Reader Request: Budget Shopping. No, Really


The Raisin Girl asked this question ages ago:

I’d love to see more on budget style. I see a lot about budget style all over the internet, but the women writing these articles seem to have much larger budgets than me. I was raised to shop clearance, to buy cheaply even if you didn’t like what you bought as much. I’ve been talked out of many items of clothing that I LOVED and would have worn endlessly, simply because they were pricier. And the weird thing is, we weren’t badly off. I could have afforded those items, but I didn’t. Now that I’m working part-time and going to school, I don’t have much extra income, so it sucks that NOW is when I learn it’s not a crime to pay more than $20 for a good pair of jeans. So basically, how do gals budget-shop, when they’re REALLY on a tight budget?

It’s true that “budget style” means one thing to the average college student and something quite different to an InStyle editor. I’ve been alarmed to find that as my income creeps slowly upward, my idea of a “bargain” shifts and morphs. There was a time when I couldn’t fathom paying more than $40 for a pair of shoes. That time is long past.

But what about the women who can’t fathom paying more than $40 for a pair of shoes, right now, today? What about the ones who can’t afford any more than that? What’s a girl on a truly strict budget to do?

  1. Read the Budget Babe: Love the looks you see in the mags but choke when you see the pricetags? The Budget Babe specializes in re-creating celeb looks for pennies on the dollar. And even if you don’t want to steal those outfits whole-cloth, seeing them rebuilt with affordable pieces is a great reminder that you needn’t spend big to look great.
  2. Invest in basics, skimp on accessories: It’s an old adage for a reason. If you love jeans and live in ‘em, fork over for a pair that fits perfectly and will last multiple years. Get a gorgeous cashmere sweater in a timeless style, and a crisp black work skirt that makes you feel amazing. But don’t fork over big bucks for accessories. You can purchase or make them for cheap, and if the foundation of your outfit is comprised of quality pieces, no one will be the wiser.
  3. Brave the crowds at outlet sales: Although outlet malls are great, outlet malls in the middle of a sale can be nightmarish. Totally worth it, though. Outlet products are more cheaply made than their mall counterparts, but most are still of decent quality. Find out when the sales start, arrive before the doors open, and learn to navigate the throngs.
  4. Visit Etsy: You’ll find vintage duds at rock-bottom prices and handmade goodies for a song. If you’ve got something specific in mind, hit Etsy first and see what a quick search yields.
  5. Search eBay: Although eBay is touted as a great place to find past season goods, you’d be amazed how many current season items can be bought for a fraction of retail. As always, check seller feedback … but consider eBay anytime you’re buying something online. ANYTIME.

In addition to changing your shopping and researching behavior, you can employ creative methods for procuring, altering, or creating stylish duds. A few tips can be found in my virtually free wardrobe makeover, but here are a few more:

  • Thrift: In my opinion, the ultimate way to stay stylish when you’ve got limited funds is to thrift. Hit charity shops, garage sales, estate sales, and consignment shops. Are you a thrifting newbie? Here are my various thrifting how-to’s.
  • Refashion: Need new shorts? Can you hack off a pair of pants you’ve already got? Want a new dress? What about hemming that maxi you never wear to knee length? Learn to see potential in the garments you already own, and make them work anew.
  • Overdye: Spend $15 for four colors of dye, spend an afternoon pretending you’re a mad scientist, and voila. Dingy tees and boring skirts have new life.
  • Create: Learn to knit your own infinity scarves. Learn to sew your own skirts. Learn to make your own statement necklaces from what you have in the junk drawer. Materials and labor are at a premium, I know, but investing in a clothing- or accessory-making skill is well worth it.
  • Style: The catalogs that land in your mailbox can provide endless inspiration, if you let them. Don’t focus on buying what they’re hawking, focus on re-creating the outfits they’ve so thoughtfully assembled for you. Learning to be a better and more creative stylist will help make dressing fun, even if you’re working with a limited wardrobe and a limited budget.

Image courtesy SomeDriftwood.

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  • Franca

    I think these are all great tips! when I used to be skint, thrifting was the main way through which I managed to look great while spending hardly anything.

    The other thing about being on a mega budget is that it does require a change of mindset away from trends. It's just not possible to always wear the latest trends and update one's wardrobe all the time. this is an opportunity though, because it helps you focus on what the things you *really* like are, the things that you will still like five years from now, the things that make you you. Often these things will be available cheaply in the charity shops and online, because they aren't anything to do with what is currently in fashion.

    I actually credit my minimum wage temping days as being the catalyst for developing my own personal style. That's when I really worked out what I'm about, clothes wise.

    A word of caution about the knitting though – yarn is expensive! To make a standard length scarf, you typically need 4 or 5 balls of yarn at £4-5 a pop, so it would actually be cheaper to just buy a scarf from some cheap store. Though of course the handknit one would be much more valuable!

