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11 Foolproof Ways to Spend Less, Look Better

Tame the overspending habit and make smarter purchases


spinner image A woman shopping in a clothing store standing by a rack of dresses on hangers looking at a price tag while carrying a shopping bag
kali9/E+/Getty Images

Sales are irresistible. So is shopping without sales. The words "MAJOR markdowns,” “SAVINGS up to 80 percent” or (worst of all) “NEW arrivals!” are a signal to stop and shop. Unfortunately, we end up buying items we don’t need and styles we’d never wear, and regretting the “final sale, no returns” tag. Whether you’re an online shopper, a store devotee or an outlet mall fan, here’s how to curb your enthusiasm, modify your spending and look more spectacular than ever.

spinner image Lane Bryant Eyelet Lace Midi Dress with Knot-Straps in Goji Berry; White Mark Women’s Leopard Cold Shoulder Tunic Top in Fuchsia Leopard; Mango Gingham Check Cotton Dress in Black
(Left to right) Lane Bryant Eyelet Lace Midi Dress with Knot-Straps in Goji Berry; White Mark Women’s Leopard Cold Shoulder Tunic Top in Fuchsia Leopard; Mango Gingham Check Cotton Dress in Black
Lane Bryant; Macy's; Mango

1. Satisfy cravings with one “wow” splurge

You get one a season and that’s all. Think of this item as the one fabulous style cookie that won’t blow your fashion diet. Choose something special or of-the-moment that you don’t already have in your closet. Get a little daring. Maybe it’s a trendy print tunic to pep up jeans like the White Mark Women’s Leopard Cold Shoulder Tunic Top in Fuchsia Leopard ($54, macys.com), a bright sundress to wear on steamy days like the Lane Bryant Eyelet Lace Midi Dress with Knot-Straps in Goji Berry ($100, lanebryant.com) or a puffy-sleeved dress like the Mango Gingham Check Cotton Dress in Black ($80, mango.com/us) you’ve been eyeing. Yes, it may be a little more expensive than usual, but feeling fashionable every time you wear it is priceless.

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spinner image Torrid Ruched Tank Super Soft Black in Deep Black; Forever 21 Plus Size Organically Grown Cotton Basic Cami in Black; Lulus Miss Punctuality Navy Blue Lightweight Blazer; UO Jules Faux Leather Blazer in Brown
(Left to right) Torrid Ruched Tank Super Soft Black in Deep Black; Forever 21 Plus Size Organically Grown Cotton Basic Cami in Black; Lulus Miss Punctuality Navy Blue Lightweight Blazer; UO Jules Faux Leather Blazer in Brown
Torrid; Forever 21; Lulus; Urban Outfitters

2. Check fast fashion for classics

Here’s a surprise. Stores and sites like Abercrombie, Torrid, Urban Outfitters, Lulus, American Eagle and Forever 21 that basically target millennials and teens are known for their trendy, sexy looks. Just ignore the photos of young models, the minis, cropped-to-the-midriff tops, low-rise jeans, plunging necklines and graphic tees. Instead head for the jackets, camisoles and tanks. You’ll find unstuffy blazers like the Lulus Miss Punctuality Navy Blue Lightweight Blazer ($56, lulus.com) and UO Jules Faux Leather Blazer in Brown ($99, urbanoutfitters.com), as well as perfect layering pieces like the Torrid Ruched Tank Super Soft Black in Deep Black ($33, torrid.com) and Forever 21 Plus Size Organically Grown Cotton Basic Cami in Black, White or Nude ($4, forever21.com).

spinner image Naturalizer Vivienne Ballet Flat in Vintage Mauve; Bali One Smooth U Ultra Light T-Shirt Bra in Cinnamon Butter; SG Sugu Katie Lightweight Crossbody Bag in Black; Croft & Barrow Plus Size Pull-On Girlfriend Jeans in Medium Wash
(Clockwise from bottom left) Naturalizer Vivienne Ballet Flat in Vintage Mauve; Bali One Smooth U Ultra Light T-Shirt Bra in Cinnamon Butter; SG Sugu Katie Lightweight Crossbody Bag in Black; Croft & Barrow Plus Size Pull-On Girlfriend Jeans in Medium Wash
Famous Footwear; Bare Necessities; Amazon; Kohl's

