How to Stay Smart While Shopping Clearance

clearance shopping advice tips

The area that surrounds clearance racks can feel like an alternate universe: Budgetary concerns and closet inventories seem to evaporate, along with the ability to make rational decisions. The lure of bargains is strong, and can monkey with otherwise savvy, reasonable shoppers. Which is especially unfortunate since many clearance items are final sale, so any unfortunate impulse buys may be irreversible.

Here are a few things to keep in mind before you step into the Clearance Zone and risk an ill-informed purchase:

  • When you find an item that you feel compelled to buy, ask yourself, “What will happen if I don’t buy this? Will I remember that I wanted it in two weeks?”
  • Try to identify the aspect(s) of the item in question that make it worthy of purchase. What, exactly, thrills you about this thing? Is it the color, cut, fabric, and fit? Or is it just that it’s a designer name on deep discount? Or something you’ve seen in magazines that’s suddenly in your hands and affordable?
  • Force yourself to envision at least three outfits that will utilize your clearance find. I know this tactic may feel a bit played-out, but it really, REALLY works. Some garments need time to work their way into daily wear, but any garment that doesn’t work naturally with your established style will just become a closet orphan.

Clearance items can become wardrobe workhorses, can add zest to ailing closets, and can constitute brag-worthy bargains. But I’d wager that the majority of shopping misfires take place within the confines of the Clearance Zone. So consider arming yourself with a few quiz questions before you start browsing the racks.

Image via ReFab Online.

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  • LK

    In a lot of cases there is a reason things are on clearance. My mom is notorious for buying things just because they are on sale then wonders why her closet is so full of stuff she never uses. Just because its cheap doesn’t mean you should buy it! In most cases I don’t by from clearance but I will wait till an item goes on sale unless I absolutely need it. Probably why I do most of my shopping at TJ Maxx; its already discounted.

  • When I worked at UO, I developed a bad habit among the clearance rack (created and fueled by my co-workers). It was the “Do I like this for $5?” or, “I don’t like this for $28, but I like it for $10.”

    It was one of the worst financial and closet decisions I ever made.

    To be honest, now I mostly avoid clearance sections. It may be the reason that I avoid thrift stores too, because I really just don’t like the “hunt”– I don’t like finding something I love only for it to be in once size and I can’t find another among the jumble of mixed up clothes. I just want to see all versions of the same item and all sizes together. So that’s probably my #1 way to avoid clearance mishaps! Just avoid them all together.

    Alternately, I’d say go in to the clearance section with as much knowledge and foresight as you’d go in to any shopping trip– have an idea of what off-season items you’re looking for (hitting clearance for a winter coat in January, a swimsuit in July) and don’t stray, get distracted, or divert from your shopping list.

  • Vildy

    I’m not plagued by this but I honestly cannot remember a single thing I own when I am in a store. I can recognize what I already own – if I saw a white long sleeve tee, I then know I have two, so I don’t accumulate multiples of something I didn’t realize I already had. But as for remembering my clothes, nope. Not a trick I have been able to master. I do rely on intuition, though. If I’m drawn to something, it’s likely to go with lots of previous items I was drawn to that I already own.

    Otherwise, I am mostly a thrift shopper because I like to experiment with ideas I have seen online or in magazines and for a dollar a pop, it’s doable.
    I like to keep clothing expenditures exceedingly low because I’m fickle and my wardrobe constantly evolves as I have one epiphany or other. đŸ˜€

    I also like clothes but dislike shopping. I’ve read before how you can easily make a day of it and I don’t even like to spend an hour. So I don’t go looking for clearance sales. But sometimes I will make little exploratory runthroughs of a favorite store and so when there’s a clearance I already know the merchandise.

  • Ouch. Clearance racks have always been my downfall. I am much more discriminating now than I used to be, thank goodness, but there was a time my closet was filled with “great finds” from clearance racks that never got worn.

  • Kate K

    This has been my recent shopping goal: do not be swayed by clearance rack items! I’ve had some amazing luck but for every great item that I wear constantly, I have probably 10 items that I’ve worn once. What I tend to do is find something cheap and flattering that isn’t my style at all (and never will be.) So, now I make myself imagine myself wearing this out in the real world. Would I feel comfortable, would it seem out of place stylistically and would I be willing to wear it multiple times and make it part of my repertoire. This has been helpful because for the most part, the answer is no.