  • Anuja

    PRECISELY how I was brought up, except it was a crime to spend more than $15 on jeans. But now that I'm a full time student and part time paycheck-earner, I still can't shake the feeling of "I love it, I can easily afford it, but it's not super cheap so I better not, lest I get yelled at or fall into deep debt."

    Great advice, Sal. As usual.
    🙂

  • Cubs Magic Number

    I will second the eBay suggestion! I need comfortable, yet still stylish, shoes. Sofft, Clarks, and Aerosoles are my go-to brands but I can't pay full retail. More often than not, I can find current styles on eBay for a steep discount.

    Just like any type of bargain shopping, be careful. Sometimes the price is low because you're buying seconds. Check the return policies and shipping costs before bidding. I have a gorgeous pair of pumps with towering heels that say size 9, but are actually a 10. Can't wear 'em, can't return 'em.

  • Anonymous

    Here's a tip. If you see something you love, go ahead and try it on even if it's out of your budget range. It may not look as good on the bod as it does on the hanger, in which case you've saved both money and angst. And if you still love it, then at least you know your correct size in case you find a super-deal on the same item online.

  • Courtney

    I'm a big fan of clothing swaps if they are organized so that you don't have people out in the cold size-wise. It's fairly easy–you get a group of gals who all have clothes they are getting rid of, pick a house to host in and set a date. I've heard of swaps where the women took turns "shopping" and larger ones where you get a ticket for each item you bring. The ones I went to were pretty much a free-for-all, but the group was made of close friends and we kept it small (5-6.) Whatever clothes doesn't find a new home goes to charity.

  • Ekatherina

    oooh! I love this post, Sally. I'm a broke college gal too.

    I've been recently figuring out how to develop my own style without having a grand influx of money. I started by making an outfit list using fairly basic items that I want or have and see how many outfits I can come up with. I tend to fall for things that are shiny and pink even if I don't have anything at all to go with it, so this helped a lot. I found that semi-splurging on basics allows for me to put a little more $ and effort into accessories, which really take one outfit and turn it into a whole different style, making remixing a lot easier. And this way, when I find a piece of clothing that I love I don't feel as guilty about spending money on it (even if its not on sale) because its in my outfit list and I already have a bunch of ways that I can wear it and know how much love it will get.

    so I really agree with what Franca said… having less money really has forced me to cultivate my style since I can't buy just anything!

    Before I scrolled down all the way I was already going "SEW!" to my computer haha. My sewing machine has totally become essential to my wardrobe (ask for one as a b-day or holiday gift!). I had a pair of higher quality but wide leg (unflattering on my small frame) jeans and recently turned them into DARLING skinnies. New jeans for the cost of thread and about 5 hours. 😉

    I agree with the knitting comment though, it gets expensive and takes forever. But its still fun and worth it for the sake of knitting.

    As for actual shopping, I've never been thrifting but have seen great things come out of TJ Maxx and Marshalls. Target has also been stepping it up with their basics (comfiest tees EVER).

    Awesome post and tips Sally… now I'm gonna go read the other post that you linked to 😀

  • SarahN

    Your reader and I were raised with the same values: never pay full price, clearance before quality, bargains before everything. I realize now what a disservice that mindset was to developing a style (and therefore a wardrobe) that actually means something to me. When you fill your closet with disposable clothing you have no feeling for, getting dressed every day is a DRAG. Fill it with quality pieces you love, and your life improves.

    It was a minor revelation to me to hear the hosts on What Not to Wear say, "If a garment is on clearance, it means no one wants it, and there's probably a good reason: it's of poor quality, ill-fitting, bad value, unflattering, etc." That idea had never occurred to me before, having been raised to value price above everything. Now I'm much more selective about what I glean from clearance racks. Ten dollars is no bargain if you never wear it, or never like it when you do wear it.

    All that said, a lot of your methods ring true, especially refashioning. Martha Stewart I am not, so refashioning for me means bringing not-quite-perfect items to a tailor. Taking shoulders in, hemming skirts, and shortening sleeves are all inexpensive ways to make clothes you are tired of seem brand new. I've also had luck with consignment, but in selling, not buying. Someone else gets to enjoy my things, and I get cash while supporting a local business. Ebay can seem like thrifting nirvana, but the no-returns policies usually keep me from pulling the trigger.

  • LaShaune

    Also consider layaway. TJ Maxx, Sears and K-mart still offer this option.

    For the holidays or special occasions, try RentTheRunway or borrow gowns/dresses from friends close to your size.

    Make pals with a sales associate at boutique or small clothing shops. There are still a few good salesclerks who will call customers when items go on sale or if it's the last in your size and she think you'll like it.

