Friday, July 1, 2011

Switching to cheap

I admit to being somewhat of a product snob—at least for certain items. That’s odd in itself because, like most of us our age, I’m the child of Depression-era parents. They knew what it meant to have only enough money to live on with no extras for luxuries, and my mother was the queen of bargains. One day, after an afternoon of shopping, she presented me with the ugliest bathing suit I have ever seen. When I told her I didn’t like it, she exclaimed, “But it was only a dollar!” I believe I actually wore that suit, and if I can find the incriminating photo or two, I’ll post them here. After all, the statute of limitations on dorkiness has expired…hasn’t it?

My father was a mail carrier, moving his way up to foreman and, ultimately, Director of Customer Service of Chicago’s Main Post Office. But during my early years, he schlepped mail. I thought it was cool because he’d bring home the most wonderful candy and trinkets during the Christmas season. One unforgettable gift was a cigarette box. When you wanted to smoke (not that I ever did), you pressed the tail of a bird and he bobbed into the stash of cigarettes and came up with one in his beak. As a kid, I loved it. I’m sure my parents would have rather had cash.

So I've set the stage to say that we didn't have much money when I was growing up. I never felt deprived, and I always had enough clothing and accessories. They just weren't—usually—good brands.

As I reached middle age and was making a decent salary on my own, I gave myself permission to buy better: Marshall Field's, Lord and Taylor, Chico's, and Nordstrom were shopping havens for me. Sometimes I would accompany friends to boutiques and spend more on one item than I had on whole outfits in the past.

As for makeup, I got hooked on Lancome, Shiseido, and other department store brands. Once I discovered Lancome's Definicils mascara, it was the only one I used. I also relied for a long time on the samples I received as a gift with purchase, so I have many lipsticks and eye shadow quads. If I really liked a color and ran out of the sample, I bought the full-price version.

Then, a few years ago, I saw Queen Latifah on a TV ad for Cover Girl. The product was LashExact, a mascara with a brush made of plastic bristles that promised to cover each Definicils does. I bought it, then other versions of Cover Girl mascara, and I haven't looked back. The same thing happened with lipstick (and it also involved a Queen Latifah commercial). I now have a collection of Cover Girl lipsticks and glosses. And they're much cheaper than department store brands! One problem I discovered is that, because they cost so comparatively little, I think nothing of buying more than I need. Who needs four tubes of mascara and eight lip glosses?

When it came to clothing, I would dismiss stores like Kohl's and Target. If I wanted bargains, I'd go for more mainstream brands at Marshall's and TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack. Those stores are still in play, but I've become a Kohl's convert. I love the fact that practically everything is on sale all the time. And I know now that some very good brands (Dana Buchman, Chaps, Nine West, Vera Wang, to name a few) have lines they design just for Kohl's.

You might say that being semi-retired has something to do with it. But I'm also genuinely happy with the items I buy at the lower cost shops. I haven't abandoned my taste for Jones New York or Chicos—as long as what I want is on sale—but I've renounced my old snobbish thoughts. As always, the only test the product I buy has to pass is this one: Does this item make me look old? If it does, I'm not buying it, even if it's “only a dollar”—or the 21st century equivalent.