How to buy clothes without getting ripped off

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By Christopher Elliott

Don’t get ripped off when you buy clothes.

The average household spends $1,604 per year on clothes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Profit margins for apparel manufacturers, meanwhile, average a healthy 8 percent but can climb as high as 13 percent.

In other words, you’re probably overpaying for your shirts, pants, dresses, and coats.

But you don’t have to.

When it comes to clothes, you can use a few proven strategies to lower your expenses without looking like you’re an extra in a costume drama. Timing your purchases, finding bargains and perhaps, more importantly, looking for the best stores, will ensure you have clothes and money to spare. With summer fashions just hitting the shelves, you’ll thank me.

Find promo codes and don’t be afraid to use them

Before you buy anything, look for promo codes online through services like RetailMeNot or

“If you try a promo code and it doesn’t work, don’t just give up and pay full price,” says Eric Anthony, a deal expert with the site Houston on the Cheap. “Instead, try emailing or calling customer service. More times than not, I’ve found that they’ll honor promo codes that the website won’t allow. You can save a ton this way.” (Related: These “free” $200 Best Buy credits are way too expensive.)

Expert tip: Stay on the phone. If you’re shopping on a retailer website that doesn’t include shipping, ask if you can get free shipping on your order. Many stores are willing to send you the product at no additional cost.

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Try to buy clothes at the thrift store

That’s what Carrie Aulenbacher, a self-described “third-generation thrift shopper,” does. “I’ve learned not to think of clothes shopping in terms of seasons, but savings. Avoid the stigma of a thrift store,” she advises. “Instead, take on the strategy of treasure hunting.”

For example, Aulenbacher recently found a shirt at her local Goodwill Store with the $49.50 tag still on it. It was marked down to just $1. “It was from The Limited and was pristine,” she recalls. “As a sleeveless top, it was out of season for winter, but when warmer temps come, I’m all set.”

No one will ever know (except, well, everyone reading this story). “Was I seen in The Limited?” she asks. “No, but I had way more fun finding it at Goodwill than I did on a marathon day of mall shopping!”

A warning about thrift stores. Some, like the Salvation Army, are legitimate charities; others are not. Even Goodwill Industries reportedly has a spotty record as a nonprofit. Think before you shop.

For seasonal savings, buy clothes for next year at the end of the season

Wait until the end of this season to get clothes for next year. “Purchase seasonal clothing like coats and jackets for next year at the end of the winter season, when stores are likely to clearance those items,” says Tangela Walker-Craft. She’s a money-saving expert and blogger who publishes the site Simply Necessary.

“Buy seasonal clothing like bathing suits, swimming trunks, and cover-ups for next year, at the end of the summer season, when stores are clearance those likely items,” she says. “Stretch the family dollar by buying seasonal gear like gloves, coats, and jackets for next year when stores put those items on clearance this year.”

“Every season of the year is guaranteed to come around again the next year,” she adds.

A note about styles. Since you might not want anyone to know you bought the clothes last year, go for the less trendy clothes and get clothes that don’t go out of style. Muted colors, simple patterns, and conventional styles tend not to broadcast your money-saving strategy.

Look for “sample sales”

Sample sales are two- to five-day events where designer brands offer their samples and excess merchandise in random locations for “crazy” 60 to 90 percent off retail, according to Estee Goldschmidt, the CEO of ShopDrop, an app that alerts you to sample sales.

“There are between 20 and 100 sample sales in New York City in any given week,” she says. “The strategy I’ve discovered for buying quality items without breaking the bank is shopping at sample sales.”

ShopDrop scrapes 11 different sites every day and broadcasts event time, location, merchandise, and pricing. So, if you’re in the New York area, you can find some impressive bargains.

Dressing too well can get you ripped off

If you’re into saving money, you may not want to get too good at buying designer clothes for less. You could become a victim of your own success, says Mifflin Lowe, author of The Cheapskate’s Handbook.

How so?

“If you dress expensively, you will be expected to act accordingly. And people will invariably bill you as though you have as much money as your attire would seem to indicate,” he says. For example, if you go to an accountant or a lawyer’s office in an Ermenegildo Zegna suit wearing a Rolex watch, don’t imagine you’ll pay any less than the highest amount that professional can possibly think of. (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problems.)

“On every occasion in which you’re dealing with a tradesman make sure you look as poor as possible,” he adds. “Wear a flannel shirt with strong armpit odor, ripped, stained pants and beat-up shoes. When negotiating with a gardener; this can shave dollars off of your lawn service bill. When getting an estimate on bodywork for your car, dressing down can save $800 on a simple dented fender. When dealing with a plumber, carpenter or electrician, this can save you well over $1,000 on the estimate for a job.”

So there you have it. By timing your clothes shopping, finding codes and sales and using the right app to find and track designer sample sales, you can save a bundle. Just don’t do it too well, or you could end up paying for it.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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