How to Shop Like a Pro: The Exact System I Use to Shop for Clothes

Or: How to translate what you WANT to wear into what you actually end up buying.

This post may contain affiliate links, which means we may receive a commission if you purchase through our links. Please read our full disclosure here.

The ultimate guide to shopping for clothes: The exact system I use to organize my outfit ideas, decide what to buy, and stay on budget
Photo: Lulu’s

I just received the following email and thought it would be a great question to answer here:

“have you ever done an article on how to shop? i feel like i absolutely LOVE fashion and know what i would like to dress like, but when i go shopping i get completely overwhelmed and have no idea where to start- especially in big stores. do you have any tips about HOW to shop? i dont know if thats a dumb question or not lol but like i said- its overwhelming. i wish i could translate all my ideas about what i love into shopping!”

I don’t think it’s a dumb question at all, and I know just as well as anyone how tough it can be to translate what you WANT to wear into what you actually end up buying. It takes work to create a wardrobe, and achieving the look that’s “you” often takes planning and hard work!

Since I’m a list-maker to the core, I have a whole system for this exact problem. Here are my tips for shopping with a certain look in mind:

Take notes on the looks you like.

My “SS19” collection on Instagram — can you tell I’m into neutrals, bike shorts, and blazers this season?

Keep a “fashion inspiration” notebook (or Pinterest board, or Instagram collection), where you save photos of looks you like, celebrities wearing outfits that inspire you, or whatever it is that gets your inspiration going! If you have a favorite fashion muse, save photos of what she’s wearing so they’re easy to reference.

Personally, I use Instagram for this. I have a “Style” collection that I constantly update with everything I come across that inspires me. Whether it’s an influencer wearing a certain outfit, a throwback Vogue shot, a picture of a celebrity or just a pair of shoes I want to get, I save everything to that collection so it’s all in one place.

I also get more organized than this — I have separate collections broken down by season. The above screenshot is my “SS19” season collection, with only looks that will inspire my spring/summer closet. When we get closer to fall, I’ll start a new collection for the cold weather.

Deconstruct the looks piece by piece.

This is really important. Once you have your inspiration in one place, you have to deconstruct it to get a sense of what you’re actually looking for. Smart shopping takes some planning ahead!

Start by asking yourself a series of questions.

First, find out what about the look appeals to you. Do you love the clothes or simply how they look on that person? (If you aren’t sure, picture the outfit on someone else – would you still love it just as much on a different person?)

Then think about the general aesthetic vibe. Is it boho-chic, goth, edgy, preppy, or something else? What does it remind you of? Get a sense of what appeals to you and write it down.

Now deconstruct the outfit. What are the individual pieces involved? Make a mental list of them all. Do you own any of the pieces already? If so, which extra pieces would you need to buy to emulate that look? Write down a list of those.

Eliminate pieces on the list that won’t work for you.

Pexels

Now that you have a big list of pieces you’d like to own, it’s time to eliminate anything that won’t work with your style or budget.

Start by analyzing how trendy each piece is. Is it the kind of thing that will be over in a few months, or is it a classic that will never go out of style?

If your piece is trendy, how often do you think you’ll wear it? If it’s the kind of thing you’ll only wear once or twice, eliminate it altogether. It’s not worth your money.

Keep going with this to evaluate each piece against your personal style. Is the outfit the right color for you, or would you need to buy a piece in a different shade? If it’s a specific piece that only comes in a color that won’t work on you, eliminate.

Figure out what to spend and what to save on.

This will be different for everyone depending on your budget and how often you’ll wear something.

My personal rule is if I’ll probably only wear it a few times and it’s not for a super-special occasion, I’ll buy it on the inexpensive side. (Although I am generally trying not to buy things I know I won’t wear that much — quality over quantity and all that!)

If it’s the kind of thing I know I will be wearing a lot, like a pair of dark wash jeans or a well cut blazer, I’ll splurge on it. (I always calculate cost per wear here!) Quality is important when it comes to the things you wear on a daily basis. Also, I have a personal rule that I never, ever buy cheap ($20 or less) shoes — I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

If you need more guidance on this, CF writer Arissa shared the exact system she uses to decide where to save and splurge.

Once you’ve figured this out, take your list and divide it into two sub lists – Splurge On and Save On.

Have a game plan before you set foot in a store.

We all know that bad things can happen when you go shopping without a list of what you’re looking for. Impulse purchases are so easy to make, and they often leave you with a closet full of clothes you don’t even like that much!

Moral of the story? Always be prepared before you go shopping. Here’s how:

Start by shopping online if possible. Of course, I don’t mean you should be BUYING everything online. Instead, take your lists of items that you made and look for similar pieces online. This way, you can compare prices easily and find the best deal on what you want.

Decide what you want to buy where, and write it down! If you’re not sure exactly where to get something, that’s okay.. but if possible, make a list of stores you think might have that piece.

Go to a store and try things on!

