Stuck in mall stores that offered endless racks of stuff that didn't excite me, I never spent $20 if I could find something ill-fitting for $10. And I never, ever browsed the front of the store to consider what I really wanted.
I was a bargain shopper, and I looked it.
The coat that replaced my Navy one was a case in point: By the time I hit the mall in mid-January, the only wraps left were three sizes too big. But their 70-percent-off tags were too tempting to resist; plus it was cold. (Remember, this was Cleveland.)
So I bought one, and there I was, looking like a young Mama Cass in camel-colored wool.
Deep down, I knew this was worse than the peacoat.
But I didn't know where I'd gone wrong.
Then one day last fall, a year after moving to Phoenix and no longer having any need whatsoever for a stylish winter coat, I fell madly in love with that gorgeous tweed in the window at Alexander McQueen. And then, finally, I understood.
Wrapping yourself in the mantle of the cheap shopper forever is a great way to avoid taking risks. As the perennial bargain hunter, you don't purchase something because you've surveyed all that the world has to offer and then picked out what you adore; you buy it because it's cheap. That way, if you look stupid, or boring, it's not your fault.
It's kind of like sitting in the back of the classroom and lobbing spitballs at the student body president.
It's a cop-out.
And while it's a good strategy when you're 19 and broke, it's kind of pathetic once you hit 28. At some point, you've got to stop mocking other people's opinions and start developing a few of your own.
And that's the scary, but wonderful, thing about starting to dress like an adult.
Unless you've got the time and the money to slavishly ape every trend the magazines are pushing, it's not about following any pied piper.
Instead, it's about saying to the world, This is what I like.
It's saying, I could have chosen a bright fleece, or a goth trench, or a Navy-issue peacoat, but I didn't. I have chosen to be Tippi -- or, at least, her B-movie equivalent, in an A-list coat.
It feels truly empowering, if blowing your annual clothing budget on a single item ill-suited to your climate can ever be empowering.
The reason? For once in my life I'm not waiting, hoping, that someone will tell me I look great.
I already know.
Let's admit it: Some of us get overwhelmed by all the stuff that packs most stores. And that means we may be better off at a smaller, boutique-type store that's already narrowed the selection for you. Forget about digging through piles of sales stuff, Last Chance-style. These stores are for leisurely browsing and serious investing.
The perfect outfit
Skinny girls swear by the Adriano Goldschmied jeans at Healy Bea. And if you're looking for a special camisole or dress for a big night out, this boutique might just have it.
4410 East Camelback Road, Phoenix
Looking for Dolce & Gabbana? You're not screwed just because you're not in L.A. Check out Paris Paris, which (despite the European-flavored name) happens to be in your neighborhood, even if you live in Chandler.
There are a half-dozen Valley locations, including 7131 West Ray Road, Chandler, 480-753-0010; and 2566 East Camelback Road, Phoenix, 602-955-9663.
The perfect tee
Retail Laboratory, downtown Phoenix's new (really, it's true) hipster shop, has a great collection of high-end tee shirts for both boys and girls. Bonus: You can pick up a Jonathan Adler vase while you're there.
610 East Roosevelt Street, Phoenix
The perfect shoe
The Valley has long claimed ASU graduate Kate Spade as its own, despite her Midwest roots and Manhattan address. But such local name-dropping finally seemed justified when at last Spade opened a kate spade boutique in Scottsdale Fashion Square last spring. Clearly, she really, really likes us -- and we can't help drooling over her kicky sling backs and sexy mules in return.
7014 East Camelback Road, Scottsdale
The final touch
Now moved to bigger digs fronting Central Avenue, Passage continues to offer the best work of local designers, from tops to handbags. What we like best: chunky stones fashioned into eye-popping necklaces -- the sort of pieces that strangers stop us to admire.
4412 North Central Avenue, Phoenix