3. Evaluate style and comfort

You can’t possibly look good when your new jeans make seam dents down your legs, your beautiful bra and heavy hobo bag leave grooves in your shoulders and your chic-as-can-be flats hurt. Comfort is no longer negotiable or a separate category of clothes for lazy days watching Netflix on the couch. We demand it for work, dinner out or and even for a party. Not feeling comfortable in our clothes fuels the urge to shop. Sometimes you need to buy a few essentials to save money in the end. For everyday bliss try a pair of go-with-everything cushioned flats like the Naturalizer Vivienne Ballet Flat in Vintage Mauve ($80, famousfootwear.com); a support bra with soft convertible straps like the Bali One Smooth U Ultra Light T-Shirt Bra in Cinnamon Butter, Black or Nude ($48, barenecessities.com); a light cross-body bag like the SG Sugu Katie Lightweight Crossbody Bag in Black, Khaki or Stone ($27, amazon.com); and soft, roomy jeans like the Croft & Barrow Plus Size Pull-On Girlfriend Jeans in Medium Wash, Dark Wash or Black ($44, kohls.com).

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spinner image NYX Professional Makeup Ultimate Shadow Palette; Maybelline Eye Studio Nudes of New York; Revlon ColorStay Matte Lite Crayon in Clear The Air; Neutrogena Moisture Smooth Color Stick in Pink Nude
(Left to right) NYX Professional Makeup Ultimate Shadow Palette; Maybelline Eye Studio Nudes of New York; Revlon ColorStay Matte Lite Crayon in Clear The Air; Neutrogena Moisture Smooth Color Stick in Pink Nude
Walgreens (3); Target

4. New makeup may do the trick

Clothes are not always the answer. In fact, you can buy all the clothes you want and still not look better if your look neck up is downright dated or unflattering. For some women, finally finding the right haircut helps them look better without the need to shop around. For others, a batch of fresh eyeshadows and lipsticks is enough of a reset to resist breaking the budget. Take two photos of you in the same everyday outfit. In one do your hair and makeup, in the other none. See what I mean! Updated neutrals — like the NYX Professional Makeup Ultimate Shadow Palette ($18, walgreens.com), Maybelline Eye Studio Nudes of New York ($12, walgreens.com), Neutrogena Moisture Smooth Color Stick in Pink Nude or Berry Brown ($7 each, target.com) and Revlon ColorStay Matte Lite Crayon in Clear The Air or Take Flight ($12 each, walgreens.com) — flatter all.

spinner image A New Day Women’s Smocked Waist Mid-Rise A-Line Skirt in Brown; Old Navy High-Waisted Linen-Blend Wide-Leg Pants for Women in Black Jack; Vince Camuto for Dia & Co Jayda Flutter Sleeve Blouse in Deep Fuchsia; Chico’s Gauze Button Down Top in Haute Pink
(Left to right) A New Day Women’s Smocked Waist Mid-Rise A-Line Skirt in Brown ($28, target.com); Old Navy High-Waisted Linen-Blend Wide-Leg Pants for Women in Black Jack ($35, oldnavy.gap.com); Vince Camuto for Dia & Co Jayda Flutter Sleeve Blouse in Deep Fuchsia ($89, dia.com); Chico’s Gauze Button Down Top in Haute Pink ($59, chicos.com)
Target; Old Navy; Dia & Co; Chico's