Pexels

As much as I love online shopping, I usually like to buy things in-store, especially if they’re expensive items. This way I can try things on and get a feel for how things look in person. Sometimes online photos can be really inaccurate, so shopping in-store allows you to touch the fabric, look at its movement, and see how things fit on your body.

By the time you set foot in a store, you should already have a detailed list of what you plan to buy there. No wandering randomly into Forever 21 and picking up whatever catches your eye!! Have a plan and you’ll save yourself a headache, end up with quality pieces, AND spend less money.

Next, find the items on your list and get into that dressing room! Try things on and if you don’t like how they fit (and you don’t think they can be altered), don’t be afraid to look elsewhere. Shopping can be hard work and if you want a fabulous wardrobe, refuse to settle for “just okay.”

Repeat the process.

If you’re really into fashion, you’re probably inspired by new things, and therefore wanting to update your wardrobe pretty often. That’s okay, so long as it’s in your budget to do it. If not, you’ll have to plan accordingly. Either way, you can keep applying this system on a regular basis.

Personally, I’m always updating my fashion inspiration collection, keeping track of new trends I want to try, and scouting online for where I can find the best deals. I don’t buy everything I want (obviously), but I try to update my wardrobe often enough that I don’t get bored. Of course, I also have a budget that I stick to. While keeping your wardrobe fresh is fun, having enough money to buy books and food is a lot more important.

Whenever you see a look you’d like to incorporate into your wardrobe, repeat this shopping process and you’ll end up with a closet full of clothes you love. The more you do it, the more it becomes like second nature. After you do this a few times, you’ll instinctively know what to buy and where.

Your Thoughts?

After reading this guide, what do you think? Do you have a system like mine for shopping, or do you just browse the racks and buy whatever looks cute at the moment? Do you have any shopping tips of your own? Leave them in the comments!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2009; it was completely updated and revamped in 2019 with new photos and information.

30 thoughts on “How to Shop Like a Pro: The Exact System I Use to Shop for Clothes”

  1. Spot on with this post! i put uni books first at the start of every semester as well!!! when i shop, i keep a certain amount of money that i spend in my head, and then when i hit the shops, i decide whether i need it or not, and of course how many times i will use it.

    I need to go out into the shops soon and update a few things (a few night outfits) and whatever i will wear throughout my lifetime. I haven’t shopped online, but i prefer to go into store and try it on!

    Reply
  2. Haha, I do this a lot. Well, when I have the chance I guess. And I do a lot since I’m broke all the time 🙁 But I love looking through online and making a “wishlist” through the site and then I always check it before going to the actual store so I don’t impulse buy and I know what to try on to make sure it looks good in person too. I love this post; great job!

    Reply
  3. omg! that really helps alot. thanks thanks thanks

    the “wandering around forever 21…” part hit me! hahaha.
    i ALWAYS do that. i go shopping without knowing what i want. then i just buy stuff for the sake of buying it . like last week, i have altleast 4 pieces from forever21 that i dont even like and now im wearing one of them as a pajama top. haha cuz i think that i wud NEVER wear it out. =(

    i really have to stop impulse shopping. hehe.

    Reply
  4. Terrific article! I have a scrapbook that I keep with fashion magazine clippings of beautiful outfits or tips/ideas from articles. If I’m ever feeling uninspired when I’m trying to get dressed in the morning, flipping through it always helps!

    Also thank you for the friendly reminder of making a shopping list and weeding out the unnecessary items. I need to work on buying more versatile pieces.

    Reply
  5. Pretty good article. I pretty much shop at the thrift for everything except underwear and socks so this doesn’t really apply to me but I always save my reciept and if I don’t wear the item within a week or two I take it back because I never will. This helps me from having stuff I never wear taking up space in my teeny tiny closet that I share with my fiance.

    Reply
  6. Hi! This artilce is amazing!
    Im from Argentina thats why i dont know so much about the stores but i adapt all what yo said on my clothes and stores from my country.
    I just love this site and all what you write!
    I am a big fan of fashion, so the tips are great for me!
    thanks 🙂

    Reply
  7. i tend to do more of the go-shopping-and-see-what-i-find route… for some reason trying to plan it all out and going to the mall looking for a specific thing rather than just relaxing and looking around to see what’s there tends to kind-of stress me out…

    i deal with the “bad impulse purchases” by trying to buy mostly from stores with long return policies… at least a couple weeks unless it’s something i’m absolutely sure i love, and preferably a month or more. then i leave all the tags on until i actually wear the item. if i don’t wear it, then i just take it back!

    Reply
  8. This is great advice, not only is being an organized shopper is important but having an organized closet and knowing what you own! This was always my problem- I felt like I had a closet of clothes but nothing to wear. I recently found this amazing new site that will help you shop, and where you can digitize your wardrobe (for free!!!) so you can see what you have before you go a shopping adventure.
    This site has literally changed my life! You should all check it out- it’s called Closet Couture

    http://www.closetcouture.com/

    Reply
  9. hey i just wanted to let you know that this article DEF helped me alot and i plan to use your ideas when i go out shopping this weekend! thanks so much for addressing my email so quickly and writing this fab article. i <3 collegefashion.net! thanks again!

