I'd estimate that about 75 percent of the e-mails in my inbox are from people who are swamped with credit card debt. Many — particularly in this economy — have had to rely on plastic because they lost their job, or their gas and food bills are sky-high, but about a third can place the blame on clothes shopping.I can relate. I like fashion, and when the seasons start to change, I, like many of you, start to get the itch for a new pair of shoes or a new jacket. But when you're already feeling the squeeze in other areas of your finances, one of the first things that should take a spot on the back burner is the purchasing of new clothes.
That's the bad news. The good news is that there are ways to look great — and even trendy, if that's what you're after — without spending a bundle every time the weather shifts.Start with your closet
I know, you're sick of the clothes in there, and you're pretty sure that your friends and colleagues are starting to feel the same way. But I'm willing to bet that your closet is full of items that are perfectly acceptable. Even if that belt you love suddenly doesn't seem so great, or your jeans aren't quite the right length, there are ways to make do. "Don't forget that you can always get things altered. If you have a skirt that is long, and maybe short skirts are in, get it tailored," advises Kathryn Finney, founder of the blog, The Budget Fashionista. Having a good tailor in your back pocket will save you a bundle of money, especially when you can make minor adjustments to your clothes for as little as $20.Host a swap party
Pick up a couple bottles of wine and some cheese and crackers, and tell all of your friends to bring a few items from their closets that they no longer wear. "It's a great way to get new pieces and clean out your closet in the process," says Finney. As a general rule, if you haven't worn it in a year, it's time to pass it on.Plan ahead for next year
If a sweep through your closet turns up a bunch of trendy items that just can't be transformed, it's time to learn a valuable lesson: When it comes to clothing, you want to focus on what Finney calls "investment pieces." That means 70 percent of your closet should be made up of timeless items that can be worn year after year — think classic suits, white button downs, cashmere sweaters — and the remaining 30 percent can be devoted to trendy items like the sneaker of the moment or chunky jewelry.
Calculate the 'cost per wear'
It's the cost of the item divided by the amount of times you think you're going to wear it. "It's more important to focus on value, rather than just price," says Finney. Sure, a suit may cost upward of $500, but if you're going to wear it to the office once a week, it may be worth it.Time it right
Believe it or not, certain days of the week are better than others for making purchases. "We've been able to gather sales data from items that have gone on sale in the past couple of years, and from that we've discovered, the best days of the week to buy different things," says Charlie Graham, founder of Shop It To Me, a Web service that allows you to plug in what you're looking for, and in what size, then shoots you an e-mail when the item gets marked down. Graham says that you'll score the best deals if you shop for jeans on a Friday, swimwear on a Saturday and men's sweaters on Mondays. I say it's worth a try.
Let the Web work for you
If you're willing to do a little legwork, you could find big savings on the Internet. My favorite tip? Before I confirm a purchase, I always take five minutes to hit a couple of search engines and see if I can find a coupon for the item I'm going to buy. Very often, I save at least 10 percent (or get free shipping) just by entering the word "coupon" and the store name into my browser.Another perk of the Internet is that it makes comparison-shopping a piece of cake. If you're looking for something that can be found at several stores — a standard black blazer, for example, or a pair of khakis — check out the prices at a few different places before you commit. You don't even have to buy online, but you'll know where to go when you get to the mall.Take advantage of sample sales
"In this economy, people are becoming more and more price conscious, and designers know that, so they are more willing to show some of their items for less than full price," explains Graham. Sample sales originated because fashion houses needed to get rid of their sample sizes, but Graham is right: These days, the term is basically synonymous with a good deal. Granted, most take place in metropolitan areas where designers are based, but many people don't know that you can go online and find these kinds of markdowns no matter where you live. Check out gilt.com, ruelala.com or hautelook.com (you have to join or be referred by a friend) or just plug "online sample sale" into Google. With reporting by Arielle McGowen.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money Magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s TODAY Show and is also a columnist for Life Magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004’s “Pay it Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .