How to Dress for Success and Still Spend Less

by Sarah Winfrey on 23 September 2008 38 comments
Photo: tashmahal

Ladies, are any of you out there like me? I hate buying clothes for work, because I know that work is the only place I'll wear them. They aren't particularly comfortable, and they certainly aren't my style outside of the office. On top of that, work clothes tend to cost more than any other clothes I buy. In fact, sometimes I feel like I should get an extra stipend just because I have to buy an entirely separate wardrobe full of clothes I would never otherwise choose to wear so that I can be presentable at the office.

Over the years, I've learned how to stretch my money when it comes to buying work clothes, so I can spend more of it on something I really want. Here are some of my ideas...

One Jacket, Several Outfits

Instead of buying a jacket for every suit or a blazer for every outfit, make the jacket itself your centerpiece. Then, you can find a jacket you love and create several work outfits around it. You'd be surprised at how many skirts and pants you can find that will go well with whatever jacket you choose, and no one will ever know that they weren't made to go together. And, if the outfits are different enough, people won't even notice that you wore the same jacket three times last week!

This is great in more ways than one. It saves you money (because you're not buying as many jackets and you're not buying overpriced suit combos). You get to choose your style (because you choose the jacket that's your centerpiece). You're more comfortable (because the jacket is so often the most uncomfortable part of an outfit). If there's a downside to this, I haven't found it yet.

Better Yet, Wear a Button-Down Shirt as a Jacket

Yeah, it sounds a little crazy, and it doesn't work with every button-down shirt in your closet, but you would be surprised at how often this does work (and I love it because of how it messes with people's heads). Here's the plan: wear a tee or a tank with a dressy neckline, and pull on a matching button-down. Keep the buttons unbuttoned and wear your shirt like a jacket. No one will really think it's a jacket, but it will have the same effect in people's heads.

If you're game to try this, look for button-down shirts that are dark colored or that have vertical stripes in neutral colors. Make sure the button-down you buy isn't too long or too short--it should fall to the place where you like your jackets to fall. Try it on with a tank or a shirt like the ones you'll most likely wear with it, just to check the effect.

Layers, Layers, & More Layers

Layering several different items, as long as it's done tastefully, can make some items of clothing that alone are too informal to wear to the office into something that's totally office appropriate. Try a couple of T-shirts of different lengths under another with simple gathering or ruching. Or, wear a couple of different-colored tanks under a white button-down shirt. Those are just a couple of ideas...seriously, the possibilities are endless here.

On top of being less expensive (tanks and tees costing less than most work shirts), you'll be more comfortable this way. And when you're more comfortable, you'll feel more like yourself, and it'll be easier to be at work all day.

Sometimes, You Can Get Away With a T-Shirt

No one will ever tell you this, but when you're wearing a jacket, particularly when you're going to keep it buttoned, most people won't focus on you long enough to tell if you're wearing a T-Shirt or something fancier. It's the same when you're layering a shirt under a button-down or a sweater. There's no need to spend as much on that under-layer as you do on what goes over it!

If you're worried, choose soft T-Shirts made with think material with decorations at the neckline. Just make sure it's something you'd be comfortable wearing outside of work, too, because that's how you'll save the most.

Let me know how you save money on work clothes. After all, we're all in this together!

 

 

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Guest's picture

I save money on clothes by working for a company that doesn't care what I wear. T-shirts & flipflops everyday is normal wear. I guess not everyone can do that.

Guest's picture
A

I just started at a place that also doesn't care what I wear. I could actually rollerskate into the office in my pajamas and no one would care. I find that I feel so relaxed, I'm much more productive. Big relief because I thought I would have to buy a bunch of clothes for the new job. Whew!

Guest's picture
Khurt

You probably don't work in a place where you have to interact with clients.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I'm especially digging the signature jacket idea. Very savvy.

Guest's picture

Used to work in offices and had lots of skirt/blouses teamed with jackets. Now for professional look team good jackets with pants/skirts that go with them. (Hard to get a suit to fit.) Great deals on good jackets at resale shops! Lots of professional clothes at resale stores/thrift shops, actually. Get a lot of basics at the best quality you can afford. Shop sales, too. When I worked near upscale and department stores, I shopped their sales/markdowns/clearances regularly.

