Budget fashion: save money on hair salon visits

I didn't become a salon junkie until two years ago, just after I published my first book. I would schedule an appointment to get my hair colored pretty much every time I had a book signing. Since I didn't want to be photographed wearing the same outfit at every event, buying new clothes also became a necessity. After this became a pattern, my husband pointed out that I was spending more money on my hair and clothes than I made selling books.

To commemorate National Hairstylists' Day, I'll share the many ways I've tried to save money on my salon bill since then--something I suspect many other women have done to cut back on spending in recent months. First let me share a brief haircutting history:

Two decades ago, I moved to California and worked as a counselor in a homeless shelter as part of a full-time volunteer program for recent college grads. My $65 stipend couldn't cover my monthly salon bills now. Anyway, I got my hair cut at the Vidal Sassoon Salon in Santa Monica, where student hairstylists gave free cuts.

When I moved to New York City, I worked at a magazine called American Health. Most of the young staffers went to the salon at Barney's New York, where once a week after work student hairstylists cut hair, again at little or no cost (it's been so long I can't remember, but I think it might have been $10, plus tip). A senior stylist supervised and fixed any mistakes, and by the time it was done, it could take up to two hours but it was worth the wait. I spent the next chunk of time in Washington, DC, where I could get a haircut at a nice Georgetown salon for $50 or so. That was a decade ago and I understand that prices there have skyrocketed as they have elsewhere. My neighbor, a British hairstylist, also occasionally cut my hair after work. For $20, I got a haircut and a beer in her backyard.

Once I hit 40, I could no longer pluck the gray hair or I'd end up with some serious bald spots so I began to color my hair. In the past few years, I have paid upwards of $200 for a cut and color in New York and suburban Connecticut where I now live. If I actually went to the salon every four to six weeks like they recommend, I could drop thousands a year. Let me point out that I have plain old brown hair and my goal is to simply keep it that way--no highlights, lowlights or fancy foil. Actually, the goal is to make it look like it did when I was 16, true brown with that nice glossy sheen.

The most obvious way to save money is to extend the length of time between cut and color, but as the gray slowly muscles out the brown, it's difficult to stretch it out. I have tried boxes to cover the gray in between salon visits, and for $8 it can hold me over. I always use Clairol's Natural Instincts because I'm too chicken to use permanent color at home. But it doesn't really cover the gray entirely, and I end up with a rainbow on my head, ranging from dark brown and gray at the roots, to what the haircolorist calls "brassy" on the ends (I call it red).

My latest approach is switching to permanent color – I did this at an Aveda Salon last month since they claim the products are more natural with less harsh chemicals. With permanent color, the color won't fade with multiple shampoos or get funky from the summer sun. I have heard that the root touch-up products sold in pharmacies everywhere work pretty well at extending the life of color but I have a week or so to go before I need to do that.

I do have one other strategy: my sister-in-law Cherie is a hairstylist who used to work in an Elizabeth Arden Salon, but since she had a baby, she just cuts hair for friends and family members from home. When my other sister-in-law gets her cut there, she pays $20. The problem? Cherie lives three hours away in New Jersey, and there's the ever-rising gas bill to consider. But if I can just schedule my hair appointments around other family visits, I could save a bundle.

Michele Turk is a journalist and author whose first book, Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross, was published in 2006. She recently founded e street press, a self-publishing company.

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