  • I’ve totally made my share of clearance (and cheap thrift) mistakes but think I’m in control of them now. I’ve finally gotten to that place where I have so much in my closet that I only buy things I LOVE. And would love regardless of the price. Things I LIKE, but don’t love, stay on the clearance racks. But it’s taken a loooong time and a fullllllll closet to get to that place.

  • Didi

    I ask myself if I would buy it at either the original price or twice the sale price. If not, then I know it is not for me and my wardrobe.

  • I used to get sucked into the vortex of the clearance racks, but now I only buy what I think I will really wear. After years of buying closet orphans I smartened up and realized that just because it was cheap, it didn’t mean it was a good deal. Lately I have been trying to make more of my clothes, so I really think what I want and “need” in my closet.

  • Growing up, my family shopped off only clearance racks, so I became really adept at trying to spot deformities or issues with clothing. I totally echo your sentiment about how important it is to look over the items before you buy.

    My stint in retail kind of helped curb my shopping habits — after being around clearance sales all the time, and seeing items get returned all the time, it helped turn off the switch that gets me excited over sales.

  • Katharine

    I do pretty well in clearance racks these days, but the key for me is to REMEMBER MY CLOSET. Unless it’s really, REALLY cheap, in which case a clearance item, in, say, “my style” but a colour I have never otherwise worn can be a good experimental purchase.

    When your style has evolved into “mostly weird”, clearance racks are your best friend. A lot of items I really like are vastly overpriced on their first outings, because they’re “unusual” or “cutting edge” or have flappy bits. At the end of the season? They linger, lost and alone, on the local clearance racks, scorned by everyone else.

    Most of my mistakes occur when I forget that honestly, I really prefer to wear black, or shades of grey, in the wild, and no matter how cool something is otherwise, I probably won’t end up liking it if it’s pink.

  • Becky

    I have a shopping budget based not just on $$, but on a quota of garments – such as, “this spring I need 3 shirts and can spend $60 total on them.”

    If I don’t like a shirt enough to use up one of my garment quotas with it, that tells me even $5 is too much to pay for it.

    Having plenty of clothes already that I love makes it easier not to impulse-buy meh stuff beacause it’s cheap. Because I know what I look like wearing something that really flatters me, I can mentally compare how I look in the new garment to that. If it’s not at least that good, I put it back. This is a hidden advantage of having a small closet!

    • I’ve started doing a garment quota too and it’s helped cut down on my spending. I mean, I don’t NEED more than, say, a pair or two of shoes per season, especially if old ones still fit. So I’ve started making quotas. It really does help curb impulse buys, and it helps me think about which things will work the hardest–it makes me more likely to buy basics that will go with everything than things I know I’ll only wear a couple of times or that don’t go with very many things I own.

  • chrissandra

    I second what Becky said about the quota system. I now will only own x amount of a specific item such as sweaters or short sleeved blouses and I know that if anything comes in, something has to go out.

    The only thing I ever buy on clearance are truly unique cuts, colors, et cetera. This is one of the best reasons for something to end up on clearance.

    Contrary to standard advice, I prefer to shop for classics elsewhere. When they actually end up on clearance in a medium size, there’s almost always a hidden flaw. They want too much special care, they turn out to have almost undetectable undertones that are unflattering to almost everyone, the construction is too skimpy, things like that. But maybe that’s just my own bad experiences.

  • I am a cheapskate who’s addicted to deals, and I am working to get better at making decisions about clothes given that. I’ve developed some rules for myself: first off, the piece has to fit well, period. If it’s “almost but”, nope, put it back. The piece has to be a color I would choose without reference to price – if the only color on sale doesn’t suit me, than that deal was not meant for me. Same with silhouette – I know what tends to work for me, and although I will try other things on when they are on sale, just in case something works, I am rarely surprised. I also try to ask the question of myself whether I would have bought it at full price, or at least at a higher price. That helps clear out some of the “woohoo, mega deal” endorphin rush enough to think reasonably about whether it’s something that really works.

    I have to say that I can spend a lot of time agonizing over this stuff, though, and as a result have instituted a mental cost limit under which I am “free” to buy an item, given that it meets the “fit, color, silhouette” criteria. For me right now the bar is $10 at a regular store, and $5 at a thrift/secondhand venue. (I’m also working on instituting a general budget for clothes/month, so I don’t buy 10 things at $10, which I have been known to do in the past!)