5. Splurge where you need it, save where you don’t

A very famous celebrity (now way over 50) known for her curvy hourglass shape once told me she buys designer pants and cheap tops because spending only on problem areas made sense. Know what? It still does. However, you don’t need to follow the diva’s advice to the letter. Simply buy new tops or bottoms (not necessarily pricey ones!), depending on which area is your big beef. Scout the clearance category or aisle first (this is where you’ll find the choice leftovers); then proceed to the sales racks; and finally, if you must, pay full price.

spinner image A woman examining a dress in front of her body while looking at a mirror
Marc Romanelli/Tetra images/Getty Images

6. Know when enough is enough

We’re all watching every penny these days, but shopping remains a guilty pleasure. In a way it’s our version of the video games teens play ... and just as addictive. We get to try on clothes way beyond our means, navigate the fashion maze and compete for prices on various sites. Shopping for fun (no purchase) and shopping for real are two different things. Here are the four signals to hit delete from your shopping cart, leave it in the dressing room or get a return shipping label and drop it off. 1. You think, Maybe with my red shoes. Decoded this means the item is too boring and needs something to lift it out of its misery. Say no. 2. With Spanx it will be fine. Do your self-esteem a favor and look again. 3. Is it too young for me? This is another way of saying yes, it is. You don’t need to ask twice. 4. I already have something like this, I think. Yes, and it never comes out of the closet, which is why you’re shopping for a replacement. You can’t keep making the same shopping mistakes and expect a new answer.

spinner image Croft & Barrow Boatneck Top in Pine Teal Van Stripe; Sonoma Goods for Life Drop-Shoulder Blouse in Navy Indigo Quilt; Liz Claiborne Women’s Plus Short Sleeve Floral A-Line Dress in Sig Navy Palms
(Left to right) Croft & Barrow Boatneck Top in Pine Teal Van Stripe; Sonoma Goods for Life Drop-Shoulder Blouse in Navy Indigo Quilt; Liz Claiborne Women’s Plus Short Sleeve Floral A-Line Dress in Sig Navy Palms
Kohl's (2); JCPenney

7. Stay with your color group

Shopping lower down the fashion chain can be overwhelming. One sure thing helps: You can’t go wrong with prints or stripes. They camouflage inexpensive fabrics and imperfect construction we can’t see in photos. Stick to simple contemporary styles; for example, an A-line dress like the Liz Claiborne Women’s Plus Short Sleeve Floral A-Line Dress in Sig Navy Palms ($74, jcpenney.com), blouses with puff sleeves like the Sonoma Goods for Life Drop-Shoulder Blouse in Navy Indigo Quilt ($36, kohls.com) and boatneck tees like the Croft & Barrow Boatneck Top in Teal Large Stripe, Pink Large Stripe or Pine Teal Van Stripe ($15–$20, kohls.com). Look for prints that sync the colors to your dominant wardrobe colors — like I did here with all blue prints — to build your signature style.

spinner image Anne Klein Plus Size Roll-Tab Vented Hem Top in Light Wash; Ava & Viv Women’s Plus Size Short-Sleeve Button Front Dress in Black Floral; Worthington Women’s Midi A-Line Skirt in Black; Molly & Isadora Cia 3/4 Sleeve Cardigan in Olive Green
(Left to right) Anne Klein Plus Size Roll-Tab Vented Hem Top in Light Wash ($99, macys.com); Ava & Viv Women’s Plus Size Short-Sleeve Button Front Dress in Black Floral ($25, target.com); Worthington Women’s Midi A-Line Skirt in Black ($40, jcpenney.com); Molly & Isadora Cia 3/4 Sleeve Cardigan in Olive Green ($49, dia.com)
Macy's; Target; JCPenney; Dia & Co

8. Buy as seasonless as possible

Items like swimsuits, parkas, flip-flops and snow boots are tied to temperature extremes but for the most part aim for year-round versatility. It saves money and stretches your wardrobe’s wearability. Choose midway fabrics that are not too heavy or too light, dresses that work with sandals or tights and boots, pieces that layer on and off easily to adjust to temperature changes, and a core of colors that look right any place and any time of the year. Keep your lifestyle in mind. If you’re an “I throw everything in the washing machine” type these days, then skip clothes that require dry-cleaning, ironing or special care.