  • leah

    Coupons! Before buying anything from a large online retailer, do a quick search and see if you can locate a discount code or coupon. At the very least you should be able to get Free Shipping (I stole this tip from Gala Darling – I can't take credit for it)
    Learn to love colour! I find knowing what unpopular or uncommon bright colours suit me means that I can buy a lot of my clothing on clearance. People are afraid of colour so it often end up on the clearance rack.
    Socks and stockings are a great way to cheaply change your look too. I very often find un-opened hosiery at thrift stores for under a buck.

  • Ann M.

    As a college student on a rather tight budget, I must say I absolutely loved this post!

    What I usually do is try to set myself a certain budget of what I'm allowed to spend on clothes or accessoires and then invest that money in any way I want it – one pricier piece or several cheaper ones…

  • Scholar Style Guide

    Thanks for demystifying budget shopping! I'm between jobs right now, so having specific strategies like these will help me and my wallet. 🙂

    – Anne-Marie

  • The Waves

    Sal, I think you have given really good tips here. I agree with Franca: it is good to scrap trendy looks, which require buying things you will not wear for long, even if you can find them cheap in charity stores.

    Charity stores really are great for classic pieces like pencil skirts, wool coats, trench coats, shirts etc. I would invest in a nice pair of shoes and a quality leather handbag (you can find these in charity stores too, although it might be a bit of a hunt) – cheap plastic ones don't last, and often look cheap.

  • Rubi

    "It’s true that “budget style” means one thing to the average college student and something quite different to an InStyle editor."

    EXACTLY. I am your average college student, and I could not have said it better myself. I'm tired or reading Instyle's budget articles, and finding that I couldn't afford their options even on my biggest splurges.

  • carlyn

    While in general I agree with all you advice, I don't necessarily think one should always skimp on accessories. I have some amazing, high quality jewelry that I've had for over 20 years, and will pass on to my daughter. These pieces will truly last forever, unlike any pair of jeans or shoes. I was in college, put amazing amber earrings on lay-a-way (does that even exist anymore?) and felt such accomplishment and pride when I paid them off. I still get compliments on them today. I find my accessories to be a very personal expression of my style and personality over time.

  • fashion herald

    With a new baby and a husband fresh out of grad school looking for a job, things are tighter than tight! I have to say "no" to shopping, which is very hard considering being in stores is part of my job. But I try and remember that there's great clothes every season, & when my budget returns there will still be fabulous things to buy.
    In the meantime, I rework what's already in my closet, and buy new shoes at places like Daffy's or Payless (hello, gorgeous Isabel Toledo's!!. An updated shoe can really keep you on style-track.

  • GingerR

    I don't think skimping on accessories is the way to go either.

    A lot of times other women will make judgements on your style almost soley on first glance. If first glance is a vinyl handbag then your 7 for all mankind jeans will go un-appreicated because your first impression was, ah, well — flawed.

    I think if you care (and not everyone does!) go for the brand-name/impressive accessories, at least the handbag – which is often what others focus on. Your jeans thrift-store Levis will do just fine.

  • Barb

    Get on the mailing list of your favorite store(s). There are often coupons that you won't get otherwise and will let you bargain shop while the selection is good.

    Re Sewing. Being able to do alterations is a money saver because it allows you to buy almost-perfect outfits. Sewing from scratch, however, has become a hobby. It can often cost more to buy fabric than to buy a finished item from the store.

  • Sal

    Very true about the self-made stuff, all. But bear in mind that knitting and sewing needn't be from brand new materials. At least, not all the time. Yarn can get scooped up from friend and family stashes, clothes can be crafted from other clothes, cloth stashes, thrifted vintage linens, and other cheap-or-free sources. But I definitely agree … learning those skills won't automatically lead to cost savings.

    carlyn: I see your point, but am not sure that all women scrounging to buy clothing are thinking in terms of heirlooms. All down to personal priorities!

    GingerR: True, a cheap handbag often looks cheap. Great strides are being made in faux leather at this point, so I'd wager cheap handbags don't look AS cheap these days. Additionally, we should prioritize based on use patterns. A woman who lives in jeans should invest in amazing jeans, and a woman who carries a handbag every day should invest in a handbag. But if you're a college gal who mainly hauls a backpack, a quality handbag will be wasted on yas.

    Finally, I'm an accessory addict myself, and truly believe that learning to accessorize is KEY to completing personal style. I just think that spending $50 on a gorgeous leather belt isn't always a good plan when equally gorgeous ones can be had for $1 at the thrift store.

  • V

    I agree with GingerR that it can go the other way: one completely fabulous accessory can transform a thrown-together out of butt-cheap staples outfit into something very put together and elegant. Choose carefully for longevity and versatility.

