Beth Kobliner is the author of Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties and is featured in the upcoming PBS special Your Life, Your Money.
"Can I Afford It?"
WHAT TO ASK YOURSELF:
Have I covered my basic monthly expenses?
"Fixed costs must be paid before there is any discretionary spending," Kobliner says. She lists mortgage or rent, gas, basic groceries, utilities, insurance premiums, debt payments—and, preferably, savings: 10 percent of your take-home to a 401(k) and another 5 percent to an emergency savings account.
Are my credit cards fully paid off?
"I'm sorry, but if you don't have the money now, you can't buy it," Kobliner says, pointing out that it can cost twice the original price to purchase something with a credit card if you make minimum payments (and beware of store cards, which often charge more than 20 percent interest as opposed to the 14 percent average rate on bank cards).
Do I have the cash?
If so, use it. "Counting out bills at the cashier is a great way to spend less," says Kobliner, citing an MIT study that found that people spend up to twice as much when paying with a credit card instead of cash.
Is it within my clothing budget?
There's no "right" amount to spend on clothing, but there is an average (courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau): 3 percent of a household's pretax income. "It's a surprisingly good guideline for most income levels," Kobliner says.
Is the price tag reasonable?
Try Kobliner's cost-per-wear formula—price divided by the estimated number of times you'll wear it in the first two years. Anything below $3 per wear is a smart purchase.
Am I getting the best price?
Comparison shopping is key: Use Web sites like PriceGrabber.com and Nextag.com. iPhone applications such as RedLaser allow you to scan bar codes while you're in a store and search Internet prices for the same item.
Will I still want it tomorrow?
Give yourself a cooling-off period—call a friend, go home—before you buy. A short delay can encourage the part of your brain that makes rational decisions to get control of your wallet, Kobliner says.
Next: How to find out if it's worth it