Not too long ago, I attended a very nice cocktail party with some very nice people, and while there, I met a sophisticated older woman named Margaret. We chatted about this and that, and I found myself quietly marveling at how impeccable she was in her appearance. Gorgeous white hair, flawless make-up, and understated, yet clearly expensive jewelry. There wasn’t a single inch of her body that wasn’t polished and shined to perfection. Next to her, I had the panache of a female dockworker after a nine-day steroid binge.
After we’d been talking awhile, I felt comfortable enough to lean in close to Margaret, grab the sleeve of her silk turquoise dress, and lightly rub it between my thumb and middle finger while making a “Mmmmmm” sound. At that moment, she could have easily signaled a cater-waiter to come escort me into the kitchen and dunk me in the deep fat fryer, but instead, she immediately flashed a conspiratorial grin. Running her hands down her slim hips, she crowed, “Twenty bucks at TJ Maxx! Can you believe it?”
Yes, I could. Because that’s what women do: we tell each other exactly how much our clothes cost. But only, and this is important, if they didn’t cost too much.
“Oh, this sweater? Target clearance rack. Ten bucks.”
“My shoes? Got ’em at a Mexican taco stand and paid the guy two pesos and a piece of ABC gum.”
“No, darling, my earrings aren’t actually from a shop on Rodeo Drive. They’re from the ears of the dead hooker I found behind a dumpster at the reservoir. It’s such a shame her pimp Tito took the matching bracelet.”
After all, what’s the point of being a brilliant, bargain-hunting cheapass if you can’t share it with everyone?
Of course, before you can brag about your great deals, you have to find your great deals. And I learned how to do just that from my mom, Sharon. She is my personal shopping hero and not just because she once had so many coupons and discount codes in her hand when buying a pair of shoes at Kohl’s, they had to pay her $2 to take them home. (And don’t think I haven’t heard that particular story about a million times.)
But it was my mom who taught my sisters and me at a young age to immediately head to the back of the store where the sales racks are located. “Don’t bother making eye contact with the clerks,” she instructed, “because those sweater folding teenage morons are just going to slow you down. You have no time for full price nonsense.”
And she was completely right because it was there, in the badly-lit back areas of stores, near the bathrooms and guys smoking pot in the stockroom, that I found shorts for 50% off, tank tops for 60% off, and swimsuits on Final Clearance. Sure, it might have been January at the time, but I knew I could shove my purchases in the back of my closet for a few months, then show off my savvy shopping skills as soon as the snow melted. And if anything gives you a boost of confidence in a bikini, it’s strutting around the pool knowing you paid just $5 for it when everyone else paid $75 for theirs. Suckers.
Unfortunately, this strategy can backfire, too. Like the time I ordered a bunch of Team USA 2004 Olympic wear online because it was marked down 70%. It wasn’t until weeks later when we opened the box, stamped repeatedly with the words “No Returns”, that I realized I’d actually bought Team Canada 2004 Olympic wear. As in giant, red maple leaves. As in the country we don’t actually live in. As in probably the last thing most residents of Austin, Texas would trot around town proudly wearing on their chests. So, for the past ten years, my husband and I have had to continually say things like, “No, I”m not actually from Canada. No, I don’t even know where Ottawa is. No, I’m not related to Celine Dion, and I have no idea how good the speed skating team is this year. No, I—OH, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WOULD YOU JUST LEAVE ME AND MY THREE DOLLAR CANADIAN MOUNTIE HOODIE ALONE?”
But while it’s perfectly acceptable for women to immediately tell a stranger how little we paid for our skirt (“Sixteen bucks at Ross Dress for Less! And it only has a little bit of mouse semen on the back!”), it’s never okay to tell someone you paid a lot for your clothes. Like the awful woman who was on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills a few years ago. I seem to remember her name was Labradoodle, but that might be wrong. Anyway, during one memorable party scene, she pointed to her jeweled sunglasses and proudly chirped, “Like ’em? Twenty five thousand dollars!” Oh, yes, Labradoodle DID.
Of course, the show’s viewers were disgusted by her pronouncement, but surprisingly, so were the other Beverly Hills Housewives. And not because they’re frugal, sensible spenders, either, because they most definitely aren’t. No, they were disgusted because it’s one thing to pay that much for an accessory you’ll probably sit on and break, but it’s an entirely different thing to brag about it. Had Labradoodle instead said she was wearing Gymboree sunglasses pilfered from her toddler’s Lil Aviator outfit like, ahem, someone I know once did, they would have totally applauded her thriftiness. (And then take the drink out of her hand, tell her that she looks like a demented bush pilot, and drive her to the nearest Sunglass Hut for Ray-Bays.) (I’m guessing.)
I’ve often wondered why women feel compelled to tell each other how little we paid for our clothes whenever we’re complimented on them. Is it because we want to appear modest? Is it because we have trouble accepting kind words? Is it the thrill of the bargain? Or is it simply because, in the spirit of sisterhood, we want to give others the chance to snap up their own $15 Kenneth Cole leather boots that are almost-but-not-really still in style? I’m not sure what the answer is.
What I do know is that the next time someone tells me how much they like my shirt, I’m going to try my best to just smile and nod and say, “Thank you.” And keep it to myself that I only paid $3 for it after finding it in the very back of the store, underneath the ass of a passed-out security guard named Jerry.