    Reply
  10. This is a wonderful post! Thanks a lot 😉

    I just got one question, how do search for the things i like online (i know it’s a stupid question)? I just find it really hard to search online for the things i like and compare the prices…So i’ll be ready to shop
    And besides that I also made a huge handwritten list of all the things I want to have in my wardrobe. I first need to make a priority; for instance spring is coming up, perhaps i should buy a nice jacket for that first and then shop for all the other things i want.. Dunnow, please help me..

    Yours sincerely,

    Tam

    Reply
  11. 😀 i love ur suggestions!
    i got an Evernote just now but im still not really familiar with it
    can you pls post the evernote post soooon ?
    thanks so much! =)
    and glad to see u update often now 😀 love allllllllllllll the posts !!

    Reply
  12. If you can return it, just buy it. That way you can sleep on your purchase and not have to worry about going back the next day only to find your I-must-have dress is gone.

    Reply
  13. Sorry, can I share the painful experience? The strategy offered by the article sounds very clever, but I am afraid that it would not work until you have a BIG collection of ideas and items that you want to find.
    When I try to shop for only one or two specific items, I usually can’t find them. Then, after spending 3 fruitless hours racing from store to store, I am getting tired and angry. Examples: I could not find a mid-length skirt with asymmetrical hemline when I had that idea (my legs are X type and shape is not very pretty). Also, once I wanted to buy a nice blouse for work, all I could find were transparent blouses of bad quality. In ALL stores! I don’t consider sheer blouse a very versatile item, so I had to cut my losses (lost time..), and gave up. I’ve got my new blouses later, but it was at the time when I was not looking for them at all, after few months, by pure luck.

    Majority of stores sell same kind of items, so what you’ve seen today in one store you will be seeing pretty much in every other. There are happy exceptions, but I know that I need luck for that, not the system.

    What works for me (sometimes): When I walk into a store, I look at the mannequins to see what style they have now in general, and how they put items together (I never know how to wear pieces that have not been around for at least 10 years). If I think that I can wear this style, I would try clothes randomly for about 2 hours to find if something works on my body. I listen to suggestions of sales people. Sometimes I get lucky and find a great outfit. But most of the time I go away empty handed. Shopping is ungrateful and exhaustive process, and i don’t like it.

    I fear Hudson Bay store. It makes me dizzy and I cant find the exit.

    Reply
  14. Great, very detailed article, Zephyr!
    I definitely follow a pretty similar system. I know exactly what my next piece(s) is when I’m out shopping and try to stay pretty flexible with what I’m looking for. That being said, I also never turn down a good deal when I see it! 🙂

    Reply
  15. im def an organized shopper. i make a list beforehand of what im looking for, and go over everything in my wardrobe to see what i already have. it’s like grocery shopping, if you don’t check first you could end up with something you already have. and, come on, you need a third long black cardigan like you need a third jar of peanut butter 🙂

    Reply
  16. Don’t be afraid of thrifting, especially at stores like Plato’s closet where you can get whole new wardrobe for 150$ if you time it right!

    Reply
  17. Thanks for this article! I always get really overwhelmed when I go shopping; it makes it a lot less fun. There are tons of clothes in my closet because of my impulse buying. I’m definitely going to try your suggestions. 🙂

    Reply
  18. Great article!
    I also make out a list and budget of what I plan on buying, although I am not allowed to shop online so I must try everything on in stores.
    I also stick to the same colours I know look good on me and I like (black, greys, whites/off whites, nearly all shades of blue, dark red are maroon, pink, dark purple, brown-no neons, no pastels) so that I can fit whatever I bought with most of my wardrobe I already have.

    Reply
  19. thanks so much for telling me about evernote! i always lose track of the things I want. I’m going shopping tomorrow and will have to try your advice out.

    Reply
  20. Great post! I am definitely going to try Evernote. I like your idea of deconstructing a look – I often see someone and think “wow,” but just don’t know how to recreate that look on myself. What are some looks that you have seen and then recreated on yourself? 🙂

    Reply
  21. Thank you so much! I have dreaded going clothes shopping forever because I never know what to buy once I get in the store. This helps a lot.

    Reply
  22. Great….I was yearning for such tips. I do a lot of impulse shopping and then keep thinking about the dresses i bought for days together. Then almost feel like i didnt want a few of them, and could have gone to some other store . Online shopping will definetly help to see if the dresses are there in some other shops at teh first place.

    Thanks a lot….

    Reply
  23. Great tips. I sometimes suffer from spur of the moment shopping and I end up buying something that I never wear or return the item a week later. It’s always smart to have a plan in place to get the most out of shopping.

    Reply
  24. Hi! This artilce is amazing! I have dreaded going clothes shopping forever because I never know what to buy once I get in the store. This helps a lot.

    Reply

Leave a Comment