Take this shopping: Proven strategies for spending less during sale season


Cindy Mesaros has the perfect antidote to compulsive shopping.

“I keep a list on my phone of things that I’m in the market for,” explains Mesaros, a talent manager from San Francisco. “So if I am in need of a new pair of jeans, or an outdoor patio set, or whatever — it’s on the list. Then when I go shopping, if I see something I love, and it’s on the list — fine. If it’s not, I have to walk away.”

A 2016 survey by the online shopping site FatWallet found that Memorial Day is the biggest shopping event of the year so far. Travel, appliances and home and garden supplies are on sale, but the site advises waiting to buy items like laptops and power tools.

As we head into the summer sale season, smart shoppers are readying a toolkit of clever tricks and strategies to help them when they hit the mall or fire up their laptops for a late-evening cybershopping session.

So what should you take when you head out there into consumerland?

The shopping list.
A firm shopping list is always the best start to any trip. You can make a paper list or use a shopping app like Wunderlist. I love Wunderlist because it allows you to share a list with friends and family, so they can hold you accountable. Note: lists don’t always work. Sometimes Mesaros, in a moment of weakness, buys something that’s not on hers. “But the list forces me to stop and think about whether I need it,” she says.

A snack.
Better yet, eat something before you head to the mall. That’s the irreverent advice of Kerri Moriarty, the head of company development and a veteran shopper at the financial website Cinch Financial. “Proven fact,” she says, “shopping when hungry leads to buying things you otherwise wouldn’t — especially when food shopping. But also, being hungry means being weaker, possibly crankier, and generally having a less sounder mind when it comes to purchasing decisions.”

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A shopping app or site.
“Use an accurate hourly online price tracker and price alert service to tell you when to buy and when to sell back used items,” advises David Mercer, founder of SME Pals, a blog dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and small business owners. For example, behind most products sold on Amazon, there’s an entire marketplace of sellers competing with each other for market share and sales. “This means that prices are extremely fluid — dropping and increasing hourly,” he adds. Try a site like Slickdeals or, for Amazon prices, check out CamelCamelCamel.

An uncompromising attitude.
Set your shopping standards high and don’t lower them for a minute. That’s Megan Moran’s “number one rule” of shopping. “If you don’t love it, don’t get it,” says Morgan, the owner and wardrobe stylist at The Style Foundry. “Every time one of my customers goes into a store they now hear me in the back of their heads saying “Do you really love that piece? Are you sure? If you’re questioning it, then it’s not for you.” That attitude is a key to surviving a compulsive shopping experience that could decimate your bank account.

Perhaps the best piece of advice I can offer? Don’t go. Shopping is a sport for some Americans, but it can lead you to purchases that you don’t want or need.

I speak from personal experience. I just downsized all of my material possessions to two small boxes and data stored in the cloud. I sifted through so many clothes that I’d collected over the years, many items worn only once or twice. I found items I desired but then fell out of love with; they were relegated to storage, then met their fate at a garage sale.

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The longer I live, the more of a minimalist I become. Speaking of which, I think I’m starting to get a little wordy. It’s time to sign off.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

  • AAGK

    I also want to be a minimalist. In the interim, consumers should be aware of the cyclical nature of sales. As soon as there is a “friends and family” 25% off then I know prices will reset for a week and then go 60% off. Folks fear they will miss that last pair of shoes in their size or the last great deal, etc. I will contact a store, this may only work with prior relationships, but it worked wonderfully with a department store last week, and the store will hold the item during the fake sale until the real one.

    Also, many stores are happy to extend the sale or promotion for just you while you figure out what additional things you need. This is important with furniture or items with a long lead time where you may need to see it in your house first. Bloomingdales said it would honor the long gone discount until I finished purchasing my bedding, in case i wanted to add another pillow, etc.

    When you get a good salesperson, always ask for their card and exchange contact info. They will stay in touch but very rarely, only when it is important. It is worth it.

  • Carchar

    I am so lucky to dislike shopping. The downside is that I don’t even buy clothes when I need them. The upside is that, when I happen to see something I’d like at a craft fair or in Costco, I have no guilt about buying it.

  • Kairho

    Nothing wrong, of course, with striving towards minimalism, but you make shopping sound like a contagious disease!

    I love using lists, too, but going off that list is certainly not a “moment of weakness.” Sometimes I realize something I needed failed to work its way to the list. Or something looks like a great gift for someone. And sometimes a book display, for example, will goad me into a little reward for myself.

  • michael anthony

    I like your remark of “A little reward for myself”. I think it’s important, to acknowledge your hard work, even when things are tight. It could be a book, a few songs or album to download, a current film for movie night, etc. You have to have that little bit of pleasure, otherwise, life can be get depressing for anyone.

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