    FWIW and EG, I have bought Hermes scarves at rack rate, but my favorite, most-used one is a vintage one I scored on eBay for $40, because the pics were good but the seller had inadequate provenance and none of the sharks were bidding. It's authentic and perfect. And it dresses the sam hell out of a plain pair of blue jeans and a Lands End fitted tee.

  • lisa

    These are great tips Sal! I also agree with what one of the other commenters said about how prioritizing price over other factors can lead to disappointing purchases sometimes. Hmm as for tips, one of the other commenters already mentioned mine: get on email lists for your favourite retailers and sign up for group discount sites like Groupon and Team Buy. The other day Groupon had a "$25 for $50 worth of merchandise" at the Gap offer.

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Part 1–My my novel-length comment was too long to be posted so I've had to break it up. (It comes to 3 pages in MS Word!) This is just a subject I'm very passionate about, I guess.

    I'm currently an unemployed college student, and I've lived most of my life far below the poverty line. However, my mother and I both have large and varied wardrobes, with an enormous amount of jewelry. The way we manage this is by never buying anything but underwear, and very occasionally shoes, new.

    My uncle once told my mom that when you ask most people where they got a piece of clothing, they name a store, but my mom always named a church or synagogue because we shop at so many rummage sales. In my experience, the absolute best deals can be found at garage sales or rummage sales, especially if you buy a lot of things at once. I was able to buy 23 pieces of clothing and 1 pair of shoes at a garage sale earlier this summer for $18, because the woman holding the sale was very happy to get rid of so much stuff all at once. We do thrift sometimes, but most of our local thrift stores have raised prices significantly in recent years, so they're not as good of a deal as they once were. $10 for a jacket or skirt is usually too for me! Consignment stores are generally out of my price range entirely, so I don't even bother with them. This is not the case everywhere, I just happen to live in a city with a high cost of living relative to the average income. I go to college in Florida, and in my experience the thrift stores there have significantly lower prices, with even better selections than I can find at home. (Lots of rich old ladies get rid of their old clothes in FL!)

    When buying at garage sales or thrift stores, I try to take into account a garment's original quality before deciding to buy it. A sweater from Land's End or Talbots will last far, far longer than one from Target. By the time people get rid of cheap clothes, they're usually reaching the end of their lifespan, but well-made things still have a lot of time left. This isn't to say I won't buy the lower-quality things, I just do so with caution. The most important thing I look for in a garment is the fabric. If it feels cheap or uncomfortable, I put it back. In my experience, a quality piece of secondhand clothing is rarely priced any higher than a mediocre one of the same type. By buying only used clothes, I can own nice things that will last me years and years for a fraction of the price of disposable clothing from Target or Forever 21. Even when I get to the point where I can afford to buy new things, I think I will only rarely, because for the most part I just don't think they're worth it. Buying only used clothing also means that my cost-per-wear is minuscule (usually in the pennies), but also that I don't have much guilt at giving away an item I no longer wear or that doesn't fit me anymore. Prices this low also mean very little buyer's remorse.

    To be continued…

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Oh no, it won't post my enormous comment, no matter how many smaller pieces I break it into! This is a test to see if I'm still making it too long, or blogger just hates me. :p

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Okay, it was just too long, so I'll break it up further. This originally started out as one novel-length comment (it came to 3 pages in MS Word) because this is a subject I'm very passionate about.

    I'm currently an unemployed college student, and I've lived most of my life far below the poverty line. However, my mother and I both have large and varied wardrobes, with an enormous amount of jewelry. The way we manage this is by never buying anything but underwear, and very occasionally shoes, new.

    My uncle once told my mom that when you ask most people where they got a piece of clothing, they name a store, but my mom always named a church or synagogue because we shop at so many rummage sales. In my experience, the absolute best deals can be found at garage sales or rummage sales, especially if you buy a lot of things at once. I was able to buy 23 pieces of clothing and 1 pair of shoes at a garage sale earlier this summer for $18, because the woman holding the sale was very happy to get rid of so much stuff all at once. We do thrift sometimes, but most of our local thrift stores have raised prices significantly in recent years, so they're not as good of a deal as they once were. $10 for a jacket or skirt is usually too for me! Consignment stores are generally out of my price range entirely, so I don't even bother with them. This is not the case everywhere, I just happen to live in a city with a high cost of living relative to the average income. I go to college in Florida, and in my experience the thrift stores there have significantly lower prices, with even better selections than I can find at home. (Lots of rich old ladies get rid of their old clothes in FL!)

