Build a Work Wardrobe for Any Job on a Budget


Congratulations on your new job! Finding regular work in the current economy is hard. What else is hard? Building a decent work wardrobe when your first eight paychecks have to be diverted to cover other costs. Luckily, there are a number of ways to create appropriate work ensembles without breaking the bank. (See also: 12 Ways to Save Cash on New Clothes)

Take a cue from my sister-in-law, Missy, who estimates that she's saved $40,000 in clothing costs over her 30-year career as a nurse by wearing her uniform at work instead of street clothes. Yeah, I know. Most people cannot get away with wearing surgical scrubs and white clogs on the job. But wearing a uniform, even one that you create, will save you time and money.

If Your Company Provides Free Clothing, Wear It!

My friend Spence lost 150 pounds. As anyone who has lost or gained a lot of weight can tell you, having to repeatedly buy clothes to fit the New You gets expensive fast. Luckily, Spence works at a record store where the dress code is decidedly casual. Even luckier, Spence's employer provides free store T-shirts and hoodies to his employees as a form of cheap advertising.

During his 18-month journey from size XXXL to size L, Spence only had to worry about replacing his pants and his underwear. Every time he went down a size, he just got seven new shirts and a hoodie from work. When Spence finally got to his target weight, he wanted to burn his work T-shirts on a pyre, not out of victory, but because he was so sick of wearing the same thing every day. That said, what made Spence's weight loss especially sweet was that he could afford to buy some really nice shirts for his skinnier self with the money he'd saved by wearing store logo shirts for a year and a half.

My doctor's wardrobe hack is a combination of Missy's and Spence's strategies. While many doctors no longer wear the iconic white lab coat at work, my personal physician still wears a lab coat not out of tradition, but out of frugality. Since no one can see that she's wearing inexpensive T-shirts or sweaters under her lab coat, she never has to buy the matching jacket to her dress pants. Patients just assume from her bottom half that she's immaculately dressed from head to toe.

Buy a Few Nice Pieces and Own Your Look

Albert Einstein famously wore the same outfit everyday. So did Steve Jobs.

One of my best friends works for a major museum. His job is to procure funding from high wealth individuals and corporations for museum exhibits and programs. Following Einstein's lead, my friend wears a "uniform" to work every day at his arty job. His work wardrobe consists of:

  • A tuxedo
  • A raincoat
  • Three identical grey suits from Brooks Brothers
  • Seven identical white shirts
  • Two pairs of black shoes
  • Four different black ties

In addition to making the process of getting dressed in the morning completely hassle free, the wealthy people he hobnobs with have no idea how many suits he actually owns, although I don't think anyone would guess that his work wardrobe consists of only eighteen garments.

If this minimalist system sounds extreme, ask yourself this: "Who else wears a grey Brooks Brothers suit, a black tie, and a white shirt to work every day?" Yes. That's right. Donald Draper.

Share a Work Wardrobe

There's a group of PR executives I know who are always seen in the background of red carpet photographs wearing the latest fashions. Initially I thought that their sartorial splendor was a perk of their jobs — that their clients or fashion designers were giving them free clothes. Then one of them let me in on their little secret. In real life, publicists must spend a huge chunk of their salaries on up-to-the-moment work clothes.

To reduce their clothing costs, a group of four publicists, who all wear the same size, share clothes. Every three months, the four get together for drinks and pore over fashion magazines. They decide what the signature, "must have" items are for that season, and each of them buys one or two garments or accessories. They take turns wearing the different pieces, so none of them is ever photographed wearing the same thing twice. At the end of every season, they sell off the "expired" clothes to recoup some of their wardrobe budget.

Obviously this is the extreme version of closet swapping. Anyone who has ever shared clothes with a sibling or roommate knows this. But, what's interesting about the PR ladies is how organized they are about their clothes. Not only do they not buy anything that's not super-wearable for work personally, but they don't buy anything that's not usable by at least three other people. At any point in time, each of the publicists only has to pay ¼ of the cost of a designer wardrobe, and store ½ the clothes they would otherwise have to store in their homes.

To replicate this off the red carpet, host a clothes swapping party at your home every three months and get some new to you clothes for free.

Inherit a Wardrobe

Just as there are always people coming into the job market, there are always people leaving it.

When my lawyer left the big firm he was working for to start his own boutique law firm, he donated all of his Armani suits to charity. He didn't want to wear the clothes he'd worn to a job he'd hated. He's hardly the first person to change his clothes when he changed his job. Ask your friends and family and ask your community via for hand-me-down work clothes.

Or Borrow One

When my friend Erin was first hired at an advertising agency, she didn't have the wardrobe to match the company culture. Luckily, her then-pregnant supervisor liked Erin so much that she allowed Erin to borrow her non-maternity work clothes for six months. The supervisor didn't have to muck about with two different sets of clothes while she was pregnant and nursing, and Erin was able to borrow a professional work wardrobe for just the cost of dry cleaning until she was able to save up enough money to buy her own clothes.

Black Is the New Cheap

My friend Hilary, a New York based film producer once told me, "People only notice your accessories when you're wearing black." Although her shoe/handbag/scarf/jewelry collection costs more than a car, she buys most of her clothes from Target and Banana Republic.

Even if you lack Hillary's flair (and budget) for accessorizing, an all-black wardrobe is still a good way to cut clothing costs. Along with not showing dirt, black clothes also hide a multitude of design flaws. Even with poor finishing and uneven stitching, black clothes just look more expensive than their colorful counterparts. Can anyone really tell the difference between the $14 black T-shirt from K-Mart and the $84 one from Barney's? No. The key is to choose black items with simple, classic lines that are cheaper knock-offs of more expensive items.

