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10 Commandments of Frugal Chic

By Michelle V. Rafter||February 22, 2011

bTobias.jpgBarbara Tobias worked as a fashion model in Detroit in the 1970s and 80s, but the single mother didn’t always make enough to support herself and a young son.

Out of necessity, she started frequenting garage sales for clothes and household items, using her fashion insider’s eye to spot treasures in other people’s cast-offs. She became a garage sale circuit regular and, in the process, developed a reputation as a thrift store diva.

Over the years, Tobias’ financial circumstances improved and she went on to run a series of small businesses and work in corporate America. But her passion for thrift store fashion and second-hand home décor didn’t waver. By holding yearly or twice-yearly garage sales — she calls them “diva sales” — of second-hand goods she doesn’t want or need anymore, she says she dresses herself and outfits her home essentially for free.

Tobias, who is 64 and now lives in Evergreen, Colo., regularly shares her frugalista ways in talks to women’s groups and at consignment stores and in her side job as an interior decorator and private wardrobe consultant. She also imparts tips on the thrifting lifestyle on a radio show called Thrift Talk Diva and a book, Tossed & Found: Where Frugal is Chic. Her latest endeavor, a radio show called Trash Talk, begins on the Blog Talk Radio network in April.

In an interview with SecondAct, Tobias offers 10 commandments for cultivating frugal chic.

1. Thrifting is a process, not an event.

Bargain hunting is a lifestyle. “It’s something you do all the time; it’s always evolving, it’s very fluid,” Tobias says. “If you’re a rigid shopper, it might not be for you.”

2. You don’t have to be cheap to be thrifty.

Thrifting isn’t limited to garage sales. There are deals to be had at all price points — including very expensive items — and you just have to know where to find them. In addition to estate, tag and garage sales, Tobias coaches shoppers to frequent consignment stores, flea markets, auctions, demolition yards and rebuilding supply stores. The unifying thread is “finding pieces that are really wonderful,” she says.

3. Bargain hunting takes time.

Devote the hours you would have spent stopping at retail stores to thrifting. But don’t expect to spot that special something you might be looking for in a weekend or even a month. If you’re devoted to finding the perfect black sofa for your family room, for example, you need to be patient and flexible. Flexibility comes into play in case you see something other than what you originally intended to buy “and might have to redo your room to [accommodate] that fabulous piece, which is the fun of it,” Tobias says.

4. Buy only what you really love.

Like isn’t good enough, she says. If you only buy what you adore, you’ll spend less and avoid ending up with clothes in your closet that you never wear.

5. Accept that you will make mistakes.

Even if you think you love something, you might get it home and discover it’s not the right size, shape, color or fit. That’s okay. You can always sell it on eBay or Craigslist, or set it aside for your own garage or tag sale.

6. Be prepared.

You won’t be able to haul away that perfect sofa or the upright piano if you don’t have the right vehicle and equipment to take it home. Regular thrifters drive cars that can hold their furniture finds and always carry supplies such as pads, blankets, carpet remnants, bungee cords, ropes, rags, plastic bags, a toolbox and sanitizing wipes.

7. If you’re the creative type, make it work for you.

Not everyone can see an old cabinet in a consignment shop and visualize how beautiful it would look with a little wood stain or a fresh coat of paint. If you’re one of those people, use it to your advantage. That also means having the supplies you need to turn your finds into treasures, including tarnish remover, furniture oils, glue remover, paint sticks, artists’ brushes, felt squares, Velcro and cotton swabs.

8. Purge yearly.

Once a year, Tobias goes through every room, closest and drawer in her house to collect clothes, furniture and other items she doesn’t use or want. Then she turns her garage into a boutique for sales that generally net between $4,000 and $6,000. Disposing of stuff that’s just taking up space makes more room for new finds that you really want, she says.

9. In clothes, aim for fashionable, not trendy.

As a former model, Tobias understands the difference between being trendy — jeggings anyone? — and dressing fashionably in basic items that never go out of style. When thrifting, aim for the latter. When she speaks to women’s groups, Tobias makes a point of wearing outfits that cost under $25 for everything, including shoes and accessories. “Do I have things that are more than that? Of course. But I wear it to make the point that you can be fashionable for a little too,” she says.

10. Go bargain hunting when you’re on the road.

When she traveled for business and her colleagues went out for drinks, Tobias hit the local consignment shops. “I couldn’t buy furniture, but I could buy jewelry or hostess gifts or whatever else I could fit into my suitcase,” she says.

Letter From a Fan

Hi Barb,

I checked out your book on Amazon and it has a 5 star rating … Congratulations! I loved reading Tossed & Found; I’ve shared it with so many people. I’ve sent my friends to your website and signed up for your newsletter too. You are on fire!!!

Years ago I switched to thrift shopping and we have basically built our Leadville house with thrift finds (habitat for humanity building store, The RE store, etc.) and I’m now on my way to furnishing it … with thrift finds. It’s such a blast! Buying secondhand is smart and provides a sense of community. Think of the accomplishment when we change our buying habits to be 100% conscious of giving back, reducing, reusing and recycling on all levels.

Also, after your speaking engagement on 1/29/2011, I started buying thrift items that were on sale! It makes so much more sense to shop this way. My husband is so proud of me and my effortless ways to save so much money.

I was at the Financially Fit Females meeting Thursday night and your name came up when the group was asked to share saving success stories… more that once a woman said “Barb Tobias would be so proud that I got this blouse for $.99” or “…pants for $2.99.” The crowd when crazy with applause!

~ Tammy Gordon

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