How to Dress Well on a Budget

by Vered DeLeeuw · 28 comments

Contrary to popular belief, you CAN dress well without spending a fortune on designer clothes and shoes. I love fashion and can relate to the need to look good and to impress. It’s a very human need, after all. No one wants to look frumpy or “cheap.” However, I do believe that it’s quite possible to look great without spending your entire paycheck on Manolo Blahniks or on designer clothes. Here are a few tips and tricks for looking fab on a budget:

Wait for a Sale

All items eventually go on sale, so if you’re willing to wait a few weeks, you will be able to snag the same item at a much lower price than the original price. The longer you wait, the higher the discount – but also the risk that you won’t be able to find the item in your size or in your favorite color.Β The only caveat when it comes to shopping items on sale: it’s very tempting to buy something just because it’s on sale, but that would be a waste. You must be very aware of this temptation and make sure you only buy thing you need – things you would have purchased anyway.

Shop Off-Price Retailers

Off-price retailers such as T.J. Maxx, and the online retailer Bluefly, specialize in buying surplus designer clothes at a bargain. They then transfer the savings to you. It’s not unheard of to be able to get the same item that sells for $200 at a department store for half that price at an off-price retailer, during the same time – many of these items are not last-season clothes. The main issue with shopping off-price retailers is time – you will need to go through lots of lower-quality items to snag that one, fab top at half price.

Splurge on the Classics, Save on Trendy Items

I like to buy one or two high-quality, full-price, classic items each season. I pay full price for those because it’s important for me to get them in my size and in the color I prefer. These could be tailored pants, a crisp white shirt, a cropped jacket – timeless, classic items that I can wear for many seasons, so I don’t mind paying more – I feel that I’m getting my money’s worth. But when it comes to items that won’t last for more than a season or two, such as woven cotton tops, or trendy items that look fresh now but will look dated next year, I see no reason to pay full price.

Shop Your Own Closet

Many of us have items in the back of our closet that we have forgotten about. Going shopping in your own closet is lots of fun, and you may just find a few items that would add color and interest to your wardrobe. While you’re at it, try on some clothes, make sure to get rid of anything that you haven’t worn in a while and that do not fit you anymore. An airy, uncluttered closet makes getting dressed much easier.

Use a Seamstress

Back in the sixties, my mom, a beautiful young woman with a limited budget, used to purchase fashion magazines, leaf through them, and cut out dresses she liked. She then took those pictures to a seamstress, who made similar dresses for her at a fraction of how much they would have cost her at a store. These days, seamstresses seem to be an endangered species, but if you can find one that would do this for you, go for it. You won’t just save money – you will also get clothes that are tailored exactly to your figure.

Wear Black

In her book “Women and Beauty,” Sophia Lauren talks about her young, poor days, “In order to have something to wear in those early days in Rome, something that would cost practically nothing and could be worn all day long and into the evening, and on every sort of occasion, I took my clothes, my navy skirt and white blouse, and dyed them black. Even my handkerchief became black. It was the only way I could think of to provide a versatile wardrobe at no cost. And it worked. I could go anywhere in my black clothes, and the simplicity of my appearance was very elegant.”

Dressing well on a budget is obviously not as easy as dressing well on an unlimited budget, but it can be done with a little thought and planning. What are your own tips and tricks for dressing well on a budget? Do you wait for sales, shop off-price retailers, or use other tactics that I haven’t thought of?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Mommabear says:

    Another thing to consider, when shopping in consignment boutiques, look for the ones in affluent areas. You are bound to get some really good deals for less that half the price. Then there’s always the outlets as well…but don’t go to the ones in NY….

  • meadow flower says:

    If I like an item and do not have purchase price available I wait until sale, then if not in my size I think must not have needed.

  • Kristina says:

    I shop at second hand stores, mainly for things like blazers that I use at the office. I’ve found some gorgeous things, sometimes brand new, for around $10 and under. The quality is much better than I can usually afford and I get more pieces to add to the collection.

    On occasion I will spend full price, like the author, on something I know I will use for years to come and that fits me very well. Classics are always in my closet!

  • richard says:

    I do consider black as a good colour.For me I do like to wear black official clothes whenever I want to blend.

  • karlene y. says:

    I agree, Black is also my favorite color, all I do is wear different jackets with my little black dresses and it works out well for me.

  • SaraBoBera says:

    Don’t forget the all-important “What Not to Wear” rule of having good undergarments as your foundation. Spend the $$ to get it right. I have a larger than average chest, so any direction about where to get comfortable but effective support is appreciated.

    This article was very inspirational. I want to look good. Right now, I look pretty bad, but I have a few things in my wardrobe I think I can work with. I’ll bookmark this site and hope to come across more good info on the subject.


  • SAM says:

    Contrary to what most people think, it is not cheaper to use a seamstress to make your clothes. You’ll pay a lot more, but in return, usually get a better constructed garment that fits. It’s a trade-off that is sometimes worth making, but not always.

  • V.W. says:

    The seamstress idea works (I have several dresses like this) but may not save you much money. It costs a lot more to pay a westerner to handmake something than it does to pay sweatshop labor to make things on an assembly line. Even companies that pay living wages to their labor make things on an assembly line, for the most part. It’s typical to pay $30-$50 for a skirt or jumper and dresses run $60-$90, in my experience. If you normally wear very pricey designers that might be a bargain, but it’s a lot more than I would normally pay for off the rack clothing.

