A Denim Expert Reveals Why You Only Need 3 Pairs of Jeans


I paid for part of my college education and for the down payment on my house with the money I made buying and selling jeans. In my lifetime, I have bought and sold, conservatively, 11,000 pairs of Levis.

When people discover my side business as a denim trader, the first question they always ask is, "How many pairs of jeans do you own?" They are always shocked by my answer.

I own three pairs of jeans.

A poll by ShopSmart, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, revealed that 25% of American women own 10 or more pairs of jeans. The average American woman owns seven pairs of jeans. However, most women only wear four pairs out of their jeans collection on a regular basis. So, even if I weren't an expert on vintage denim, I'd still be considered an outlier, a jeans minimalist.

If you are a coal miner, then yes, you possibly need more than three pairs of jeans, depending on your laundry schedule. But for most office workers, three pairs of jeans are all that is really needed to look tidy and well dressed.

The three pairs of jeans that I own are: the pair I bought this year, the pair I bought last year, and the pair I bought the year before last year. Here are my actual jeans. (Not a denim re-enactment!)

Let's learn a little more about each pair.

This Year's Jeans

The jeans I bought this year are my dressy jeans. I wear This Year's Jeans to business meetings in creative environments where the dress code is suitably casual. These are also the jeans I wear to dinner or to nighttime events, paired with a nice blouse and dress shoes. These jeans are not play clothes. Just like my suit, these jeans are part of my work wardrobe, so I do everything I can to preserve the pristine quality of these jeans for as long as possible.

After a year of office and dinner wear and tear, This Year's Jeans are usually too worn to wear to business meetings, even on Casual Fridays. At this point, This Year's Jeans become Last Year's Jeans.

Last Year's Jeans

Last Year's Jeans are my play clothes. They are the jeans I change into when I come home from work and change out of my dressy jeans. Last Year's Jeans are the pants I wear to school, to brunch with friends, and to run errands.

After another year of wearing, Last Year's Jeans become The Year Before Last Year's Jeans.

The Year Before Last Year's Jeans

The Year Before Last Year's Jeans are my grubby jeans. These are the jeans I wear while beekeeping, painting, or cleaning the house. While the fading, tool marks, and repairs on these jeans might make them more charming to fashionistas, I generally don't wear these jeans out of the house. Why? Because even if they are my gardening pants, I need these jeans to hold on for another full year of wear before they are sold to a denim collector on eBay or repurposed as a craft supply.

By rotating my jeans on this three-year schedule, I ensure that I always have a pair of jeans that are Like New looking for work, but at the same time have a rugged pair of pants that I can hike in. This jeans-buying schedule also means that I can reduce my wardrobe budget, as I only have to purchase one new pair of jeans per year. Additionally, I only have to have enough room in my closet for three pairs of jeans.

How to Buy a Pair of Jeans

Now, the reason that most women own so many pairs of rarely-worn jeans is that it's much harder to find flattering pants than to buy a flattering skirt. Holding out for perfect fitting jeans does not make you shallow. Even the most anti-fashion guy will spend hours looking for that pair of jeans that make him look thinner and taller. Once you find a pair of jeans that fit, stick with that style. No one will notice if you aren't wearing up-to-date jeans or luxury denim if your butt looks amazing. If you notice, all three pairs of my jeans are the exact same size and style. By keeping my jeans' style consistent, I save time and money, because I don't have to go on a denim safari every year. Instead, I can buy my jeans online when they go on sale.

Are you a wardrobe minimalist or maximalist? How many jeans do you own and how many pairs do you actually wear? What's your best wardrobe hack?

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Guest's picture
Average Joe

I probably have 15 pair of jeans. I'm a blue collar, semi redneck guy but I do love my jeans. They are all rralitively the same style too which is a head scratcher. Of those jeans, I have probably half designated as work jeans. The kind that get greasy from rebuilding a motor or loaded with dirt playing in the mud pit. And I have so many work jeans because I'll get to thinking about a project and go at it while wearing nice jeans. Those eventually work their way to being stained and ripped as well. I will say though, a good pair will last years and years. I have not purchased a new pair in some time as, like the article says, am very picky. Finding a good quality, good fitting pair of jeans is like finding a needle in a haystack. If it isn't the classic Levi brand then it has to be Wrangler. Everything else just doesn't last.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Average Joe--

Your jeans are all probably the same style because that's what works for you. No head scratcher there! If it's not broken, why fix it?

Guest's picture
Mary H.

You are so right! Last year I reached my goal weight (lost 50 pounds) and, obviously, none of my jeans fit. As I was losing weight I'd occasionally reward myself with a "new" pair from a thrift shop. But upon reaching my goal I splurged on ONE brand new pair in a very dark wash and that's all I've needed. I guess that means I'm due for a new "this year's pair" in a few months! My question to you: what do you do to keep your jeans in pristine condition?

Max Wong's picture

Hi Mary H.-

First of all, congratulations on losing 50 pounds. That's just great! To answer your question, I keep This Year's Jeans looking nice by NOT WASHING THEM. Yes. I am one of those dirty denim people. I don't wash my jeans until they are visibly dirty--like when I spill something on them during lunch. When that happens I soak them in cold water with some Eucalain (a natural fiber wash that's designed for cashmere sweaters) and then air dry them. This keeps the dark denim rinse dark over time. I wash my Last Year's Jean and the Year Before Last's Jeans in cold water in the washing machine with Eucalain, making sure that I turn the jeans inside out first to preserve the denim color. I then air dry them.