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Part 2:

    When buying at garage sales or thrift stores, I try to take into account a garment's original quality before deciding to buy it. A sweater from Land's End or Talbots will last far, far longer than one from Target. By the time people get rid of cheap clothes, they're usually reaching the end of their lifespan, but well-made things still have a lot of time left. This isn't to say I won't buy the lower-quality things, I just do so with caution. The most important thing I look for in a garment is the fabric. If it feels cheap or uncomfortable, I put it back. In my experience, a quality piece of secondhand clothing is rarely priced any higher than a mediocre one of the same type. By buying only used clothes, I can own nice things that will last me years and years for a fraction of the price of disposable clothing from Target or Forever 21. Even when I get to the point where I can afford to buy new things, I think I will only rarely, because for the most part I just don't think they're worth it. Buying only used clothing also means that my cost-per-wear is minuscule (usually in the pennies), but also that I don't have much guilt at giving away an item I no longer wear or that doesn't fit me anymore. Prices this low also mean very little buyer's remorse.

    I think that one of the worst rip-offs is new costume jewelry. I have a very small amount of clothing that I purchased new, usually when I needed to find something specific in a short time frame, but I would never, ever consider buying costume jewelry new. Jewelry wears out much less than clothing does, meaning that used jewelry often tends to look just as nice as new. I cannot justify paying $35 for a necklace made of cheap materials when I could get one just as nice in the same condition for $3. At last count, I owned over 100 necklaces. As far as I know, just about all of them that were not gifts were bought used. My mom has even more jewelry than I do (at least 30 jewelry boxes, but most of them are not full because she sorts by color), and again nothing was bought new.

  • Suburban Girl

    Great ideas, particularly the one that suggests learning how to knit and sew! I tried for a while, but was not too talented… However, I'm lucky enough to have a mom that does it beautifully and is making me a lovely black poncho!

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Part 3:

    I've had mixed luck buying used shoes. I have size 7 1/2 wide feet, and it can be very, very frustrating finding shoes that fit sometimes. Because wide shoes are hard to find, I often end up with size 8 1/2 or 9 instead. I try to buy higher-quality shoes used, since cheap ones do wear out very fast, much faster than clothes. It's not much of a bargain to pay $5 for a used pair of shoes that were only $15 new. Sometimes I find amazing deals ($1 black leather Aerosoles wedges in good condition), sometimes all I find is worn-down fake leather from Payless. I do buy most of my flip-flops new, but I save money by doing it in the off season. I'm from Wisconsin, but go to college in Florida, so I buy 90% off flip-flops when I'm home for Christmas. On the whole, I think that shoes are one thing I will buy new (but only on sale!) when I am more financially secure. My mother has problem feet and wears a size 10 1/2 -12, so she does buy some new shoes. She buys a few pair of expensive shoes (expensive for us, meaning ~$100) and wears them for a long, long time. She can handle some cheap shoes, but has much more specific needs than I do.

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Part 4:

    Another major source of clothing for us is hand-me-downs. My mom is around a size 20/22 and I am a 14/16. (In the 3 years I've been at college, I lost around 40 pounds and dropped from a size 18/20.) Several friends of ours have given us their old clothes after losing a bunch of weight. A number of the clothes that are now too big for me are my mom's now, and I have clothes that were hers before I was born. At my school, at the end of the school year, one of the common rooms in the room gets turned into the "Goodwill room." Everyone puts all the things they no longer want, but are too good to throw out, in there. It's actually easier to put things there than in the trash, since the dumpsters usually fill up as everyone is moving out. We are encouraged to take and leave anything we want in the room, and it has been an amazing source of clothing (and things for my room) for me. Anything left over once everyone is gone (a lot of stuff!) is bagged up by the RAs and taken to Goodwill. I have also had good luck swapping clothing with one of my roommates who has a similar style to me. We don't wear the same size, but there's an amazingly large amount of overlap. (She wears an 8/10, usually.) We had almost identical black tank tops with white trim, but hers was too big and mine was too small, so we swapped and ended up with perfect fits. We also have the same unusual shoe size, which effectively doubled the rather large number of shoes each of us owned.

    When I gained weight in middle and high school, I did not get rid of things I truly loved just because they were too small. I put them in bags and boxes in the attic and let them wait. I'm now the same weight I was about 6 years ago, so earlier this year I went up to the attic and took down the things I had put up there. I had forgotten that I owned a lot of them, and it was exactly like shopping in clothing I already owned! Not all of it fits yet, so some went back to the attic. Some of the things that fit again now were no longer my style, so they went to St. Vincent de Paul. But the remainder was garments I already knew I loved and was thrilled to fit into again. Even without changes in body size, I would advise putting away things you are tired of somewhere out-of-sight and letting yourself forget about them. Later, it can provide the thrill of a new purchase without the expenditure.

