How Much Does Appearance Really Matter?

by Thursday Bram · 25 comments

suits and ties
We’re all told that appearances shouldn’t matter — we shouldn’t judge other people by their appearances or make a priority of keeping up with the Joneses. But you’d think that we wouldn’t have to keep reinforcing these beliefs on appearance if they are such universal truths. We’d have no problem avoiding spending money on things that really just amount to keeping up our appearances.

The Value of Appearances

A lot of personal finance gurus draw a hard line against spending money on appearances. I can think of a few who only buy clothes from second-hand stores, drive cars that are more than ten years old and go to great lengths not to spend money on making them look good.

I can’t help but think that such an approach is, in its own way, an effort to present a very specific appearance. After all, how far would someone talking about thriftiness get with an appearance that obviously costs a lot to maintain?

As a society, we value appearances, no matter how often we hear “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Simply cutting our budgets for clothing and other expenses related to the image we project can have far reaching impacts simply beyond saving us money. The right appearance, after all, can make a difference in whether or not you land a job, the price you can negotiate for a car, even affect where you live.

Investing in Appearances

I’m not one of those people who typically spend a lot of time thinking about appearances. I have about four pairs of shoes and can generally be expected to show up in a t-shirt just about anywhere. But recently, I let my very fashion-conscious sister pick out my outfits for meetings with clients. There was a huge difference in how those clients reacted to me in the more formal (and fashionable) outfits she picked out than the jeans and t-shirt I would normally show up in. Just that little change made a world of difference in how easy I could land clients and the prices I could charge.

When your ability to land a raise or a client is at stake, it’s worth thinking about the image you present as an investment. Sure, the car you drive to meet with clients isn’t going to appreciate in value, but if it helps you land bigger accounts, it may just be worth the cost of entry. When thinking about your appearance, you need to take your goals and your current situation into account. There is truth to the idea that people prefer to buy from or work with individuals that are successful, and your appearance is the main way they can tell just how successful you may be. That doesn’t mean you need to rush out and buy a brand new car — there are many ways of signaling your own successes — but you do need to think about appearances.

You have to take your personal situation into account, along with what impact your appearance actually has in your life. In a sense, you have to prioritize the image you want to present. For most people, keeping up appearances certainly shouldn’t be a high priority — but it should be something you consider when you’re making the budget and planning your finances.

Keeping Up Appearances

There is an undeniable danger that goes along with constantly trying to keep up with the Joneses, no matter the actual value of keeping up appearances. It’s important to understand the differences between making sure that your appearance can help you move towards your goals and just wanting to project an image for image’s sake. It’s that second one that can become incredibly expensive.

It’s also worth reminding yourself that image is not the same as reality. If you want your appearance to include expensive clothes or cars, you don’t necessarily have to spend too much on them. Careful shopping (including a trip by the second-hand store) can create a wardrobe that costs less than it appears to. It takes some planning — more than you would need to just go to the nearest store.

If appearances need to be a priority for you, that shouldn’t be a problem — but you may need to spend some time on that priority, especially if your budget doesn’t necessarily leave room for the image you need to project. Handled correctly, there’s no reason you can’t turn your appearance into an asset.

But What If You Care About Appearance to a Point that You Find Frugality Embarrassing?

Here’s a story you might be able to relate to:
I bought a pair of pants. The purchase wasn’t planned for, and the decision was a result of a bit of embarrassment, anger, sadness, and envy combined.

My journey to the checkout counter all started a few days ago when we walked by a CPA’s office while I curiously strolled through the business park that was recently established in my neighborhood. It so happened that I was looking for a new accountant to talk about my new business structure, so I decided to walk in.

After some mingling with the receptionist and introducing ourselves to the accountant, he spent the next 15 minutes trying to convince us that our business probably isn’t at the point of needing his service. We walked out confused since we didn’t even talk much about specifics, but my wife quickly made an astute observation.

Honey, maybe you should dress more appropriately next time you meet a business acquaintance for the first time.

That’s when it dawned on me – I was wearing jeans, a plain colored t-shirt I bought ten years ago, an old pair of running shoes, and badly needed a haircut. In my defense, we were just taking a break from our daily schedule and I never intended to talk about business, but I forgot – perception matters.

shopping mall
Over the weekend, we were out taking a walk at the local mall. We loved the atmosphere. There were tons of people, everyone was happy and surprisingly, many people were lining up to pay.

As we continued to walk, we noticed that everyone seemed to dress nicer than we did. I felt a little embarrassed at first, but could it be that bad? We started paying more attention, and the reality is actually WORSE. We found one person who dressed worse than we did. One single soul. It was so bad it actually became funny. We laughed and realized we never bought clothing for ourselves since our honeymoon, a fabulous vacation two years ago. I ended up buying a pair of pants, and my wife bought a shirt.