Also, to keep all my work clothes looking nice, I take them off the second I get home and change into my "play clothes." This keeps them looking (and smelling) good for much longer because there's less wear and tear on them and less chance to get them dirty by doing chores in them.

You could also dry clean your jeans. But I don't like the chemicals and cost of that method so I just try and go as long as possible between washes.

Guest's picture
Mary H.

Thanks for your reply Max! I've never heard of that detergent--will look for it. I also don't wash until absolutely necessary. Didn't know there was a name for it!

Max Wong's picture

Hi Mary H.--

Eucalain is just my favorite fiber wash. But you can also use downy flakes or baby shampoo. Anything really mild really to clean your jeans. (Just don't use Woolite as it contains a strong bleaching agent). At any rate, it's all about soaking the jeans clean vs. really scrubbing them.

Guest's picture
John Unger

Very interesting! I might try your method, cause now, I have like 5-6 pairs of jeans and wear only 2-3 of them. And others just collecting dust in the closet!

Max Wong's picture

Hi John Unger-

Glad I could help!

Guest's picture

I would be interested to know more about your business of buying a selling jeans! Perhaps in another article.

Thank you, Max, for another great post! I truly enjoy your writing.

Max Wong's picture
Max Wong

Hi Gayle!

I LIVE for compliments, so thank you for your nice comment. I'll see about writing an article about being a jeans grader....

Guest's picture

I love this idea! But I'd also love to know what brand and style of jean you depend on, Max. Levis I presume? I had a favorite Levis style, but they no longer make it. I'm also curious what cut you find to be the most versatile - bootleg? skinny?

Max Wong's picture
Max Wong

Hi Anna--

My current favorite jean is Levi's Capital E Ruler jeans...which they discontinued. So I have an ebay alert for them and buy them when I can there.

There is no "most versatile" cut. This is a fashion marketing scam designed to force women to buy new clothes every season. I say buy the jeans that are THE MOST FLATTERING on your body.

Keep your eyes peeled for a woman with your body type on the street who looks great in her jeans. When you find that lady, ask her the make and model of her jeans. I find this is a great short cut to finding pants that fit. I also recommend window shopping for clothes on sites like modcloth that feature a variety of body types. The Plus and Petite Sized communities are really generous about sharing clothing sources, but even if you wear a "standard" size, reading the comments and looking at community sourced photos are a great way to track down jeans that will fit you well.

Guest's picture

I can totally relate. I have two pairs. ..my current nice pair & my old pair. These past two years have been tough jeans-wise as my favorite brand changed their fabric, which changed the fit, but they changed back, so now I have my favorite jeans again. I feel fortunate to have found a good fitting pair for my body.

Guest's picture

Okay, so reading the comments, I have question.

I really want to be the "dirty jean" person. But it seems that as a woman, I can never find a good pair of jeans without the stretch material embedded in. Because of that, the jeans get a little weak in the knees and butt. It also seems that maybe they need to be washed more often than a pair of raw denim, which I can't seem to find in a brick and mortar store in my area (too gun shy to shop online for a perfect fit).

So....do you wear raw denim, and is this why you seem to be able to go forever without washing? Is there a different method you would recommend for denim with stretch material woven in?

Max Wong's picture
Max Wong

Hi Kelli--

You totally nailed it. I'm able to wear my jeans without washing them because my jeans have a minimum of 98% cotton content. Most women's jeans have more stretch, but those bag in the knees after one wearing and require constant washing to keep them in shape.

You don't have to wear raw denim, to be dirty, but you do want to find jeans that are as close to 100% cotton as possible. Classic Lee and Levi's 501 jeans are fine examples of 100% jeans that are available to the average human. I wear Capital E Rule jeans by Levis that are 98% cotton. (They are now a discontinued model. Boo). They are not raw denim but they develop the raw look because of the contrast between the dark wash and the wear marks. (You get this high contrast whisker fade across the front of the jeans and behind the knees because you aren't fading the jeans all over in the wash cycle).

To get the raw look, buy a dark rinse pair of jeans that fit you in 98% - 100% cotton. You can also use spray starch to give them the stiff look of raw denim (which will also give you more defined wear). I don't do this, but this is an old fashioned denim trick to get a "good fade."

Guest's picture
Kathy from CT

Now I am curious about the remainder of your work / office wardrobe. Do you have an article written about that?

Guest's picture

What a good article! Last night, my hubby and I went go the mall in search of jeans. I hate buying jeans for me. They are either too tight, too long, too high or low in the waist, or show off the most unflattering areas. I usually buy one pair of jeans that are cheap and wear them for several years. Well, I end up buying my first $115 pair at Lucky Brand. The sales women there helped me thru about 10 different pair. Never ever would I have considered buying jeans that cost this much. I normally spend $15 on jeans just because they are not comfortable. Now, my purchase is well worth it. I just got dark washed, and yes they have that weird stretchy material and are a "skinny," but, they feel amazing and look good. I think I will try out you "one new pair per year" as they cost so much. You have a great idea! Thanks for the advice!