To keep blacks from fading quickly, turn the clothes inside out before washing them in cold water. Then, air dry.

Keep It Clean, Affordably

My cousin's only gripe about being a police officer is that his wool uniforms are expensive to dry clean. For many people, the most expensive part of their wardrobe is the upkeep, and not the original purchase.

If you are on a budget, try to choose clothes that don't have to be washed often, and take steps to keep your work clothes as clean as possible. For example, don't eat spaghetti for lunch. Here are a few more wardrobe maintenance tips.

  • Did you have play clothes as a child? Get back into that habit. The second you get home from work, change into your "inside pants." Not only will you probably be more comfortable, but you will save your work clothes hundreds of hours of wear and tear if you don't wear them around the house.
  • Hang up your clothes! Contrary to popular belief, piling your clothes on home exercise equipment will not keep them wrinkle-free. Shake or brush your clothes out before putting them away. Keeping your clothes free of cat hair, dandruff, and crumbs will help prevent moths from chowing down on your favorite garments. Inspect clothes for stains and spot clean immediately to keep the stains from setting and to deter bug snacking.
  • Although it's counter-intuitive, if you are sweaty, wear an undershirt or dress shields that will absorb the moisture, so you won't have to clean your jackets and sweaters as often.
  • Also, washing in cold water and air-drying clothes will extend the life of all your garments, regardless of the color. (Lint is the evidence that your dryer is eating your clothing.)
  • Invest in a heavy iron and learn how to iron your own clothes. It's not that hard. And if you talk on the phone with a friend or watch TV while you do it, ironing isn't as terrible as everyone makes it out to be.

What is your best trick for building a cheap work wardrobe?

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Guest's picture

I buy all my stuff from the 80% off racks and then stack it with additional discounts. I have a lot of Simply Vera that I got for under $7 for sweaters, $5 for shirts, for instance. All my dress pants and designer jeans were under $15, usually under $13. I don't need many pieces a year, so I just shop off-season and save that way.

Max Wong's picture

Amazing. Are you stacking discounts at Kohl's (the only place I know of that carries Simply Vera)? Where do you find the additional discounts?

You bring up a good point too: Having a small wardrobe can save you money!

Guest's picture

Business casual attire can be expensive, but you have some awesome tips! Black separates are the best staples to recycle in your closet and having a few of them around is essential. Another way to not have to clean your clothes constantly is to buy a steamer. I have one and I use it to steam my silk tops and nicer clothing and they will stay fresher longer so you don't have to dry clean them as often!

Max Wong's picture

Steamers are great! Actually a lot of designers and tailors recommend never dry cleaning wool suits because the chemicals strip the fiber of its natural protective oils and makes the fabric weaker and less moth resistant. Unless there's a stain that must be cleaned, most fine suiting wears the best with just steaming and brushing.

I'm extra lazy, so I hang my shirts in the bathroom when I shower and let the steam and gravity de-wrinkle them instead of using a steamer.

Guest's picture

My "tricks" for a nice-looking wardrobe that doesn't cost an arm and leg are primarily "have a work uniform" and "segregate work clothes and 'play' clothes."

The staples of my inexpensive work wardrobe are 3-4 pairs of black, wrinkle-resistant poly/rayon blend pants with a stitched crease (to cut down on ironing), 3-4 white button down shirts from Old Navy (they layer well and are inexpensive to replace which I have to about once a year since I wear a white button down nearly daily), and a variety of light weight sweaters to wear over the white shirts. I also have a few inexpensive white and black tank tops to wear under the few patterned shirts I own, as well as black cardigans to wear over those same shirts when it's chilly.

I do have a few dresses and skirts, but I don't wear them often for work.

I also made the decision several years ago not to have any brown in my work wardrobe. That avoids the necessity of having to buy brown shoes for work.

Andrea Karim's picture

Although I often feel like a social outcast for saying this (and I know friends who are embarrassed that I bring it up), but I always find decently-made, cheap business separates at JCPenney. Also, as a woman, I find that work dresses in basic colors are a really good base to begin a work outfit (although it gets harder as you accumulate varicose veins), because nylons won't cut it after a while.

Guest's picture
Thrifty Writer

Most of my nice shirts/t-shirts are from JCPenney's.

Guest's picture

I use many of the tactics mentioned. I wear business causal most of the time so I buy black Dockers type pants when they are a really good deal or like new at thrift stores. Always wash them turned inside out in cold water. Then every so often I dye them black again. If you dye them in some sort of vat you can do numerous items.

I have a clothing allowance to purchase certain company logo items. I wear these with black pants most of the time.

I do sometimes need suits for meeting where I see the same people over & over so I can't wear the same suit too many times. Several years ago I found the mismatched suit markdowns at Macy's. These are suit items that have become seperated from the matching pants or top. They are drastically discounted ($20 for new suit pants & $30 for jackets). If you time it right you can take an extra 10-25% off. Buy a pair of black pants that can mix with any number of jackets and you are set for quite some time plus it makes packing for business trips much easier as you only need one pair of dress pants and shoes!

Max Wong's picture

Hi Sue!

The mismatched suit markdown is a great tip!

Guest's picture

I hate cotton for dark and bright colored clothing, especially black. I turn clothes inside-out, wash in cold water on gentle cycle, and air dry; when I iron them (because that course of action ALWAYS leads to wrinkled cotton clothing), the ironing assists in them looking faded. So now I refuse to buy black cotton items, because of the fading and the ironing needed.