaluate that. Now I shop sales and high-end discounters (Loehmann’s Backroom) and have adjusted my price-points accordingly . I don’t buy ANYTHING over $200, anymore. Shoes are in the <$150 range. I've found that I can get Theory, David Meister, Stuart Wetizman, Hale Bob, Catherine Malandrino, and even the occassional St. John's using my new price cut-off. Yay me!

  13. Elle Woods :

    I would only really splurge on stuff that gets a lot of wear, like a winter coat or a handbag. I get so bored so quickly that if I said to myself ‘you’re allowed to buy this amazing shift dress for $300, but then you have to wear it twice a week for two years’, I wouldn’t buy it. I would rather have lots of cheap things and variety than two or three ‘classic’ items that I would get fed up with wearing after a couple of times and want to just go and buy new ones. Sadly, the fact that it is expensive stops being a factor once I have spent the money. After that, it’s just another item in my wardrobe and becomes a victim of my fickle ways! It’s much easier to just not buy expensive things until I can afford to buy several of them!

    • Or even if you can afford to buy them, it may not be where you want to spend your money! Like you, I love finding something new – and often force myself to toss a forgotten purse into the donations pile when I just couldn’t resist that brand-new red patent Calvin Klein clutch for $20 at a consignment shop (true story!) So, I feel better about buying new things – and in purging the old to make way for the new – when I don’t make huge investments in my purchases.

    • I get easily bored very quickly too! And its often the stuff that I love-love when I first bought it. e.g. a grey plaid belted dress from BR that I wore once a week (as soon as it got back from the weekly laundry!) at first, and always when I travelled anywhere. But now I am so bored of it (and it has a lot of life in it yet.)

  14. Things that require ironing are a big negative with me.

    • Same here!

    • My Mom & I have a running argument: I say “If it needs ironed, I won’t wear it.” She says, “If you wear it, it needs ironed.” Who has time to iron??

      • My husband swears by standing by the tea kettle in the kitchen for a couple minutes in the morning while he’s eating breakfast (you have to turn around every so often for this to work. He did it this morning, in fact, and his shirt looked pretty good to me when he left for work. I don’t think this would probably work for the things I need ironed, though (such as the lovely pleated skirt I hardly ever wear because it has to be ironed after every wear).

  15. I call this the “per wear” theory. Spending a four-figure amount for a Burberry made to order trench with a button-in lining is a steal because I can wear it pretty much year ’round and probably will have it for over ten years, which is how long my last (and much less expensive) trench made it. On the per wear theory, the new trench practically is free! Same goes for items like a kick-butt black or chocolate suit, a perfect white blouse, high quality black or brown pumps (Mizrahi, Pliner, Taryn Rose, etc.), a good structured Longchamp or Furla bag, a black cashmere turtleneck, a black or red all-cashmere wrap, a black silk satin evening sheath, a ladies’ tuxedo, and a good watch or jewelry.

    On the other hand, I cannot bear to spend a lot of money on a party dress or formal that will get worn two or three times max. I pick those up now in the post-prom sales at Macy’s for $25-40 each after coupon (Jones New York and Liz Claiborne make lots of simple formals that are suitable for women over the age of 21) and tuck them in the closet for when I need them. The same goes for fun party shoes to go with those dresses (midnight plum peep toe stilettos!) and faux sparklies that I can pick up for $15 or less on clearance. I enjoy my evening a lot more knowing that I have plenty of cash for some post-party champagne or cab fare home and that I will not be heartbroken if someone spills a glass of wine on my dress.

  16. I’ve cut down on a lot of wasted spending by asking myself this one question:
    “Do I love it?”
    If not,
    “Do I really, really need this for a specific purpose and/or event?”
    If the answer to either question is “no,” it doesn’t matter whether the item is $10 or $100, it goes back on the rack. I have a lot of clothes, so unless I really love something, or really need it, there’s no reason to buy it.

    The other thing that has saved me a lot of money – if I decide to return something, I do it within 24 hours – whether that involves going back to the store or putting it in the mail. I used to buy things and say “well, if it doesn’t work, I can just return it” – and then I would forget to return it. A couple of times it was on a fairly expensive piece, which I did end up wearing just so the money wouldn’t go to waste. Now, asking myself “do I really want to go through the hassle of a return if this doesn’t work? Do I like it that much?” keeps me from buying things I don’t really need or like all that much.

    And – no shopping online when bored or depressed. Many fashion mistakes are made this way. :)

    • That 24-hour rule is a good one, my sister gets does that as well. I always intend to return the item…and then forget about it. This leads to me owning a lot of clothes with the tags on…years after I purchase it =(.

    • Good rule. I’m awful about returns and as a result have some truly awful things in my wardrobe that I won’t wear but feel bad giving away before a certain amount of time has passed.

  17. I think I am going to print out all of the above. I am a terrible shopper (made worse by the fact that I have to pay retail where I live).

  18. Thread hijacker :

    I will be attending a going-away party thrown at my colleague’s home. She & her husband are pursuing an MBA and law degree respectively in the US this year. I know them both and am reasonably close to her.

    So ladies, any gift ideas? Prefer not to splurge, but rather get thoughtful/useful gifts. (they’re both 26 and will be in Michigan) Plus we currently live in a very tropical place so winter weather type gift ideas would be tough for me to do! Thanks in advance.

    • Some mid-priced ideas from a fellow upper midwesterner: A gift certificate to get her car winterized (perhaps you can get something like this from a national chain like Jiffy Lube); wine-of-the-month club (they’re going to need a drink); really good, spillproof travel mugs (this was essential when I was a law student); silicone keyboard covers to prevent spills from damaging their laptops (more than once as a law student, I saw someone spill his coffee on someone else’s computer); leather pad-holders (to take on interviews).

    • Make sure its not something that’s going to be a pain to pack and ship to the U.S.

      I like the idea of a gift certificate to a U.S. store in their town – after moving they will need a million things. (If the school is University of Michigan, Ann Arbor has an Ikea.)

    • Erin’s suggestions are excellent. I would add a “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster.

      • If they’re going to be in Ann Arbor, michigan (which a law degree and MBA seem to suggest), I would second the Ikea gift card. Also, if they won’t have a car when they arrive, maybe a Zipcar gift certificate or registration would be a nice gift, since Ikea is actually in Canton, MI and requires a car to get there. Ann Arbor is also home to Zingermans, which does great mail order for food and gifts, so if you wanted to introduce them to a place in town, that would be a nice gift. I would say that coffee mugs, etc. aren’t necessary, because she will be getting plenty of them for free from Lexis/Westlaw. If they’re moving from somewhere warm to Michigan, they’ll most likely need winter coats, so a gift certificate to REI or EMS might also be helpful. (And there’s an REI in Ann Arbor).

        • To go along with the bargain shopping tips above, you can order them really nice, and really marked down, cashmere winter accessories now at websites like

    • As someone who has moved overseas, I really like the gift certificate mentions. When I was moving overseas, I cannot tell you how many gift baskets, knick-knacks, etc I got, none of which went with me (the only gifts that did were photo frames). I especially like the IKEA gift certificate idea, although Target is another suggestion.

  19. Thread hijacker :

    thanks, ladies!!