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Part 4:

    Another major source of clothing for us is hand-me-downs. My mom is around a size 20/22 and I am a 14/16. (In the 3 years I've been at college, I lost around 40 pounds and dropped from a size 18/20.) Several friends of ours have given us their old clothes after losing a bunch of weight. A number of the clothes that are now too big for me are my mom's now, and I have clothes that were hers before I was born. At my school, at the end of the school year, one of the common rooms in the room gets turned into the "Goodwill room." Everyone puts all the things they no longer want, but are too good to throw out, in there. It's actually easier to put things there than in the trash, since the dumpsters usually fill up as everyone is moving out. We are encouraged to take and leave anything we want in the room, and it has been an amazing source of clothing (and things for my room) for me. Anything left over once everyone is gone (a lot of stuff!) is bagged up by the RAs and taken to Goodwill. I have also had good luck swapping clothing with one of my roommates who has a similar style to me. We don't wear the same size, but there's an amazingly large amount of overlap. (She wears an 8/10, usually.) We had almost identical black tank tops with white trim, but hers was too big and mine was too small, so we swapped and ended up with perfect fits. We also have the same unusual shoe size, which effectively doubled the rather large number of shoes each of us owned.

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Part 5:

    When I gained weight in middle and high school, I did not get rid of things I truly loved just because they were too small. I put them in bags and boxes in the attic and let them wait. I'm now the same weight I was about 6 years ago, so earlier this year I went up to the attic and took down the things I had put up there. I had forgotten that I owned a lot of them, and it was exactly like shopping in clothing I already owned! Not all of it fits yet, so some went back to the attic. Some of the things that fit again now were no longer my style, so they went to St. Vincent de Paul. But the remainder was garments I already knew I loved and was thrilled to fit into again. Even without changes in body size, I would advise putting away things you are tired of somewhere out-of-sight and letting yourself forget about them. Later, it can provide the thrill of a new purchase without the expenditure.

    If you don't buy things new, you do have much less control over what you find. I can't just pick out something I see in a catalog or advertisement and expect to find it in my size or in the color I want. I've found garments I love that were far too big or small. I do keep a list of items to keep an eye out for (some current things on it are a green tank top, a tulle skirt or petticoat, a non-black velvet blazer, and a raincoat with a hood) stored on my cell phone, but I am always open to finding things I'd never thought of–just because the $1 green cotton and silk skirt I found wasn't on my list doesn't mean that I was going to pass it up! The upside to this is that I end up with unique garments that no one else has, from brands I've never heard of. Also, some brands make garments that you would not at all expect, based on the company's reputation. I'm young and would describe my style as girly, romantic, and bohemian, but I own lots of things from brands like Talbots and Land's End that usually cater to a much older, preppier demographic. I even have some well-made thrifted pieces that originally came from Target.

  • Lady Harriet Wimsey

    Part 6:

    I do not feel one bit deprived by not buying new clothing. I don't shop much during the school year, because I'm busy and go to college in the middle of a swamp, but I shop at garage sales every week or two in the summer. I own lots of nice things on my nonexistent budget. I don't go into debt, and nobody knows my clothes are all used unless I tell them. I like having a wide variety of things, and I don't have to replace everything every year or two.

    As far as making my existing clothing go further, layering has been a major revelation for me. In the last 3 or 4 years I've gotten tank tops in every color of the rainbow (all bought used or gotten for free) to wear under and over other shirts. They're great for modesty purposes, but they also make my outfits more interesting. I've gotten into skirt layering too, and I love cardigans. Paying more attention to color has also helped me combine my clothes in new and exciting ways. I've found Academichic to be enormously helpful in analyzing color combinations.

    I have to agree about knitting, and to a lesser degree, sewing, not being money-saving. I'm an avid knitter, but even using needles and other equipment bought for insanely low prices at garage sales and knitting only with yarn that's a hand-me-down or bought at garage sales or on sale, it's more expensive than buying similar machine-knit garments would be. I used to sew, but don't do it as much any more. It is economical if you just alter existing garments, but the cost of most fabric adds up fast, unless you only shop the $1/yard section.

    That's the last of it, I swear! Thank you for bearing with me while I tell you all my thoughts on this subject. 🙂

    • Kay

      Thank you, dear Lady Harriet Wimsey, for taking the time to write all those posts. I love thrifting and rarely buy anything new. And I keep stuff from sizes that I’ve been, as my weight fluctuates. I keep winnowing those stuff and keep only what I’d be thrilled to wear when I get down to that size and that too, one box of clothes only.