At home at the computer I wear my older clothes/tshirts/jeans/sweatshirts, etc. and save the good stuff for when I need to make an impression. And don't forget the accessories! Silk scarves, good semi-precious jewelry and good costume jewelry/ and handbags and shoes produce a polished look. (Much of that can be found gently used, too.)

Andrea Karim's picture

I have the opposite problem. I work for a company that doesn't care, and I long to be a fashion plate. But back when I worked in NYC, the perfect jacket/blazer was key to my wardrobe.

Guest's picture
Craig

My secret to saving money on clothes is to become a geek. Shop once a year at any thrift store (less if your company sends you to conferences where they give away free t-shirts) and any day you manage to color-coordinate people think you're styling.

Andrea Karim's picture

I DID have a friend who told me that the key to looking great was to believe that you look great. No tugging at your skirt hem, no nervous adjusting of bra straps. Just wear it, forget it, and strut it.

I'm too much of a fidgeter for that to work, though.

Guest's picture
kdub

I buy all my clothes from thrift stores. It takes work to hunt out the treasures but half my wardrobe is designer stuff and I've never spent more than $8 for any item. It's almost guaranteed at any time the most expensive thing I'm wearing is my shoes.

Guest's picture
jessica

So obvious, but I tell you I racked up this summer at a thrift store run by doctor's wives at my local medical college-which is tip #1-not all thrift stores are the same, you might find some ritzier cast-offs in different zip codes.

Anyway, I got oodles of cool winter clothing when it was broiling out for under a dollar. No one wanted to buy sweaters then, so they were giving them away. I'm talking $1 for a cashmere sweater.

Guest's picture
Dianne

The best way to save money is not to spend it on every fad that the fashion industry shoves at you. Develop your own style and forget what some stick on a runway looks like. I refuse to buy clothes that require dry cleaning or ironing (saving money and time and the environment). I dress for comfort not seasonal style. I don't buy new clothes unless I need them (not because some idiot on a television show tells me chartreuse is the new black). Fashion is a business. They want you to buy, buy, buy so that they get money, money, money. Then they change the game in a couple of months so they get more money, money, money, and you're left with some ugly clothes that you can't wear because they are "out of season." The fashion industry doesn't care about you. It's too bad women don't wake up to that fact. Take an honest look at yourself. Don't let the clothes wear you. Dress classic, dress smart, dress for comfort, and be yourself instead of trying to chase after the nonsense of "Sex and the City" (remember, those women don't have real jobs or real lives). It's not that hard to save money on clothes if you use common sense.

Guest's picture
Khurt

That's my strategy and it works well.

Guest's picture
katy

Excellent ideas, Dianne especially. My idea:

Shop like the men. Buy classic stuff. Buy in multiples. Mix and match.

Guest's picture
Lucille

I have to agree with the have your own style concept. It will save you a ton by not buying into some rather silly trends.

I find better designer clothes at thrift stores than I do in the regular stores around here. Professional or women with too much money seem to buy expensive clothes when they are in a bigger city so I find all sorts of neat designer clothes at thrift stores I could not buy new around here.

Even thrift stores from the same chain are not the same. Goodwill stores vary widely in how the price or what merchandise they have.

Linsey Knerl's picture

To check and double-check your thrift store finds for any strange tags or stickers.  I was never more embarassed than when I wore a designer suit into a business meeting and had a co-worker mock me for the bright orange plastic string that was hanging out of my sleeve.  I had removed two stickers and a tag, but missed this tell-tale sign of consignment shopping... 

Linsey

Guest's picture
kdub

You do dry clean everything before you wear it, right? They should catch those things at the dry cleaners.

Guest's picture
kdub

The dry cleaner reply was for Linsey - sorry, I thought it would nest.

Guest's picture
Lindsey

Also check out stores like Target and TJ Max. Target's in house brands are (Mossimo, Merano) are reasonably priced and fashionable. And TJ Max carries great department store brands as long as you're willing to dig through the racks. Right now, I'm wearing a great pair of pants that I did drop some bucks on because I know I'll get my money's out of them (I've had them for a year and wear them at least twice a week) and a shirt I got for $6 on the Target clearance rack.

