Handbags have always been my most essential accessory. Some women love shoes, but I love purses!

Since the fifth grade, I've been known to tote a cute designer bag. Back then, Liz Claiborne was in high demand. Then I moved on to Coach.

From oversized duffle bags to the tiniest evening clutch, the only thing that makes me happier than carrying a great handbag is knowing that I got it for a great bargain.

Here's a few tips for designer handbag shopping without breaking the bank:

Outlets

Outlet stores sell genuine designer handbags for 50% or more off what you'd pay at the mall or a department store. There are plenty of great finds at clearance prices, especially during off-seasons. Use Outlets Directory to find a nearby outlet.

Thrift, vintage and consignment

The Salvation Army down the street from me has dozens of leather Coach bags. Most are weathered, but are salvageable with a good cleaning and conditioning. Don’t be discouraged by a handbag’s less-than-new condition. It’s easy to clean leather using products already available in the house.

Check for consignment stores in resort areas and exclusive neighborhoods. The Gold Mine, in Sun Valley, Idaho, is notorious for bargains on high-end merchandise that once belonged to wealthy residents. It’s such a local hotspot that it was even featured in the New York Times.

Look for a bag with character and good structure. Develop a relationship with shop owners and staff, and sign-up for email alerts to be notified when new items arrive.

Designer-direct updates

Devoted to one designer? Sign up to receive emails from the company and receive notifications when sales are offered. Dooney & Bourke, Coach and others send emails every week announcing new styles and sales. Dooney & Bourke has "Under $100" and "Specials of the Month" tabs with more affordable options. Coach periodically sends coupons for as much as $100 off a bag that retails for $300 or more.

Estate and yard sales and other surprising options

Church bazaars, estate sales, garage sales and silent auctions can be like going on a treasure hunt. I once bought a tan, leather Coach bag at a hospital auxiliary fundraiser for $8! Yes, $8! The bag was in great condition and became a favorite in my collection. I nabbed a $5 bronze Michael Kors bag a few weeks ago from a church bazaar. A girlfriend also hit the jackpot with a cute Coach bag from a yard sale. Keep an open mind and a keen eye when roaming community sales, and be ready to negotiate.

Military discount

For those who have military access, the Exchange Store regularly sells designer brands up to 20% off suggested retail prices. Their clearance sales are heavenly.

Discount sites and online auctions

When searching for an online deal, eBay is often the go-to choice. But be cautious: I once bid on what I thought was an authentic Kate Spade cosmetic bag. What I received was a cheap disappointment. Always check the seller's ratings and reviews before purchasing items and promptly report the seller if there's an issue.

Check out sites specializing in designer names at discounted prices. HauteLook offers daily deals on high-end merchandise for women, men, and children, along with beauty products and home decor. Although prices vary each day depending on current offers, it is possible to find designer handbags for under $100.

Bluefly offers designer products for splurge-worthy prices, but often discounts are 50% off or more on names like Prada, Miu Miu, Gucci and Mark Jacobs.

Beware of unauthorized "designer" wholesale merchandise websites (and street vendors) that claim to sell authentic bags. Most are imitations, so don’t pay designer prices for a poorly-made imitation. If you buy from an online discount site, make sure it is a secure site (watch for “https” in the URL).

Downsize

Committed to the name but can't spend $300 or more? Most designers have smaller bags, clutch wallets or wristlets for $150 or less.

Celebrity auctions

In the most-bang-for-your-buck department, it’s hard to beat a celebrity auction. Charitybuzz offers auction items from the hottest designers (such as a Marc Jacobs handbag valued at $3,000) and pieces that were formerly owned or worn by celebrities. Winning bids support a variety of charities, such as Habitat for Humanity and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

Rent

Bag Borrow or Steal is a popular site that puts otherwise unaffordable designer bags within reach. Borrow a classic quilted Chanel bag valued at over $3,000 for one month and pay $400. Or choose a rent-to-buy option (sort of like a lay-away in reverse)! If you have a designer bag you are ready to share with the world, sell it here. Or buy a bag at their other site, Bag Borrow or Steal’s Private Sale, where “gently used” designer bags can be found at up to 85% off the retail price.

Swap it

Raid the closets of family and friends! Host a swap party with a designer theme. Maybe you’ll end up with the cute bag you always coveted in your best friend’s closet!

This is a guest post by Monica from Oxon Hill, MD
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