Before you know it, summer is ending, you’re making back-to-school lists, and lusting after all the enticing new fall fashions. Finances aside, between juggling work and kids it’s virtually impossible to schedule any time to shop. The Internet is a wonderful thing, but we all need the tactile experience of browsing through racks and trying things on now and again. When you do manage to clear a Saturday afternoon, the pressure to take full advantage of this rare luxury can make it feel more like a chore.

Remember the teenage pleasure of spending a carefree Saturday at the mall trying on clothes with your friends? Back then, your budget probably consisted of your babysitting earnings and wearing the ‘IN’ thing was a life or death proposition. But it was so much fun. You can still approach shopping with that youthful joie de vivre while using your grown-up savvy and confidence to find clothes that make you look and feel like the style maven you are.

So how do you optimize your shopping potential?

Build a foundation. Create a wardrobe of simple everyday basics like tailored trousers, a pencil skirt, a smart blazer, great jeans, a fitted button-down blouse, a basic trench, and a chic LBD. Keep your look fresh and modern by playing with accessories and adding one or two new pieces each season.

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Make a shopping list. Know what you are looking for and how much you are willing to spend before you leave the house. It pays to invest in a few high quality classic items that stand the test of time. Don’t go overboard on extreme trends that will look dated in three months. One or two inexpensive trendy accessories add a touch of whimsy to your wardrobe without making you look like an arrested adolescent. And nothing beats a little instant gratification now and then.

Dress for the occasion. If you plan to try on pencil skirts, don’t wear a baggy sweatshirt and UGGs. A fitted tee with ballet flats or pumps helps you envision the skirt as part of an ensemble. Foundation garments are absolutely essential. A properly fitted bra and flattering panties make you look thinner, improve, your posture, and completely alter the look of your clothes. An added bonus—a little confidence boost every time you catch a glimpse of your pretty lingerie in the dressing room mirror. So always shop in your good undies!

Do some research. This is especially important for those pricier items. If the impulse grabs you, go ahead and try on that gorgeous Burberry coat, but even if you’re madly in love, put it back. With a little patience and online research there’s a good chance you’ll find that coat on sale; or a similar but more affordable one may catch your eye. These sites are a great starting point for your style homework.

  • Polyvore is a phenomenal shopping resource. Their search engine draws from an incredible variety of fashion designers and retailers. You can refine your search by designer, category, price range, and color. Their virtual style tool allows you to create and share style pages of your favorite images—so much inspiration to be had!
  • Shopstyle is another fantastic shopping search engine. The site boasts: “All the stores you love. All in one place.” It doesn’t disappoint, and it’s always wise to use multiple sources.
  • Shopbop is an online retailer with really superb virtual style tools. You can search their inventory by Trend, Runway, Lookbook, and Occasion in addition to the traditional categories. It’s like a fashion mag—only interactive!
  • Refinery29 is a style hub with a focus on emerging designers for mamis with a desire for edgier fashion.

Fit matters, size doesn’t. Don’t pay too much attention to the number on the label. You’re the only one who’ll see it, right? A size 8 that pulls and bunches at the seams makes you look much larger than a size 12 gliding smoothly over your curves. Conversely, a voluminous dress that completely eclipses your shape can also add pounds. It’s all about proportion and balance. A flattering garment will highlight your assets and forgive your flaws. And this probably goes without saying, but never, never buy anything that’s a size too small with the idea that you’ll have extra incentive to lose that last 5 pounds—it will only taunt you from your closet. Feeling comfortable and confident in what you’re wearing does more to make you look beautiful than any diet can.

Be realistic. It’s always fun to live the fantasy for a moment and try on those über luxe dream items that are totally out of your price range. But when you really need to stick to a budget, it might be better to save fantasy shopping for another day. Once you’ve stepped into the grandeur of a Prada sheath, it’s hard to get very excited about a perfectly smart J. Crew frock.

And finally, nothing’s better than trying on clothes with a friend. Spend a couple of hours shopping; get a latte, have some girl talk, and laugh your way from store to store….just like when you were a teenager.