There's something about a dress that costs less than a latte that makes you forget all your years of training. You've spent decades doing field work on sales floors and clearance racks; gathered data behind the curtains of changing rooms and spent years writing "The Holy Grail of Shopping Manuals" that has footnotes of proof. For example, "A1: Never buy bandage dresses because subject has learned the hard way they turn into tube tops upon sitting down." Or "A2: There is no such thing as 'When I Lose Weight Pants.' Research shows subject won't ever say no to cheesecake, and she's totally cool with that. New plan."
But when you're in a thrift store, the rules change on you. Rather than worrying your lip over the idea of never wearing those 70 dollar pants again, everything turns into the exact price of a box of cereal — skirts are three dollars, pants are five bucks a pop, and that gaudy, fantastic dress is on sale for 50 cents! Grab it and run girl, grab it and run.
And you do. Only to regret it about a week later when you spot its sequined wink from the back of your closet. Sure, you can always throw it into the donate bin and move on, but money wasted is still money wasted, no matter how small the amount. So how do you avoid buyer's remorse in thrift stores when the knee-jerk reaction is "Get it, it's only a couple of bucks." Here's how:
Be strict with comfort.
The easiest way to rule out would-be regrets is to hold firm on comfort. It doesn't matter if you've somehow unearthed Zelda Fitzgerald's original flapper dress from the dollar bin, if that little number itches, scratches, or pinches in any way, it goes back on the hanger, no matter how much it pains your heart. It doesn't matter if the piece in question is a total steal, if it's uncomfortable, you won't wear it, period. And if you won't wear it, it's not a bargain, ever.
Homework: Asses the situation with total honesty; go with your initial reactions when you slip the piece on. Does the dress nip in at your armpits? Do the pants give you a bit of a wedgie? Are the knees of the jeans tight when you sit down? Does the collar choke you at the neck? Is the material of the sweater scratchy? If anything is remotely off, walk away. Don't give yourself a chance to talk yourself into it.
Ask yourself: Would you buy it if it were in a department store?
I'll admit I've bought a few questionable things in my day, and the reason I got them was because I thought they were "good enough." They weren't exactly my style, but who could complain when the tag read $2? Put it into perspective: Would you reach for that piece if it were hanging in your favorite boutique or a department store? Would you want to buy it if it were $40 instead of two bucks? If the answer is no, walk away.
Homework: When on the fence about an item, imagine you're in your favorite store. If you were flipping through the racks, would that one piece catch your eye? Or would you skim over it because it's so obviously not worth the price tag? If you don't want "meh" items clogging up your wardrobe, don't buy them just for the sake of the deal.
Make "one ugly thing" your deal breaker.
One time I got swept away in the high of finding a vintage coat in my favorite charity shop. It was mauve with big muffin-sized buttons, and looked like something Doris Day would put on before heading out the door. But there was one thing wrong with it: The collar was all wrong and made me look less granny-chic and more granny. Deciding to ignore it, I marched to the cash register and promised myself I'd learn to like it.
So how did the coat's story end? I kept it in my closet for about a year, and then donated it back to the same store I bought it from. To avoid buyer's remorse, don't allow yourself to explain away "that one ugly thing." If you hate the color, never really wear that kind of print, don't like how short it is, or feel like your butt looks a mile wide/long in it, you won't wear it. If you spot the "one ugly thing," let it be your trigger for an answer: It's not for you.
Homework: If you notice your "one ugly thing," work on not explaining it away with excuses. If you don't like the silhouette of the dress, aren't into the cut of the jeans, have never been much for eye-popping colors, hate the way that linen wrinkles, force yourself to admit that you won't change your mind at home just because it's cheap. You won't magically learn to love acid wash denim at home just because it's a steal at the thrift store.
Think of at least one outfit you can create with it.
This is a rule I apply to literally all my purchases. Buying an '80s disco dress is all well and good, but what are you going to do with it if you have no shoes or bags to go with it? It's okay to branch out and try new pieces and styles (especially since there's such a small monetary stake involved,) but if you don't want to regret the risk, make sure you already have pieces that can go with it. Think of it like regular retail shopping: If you have to buy three new things just so you can wear that one piece out, then it's not worth it (unless it's for a special occasion).
Homework: Whip up a viable outfit in your mind then and there in the dressing room. What shirt can you wear with that blazer in question? Do you have pants that will balance out those slightly "working woman" '80s vibes? Maybe a pair of shoes that will give it a modern punch? Or not yet? If the answer is no across the board, back away.
Be picky with the fit.
This is probably the most common factor that leads to remorse: You bought a piece because it was cheap, but it turns out it's shapeless or too tiny, making you hate it when it's time to dress up for Friday night. So the solution? Be picky with how things fit! Use that prior trick of imaginging you're in a department store: you probably wouldn't buy those full-price pants that pinch into your sides or that dress that cuts you weird at the shins, right? Or take it in another direction: Do you have a good enough tailor that can fix these problems for you (and will you actually remember to take your clothes to them), or are they just subpar and it might not turn out how you're hoping?
Homework: Run your outfit through a series of tests: Sit down on the bench, squat like you're picking something up, lean over to see what happens with the bubbies, lift your arms to see if there's any weird pinching. Then be honest how it makes you feel about your body: Do you feel pretty and happy in it or is it making you hate something? If you don't like how your butt or legs or tummy looks in it, skip it. You don't need items in your wardrobe that make you sad, only pieces that make you want to lick a finger and go "tsss" at your reflection.
Follow these tips and you'll have way less remorse in your closet — even if the dud cost you five bucks, that was five bucks you could have spent on coffee (or stashing away for a rainy day). Happy shopping!