For the frugal types amongst us, this story must sound familiar. Many of us choose to be frugal, so it doesn’t really bother us.

But, do you find being frugal embarrassing at times?

For my wife and me, the answer is a YES. We do find ourselves embarrassed at times because of the way we spend money. We find comfort when we calm down later and think about our lifestyle though. We love finding the great deal, and we love being debt free. One of these days, we might start spending more as our incomes and financial future seem more secure. But as of right now, our frugal choices are allowing us to look forward to a prosperous future. We don’t want to keep up with the Joneses, because we aren’t the Joneses.

How about you? Do you like your own name, or do you want to be the Jones as well?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • WWC says:

    Our Social dress codes have relaxed over the past ten years. The tech and creative markets lead the way to a casual environment while the business world has once again embraced business attire.
    We have been told to dress for success and drive a vehicle that proves our success. However, this is somewhat paradoxical.
    Does this mean those who take the train, a bus, walk, or chose a ride service to their employment are unsuccessful?
    How do we measure success? An important Washington representative rides in the aids’s Taurus. Employment choices are expanding beyond the office. The need and desire to work from home are increasing. Recognize the employer must be allowed to set the dress code.
    Most employers today will not/cannot measure one’s performance based on the hairstyle and ethnic dress. Businesses must fully embrace the beauty of the individual while meeting today’s market that promotes a business model. This has to include; appearance, social skills, and language skills.

    First rule: It is unwise to spend money above your current income.
    Second rule: invest in your job. As your income improves: invest in good clothing that matches your job requirements. Buying extremely expensive is not a requirement. Buy traditional clothing with mixed and matchable items. These will be a budget saver and make a statement. They also save space. Same with jewelry. Simple and tasteful. Shine by investing in you!

    The employer and client have to assign expectations in their business dealings. Even if they seem unrealistic.

    Your clothing labels will not be checked. Put yourself in your client’s position. Say you want to close a million-dollar contract. Would you close with a client while wearing a pair of torn jeans and an oil-stained tee-shirt?
    When you are first starting to climb the letter of success an off-the-rack business suit can get you in the door. Once in, You are your best asset. Your confidence, good business manners. your presence becomes your success.
    It is still best to cover tattoos.

  • Edward says:

    Instead of worrying so much on outward appearances…we shold focus more on how we actually present ourselves verbally. I’m appalled at the terrible speech I’m bombarded with on a daily basis her in the US. The words “you know” and ‘like” have become standard conjunctions, not to mention “awesome” being used to described everything but. It seems the dumber you sound, the more accepted it is. Sometimes I think it’s a joke when I hear these bimbos on T.V. claiming to be doctors or other professionals…it doesn’t seem like highter education focuses on speech & verbal presentation skills anymore and it is very, very important…especially at your first meeting. I just can’t take someone seriously if they use the word “like” 5 times in one sentence…and that means about 60% of the population at this point in my life. For me, it immediately throws up a red flag before I consider hiring you for my company as you sound uneducated, self-centered and shallow.

    • eddie says:

      Really, Edward, the work “like” is a personal indicator that a person is self-centered and shallow. Perhaps you have someone in mind that you are ranting about. If not, I think it’s time to take a look in the mirror and see who is self-centered and shallow.

  • Monroe says:

    And here’s another thought: style does not dictate cost.

    Have you priced out the cost of a high school varsity jacket vs. a woman’s dressy coat?

    Have you priced out the cost of an NFL fan jersey vs. a man’s dress shirt and tie?

    Have you priced out the cost of steel-toed boots (required for some blue collar jobs) vs. woman’s dress shoes?

    ’nuff said.

  • Monroe says:

    Even when focusing on my PF / frugal blog duties — there are times when I am giving appearances in the community or giving TV interviews. On those occasions, I’m wearing the same business clothes I am expected to wear to the office: black pants, black shoes, dressy top or sweater. Even the polo shirts in my closet are a bit dressy rather than the usual sport shirt.

    There will be a work-related occasion in a few weeks in which I absolutely have to wear a dress, but I have one in my closet that is suitable. I don’t mind skirts and used to wear them at least once a week, but practicality got in the way.

  • anomus says:

    The article sounds like it was written by a college freshman who was sold a business degree or a journalism degree and its a symptom of a credit bubble. If I go and look at an apartment or house how will having the most recent fashion change the information on a rental history or credit report and a criminal records check? How will trying to appear wealthier than you are affect the prices of items in a store? There are a lot of people that appear to have high income if you only glance at them but it doesnt hold up under closer examination.

