Are stores like Nordstrom Rack and C-Mart good places to start out? I just don't know right now if $100 for any one item of clothing is in my budget. I would appreciate any advice!
Here are my tips:
Shop out of season -- how fortuitous that you pose this question now, because we're currently in one of the two biggest sale seasons of the year. Go now to the sale racks I've listed at right at buy what you think you'll need for the next season. Delayed gratification isn't my strong suit, either, but perhaps the $145.37 you'll save on this cute Alice+Olivia 'Puff Blouse' or the $188.40 you'll leave untouched in your bank account courtesy of the reduced price on this I-want-it-so-much-it-hurts Shantung Coat by MARC by Marc Jacobs will help ameliorate the pain of waiting 'til Fall to show off your new duds.
Shop off the reservation -- some of my most successful finds have been my most unexpected. A vintage cocktail dress in Lewisburg, WV, a cap-sleeved camp shirt in a town I don't even know the name of outside Denver, a pair of blousy shorts at a TJ Maxx in Oklahoma City, and so on. I may be somewhere primarily for a conference or because I'm visiting a college friend's parents, but I am also there on the lookout for a wardrobe addition at a good price. An even bigger bonus to finding an out-of-town component is that it's likely not going to be in anyone else's closet in the DC metro area. So next time you find yourself in a random part of the country, take a walk downtown and check out local boutiques. Chances are, the price is right and so is the I-never-would-have-found-this-in-Georgetown factor.
Swallow your pride -- you mentioned H&M and Forever 21 as stores to which you don't want to resort -- why plunk down $21.90 for a top that won't last through a second spin-cycle, right? Well...yes and no. If you're in a financial pinch where you can't spend more than $100 on any single item, and you can't find that item on-sale at a higher-end store, you just might have to paw through some lower-end wares. I have a few such items from Zara - items meant to fulfill that quick, I-have-a-date-tonight-and-nothing-to-wear need - that have more than outlasted their expected one-season expiration date and have turned into some of my favorite, most reliable go-to work pieces. You might have to take more delicate care by hand-washing and accept that there are going to be a few button re-attachments, but in the end, it'll be worth not having gone into temporary credit card debt by opting for the full-priced from-Saks counterpart. As for Nordstrom Rack and C-Mart, I honestly don't know -- I'm embarrassed to admit I've never frequented either one. But I say yes, go for it, just make sure you look that much more meticulously for loose seams, discoloration and other irreparable irregularities.
Shop in numbers -- a lot of stores like Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, Victoria's Secret, among others, offer X-for-$XX deals on basics like simple shells, camisoles and the very-office-necessary seamless thong. The cash you'll have left over to reallocate toward another purchase - or to see Ocean's Thirteen for the third time - far outweighs the embarrassment of having to explain to the salesperson, "Really, we're not this retarded," as your friend and you try to work out the logistics of who pays how much with what card and who pays who back how much in cash.
Stalk wishlist items -- you check your Gmail account every hour on the hour, your ex-boyfriend's blog every afternoon and your Citibank ledger every morning after a heavy night of drinking -- add to this rotation the websites of those items you can't afford now but might be able to afford once they're placed in the sale "bin". Online retailers often update their inventories - sales included - in the late evening (this, according to Lucky Magazine), so you're best bet is to look in on your precious, just-out-of-reach DvF wrap dress, Joie blouse or Fei trapeze mini sometime between the final credits of "Scarborough Country" and the opening intro of "Nightline."
Set priorities and buy only what you need -- this seems obvious, but believe me, I've shopped with too many women who allow themselves to be lulled off-track and into an impulse purchase by little more than a catch-your-eye item. It may be the cutest swing coat you've ever seen, but if you're in dire need of grey work trousers, you need to only buy grey work trousers. You'd be amazed at how much money you'll save if you force yourself to stay focused on the item on which you need, not the item you'd love to have "just 'cause." I'm ashamed to admit it, but one of the tactics I use to keep myself from indulging in purchases I don't need is to pretend the price is in British pounds, not dollars. It's silly but it works for me.