How to save your time, money, and sanity amidst endless seasonal sales

Now that we can shop sales anytime, anywhere, limitations can be liberating.
Now that we can shop sales anytime, anywhere, limitations can be liberating.
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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In recent months, a yellow long-sleeved dress has stalked me in my wanderings around the internet. I must have clicked on it once. How could I resist? It’s the shade of a canary in noon-day sun, and dazzled with a flower garden of sequins and paillettes. It also costs just shy of $1500, which is not exactly my average budget for a garment that—well, for any garment really.

But now, a virtual parade of floral dresses marches across my screen multiple times per day, whether I’m reading an article for research or checking my email—and now, everywhere, the prices are slashed. 30%, 40%, 70%, ONE DAY ONLY!

The endless sales season

But of course, we know these post-holiday sales are not one day only. They’ll last into January. Then we’ll be onto President’s Day, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Prime Day, and throughout the year until we hit Black Friday, launching us into the holiday sales again.

As Marc Bain has written, this cycle has turned shopping into “a form of cheap, endlessly available entertainment—one where the point isn’t what, or even whether, you buy, but the act of shopping itself.” This has resulted in an environmentally catastrophic pile-up of unwanted clothing, and a population of perpetually unsatisfied shoppers.

But of course, as anyone who has scored the proverbial yellow sequined dress of their dreams at 80% off can tell you, once in a while, a seasonal sale can offer the opportunity to attain something highly desirable at the right price. The key is in approaching sales with a level head and clear intentions, so you don’t waste your money—and worse, your time—shopping for things you don’t really need.

April Lane Benson, a psychologist who works with patients that suffer from compulsive buying, has some practical tips for taking a controlled approach to the sales onslaught:

Define your terms

“Certain conditions have to be met for it to be a good purchase,” says Benson. And the person who defines those conditions is you, by creating a plan. To create a plan is to throw a wrench into the endless shopping-as-entertainment vortex that Bain described, and allows you—not a blinking banner or a 70% off sticker—to determine whether or not a deal is a good one.

Before you go shopping, Benson says, define what it is you’re shopping for, how much you’re comfortable spending, and how necessary the purchase is. That way, if you go shopping with $250 for new everyday winter boots and a pair of jeans, you don’t instead come home with a $300 fuzzy coat just because, Wow! This coat was originally $1,000!

Another good reason to shop with intention: in addition to yielding better results, it can actually be more fun.

The six questions

Inevitably, that deeply discounted fuzzy coat will find us—whether it’s in a real-life shop window or a virtual one. Benson has six questions she refers her clients to when the impulse strikes and the pulse quickens:

Why am I here?
How do I feel?
Do I need this?
What if I wait?
How will I pay for it?
Where will I put it?

“Why am I here?” may seem like a bit of an existential stretch when you’re in a crowded Nordstrom on a sunny Saturday—but it may be just the wakeup call to remind you you’ve got better places to be. The one that often gets me is: “Where will I put it?” Somehow, picturing an item in my already crowded closet—rather than in a beautiful boutique or on my iPhone screen—brings me back to the reality that I probably don’t need it, and what’s more, I barely have room for it.

Your time has value too

In June, Hayley Phelan wrote for the Wall Street Journal about her six-month shopping detox.

“I’d often agonized over the monetary price of fashion,” she wrote. “It turns out I was worried about the wrong resource. During my self-imposed hiatus, I realized I was wasting something else: serious amounts of time.”

Phelan wrote about finding herself on page 22 of the Net-a-Porter sale as a deadline rapidly approached—a feeling many a fashion enthusiast might find familiar. Again, Benson would point us to planning, and the old six questions starting with “Why am I here?”

Additionally, she says, we can unsubscribe from promotional emails, opt out of targeted ads, and “just make a decision that that’s not how you’re going to do your shopping.”

As Phelan pointed out, it’s possible that you may spend an extra few dollars by skipping the endless scrolling. But just think of the hours you’ll save.