Sunday, March 16, 2014

The lure of The Deal

One of the biggest problems in the frugal life is trying to figure out when a low price is actually a good deal.

A case in point: a month or so ago, I discovered a site called It sells women's clothing, mostly dresses, that are made to order in India. There are dozens if not hundreds of styles on the site, and not only is every single one of them available in every size from 0 to 36, but for an extra $7.50, you can have the garment custom-tailored to your personal measurements. Not only that, for another $7.50 on top of that, you can take the basic pattern of any dress and alter it in various ways: adding or removing sleeves, lowering or raising the hem, or changing the neckline. And perhaps the most glorious part of all is that every single dress comes with pockets. (You can have them removed at no charge if you don't want them, but who would do that?)

Now, the dresses on this site aren't ridiculously expensive; most are priced between $60 and $90, but that's still more than I'd normally pay. However, the site runs frequent sales; right now, for instance, it's "buy two, get one free." On top of that, when you register on the site and agree to receive e-mails from them, you get a coupon for $25 off. So I figured there was no harm in signing up, getting my credit, and holding on to it in case I saw something I liked. In fact, they were running a special at the time, so I actually got a $30 credit—enough to lower the price of one of their basic dresses to a mere $30, which is much closer to my comfort zone. And if I'd ordered it at the time, during their Spring Sale, I could have gotten an additional discount, so the total price, including customizations and shipping, would have been under $40. There were several styles on the site that I liked, but I knew I didn't really need a new dress, so I decided to wait until I either saw something I really loved or had a particular occasion to buy for.

So it sounds like I made a sensible decision, right? Only this Friday, I got an e-mail warning me that my $30 credit was about to expire. If I don't use it by tomorrow, I'll lose it, and with it my chance to try out eShakti's service for the first time at half the normal price.

So now I'm completely torn. I hate the idea of letting a $30 credit just go to waste—but I also hate the idea of spending $40 on a dress I don't need, and might not even have an occasion to wear, just to avoid wasting the credit. I must admit, I absolutely love the look of the $70 Havana Dress, but it's more of a cocktail dress than one for day wear, and I could count the number of cocktail parties I've been to in my life on one hand. This $65 knit dress looks more practical for every day, but even with the credit, it would be $35 plus shipping, and is it really a good value at that price? If I saw it in a store at that price, would I pay for it? Hard to say, but at least if I saw it in a store, I'd be able to try it on before deciding and not risk being stuck with something that doesn't suit me at all. (EShakti does have a very liberal return policy, but the process is time-consuming.) And the current sale is no help, since if I don't need one new dress, I certainly don't need three.

Right now, I'm leaning toward not buying either dress. Leaving the $30 credit completely out of the decision and looking strictly at what I'd be getting and what I'd be paying for it, I can't convince myself that it's worth spending $40 for a dress that doesn't even have an occasion. But still, I keep looking wistfully at that totally impractical red dress. I know something I might never wear isn't a great deal even at $40, but it's a lot better than $70...and what if the occasion does come up, and it's too late to get the deal? (Okay, it's not exactly a likely scenario, but wouldn't I just feel stupid?)

Yet another example popped up the same day. Brian and I have been toying lately with the idea of getting a tablet, which seems to offer all the advantages of a smartphone without the need to pay for a monthly plan. But like that red dress, it just seemed like something that wasn't worth the money if we weren't really sure it would be useful. The top-rated tablet at ConsumerSearch, the iPad Air, costs an eye-popping $500, which is a lot of cheddar to drop on something that we don't have a specific need for. And while the report also recommends a couple of budget tablets in the $150 range, even $150 is a lot of money for us to spend without a pretty solid reason.

However, Friday's issue of the Christian Science Monitor's daily newsletter included this headline in its "most viewed" list: "Tablet deals: $60 for a 9" Android tablet, save $114 on Kindle Fire HD." I couldn't resist clicking through, and I found that it is indeed possible to get a bare-bones 9-inch tablet for $60, but it has a few catches: the memory is only 4GB, and the tablet can't use the Google Play store. Since the main point of getting a tablet would be to take advantage of all the apps, it's hardly worth getting one that doesn't give you access to most of them. However, the very next paragraph in the article covered a smaller 7-inch tablet that does have Google Play access, as well as 8GB of memory, for only $10 more. Sadly, it's only available at, but as I've noted before, my commitment to avoiding Big Blue has grown much less firm as the store has taken baby steps toward being less evil, such as making cheap organics widely available. So for a deal like this, it might be worth ending my boycott officially.

However, even at this price, we're still wavering. The tablet obviously has more practical value than the dress; we know that if we buy it, we will certainly use it. But we also know that we've managed to get along just fine all these years without a tablet, and we can almost certainly continue to do so. So clearly, it isn't a necessity, and do we really want to spend $70 on a luxury? Sure, $70 is a lot less than $500, or even $150—and if our goal is to figure out whether a tablet is really a worthwhile investment for us, surely we'll hardly have a better chance to answer the question this cheaply. But that just makes the $70 tablet the equivalent of the practical $35 gray dress: it's useful, and it's reasonably priced compared to other products of its type, but still, is it actually worth that amount to us? If we know we don't really need it, can we justify spending even $70 on it?

Given that the tablet, unlike the dress, has definite practical value, I suspect we'll end up giving in and buying it. I just hope that this deal doesn't vanish, like my $30 eShakti credit, before we finally make up our minds to take the plunge.
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