  • tinyjunco

    truly pertinent topic and great ideas!

    mostly when you don't have money you need to Think and Plan. who are you, what is your style, what resources do you have access to, what do you do daily, weekly, yearly and what do you need. what's helped me:

    buy only 2-3 colors that all go together – then EVERYTHING goes with EVERYTHING else. ex: black, denim blue, and white (ivory). beige, black, burgundy. olive drab, peach, warm navy. what kills re-mixing possibilities is too much variety in the closet.

    know your own style. that said, pieces with classic lines and few details don't look dated quickly and 'play well with others'.

    budget – figure how much you have to spend and prioritize what you need. it might be wiser to save 20 a week for a month or two to get a good quality long lasting coat if that's what people see you in half the year. if you carry a purse everyday saving and getting a quality one (T.J. Maxx carries awesome italian handbags) will do much more for your look everyday than getting 4 cheesy ones.

    think about a uniform. it can be easier and cheaper to get together one or two looks that work for you and look good than to develop a whole wardrobe of different looks.

    accessories: for me, i say get at least one piece that is luxury and unique that you can wear everyday. gold earrings (get safety clasps!!), tahitian pearl pendant, watch….it sets a tone for others and for YOU.

    thrifting: most 2nd hand clothes have a less wear left than new. get to know quality workmanship, materials, and signs of wear. if you get a pair of pants for half what they would cost new, but they last half as long…from the money aspect it's a draw but you've had to shop twice. i'm hard on clothes, so 2nd hand ain't worth it.

    sewing: you may not be able to make the cheapest garment at cheaper prices than the cheapest off the rack item. however, if i spend 20 bux on a target dress it won't fit and will last a season or possibly two. if i spend 20 bux and make my own, it fits how i want and will last 5-7 years. so by sewing you will get more for your money. (not to mention being able to make things that it's impossible to find, ie. the cargo pants i'm making right now – 3 weekends shopping with no luck).

    ponder this concept: 'cost per wear'. so re: above. the target dress has maybe a $3-4 CPW, the home-made dress around twenty cents cost per wear.

  • Candice Virginia

    As I've mentioned in the past, I'm working on my second degree. I'm in my fifth year (going on sixth) of college.

    I am unemployed. This is not by choice, I simply haven't been hired yet. My boyfriend and I subsist on his janitor income and loans. Shopping, unfortunately, is a pretty rare event in our household.

    I realized recently that my closet is composed of three parts: the clothing I am stringing along from high school, the clothing I bought through summer jobs in my first degree program, and the clothing I acquired in the past few years via thrifting.

    Lately, however, I've started to notice an alarming trend in my wearing habits. I don't seem to wear most of the clothes I thrift. And the bags, belts and accessories I've purchased are, frankly, crap.

    Time and again I find myself reaching for the threadbare clothing from years past; the stuff I found at retail stores and purchased with my body and my taste in mind. In a word, I've become a little disenchanted with the whole thrift store scene.

    I'm not sure how this will manifest itself in my buying habits.

    My newest theory about used clothing is that it makes it difficult to REALLY love the items you find, if only because they are almost never quite YOUR taste. Or at least that is how I have felt lately. This omits vintage: I love vintage clothing.

  • The Raisin Girl

    Wow, I had totally forgotten I'd asked this question! But thanks soooo much for answering. I'm still a college student, still on a very tight budget, and these tips definitely do ring true. Unfortunately, living in a college town, thrift stores are pretty picked over. However, that bit about making your own stuff…so perfect! Thanks for the answer, Sal!

  • Shaye

    I've kind of had to purchase a whole new wardrobe this summer (a combination of weight gain and my old workhorses just plain wearing out) and have done it almost entirely at Goodwill (and Old Navy's "additional 50% off clearance items" sale. Hello $4 jeans that fit like a dream!)

    I would add that learning to alter clothes is perhaps more important than learning to make from whole cloth. For example, at one of those Old Navy clearance sales, I got a cardigan for 73 cents. YES, 73 cents. Sure, it was so large that the shoulder seam came halfway down my arm, and the first button didn't start until down past my navel. But it was a lovely soft peach jersey material, and after some judicious gathering, pleating, seam ripping and just plain cutting to let the jersey curl up naturally, I had a beautiful, flowy and feminine cardigan that was literally tailored to my body.

  • Maggiethecat

    I'm here to add another vote to swap meets. It's the closest thing I do to thrifting – I like the idea, but it's just not done where I live. To think of all the opportunities I missed while I lived in the States – if I remember correctly I used to pass one or two thrift stores on my way to college, and for some reason never went in… grrr…

    So, swap meets… luckily for both of us, my mother and I are the same size and have fairly similar tastes, so we always get first dibs at the other's pre-loved items. Having differently shaped friends also helps: something that I have to get rid of because it looks horrible on my hourglassy booty will be terrific on my appley friend, and viceversa.

    I was also raised never to buy full-price, or regular retail. I can't recall a single time buying anything from either a boutique or a department store growing up. Most of the stuff bought during my college period came from outlets, Wal-Mart or the occasional sale (underwear, mostly, sometimes shoes). Minus the Walmart part (good riddance), and plus some refinements (lost my fear of online shopping, and have decided I'd rather have quality over quantity. Also I'm older and have much less time to shop) that's pretty much the same way I still add to the wardrobe, and I reserve coughing up full price for smaller, independent stores, and for locally and/or organically made.

