Spend or Save: The Fashion Edition

Clothes shopping. Whether you love it or hate it, you have to do it. Whether you see salespeople as friends or enemies, you have to do it. Whether you spend too much, not enough, or you stand in the store for hours deliberating price vs. usefulness vs. desire, you have to do it. (See also: To Buy or Not to Buy? Criteria for Thrift-Store Clothes Shopping)

The good news is, shopping for clothes doesn't have to be painful: not to your wallet, not to you schedule, and (most importantly) not to your poor, aching brain. Taking the simple step of deciding beforehand which sorts of items are worth the splurge and which ones you won't pay anything above rock-bottom for can take the aches and pains out of the most dreaded shopping trips. Check out the basic guidelines below and you'll be ready to attack that list.*


Shoes. This one seems pretty straightforward to me: anything that has the potential to support your entire body weight for hours on end is worth some serious dough. Your feet are a valuable asset. Take care of them by buying shoes that are comfortable, cute, and offer all the support your foot needs. Now, I'm not against the occasional pair of cheap shoes just for fun (see "Trends" below), but for the most part, good foot care means quality shoes, and quality shoes cost money.

Work Clothes. You're going to spend all day in them at least five days a week, probably for years to come. They ought to be comfortable, fit impeccably, and last, and there isn't any way to get these three characteristics in an item of clothing without paying more for it. Do yourself, your coworkers, and your job the honor, and purchase the best work clothes you can. You'll feel better for it and so will everyone around you. This holds true whether you wear suits, suspenders, or scrubs to work.

Most Basics and Layering Pieces. This one is counterintuitive for a lot of people, but hear me out. Basics are items that you can wear in different seasons, no matter what the trends of the moment happen to be. You want them to last. But they're often also the pieces closest to your body, so they need to be soft and hold their shape. Sure, you can buy several $10 camisoles each season, but imagine having one or two that lasted a year or more. You'd save money, shopping time, and you wouldn't have to keep reinventing outfits around new pieces. Trust me, more expensive basics are worth every cent, even if you wince at the register.


White Basics. This is the one exception to my "spend more on basics" rule. White clothes simply don't last as long as darker ones. They invariably get stained: you spill your coffee trying to avoid a car accident, the dry cleaners has an "accident," or the two-year old sees your shirt as a canvas and not an item of clothing. However it happens, white items need replacing more often than other colors. Buy them as nice as you can, but budget to buy new ones at least twice a year.

Swimwear and Other Seasonal Attire.  Have you seen the prices on swimsuits lately? Seriously, that much money for that much fabric? And the crazy thing is, they're all on sale at the end of the summer, sometimes crazy on sale. The same goes for other seasonal clothing at the end of its most popular season. If you plan ahead, you get the good prices and then you have new clothes for next year before it even gets there. Also, you'll spend so little time, proportionately, in some seasonal gear that it isn't worth such a huge chunk of your budget.

Gear. I use "gear" to refer to any clothing that you only wear for certain activities--like hiking gear, running gear, kayaking gear, etc. Before you say it, I know that this can be some of the most expensive clothing out there. But there's almost always a sale. In fact, every time I've wanted gear and I've waited for a sale, one has come around and I've saved large amounts of money. You might have to wait a while, particularly if your activity is currently in season, but the price cut is worth it in the end.

Trends. If you're only going to be able to wear it for a season or two, it's not worth the big bucks. Worth purchasing? Probably, especially if you really love it. But not worth the same amount as something you'll wear year after year.

Somewhere in the Middle

Accessories. I'm a pretty simple girl, and so my accessories tend to fall more into "Save" than "Spend," but that's not a hard and fast rule. If you see a purse that you know you'll use for years, spend a little more on it. If you're in Italy and you really want that scarf, splurge because you love it and it will last. When it comes to accessories, it's all about evaluating how useful the item will be with the wardrobe you currently have (not, note, the wardrobe you wish you had) and how much value it will add to your look. 

Everyday Clothes. This is an area where you'll probably find that you spend some and save some. If you're spending more on work clothes, make sure you don't cut yourself short by spending next to nothing on your non-work, lounge-around-the-house clothes. It's a balancing act here: what do you need, what do you want, and what works with your budget. But give yourself a chance and be willing to spend a little more than you might first want to on items that you love and will wear a lot. 

"Going Out" Clothes. These depend on the person. Where do you go out? Do you tend to follow the trends or have a few outfits that you rotate and recombine for years? Allot your money accordingly, spending more on items you'll wear more often and that are more comfortable and less on trendy items or jaunty accessories that only go with a few other things. 

Enjoy your shopping trip, and let me know some of your "Spend," "Save," and "Somewhere In the Middle" items in the comments.

*Being a woman, most of my advice is for women. Guys, if you want to chime in in the comments, I'd love to hear when you spend and when you save on your clothes.

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Guest's picture

I usually look at things on a "per hour" or "number of uses" basis. Basically, the more I am going to use a piece of clothing, the more I am willing to spend on it.

This is why I am willing to spring for the more expensive running shoes. I know I will be using them a few times a week, so I know I will get my money's worth out of them.

I've found that applying this thinking to my clothes/accessories purchases has really curbed my spending for superfluous items.

Sarah Winfrey's picture

I like that way of thining about it, ninjarice. I think it would definitely help curb spending--if it's not useful, don't buy it!!

Guest's picture

Great list :) The only thing I do differently is spend on swimwear. I take aquafit lessons, and found that spending money on a good suit that is built for this purpose is worth the money. Less expensive suits don't stand up to the chemicals in the pool, so you go through them faster.

Now, for a cute bathingsuit to wear to the beach... I wouldn't spend too much on that. (I live hours away from a beach or outdoor swimming spot).

@ Ninjarice -- I use that approach too and find it really helps. Sadly, it doesn't work for bridesmaids ;)

Myscha Theriault's picture

Good one, Sara. I'm with you on the white basics thing, all the way. I try not to need to many of them, but the reality is I usually need anywhere from 2-5 white tops a year. So it's clearance racks for the dress blouses, and Target for the white T-shirts at our house.


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Guest's picture
Queen Vee

I don't have work clothes, being a freelancer, so I spend on my everyday clothes, but it's the same principle. Tops I generally get cheaply, but knits are a new 'spend' category – after years of throwing cheap ones away after a year or spending ridiculous amounts of time depilling them, I've finally seen the light. Having said that, I try to buy everything on sale if I can.

For the occasional wedding or special event, I've been looking into hiring designer dresses. So much cheaper, and you get to wear something really nice.