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COMMENTARY

When a bargain is still too cheap

Samantha Christmann

No shopping trip with your kids would be complete without them finding some random junk and asking you to buy it for them.

I tell them they can have it if they want it – as long as they pay for it with their own money. That usually puts an end to that.

But I was particularly proud of how my Sloane, 7, turned that offer down recently.

It was a small stuffed dog and it was only $1. She squished its thin stuffing, noted a string dangling from a frayed seam and turned to put it back on the shelf.

"Nah, it's not made very well," she said.

I was so proud, I thought my heart was going to burst. High five, girl.

We have become so obsessed with "cheap" that we've lost all sight of value.

Look at fast-fashion retailers like H&M. Disposable clothing is a thing. You can get a hyper-trendy shirt for $4. It will fall apart the first time you wash it but that's OK, it will be out of style before you have the chance to wear it a second time anyway. You can't trust the size on the tag and it won't fit properly, but did we mention it cost four bucks?

Poor quality and short life are worth it when something is so inexpensive, right?

We'll sacrifice a lot for a better price. But it turns out, the price of "cheap" goods is often not much better than what you might pay for something better.

With a little patience and effort, maybe a coupon or two, you can get high-quality stuff at the same price (or sometimes less) than the junk you find at discount stores.

H&M advertises a pair of knockoff kids' Adidas sneakers for $17.99. They're faux leather with mesh insoles. What a bargain, huh?

Except you can get actual Adidas sneakers for $25 on sale at the Adidas website. Plus, you'll get 20% off with a promo code advertised on the site. That brings the price down to $20, even before you look elsewhere for additional coupons. And they're real suede.

I recently spent $60 at J.C. Penney. I got two great pairs of jeans, a dress and a Liz Claiborne jean jacket. The jacket alone had originally been priced at $65 – and would have been worth it even then.

If we keep settling for less in terms of quality, where is that going to leave us? Manufacturers are already pretty bold about the kind of junk they try to sell us.

So how can we fight it?

Take a "cost-per-wear" mindset. To find the real value of clothing, divide its purchase price by the number of times you'll likely wear it.

You'll find that a good pair of jeans might cost just 25 cents using this metric, since you'll be able to wear them over and over. A pair of "cheap" fast-fashion jeans that are ruined after the first or second wash could cost 100 times as much per wear.

Buy less. We sometimes buy things just to buy them. "It's only 50 cents? I'll take two." Just because something is super affordable doesn't mean it has to come home with us.

Be a shopper, not a buyer. There's a difference between shopping for fun and having fun shopping. Shopping as a pastime ("It's Saturday, let's hit the mall!") turns you into a buyer. You buy lots of stuff you don't need and probably won't even want once the buzz of buying them has worn off. You're in the store to buy stuff. You don't know what you want, but you're not leaving until you've got loads of it.

Just as fun but more productive is to shop strategically. Wait until you actually need something – maybe a coffee maker or a new coat – and take your time finding the best quality for the best price. Instead of walking out after your shopping trip with bags upon bags of stuff, you might spend days going from store to store, website to website, and come away empty-handed. You'll still experience the thrill of the hunt, but you'll feel a lot better about what you eventually end up with.

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