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
Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, the original What Not to Wear ladies, have a new series, Making Over America (TLC, August 21), and book, The Body Shape Bible.
"Is It Worth It?"
WHAT TO ASK YOURSELF:
Do I need it?
Identify wardrobe holes by separating what you do wear from what you don't, then make a shopping list of your needs (not wants). "Most women wear 20 percent of their wardrobe 80 percent of the time," says Trinny. "If you buy more things you'll actually wear, you will feel really positive about your closet."
Am I being honest with myself?
Don't talk yourself into a bad purchase. Analyze the mistakes in your giveaway pile: Great color, but wrong for your body? Nice style in a weird print? Once you're wise to your vulnerabilities, you can shop smarter.
Is the timing right?
"I hardly ever buy something straight away," Trinny says. This gives you the space to see if it truly belongs in your closet (hint: Can you think of five things you can wear it with?) or if you just wanted to reward yourself after a lousy day. You might also consider waiting for a price reduction (which is happening earlier in the season now). "You'll always find something cool on sale," according to Trinny. "You just have to be patient."
Does it suit my body?
Try stuff on, even if (especially if!) you've gained weight or you're in a rush. That said, if it isn't perfect, get it tailored. "Once it's taken in, a Zara jacket can look like Armani," says Susannah. Also, check that it flatters your shape: "If an item you try on is not hiding your defects and showing your assets, take it off!"
Is it comfortable?
Reject anything that itches or pinches. (But don't let comfort swamp style, Trinny warns. "Big old baggy stuff makes you look old before your time.")
Is it low-maintenance?
Watch out for wrinkle-prone fabric—time is money, and you don't want to spend it ironing. Check the label for care instructions; dry cleaning bills can add hundreds of dollars to the cost.
Does it have staying power?
See if you can picture it looking chic in ten years or more. "I'm 45," Trinny says, "and I'm starting to ask myself, 'Is this the kind of thing I can wear when I'm 60?'"
Get 6 strategies for smart online shopping and find the best designer deals