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By Annabel Monaghan

The tag says $5,000, which is exactly how much it would cost my family of five to see “Hamilton.”

I went to the outlet mall on President’s Day. I’m sure this isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind – our loading up on merchandise we don’t need at low, low prices. But Tom wanted to go, and I like going places with Tom, so I went along. On the drive there I vowed to come home empty handed.

You see, I’ve been to the outlet mall before. The last time I went I got really overwhelmed. There’s just so much stuff at such low prices that it’s hard to know where to put your eyes. When the fluorescent light hit the sleeve of a lavender cashmere sweater in just the right size, I knew I had to have it. I don’t wear lavender, it makes me look like a corpse, but when have you ever seen a cashmere sweater marked down to $21? It was originally $160, so I left the store with the sweater and the satisfaction of having saved $139.

I know for sure it cost $21 because it’s still in my closet with the price tag on it, a pastel reminder of why I can’t be trusted at the outlet mall.

Outlet malls are made for people like Tom. He’s a person with a plan and no ambiguous feelings about the plan. This is the major difference between the two of us and sometimes the only way our kids can tell us apart. He arrives knowing exactly what he needs, along with sizes and quantities. He transacts and then finds the most efficient way back to the car. Tom’s highly successful at the outlet mall.

I wander. I walk into a clothing store where everything is 60% off, and the salesperson hands me a scratch-off card. All of a sudden I’m on a game show. She asks me to go ahead and scratch it to see how much additional savings I’d won. 15%! The salesperson cheers. I can’t believe it. Everything in that store is going to be 66% off, just for me!

Thirty minutes and a full dressing room later, I feel like I’ve let fate down. There’s nothing I want, not one cropped top or pair of faux leather pants. A sweater is too big in one size and too small in another. I can’t make anything work, no matter how great of a deal it is. I leave the store feeling like I’ve lost the Showcase Showdown on “The Price is Right.” I was so close.

Meanwhile, Tom has his two bags full of exactly what he’d intended to buy, and he seems to be feeling anxious for me to buy something too. I wonder if shopping’s not fun unless everyone participates. Or maybe shopping’s not fun, period.

We walk by a handbag store, and I spot a brown one in the window. It’s pretty. It’s about the right size to hold a spiral notebook, but not so big that you feel like you’re hauling a high schooler’s backpack. It has some fringy stuff hanging off of the bottom that I could probably cut off. And it’s brown, making it already a better decision than my lavender sweater.

I go in to have a closer look. Bonanza! Everything in the store is 80% off. And because it’s President’s Day we get an extra 10% off. How is that even possible, I wonder. How much are normal retail items marked up in the first place if this discount still makes sense? I reach for the price tag to see just how cheap the bag is.

The tag says $5,000, which is exactly how much it would cost my family of five to see “Hamilton.” Or have our deck repaired. With my insurance, it’s the cost of three colonoscopies. And I don’t even really like the bag that much. I can’t see what’s so $5,000 about this leather rectangle. But it doesn’t matter, because I am about to get sucked into outlet mall economics.

The salesman must have registered the look on my face as I tromboned the price tag forward and back to make sure I was seeing it correctly. “It’s 80% off,” he tells me. “So it’s only $1,000. And today you get an extra 10% off so it’s $900.” Suddenly this bag is so cheap. Suddenly I’m the luckiest girl in the world. They’ve dropped this bag a whole place value. Suddenly I can’t afford not to buy it. I’d be leaving $4,100 on the table if I left the store without that bag. That’s almost enough money to take my family to see “Hamilton.”

I hate to admit that I was perilously close to spending $900 on a handbag I didn’t really like. Luckily, a woman walked in to the store wearing a pair of lime green jeans and brought me back to my senses. No one at the outlet mall was making good decisions. Well, no one but Tom.


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