    Since I like very classic dresses (think pioneers, Edwardian, that sort of thing) that are difficult to find in stores I’ve both sewed my own (cheaper, but takes a ton of time) and paid others to sew for me. The good part is that those dresses are very high quality and last very well. Of course, if you’re going to pay someone to make something up for you pay a little extra to buy high quality fabric.

    Also, I’ve found a lot of my favorite clothes on ebay. There are sellers that specialize in trendy surplus, like TJ Maxx does, and I have bought many gently used classic items — like the high quality navy wool blazer that cost me less than $20 — there too.

  • Susan says:

    Shop Goodwill..

  • Leigh Burke's make money online blog says:

    Some great tips on how to look good on a budget. People often overlook the fact that first impressions count for everything and perception = reality. If you can look great and save some cash – all the better.

  • Business Management says:

    I appreciate the information provided. Thanks. Does a guy named Tim run this blog? Doug said that this is your site. Anyway, nice job. Keep it coming.

  • Jim says:

    waiting for a sale or bargain shopping can take some time but they can also save you some cold hard cash.

    if you are into saving money don’t rush out every weekend to find a new outfit. Unless you are in the lime light no one will ever know that your close are not all brand name and cutting edge.

  • CreditShout says:

    These are all great tips. I was just thinking about going shopping again for the upcoming semester and my new job, and I will definitely take these into consideration. What about swapping clothes with your friends? My friends love doing this with tops, dresses, and shoes. You definitely shouldn’t buy a new dress every time you go out, but if you swap with a friend then it’s like you are. Add accessories to make them your own and people won’t even notice that your friend wore that dress last weekend…

  • Moneyedup says:

    Great tips. I like the idea of going to off price retailers, but you can take it one step further by going to second hand or vintage stores. After you clean out your closet, you can donate your clothes to these types of stores and the browse for new ones. It can take a while of looking for a good quality item, but they are out there, and sometimes you can find brand new clothes that people have never worn and then donated. Another advantage is that you can find some very unique items at these shops.

  • ditchtheboss says:

    Thank you for submitting this article to my weekly contribution. I hope to see another article in the next edition on Wednesday, 4 August 2010.

  • m says:

    you can also save a lot of money on shoes by buying classic looking styles and getting them repaired as needed.

    a lot of family-run dry cleaners also have seamstresses/tailors, and usually do shoe repair also.

    i always ask myself if i love something before i buy it. i don’t buy on impulse anymore. if i see something i really like, i’ll wait a couple days (sometimes months) and see if i still want it. also if you have to move a lot, you rethink what you really need, and what you really feel like packing up when you move again.

    also i think the most worthwhile purchases are classic coats and jackets that fit perfectly. there’s just something about wearing a perfectly fitted coat…

    another thing that’s helped me see past the trends to find the classics is to come up with a style icon, for me it’s Audrey Hepburn or French actresses from the 60’s, and think of what they would wear when you’re out shopping. it might sound kind of weird but it works. Audrey would probably not wear the latest (but actually recycled 80s style) high-waisted, pleated, acid-washed creation from Urban Outfitters. A flattering pair of skinny jeans on the other hand? maybe.

  • Angie says:

    Great tips. Sorry to be nitpicky, but it’s Sophia Loren (not Lauren). The only current celeb with that surname (Ralph) changed it from Lifshitz.

  • Cath Lawson says:

    Hi Vered – I am frugal when it comes to clothes and don’t buy lots of items. When I ran my business from an office I wore a uniform and working from home – I wear what I’m comfortable in. So I don’t needs lots of different things.

    Like you, I will pay a high price for something that will last and cheap for fashion items. I buy things I can mix and max and I change how they look by using accessories.

    Apparently many people are now customising their old clothes and making them into something different. I’ve tried to search this online but the information is limited. But there seems to be plenty of books on Amazon to show you how to do it.

    • vered says:

      Back in the sixties, my mom used to have a trusted seamstress who altered clothes for her, even copied designs from fashion magazines at a fraction of the cost (think cute mini dresses in geometric prints). But seamstresses seem to be an endangered species these days. πŸ™

  • Jenna says:

    I hate to say it but watching What Not To Wear has helped me pick better clothes while shopping and figure out new ways to wear clothes that I already own.

  • Cd Phi says:

    As a fashionista, I basically HAVE to dress on a budget. In addition to buying lots of basics that you can mix up, another important thing to do is accessorize those basics. Lots of retailers now offer gorgeous earrings and necklaces that will really help to make your basic piece a statement now. Bright, bold accessories are the way to go.

  • MoneyNing says:

    I just wear black because it hides the fact that I’m overweight. Maybe if I start wearing white everyday, I will actually go exercise.

    • vered says:

      Hmmm. You can’t be THAT overweight if your pictures don’t show it. Should be easy to lose the weight if you don’t have too much to lose. My husband lost 20 pounds about 3 years ago, slowly and gradually. Took him 6 months. Change of habits mostly – ate less, exercised more (duh.) – he said that after the first 2 weeks, it became easy. The first 2 weeks were hard – hunger pangs, cravings.

      • MoneyNing says:

        Ha that’s why all my pictures only show the FACE, and for all you know, the pictures could be taken a decade ago when I was still fit..

        Actually, I know there’s no magic to weight loss. It’s like personal finance. You just need to do it.

  • laura @ no more spending says:

    I wear a lot of black and grey too, always seems to look smart and classic.

    Great post Vered.

  • vered says:

    Black is so EASY, it’s ridiculous. πŸ™‚

  • Miranda says:

    I wear a lot of black and gray. πŸ™‚ And I like the idea of going for classics rather than always relying on trends.

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