  • Simply Playing

    What a great topic! I too get sick of magazines showing so called "budget" fashion finds.

    My biggest source of clothes is from sewing, but with vintage/used fabric. If you buy used fabric you can really save on cost per yard ($1-$5). Also, with taking a class on fitting patterns (Treadle if you're in the twin cities MN) your creations fit you perfectly and hence you wear them even more. Patterns can cost you so I wait for sales to purchase them and pick classic ones. I.E. an a-line skirt which I'll then make 3 or more skirts from saves you rather than getting a pattern for each skirt.

    Sewing does take time, but I find it by not watching t.v. And, even though it takes longer for you to sew a garment then to buy one having just a few pieces that you love and wear constantly I find better than a closet full of o.k. items. You also have the benefit of saying you made it yourself!

  • kristophine

    I'm a post-master's degree student who just got a job yesterday–literally–so I'm pretty familiar with budgetary constraints. And the way I cope with it is by thrifting like a maniac. The thing that I sacrifice there is time; it's an opportunity cost. But by restricting myself, quite harshly, to only buying pieces of clothing that are an unmitigated "Yes!", with enthusiasm, I manage to be pretty happy with my thrift finds. For instance, my current job interview pants (still wearin' 'em… the warehouse job isn't my dream one) were thrifted, and they look very classy. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of them, given that they cost seven bucks. Jeans are harder, but it's difficult for me to understand someone paying seventy bucks for a new pair when those are unlikely to really last. And it's so HARD to know what will last, too; brand names that used to mean something don't anymore. Not even Dansko! They're outsourcing to China now! Retail price, even when it's something on clearance, doesn't take into account what it's going to look like after two washes. At a thrift store, you can see the garment's future. Is it already pilly? It's just going to get pillier. Is it in perfect condition? It's probably going to hold up well. I have to be okay with leaving empty-handed on a regular basis, but once I came to peace with that, thrifting got so much more satisfying.

    Exception: shoes. I will not buy shoes at a thrift store unless they are for a specific event where I know I will be sitting down. Shoes break into your feet in a way that clothes don't, and it can make a huge comfort difference to spring for something in the 40-60 dollar range that is new.

  • Anonymous

    I totally understand Candice Virginia's post. I am currently a PhD student — I guess that means I have been living on a student income from tutoring and scholarships for the past ten years — and I never ever wear what I thrift. Instead I wear the clothes I bought at retail prices over and over again. Recently I have gained weight, maybe because I'm in my 30s and it's harder to keep it off, and some of the clothes I have been wearing endlessly since high school don't fit me anymore. Not to mention that some of it is just too "young". But the clothes that I bought a long time ago at full retail prices, the ones that I thought hard about buying because they were so expensive (and so I bought more classic styles) are still clothes I want to wear. I'm over thrifting, it is too expensive for me (because I never wear what I thrift) and time-consuming. This does not count vintage stores as I often love vintage clothes.

  • fleur_delicious

    for me, if I don't have money to spend, I spend a lot more time shopping. As in, not buying. Honestly, shop shop shop and plan to spend some time learning your city, your options. Know the character of your consignment shops, your thrift stores, your outlet stores, and even your malls/chain stores (which one HAS the clearance merch and which one ships theirs to another location?).

    I honestly don't find etsy to be that cheap unless you're buying from a new seller who is trying to get their business started.

    Sew. Knit. Learn where your cheap outlets for supplies are, and stalk sales. Alter thrifted clothes to perfection. Here's one thing about "making fashion" as a hobby that I can't emphasize enough: it takes time. If that is time that you might otherwise spend on shopping/spending money, then making your own clothes might actually save you money simply by distracting you and filling more hours that you might otherwise be tempted to fill with shopping.

  • What Would a Nerd Wear

    sal, i've been thinking about this post for days!
    there really are big differences in one person's definition of "budget" and another's, and this has such a huge affect on the genre of budget blogs, in particular.
    so your tips on no-money wardrobe upgrades are especially fantastic.

  • Emily

    Awesome post on how to save money on clothes shopping! One thing that has helped me is to have a very specific item (or items) in mind before you head to the store. I find that if I don't have a very specific clothing list, I end up buying more. I also try to only shop for 1-3 items at a time. I love eBay but have found it's hard to shop for jeans and pants because each brand fits so differently.

    Great post! Thanks! For more info on budgeting and keeping track of your money, check out my related blog post here: http://financialfootprint.com/2010/08/budgeting-worksheets/

    Emily

  • Kay

    Thanks Sal, for the fantastic post!

    Your post reminds me that two fantastic pair of jeans brought while thrifting are still not a good bargain if I don’t hem them to my height and actually start wearing them!