  • Sue

    I absolutely live by the rule of requiring said clearance item work with at least 3 current possible outfits I have in my closet or dresser. Otherwise, I keep walking.

  • I stay away from clearance and even from too much discount-store wandering. I hate to say it since it goes against the whole thrifty/discounty ethos, but most of my favorite clothes that I wear constantly are the ones that I’ve bought full-price (or at least, discounted at a regular in- season sale). I’d rather actually just have the thing I like, and get a ton of use out of it, than a bunch of misfitty cheap things that aren’t nearly as good. Exceptions — t-shirts/knit tops.

  • You know, one of the things I love about shopping on Etsy is that I can put something in the cart and wait to see if I really want and need it the next day (or week). When I go sale shopping, I often get sucked in. Or at least it’s a lot harder to stop myself from buying. It’s taken me a long time to realize that, just because something looks good and is inexpensive doesn’t mean I should own it. I can’t buy everything, regardless of how well priced! It needs to go with everything else (or quite a few other things, at any rate)…

  • Lydia

    I am indecisive at the best of times (sales, full price, clearance racks), so in a way, this indecision has always ‘saved me’ from ever overspending, and my tightly organized closet has saved me from having too much. (end of preamble…)

    I do however, love a good bargain, so I figure if I buy a clearance rack mistake, I just let it go. I realize some people get sucked into the vortex more than me, but at the end of the day, I like to have a little clearance rack mini budget. I may toss them, or they may become wardrobe orphans, but my eternal optimism about maybe using the item in question always trumps my worry about bringing a useless item home. I love the thrill of the hunt, and figure that if I do not use the item, I can pass it on. (After all, I have had food in the fridge that went bad before I could make it, spent money on hotels or movies I have not liked, etc…) so I don’t sweat the clearnance rack anymore. I know myself, and a bargoon, is a thrill! (as I said before, it is not as though I would ever bring home tons of stuff at the best of times!)

  • Yan

    Still bad at the clearance rack purchases, but I do like it to try things I’m not sure about — I just bought my first pair of slim cut jeans since the ankle zipper ones from middle school. (And no, I refuse to call them what they are commonly called). So far? Maybe.

  • I don’t go shopping anymore unless I have identified something specific I need. And I mean super specific (type of garment, color, fabric, what I will wear it with…). That helps with the clearance racks a lot, because I can just skim them, see that the item I’m looking for isn’t there and move on. Going shopping without a plan is what leads to mistakes for me. While I like getting things on sale, I buy full-price much more easily these days because of how much wear I get out of my non-mistakes (and it can often save time!).

  • Anna

    You would think that my burgeoning interest in fashion would mean I’d be more interested in buying clothes, but no. Clothing remains a category that I have a really hard time spending money on. You could call it an aversion, even. I always feel like whatever I’m spending on clothes at any given moment is money that could be better spend on ANYTHING else. In some ways this is good; I have well established rules about buying clothes that I don’t break based on anything, including clearance prices, so I’ve avoided accumulating a lot of junk. I use the Three Outfits rule constantly. I have to love everything about it; even the tiniest of uncertainties lands it back on the rack. I studiously check everything for stains/loose threads/missing buttons. And even then, there is a pretty good chance my indecisive nature will have me walking out without it. So it works out that while I have a rather small closet full of things I wear constantly. That’s not so bad, I guess.

    ON THE OTHER HAND, this means I have a lot of issues buying clothes that I really do need….

  • Stace

    I developed a mild thrifting problem in college, when I realized style existed (outside the Boys section of Target, and my father’s company shirts). Same issues as clearance – buy random things, wear a few times, feel silly (because of fit or color or lack of suitable pairings), hide them in the “WINTER” box for three years until graduation.

    This problem only went away when I graduated and was forced to live out of a hiking backpack (for two, going on three years). It’s been exciting putting together a capsule wardrobe suitable for all seasons in different climates – professional wear, going-out clothes, lazy clothes – and I’ve worn a few thrift finds to bits, but now I know precisely whether an item would fit in my wardrobe and what I would use it for.

    I also pay strict attention to color palette and only buy stuff that would go with the dominant brown tones in my closet – this helps ensure that even if I later decide the item isn’t perfect, it will still get plenty of use.