  • Derek Batterbee says:

    Joe and Josh make good points. It costs nothing to bathe each day, and your clothes can be bought WITHIN your budget. You should not go into debt for it, afterall, if you lose your home…where will you keep your expensive the trunk of your car?

  • reg says:

    If you’re in business, you better be aware of what you’re wearing. Better still, if you want to be a leader in your field in business, you better look great. This is true if you’re a man or woman. Because it may not be fair, but in less than four seconds a stranger whom you’ve never met before is going to make an assumption on your education, background, financial status and success just by what you’re wearing. Do you want to chance it?

  • Hojaranzal says:

    Our society has become so vain that appearance is the thing that counts most in our world. The result is that the world is governed by mediocrity and braggarts.

  • Josh says:

    Appearance is a huge factor. No matter how much you ignore it perception is a very important factor. If you look dishonest people will assume you are. Sloppy, people will assume you are lazy.

    Stereotypes are there for a reason. They are how you will be perceived whether you like it or not.

  • David says:

    Not ’nuff said. The flash of red of a pair of Christian Louboutin pumps is no comparison to any online steel toes boot prices I could find. Unless you are planning on taking a can of red spray paint to a pair of shoes from Payless.

  • JTD says:

    I buy the cheapest non-name brand clothes and wear them till they’re rags…
    People treat me like garbage, too… Fine, I no longer have to work anymore because of all the money I’ve saved over the decades!

    • Kenny Le says:

      I respect you more than the person who wearing suit and treat other people wear normal or rags clothes like garbage. Only garbage know how to treat other like garbage

  • Joe says:

    Notice that a lot of personal finance writers and bloggers are not generally out and about meeting with clients. They tend to sit at a desk behind a computer. And the computer certainly doesn’t care how you’re dressed. Not that you should run out and fill your closet with Armani and buy a BMW, either. but there’s also something to be said to treating yourself to nice things if they fit in your budget.

  • Derek Batterbee says:

    It was not long ago that the poorest person in the street could have owned the best car. I hope that people have learned not to judge the success of a person by the car they drive….personal appearance is important, and a good image can be achieved at relatively low cost. Too many people are in debt..just for the sake of appearance.

  • Stan says:

    There was a show that came on in the late 70’s called WKRP in Cincinnati.. In one episode the receptionist character played by Loni Anderson convinced the advertising sales manager Herb Tarlek to ditch his polyester cheap looking suits for something more classy. Herb began to experience great difficulty selling air time to clients because they were small businessman who couldn’t relate to, as one of them put it, ” a Harvard Type “. You have to dress in a way that makes your customers or clients feel comfortable.

  • physcodog says:

    What does everyone think about tattoos that show? In today’s age where many people express themselves through ink, do you think that it greatly affects one’s chances of employment. I think it depends on what type of job one is going for. At a construction site it may not matter but at a marketing firm it may. What do you guys think?

    • mallary says:

      I think tattoos should be in an area where they are easily hidden. They are very common now-a-days, but everyone does not appreciate their artistic value. I’m 29 and I dont have ANY.

      • Steve Sildon says:

        I’ve been known to change my mind about girlfriends and who my favorite bands are so the idea of a permanent billboard on my body has never appealed to me, no matter how cool the art work is. I know far too many people who end up regretting them compared to those who have said “it’s the best decision I ever made.” Just not for me.

      • physcodog says:

        Nice post Mallary but would tattoos prevent you from hiring a potential employee even though he/she is qualified for the job?

        • Steve Sildon says:

          Tattoos shouldn’t prevent talented people from getting hired. Then again, who would be stupid enough not to hire a person that was the most qualified for a job whose skin was painted another color? Like brown?

  • chad says:

    If appearances determines if you are denied or approved for a lease or mortgage and determines if you are allowed to buy a car with your own money there needs to be some heavy duty suing that is housing discrimination. The only thing I could see it affecting is a job and there are people that think they base all hiring on who dressed the best if that is the case then everyone can quit their jobs and go buy the most expensive suit they can find and get hired and retained regardless of ability.

  • cynical investor says:

    Once I saw a documentary about someone who was ‘transformed’ by a image consulting company. I think he went for an interview and I remember they told him ‘If you want to ask for $1 million you have to look like that’

  • Payslip says:

    A blend of talent and appearance definitely makes a difference. Careful shopping can give you the appearance without making a hole in your pocket.

  • Steve Sildon says:

    I’m not one for conforming, but depending on what line of work you’re in, it’s important to “look the part”, whatever that is. So appearances, unfortunate as it sounds, do count.

    PS. It’s been awhile since I last spoke with you David. Hope you’re well.

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