spinner image H&M Slip-On Sandals in Green; Kelly & Katie Saeed Ballet Flat in Red; Universal Thread Women’s Brandy Mules in Black; SUGARFIX by BaubleBar Polished Beaded Tassel Earrings in Black=
H&M Slip-On Sandals in Green (top left); Kelly & Katie Saeed Ballet Flat in Red (bottom left); Universal Thread Women’s Brandy Mules in Black (center); SUGARFIX by BaubleBar Polished Beaded Tassel Earrings in Black (right)
H&M; DSW; Target (2)

9. Use shoes and earrings for an instant refresh

Sometimes a few inexpensive accents are all it takes to give your wardrobe a lift. The best strategy is to choose accessories that appeal to your eyes and heart — not just your wallet. Instead of another pair of hoops or studs, go with dangly bead earrings like the SUGARFIX by BaubleBar Polished Beaded Tassel Earrings in Black ($13, target.com). Try a pair of sparkly red flats like the Kelly & Katie Saeed Ballet Flat in Red ($50, dsw.com/en/us) or posh slip-ons like the Universal Thread Women’s Brandy Mules in Black ($30, target.com) to elevate your favorite jeans, or check out statement sandals in a bright color like the H&M Slip-On Sandals in Green ($30, hm.com). Choose items that will help your clothes pivot from day to night, casual to festive and work to weekend.

spinner image Knox Rose Women's Plus Short-Sleeve V-Neck Eyelet Henley Shirt in Black; Eloquii Tie Neck Blouse in Soft White Ground with Black Polka Dots; Halogen Plus Cross Front Blouse in Black; New York & Company Bow-Neck Ruffle-Sleeve Blouse in Black; Chico’s No Iron Stretch Shirt in Optic White
(Left to right) Knox Rose Women's Plus Short-Sleeve V-Neck Eyelet Henley Shirt in Black ($25, target.com); Eloquii Tie Neck Blouse in Soft White Ground with Black Polka Dots ($80, eloquii.com); Halogen Plus Cross Front Blouse in Black ($59, nordstrom.com); New York & Company Bow-Neck Ruffle-Sleeve Blouse in Black ($22, nyandcompany.com); Chico’s No Iron Stretch Shirt in Optic White ($80, chicos.co
Target; Eloquii; Nordstrom; New York & Company; Chico's

10. Color code your work clothes

Many women 50-plus are still working or heading back to work even after a so-called “retirement.” No need to spend on suits, power dresses or heels (unless you’re in a corporate field). It’s all about the waist-up view now — that’s what people see, notice and pay attention to whether you’re on Zoom or FaceTime, or across a desk, counter or table. Stick to a black-and-white color palette of button-down shirts and blouses that pair easily with any black pant you own, from pull-on ponte styles to your “good” ankle pants. Buy one or two quality tops that elevate your inexpensive basics too, as needed. As in tip number 1, sometimes one splurge is the best thing you can do.

spinner image A woman shopping online for clothes on a tablet
golibo/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

11. Give it 24 to 48 hours

Here’s the best thing about shopping online (besides no need for a parking spot and speedy cross-shopping). You can add items to your virtual shopping bag and think it over. Though some sites hold items for a short, specified time (Gap drives me crazy here), others don’t. This is the time to pull out your superior 50-plus shopping chops, discipline and optimism. If the initial passion is over by the next day, it was a fling and not worth the wardrobe involvement. If it’s gone? As my mom always says (and now I do too): “It wasn’t meant to be. Onward!”

Lois Joy Johnson is a beauty and style editor who focuses on women 50 and older. She was the beauty and style editor at Ladies’ Home Journal and a founding editor of More magazine. She has written three books: The Makeup Wakeup, The Wardrobe Wakeup and The Woman's Wakeup.

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