Guest's picture
cc1

What's lower than casual dress code? The company that I work for, I guess, has no dress code. So, I also have the opposite problem.
While I can appreciate being able to wear what I want; I am a designer, and sometimes long for another position solely for "fashion/style" purposes. I don't like feeling "overdressed" in my work environment because I choose to wear heels...I digress. I suppose that's why/how I came to discover WiseBread...to care a little less about appearances, and more about my personal finances.

So, if I were to dress for success and still spend less I'd live at the following stores:
TJMaxx, Loehmann's, Nordstrom Rack, Filene's Bargain Basement, and (for a decent suit) Ann Taylor Loft sale section with a 20% off mailer coupon:)

Guest's picture
May

I almost exclusively shop at thrift stores and I look for signature skirts which I can pair with any number of slightly more casual tops or dress up with jackets and sweaters. Basically like your signature jacket idea, except with skirts, I guess.

Guest's picture
lily

all of these comments are far and away smarter than the article they refer to. the style recommendations in said-article are atrocious. you can look much better and spend less money by making a teensy bit more effort to find thrift store chic. take one sunday afternoon, have a glass of wine, and play dress up in your closet, making outfits for the upcoming season, mixing and matching, and you won't have to think about it for months.

Guest's picture
cwaltz

Don't you have thrift stores and consignment shops? I have been able to get a fairly moderately priced wardrobe by shopping at both. You'd be amazed what makes it into thrift stores. I would say that 90% of my clothing was bought for less than 5 dollars per piece. The other 10% I am able to pay more for because of the fact that I buy secondhand.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Hardly.  Sarah's tips won't be appropriate for EVERY work environment, but they are a really good start.  There are ways her suggestions could turn out horribly, but I think she's assuming you know how to match like colors and patterns and can put together something crisp.   I have shopped many new stores (like Ann Taylor, Petite Sophisticate, Von Maur, etc) that took the concept of a basic t and button-up and overcharged (while calling it "this year's" look). 

A nicer fabric, richer color, and the right accessories can turn a cheaper version (i.e. thrift store find) into something very chic.

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Lucille

This is very true. I was checking out Ann Taylor, Talbot's and Chico's websites last weekend after getting back from thrift store and consignment shopping. I was trying to get a frame of reference for what is "in" and a bit more upscale this fall. What I found was quite a few classic pieces, many of them were at the thrift stores I was looking at and in good quality brands.

I have a creative background so subtleties of fabric, color and cut or design is kind of second nature and I can keep those concepts in my head when shopping. I still try to make a list of what items I need to fill in my wardrobe with. It keeps me from buying yet another black jacket that is nearly identical to the others in my closet.
Even if your not inclined to thinking this way just get a notebook and cut out pictures or print outs of things you see that are what your going after for fashion. You could even snap pictures with your phone at a high end store. Then take those concepts and go look for them at thrift stores.

Guest's picture
Debbie M

I have a mix-and-match uniform of pants (slacks or khakis), solid t-shirts, and blazers. Then I add a necklace to make it more fun. And sometimes interesting socks, because I'm subversive that way.

Here are some of my current most-worn outfits:

1) olive drab khakis, cream shirt, black jacket, and necklace with pearls, onyx and garnet beads

2) black slacks, yellow shirt, olive green linen jacket, and necklace with white pearls, gold-tone pearls, and garnet beads

3) black slacks, white shirt, black-and-white check jacket, pearl/onyx/garnet beads

4) tan khakis, forest green shirt, black jacket, pearl/garnet necklace

5) black slacks, black-and-white striped shirt, green linen jacket, pearl/onyx/garnet necklace

6) tan khakis, purple shirt, black jacket, necklace with beads of amethyst, silver/black, and some kind of green stone

It's not the greatest, especially since I insist on wearing flat lace-up leather shoes, but most people around here dress a lot more casually. I am thinking of moving up to fitted woven blouses in solid colors.

One thing about solids is that they are easy to mix and match. And one thing about necklaces is that they don't wear out very quickly and they tend to keep fitting very long term.

Guest's picture
dita

I kind of have to agree that a few of the suggestions from the original article seem kinda strange.

The phrase "overpriced suit combos" is a little ambiguous. If you are refering to coordinating suiting separates, then you are correct. If you are referring to suits sold as suits, your assertion is false because you do save money by buying a jacket and pant/ skirt as a suit.

