In honor of my birthday next week, I plan to take the day off and do something I adore—shop. Armed with coupons and cash, I’ll hit the department stores in search of something spectacular. Will I be eyeing swimsuits and sandals now that spring is practically here? No, no. I’m a bargain hunter, a savvy shopper who gets her thrills by swooping in and grabbing the deals. And during this time of year, that means winter clearance—jackets, ski wear, warm woolly sweaters, leather handbags and boots—oh, my! All can be had for a pittance if you have the stamina and the know-how. Here are my tips.

Plan Ahead70% off sign

I always pre-shop first. Days before I head out the door, I thumb through store circulars that arrive in my mailbox or show up in the Sunday newspaper. To get the inside scoop on the big sales, I sign up for store newsletters, and I browse a store’s website to get an idea of what I’d like to try on before I head out. I even search online for discount coupons.

Next, I make a wish list of “must-haves,” a better strategy than pawing aimlessly through the sale racks which often leads to impulse buying. While it’s a great idea to have a general idea of what I need or want, I’m open to any style or brand.

To make sure I don’t burn out too soon, I get to the stores early when I have plenty of energy and I dress comfortably in clothing that slips on and off easily. I leave clunky jewelry, heavy handbag and children at home, and my coat in the car.

Shop on Thursday or Friday

Most shoppers head to the mall on the weekends so stores tend to organize and mark down sale items on Thursday. I always head out then to get the best selection.

Stick with the Classics

When I shop the sales, I look for the designer labels—clothes that are well made but usually out of my reach financially until they hit the clearance racks. I stick with classic styles, usually in neutral colors so that I can easily mix and match them with my existing wardrobe. While it’s great fun to wear the latest trendy fashions, I wouldn’t invest top dollar in them as they’ll be out of style quickly. Instead I shop the discount clothing stores to get my fill of this season’s maxi skirts or nautical-striped tops.

Ask For What You Need

There’s nothing worse than finding that perfect jacket only to discover that it’s not in your size. Bummer, right? Fortunately, many large department stores and popular clothing chains will check availability in another one of their stores. If they find it, they’ll often ship it to your home for free. But you won’t know unless you ask.

Fight Temptation

Just because a designer dress has the eye-popping clearance price tag of $19.99 doesn’t mean you should snap it up. If it doesn’t fit right or just doesn’t make you say “Wow!” when you try it on, pass it up and move on. Even though I’m shopping a sale, I use common sense and ask myself a few basic questions: “Do I really need this?” and “Do I look great in this?” A bargain means nothing if I’ll never wear the garment. And yes, I’ve learned that lesson the hard way!

Check the Store’s Return Policy

Most major department stores have very liberal return policies but smaller stores may not, and outlet stores won’t let you return a garment to their regular brick-and-mortar parent stores. Furthermore, certain highly-discounted items may be non-returnable at all. Always check the stores return policy before you pull out your cash.

Christina Baglivi Tinglof is a blogger and the author of five books including Double Duty: The Parents’ Guide to Raising Twins and Parenting School-Age Twins and Multiples.