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What Would You Pay for Great-Looking Hair?

It's the ultimate cosmetic because we never take it off. But why should we pay $300 to curl up and dye?

spinner image What Would You Pay for Great-Looking Hair?
What would you pay for great-looking hair?

Test-driving a new hair salon is risky business. Unlike heels that hurt or jeans that don't fit, a bad haircut or a crummy color job cannot be exchanged or returned. And it may be months before we can shake off — or at least outgrow — our resulting grumpy mood.

So … how should you handle the urge to defect to a new stylist? When does it make sense to splurge on a new look, and when is it better to economize?

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I'd have an easier time answering these questions if the options weren't so many. I want to support my neighborhood salon, but that low-cost mall chain also looks terrific (or will it merely turn out to be tacky?). They make me feel so comfortable at Casa LuxeHaven, but how do I justify the indulgence? Here are some tips for anyone tempted to switch allegiances.

If you have easy hair: Let's say your hair is fairly healthy. You use a do-it-yourself color — or don't dye your locks at all — and you prefer the timeless chic and easy care of a classic bob or lob. If those three conditions pertain, there's really no need to spend more than $18 or $20 for a chop and blow-dry.

Just make your way to an inexpensive, nationwide chain for a cookie-cutter perfect cut. (I'm thinking of outlets such as Fantastic Sams, Supercuts, Hair Cuttery or SmartStyle at Walmart.) The stylists at each franchise follow a prescribed formula, so you'll see consistent results even if you don't patronize the same salon or stylist every time. Walk-ins are welcome, but don't expect any frills.

The inside skinny: Chains are perhaps the best-kept secret of age-50+ CEOs and entrepreneurs with expensive-looking hair; they save their hard-earned cash on a good basic bob, then go elsewhere for color and highlights.

If you visit often — and love personal attention: Though prices at "boutique" salons vary widely, expect to pay $25 to $50 and up for a cut and blow-dry, and $35 to $75 or more for color or special services. Offsetting those higher costs is the comfort factor that comes from finding a stylist/colorist who understands your hair's peculiarities — and your preferences.

No matter which direction you want to head in — camouflage thinning hair, add layers or bangs, or gracefully grow out your gray with highlights and lowlights — there's security in having a team that works with you, not just on you.

The inside skinny: Tip everyone — yes, even the salon owner, provided she cuts or colors your hair. The rule of thumb is 15 to 20 percent for the stylist/colorist, and 5 to 10 percent for assistants. (And don’t forget to slip a couple of dollars to the shampoo person!) Your thoughtfulness will elevate you to the status of priority customer, which in turn may enable you to negotiate a price — or cop a treasured last-minute appointment — down the road.

If you want to make a big change. Ready to boldly go blond, or short and edgy? Need to fix that unwise-in-retrospect drugstore color incident? Job hunting? Recently separated or divorced? Dating again? On a diet? In a major funk?

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Have I got the remedy for you: Splurge!

Even if it’s only once or twice a year, a fresh pair of trend-aware eyeballs in a pampered environment — a cocktail or a latte with macaroons or biscotti — can dislodge you from your hair rut, restore your confidence and boost your spirit. Brand-name salons charge as much as $185 for a cut and blow-dry, and $150 for coloring or color correction. On the other hand, they offer free advance consultations. Provided you can resist their hard sell on hair products — whose exorbitant markups are a salon’s biggest moneymaker — it’s likely you’ll enjoy the special treatment.

The inside skinny: Ask for an assistant or junior stylist or colorist, not the resident "star" who charges $600 to $800 when she's not busy coiffing the newest celebrity. Deals and discounts at A-list salons may be available through Groupon or RetailMeNot.

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