Kent Hernandez/Fusion

Dear Fusion Money,

I love Kate Spade. I love buying Kate Spade things at Nordstrom. For instance, I recently bought a $275 pair of Kate Spade shoes at Nordstrom. Nordstrom makes this very easy for me, because I have a Nordstrom credit card. But I buy so many things on store cards that, at one point, I racked up a few thousand dollars’ worth of debt on them. (Macy’s, J. Crew, Target, Victoria’s Secret—you name it, I have a card.)

That may not sound like a lot of debt, but the interest rates were so high that it took years for my payments to make a real dent. I make a little over $50,000 a year, much of which goes toward student loans, car payments, insurance, and other expenses, so the amount I could pay each month on store cards was limited. I finally got the balances down to $700 and am close to paying them off entirely. I plan to keep using store cards because they offer discounts, but I never want to face this issue again.

So, my question is: How can I properly use store credit cards so I can have all the clothing I want without going into severe and heinous debt? The answer may be “there is no way,” but now at least you can write an article making fun of people like me.

Signed,
Well Dressed and Bankrupt

Dear Well Dressed and Bankrupt,

We at Fusion Money understand the desire to splurge now and then, so we won’t scold you about the $275 shoes or make fun of you. (But we do hope they are magnificent.)

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We will, however, lay out some simple math, which it sounds like you’re already pretty familiar with.

If you have, let’s say, $200 worth of earnings to splurge each month, and buy $275 worth of shoes, you’ll be in $75 debt. If the debt has an interest rate in the mid-20s, as many store cards do, and you continue buying other things with the card rather than paying down the debt ASAP, what you owe will just keep piling up. The fact that you successfully got the debt from somewhere in the thousands to $700 on a limited budget while still spending is a feat in and of itself.

There are ways to use store cards to your advantage. As you point out, using the cards can result in deals. Target takes 5% off purchases made with its store card, and others send discount coupons or “store cash” in the mail that can be used toward future purchases. (Racked has a handy guide to what some stores offer for using their cards.)

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The problem is, you usually have to cross a spending threshold to qualify for those coupons, and it sounds like that threshold is outside of your budget. The discounts are really a lure to get people to come back and spend more money—and of course stores love people with limited budgets spending more than they can afford on store cards, because $275 shoes might end up being $500 shoes when you tally up all the interest.

There are sneaky tactics you can use to get coupons and discounts without incurring heinous debt. For instance, let’s say you wanted that $275 pair of shoes. And let’s say the department store sends you a $100 cash-equivalent coupon for every $1,000 you spend. You can go buy $1,000 worth of stuff with the card, get the $100 coupon, then return all the stuff and use the $100 coupon toward the one thing you really wanted to buy. Your $275 shoes become $175, which is a much better deal. But tactics like those requires a lot of time and energy, and the ethics are questionable.

You might want to ask yourself whether you’re buying clothes for the sake of buying clothes, or whether you’re buying clothes to achieve the ideal wardrobe. If it’s the former, you’ll have to set a realistic splurge budget each month to avoid going broke or getting into debt. If it’s the latter, you should figure out what the entire wardrobe is, what each piece would cost, and then set budgets to buy pieces of it over time to get there.

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As you guessed, there isn’t a magic lifehack to get a lot of expensive clothing on a limited budget without incurring severe and heinous debt. So, it's up to you: either set a realistic budget and stick to it, or simply accept that you’re going to be the best dressed person in bankruptcy court.

$$$ This is Fusion Money’s advice column. The question has been edited for space and clarity. Here is the prior one. If you have a question about money—making it, spending it, wasting it, investing it or giving it away—please email askfusionmoney@gmail.com and we may feature it in a future column. $$$

I oversee Fusion's money section and have spent most of my time as a journalist writing about banks and finance. I live in Brooklyn with my partner Geoffrey & our two dogs, Captain & Tallulah. Favs: leopard print, Diet Coke, gummy candy, Ireland.