On the button up shirt as a jacket front- this usually looks sloppy. It's Seattle grunge dressed up for the office. It doesn't so much mess with my head as put a furrow in my brow. Cotton button up shirts don't have the same weight as a jacket and don't lay right. Also, the bigger the bust, the worse it looks (the bottom half of the placket just sorta flops in the wind when walking.)A vertical stripe shirt should especially never be worn open. It has a widening effect on the normally slimming vertical stripes.

Also, in "layers, layers, and more layers"- I'm not sure I am following your logic that by wearing more clothes at one time, you somehow save money. Seems to me that regardless of price, if you wear more items per day you will need to own more items.

In your attempt to find a new angle, you overlooked one obvious remedy to this problem: accessories. Instead of "accessorizing" with three tanks, how about accessorizing with actual accessories? Almost any women's magazine that has addressed this topic talks about accessories. It's classic advice for a reason.

@11 I agree whole-heartedly! Particularly with the author's first suggestion- stick to a classic wool jacket(unless you are allergic) or the highest wool content you can afford. The reason is that man made fibers like poly/rayon blends can harbour odors whereas wool repels them. Quality wool only has to be dry cleaned no more than three times a year.

Guest's picture
Khurt

Classic styles. When the shirt or pants become worn, they are replaced. I follow no fashion except, Classic Man.

Sarah Winfrey's picture

Hmm...I don't think I was pretending to list ALL the ways to save money on work clothes, just some of the ones I've learned that most people don't think about. So, please, shop at thrift stores and focus on accessories. I do. But so many people do those things already. I'm just trying to give people who don't have much experience buying work clothes some behind-the-scenes tips.

And if what I've said here doesn't work for your workplace? By all means, don't do it. Still, they're all tricks that I've done or have seen people do with a lot of success. So, take them or leave them, they're ideas that have worked for people who have to dress professionally (and yes, I do interact with clients).

That said, I really like some of the ideas you guys have come up with here! Signature skirts is awesome, and so is the idea of avoiding the fads. Great thoughts, folks!

Linsey Knerl's picture

You would think they would have caught it!  We have to ship out our dry cleaning where I live, so who knows?

Linsey

Myscha Theriault's picture

I too think the atrocious comment is a bit harsh. Sarah, I've had this type of feedback before too. I totally got the point of your article, and that you were just trying to provide fresh simple tips for saving money on work clothing. Good job.

Guest's picture
Slinky

Shop at the end of the seasons when everything is on clearance. I got enough work clothes to last me my full time 8 month internship for under $150. I now work at a place where the only no-no is wearing shorts. I usually wear jeans, t-shirt, and jacket or sweater (because it's cold in the office)

Guest's picture
claire7676

I agree with lily & dita. The "One Jacket, Several Outfits" approach usually won't work because there ARE people out there who do notice that the type of material in your jacket does not match your pants. The rest of the suggestions don't work because they usually looks too casual, not at all professional. I'm not really sure what is meant by a t-shirt though.

If you sign up for email lists of places like New York & Co and the Ann Taylor stores, you can stay informed of killer sales they have & great coupons to pair with the sales. This has saved me a decent amount of money in the past. I might be paying a little more, even after the discounts, but I know the items will last awhile & they usually look great! Also, find outlet stores (no matter how small) in your area. Outlet stores usually have email signups for coupons, too. That has saved me a TON of money.

Andrea Karim's picture

Eh, I don't know. I used to wear my black jacket with almost everything, even when I lived in NYC, because it matched all my grey pants and looked really good with jeans on casual Friday.

A friend of mine who worked for an investment back bought four suits for $800 total - seems like a lot, but they lasted her a good 5 years until she went to grad school. She occasionally mixed and matched, but mostly kept the suits as a whole ensemble. The key to making things look different from day to day was to change her shirt, hairstyle, and accessories.

Every workplace is a bit different.

Guest's picture
Amanda

I always wear a blouse and skirt or a conservative dress, whether at the office or at home, so I don't have to double up too much on clothes. I keep a plain black blazer and one pair of black pumps in my office, just in case I have to look "dressy" for a client. And I make a point of changing out of my good work shirts before the baby pukes on me. :P

What I don't make myself, I buy at thrift stores or off the clearance racks. I'm an odd shape, and if I'm going to have to alter a garment anyway, I resent paying more than $10 for it.

