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Going Cold Turkey From Impulse Bargain Buys

What I learned from swearing off those tempting store sales

Shopping sales trap

Ben Mounsey

How much are you really saving at those blowout sales?

It was the trio of merino sweaters that did it. Thin enough to wear under a blazer, comfortable enough for three seasons—and they were on sale! So I bought them in peacock blue and purple, in addition to my fail-safe black. And then … I didn't wear them. Actually, I wore the black one over and over, but the others sat sadly in my drawer, begging: "Please, give me a chance."

I didn't. I couldn't. Bright colors are just not my thing. But I did do something else. I took a hard look at my closet and realized it was full of items I had purchased simply because they were on sale. And I wasn't wearing many of them, either.

So, on December 26—a holy day for bargain hunters—I went cold turkey. I stopped buying things on sale. No discounts. No markdowns. Which did not mean no shopping. It meant I had to like something enough to pay full price.

See also: 13 Ways to save and stay stylish

That turned out to be a high bar to clear. It wasn't until February that I walked into clothing retailer Club Monaco, a place I had avoided because sales are rare, and bought two dresses, a top and a pair of pants. And guess what? I have worn them all repeatedly—and enjoyed them more than many of my previous bargain purchases. What was really going on here? I dug in, and here's what I learned.

Behind the curtain

We use signals as indicators of whether something is a good deal. Manufacturer's suggested retail price is one. Reference prices (the ones that compare a blouse at $90 with another at $200) are another.

"People take for granted that the reference price is accurate," explains William Poundstone, author of Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It). And the perceived value increases as the reference price goes up. "Emotionally, you're still drawn to something that seems like a bargain. You can't unring that bell." Buying on sale is also alluring because it's like buying a little shot of self-esteem.

My new rules for shopping

Knowing all this, I hope, will change the way I shop. Perhaps it will change the way you shop, too.

  • Consider the product first. Decide how much you're willing to pay. Then check the price. If it's over your number, walk away.
  • Stay out of outlets. "Something about outlets gives consumers permission to purchase," says Kit Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind.
  • Forsake the other colors. "It looked good on you in black," says Yarrow. "That doesn't mean it'll look good in red." Or peacock blue.

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