Whether you’re heading into your first job after college, you just got promoted or you’re changing jobs and need a new look, the cost of work clothes can really add up. In fact, your clothes are likely to be one of your largest work expenses and yet they’re usually not tax deductible.
However, building a professional wardrobe shouldn’t have to mean maxing out your credit cards or going into debt. Here are 19 ways to build up a professional, stylish work wardrobe on a budget, without breaking the bank.
First, Figure Out What Clothes Suit You Best
Shows such as “What Not to Wear” and books such as “How To Get Dressed” will give you tips on developing a personal style that is professional, elegant and suits your body.
Armed with this knowledge, you can design a clothing list that best matches your work needs. Prior planning will save you time and money as you’ll learn to dress in a way that makes you look your best and you won’t waste money on what doesn’t suit you.
Buy High-Quality Clothes
Choose a small number of key pieces (often called a capsule or core wardrobe) in the best quality you can afford: slacks, blouses, skirts, jackets and dresses. You may want to restrict your wardrobe to solid colors, such as the ever-popular black, grey and navy, so pieces can be worn interchangeably. Better-made clothing will last longer, wear better and actually save you money in the long run.
Shop During Off-Season Sales
Take advantage of sales. Wait for end-of-season sales or buy out of season and keep the pieces for a change in weather. Aim to put together a complete work wardrobe slowly, over time, to save money.
If you have a friend or roommate who is the same size as you, suggest to them that the two of you share clothes. This is a great way to expand your wardrobe at no cost. Best of all, your friend or roommate benefits as well. Just be sure to clean items before you return them to avoid any friction in your friendship.
Host a Clothes Swap Party
One easy way to get new clothes without spending any money is to host a clothes swap party. These parties are becoming increasingly popular. Real Simple magazine even offers step-by-step instructions for becoming a host.
The idea is that a each person coming to the party will bring clothes and accessories she no longer wants (or that no longer fit) and leaves with the same number of new-for-her items to add to her wardrobe. The online electronic invitation website, Evite, even has a free template you can use that is just for clothes swap events.
Learn to Accessorize
Writer Maria LaMagna, in an article for Money Under 30, a finance and budgeting website, described a friend who works in design and wears “all-black outfits and bold necklaces she mostly buys at T.J. Maxx (a discount outlet).” You can wear the same clothing repeatedly but have a different look each time with accessories.
Books such as “How to Accessorize” will teach you to create both a professional image and a unique personal style using scarves, belts, jewelry and more.
Shop at Clearance Centers
In the U.S., chains such as TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Nordstrom Rack sell overstock of department store and brand name clothes and accessories at steep discounts. These days, many of the classic clearance stores – think Filene's Basement – have set up online so you don’t even have to leave your home to shop.
Retailers such as Dillards have clearance pages on their websites. HauteLook is a Nordstrom-run website offering flash (short-term) sales on a range of brands. Even Amazon has an online outlet for overstocked items.
Shop at Designer Resale Boutiques
Look for designer resale boutiques in your area. They offer contemporary designer clothes in good condition for far less than original prices – even lower when they have a sale. A few key designer pieces – such as a suit or slacks – with an elegant cut and good fit can be the core of a stylish working wardrobe.
The main advantage of being able to go to a physical store is that you can try on garments and be sure they fit before you buy, particularly shoes. While online resellers offer larger stock and more variety, you still have to estimate sizes and may not be able to return clothes that are marked down.
Shop at Online Designer Resale Sites
The Vestiaire Collective is a site that specializes in pre-owned designer brands. You can find designer clothing and accessories in good condition at far less than the original retail prices. You buy directly from individual sellers who list items on the site. Other high-end resale sites include TheRealReal, MaterialWorld and ThredUp’s Luxe.
Explore More at ThredUp
ThredUp calls itself the “largest online consignment and thrift store” – with more than 50,000 items for sale – and it has clothing starting at just a few dollars. The site has been around for ten years and re-sells popular brands such as Banana Republic, J Crew, Gap, Zara and many others.
ThredUp offers a wide range of clothing and accessories for women (including maternity), girls and boys (not men). You can send them your own unwanted clothes by requesting a bag and pre-paid shipping label and calculate your potential payout by using their online calculator. While ThredUp may not give you a lot for your pre-worn items, you can certainly buy an inexpensive work wardrobe just on this site alone.
Shop at Thrift Stores, Especially After the Holidays
Thrift stores can be great places to find second-hand clothing at low prices. These days, most only accept clothing in good condition and you can occasionally find new clothing with tags still attached, especially after the holidays when people donate unwanted gifts.
Thrift stores usually separate clothing by age, gender and size, and sometimes even sort by color. You may want to allocate an hour or more to browse the aisles.
Shop on Days New Donations Are Put Out
Ask thrift store staff which days new donations are displayed and shop on those days for the best selection. Don’t forget to check out the bargain bin where unsold clothing is often marked down to a dollar or less.
Find an Inexpensive Tailor
If you find clothes that are too big for you in thrift or resale stores, you can pay a tailor to alter them to fit and still save money over buying new. For example, if you find nice trousers, but they’re too long, a tailor can hem them professionally for you, usually starting around $20. Dresses and tops can be taken in.
Another popular option for putting together a work wardrobe is to rent it. Most women only wear 20 percent of the clothes they own, according to California Closets. Sites such as Rent the Runway, Le Tote and Gwynnie Bee (which offers sizes for larger women) have subscription plans that allow clients to exchange clothes each week for new outfits and never have to worry about dry cleaning bills.
If you find you really love an item and want to keep it, most sites allow you to purchase it at a discounted price. Rent the Runway CEO Jennifer Hyman has been quoted as saying she hopes the clothing rental business will “put [clothing retailers] H&M and Zara out of business.”
Learn to Knit
Knitting is more popular than ever these days. Many neighborhoods have a local yarn shop, offering classes and advice about fixing mistakes when you pop in with a project. Knit Simple Magazine contains stylish, easy-to-make patterns for work clothes.
Learn to Sew
Sewing allows you to make custom clothes to suit your body type and personal style. You can sign up for basic lessons at local fabric stores, or find them offered through community centers or adult education programs. These days, you can rent a sewing machine, rather than buy one, starting at about $20 a day.
You also may have a sewing studio near you that lets you use the entire facility – including cutting tables, steamers, fitting rooms and irons – by the day or hour. While you’re taking lessons, many fabric stores allow you to come in and use their machines. Or trade skills and services with a sewing friend who can whip you up a personalized wardrobe.
Go to Estate Sale
Estate sales involve putting household contents, including clothes, up for sale due to a death, a divorce or a family move. You can find sale notices on places like Craigslist, EstateSales.org or EstateSales.net. While sales are usually held at the home, sometimes they are offered online. Fashion blogger Ayana Pitterson wrote in a post about a cache of 15 Neiman Marcus cashmere sweaters she once found at an estate sale – she paid two dollars each.
Find Vintage Clothing
Why consider vintage clothing? Older clothes tend to have higher quality and be unique, vintage store owner Doris Raymond told StyleCaster. A few key vintage items, mixed and matched with a modern wardrobe, will give you a classic, one-of-kind look. As with thrift store finds, or second hand designer clothes, you can also have vintage pieces tailored to fit you.
Follow Budget Fashion Bloggers
Check out budget fashion bloggers, such as Kimberley from Penny Pincher Fashion, Hannah from Hello Hannah or Ayana from Thrifting Diva. Each provides tips – and photos – of how they’ve accessorized an outfit or put together stylish looks on a budget. Ayana is also a fashion stylist and shows you how to blend thrift store and vintage finds with brand-name clothes and look fabulous.
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