I also NEVER ever buy anything white, cream, or pastel, as I know that I will destroy it the first time I wear it. Blacks, browns, and prints hide coffee and fountain-pen booboos pretty well. It helps to know the colors that work for you and buy only pieces that go with those colors. Preferably, something you can wear with two or more items already in your wardrobe. Buy only things in cuts that suit you. If you're not comfortable in a straight skirt, don't buy it. A nice A-line skirt is still office-appropriate and much more forgiving on "fluffy" days. As long as you get good fabric and forgo whatever weird ornamentation the current fashion calls for, a basic skirt can last for years.

I have to have a suit for court, which is an aggravation, because I wear the darn thing perhaps twice a year, and I always have to take something in or let something out before I wear it in public (I made it, so I made sure it was readily alterable). This is also the only dry-cleanable item I own. If I can't wash a garment (by hand or machine) there's no point wasting money on it-- it will never be worn.

Guest's picture
Guest

I work in a place where the dress code is the unhelpfully vague 'business casual'. Like you, I refuse to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe of uncomfortable, expensive clothes (and it doesn't help that I am 6 feet tall and find even regular clothes hard to find!)

My tricks? Invest in a fabulous pair of shoes that you can wear with jeans. Of course, there will be days when it's important to dress up, but a good pair of shoes can make or break an outfit.

But, even easier, is jazz up your outfit with a necklace. This has been a godsend to me. Invest in a few beautiful pieces that make a statement, and people will be so curious about your fabulous jewelry they won't notice anything else you're wearing!

Guest's picture
Guest

I understand that in the real world you have to play the game of looking just so in a business environment, but it is interesting to challenge that. One time I wore the same suit (jacket and skirt) two days in a row, though with a different blouse. Someone commented on it, and I responded, "If I was a man, would you have noticed?" How come we women are supposed to have so many different outfits... what is that about?
And while I completely appreciate how you can mix and match a small number of good pieces to make an endless number of outfits, it is interesting to challenge the underlying reason we feel we need to do this. Are we trying to fake out others that we are more affluent than we really are?
I do appreciate that some women just enjoy clothing, and so enjoy wearing a variety... this to me is valid. Most professional women accept the reality that their work performance might be superficially judged by whether or not they wear the right uniform. I wish it wasn't so, but economic reality requires that most women feel they must play a long with the game.
Other than that, however, I question why women feel a need to wear variety... why we feel we feel we can't be seen wearing the same dress at more than one party. Are we afraid others will think we are poor? Men don't care.
With all frugality choices, to an extent we are "frugality evangelists." When we openly challenge the social norm, we make it easier for others to make frugal choices. If someone comments on me wearing the same clothes often, I smile and say, "This is my favorite shirt, I got it at a yard sale and just love it. So I wear it a lot."

Guest's picture
Aly

make all your pieces in your wardrobe mix-and-matchable. When you buy a new article of clothing on sale, ask yourself how many outfits you can make out of it with what's existing in your wardrobe and let that determine if it is a worthwhile purchase.

Guest's picture
Angie

1) Never ever dry clean! This could save you upwards of $1000 a year (not to mention the hassle of taking things to the cleaners). Most items can be hand washed and carefully hung up inside. I use eucalyptus scented wool wash. Time washing is less than time dropping off and collecting suits/dresses.
2) I have two suits (lightish grey and black) each with a pair of pants and a skirt. I have 5 shirts - white, dark purple, mulberry, dark grey and jade green). I have a black cardigan. This is all the work clothes I have. I can mix and match everything and add an op shop scarf if I get bored. I hand wash all of these things. I do not have a handbag, I use the laptop bag with the company logo I got for free. I bought most of the clothes while on vacation in America... heaps cheaper there than in Australia.
3)So i don't spend so much on stockings I wear cotton tights from the highschool section. They never rip. 5 pairs last one year.
4) I wear classy flat shoes... They last heaps longer than heels and you're more likely to walk saving on that bus ticket or taxi ride.
5) My best friend cuts my hair for me and I dye it myself. Do these things often and you'll look better. Same with makeup. I always wear makeup (I buy a few good quality items a year, and dispose of them at the end of the year... coz who wants to wear lipstick more than a year old... total spending is $50 a year). Good hair and make-up make for a presentable, professional look.