A few weeks ago, I posted on Instagram about an Armani suit I planned to wear for a conference and I got a TROLL asking me why I was promoting myself as a fiscally savvy brand and then “showing off” items people couldn’t afford. Rude. I am always shopping for clothes on a budget, but perhaps readers don’t know this.
So, I had an idea – I should show my readers how to shop for clothes on a budget AND how I build a wardrobe using the tips and tricks I’ve learned throughout my 20s and early 30s. These are the tips I use to never pay full price on any of the clothes I buy and get more of the good, designer brand stuff for less.
So, in a way. Thanks, troll. Because of you, this post now exists. And I think it’s a good one.
If you’re a long-time reader, you know my shopping past is a bit, well, checkered. I had a shopping addiction in college and I still struggle with the impulse to shop as a mechanism to soothe myself. After loads of self-work, I realized my shopping addiction was unhealthy in a lot of ways.
- First, because I spent money on fast fashion.
- Second, because I still kept buying things I really couldn’t afford.
- Third, I bought items that really didn’t last or spark joy for me.
Spoiler alert: I don’t think you can change your champagne tastes. You like what you like. This post isn’t about shaming you about what kind of clothing you want to wear or why you want to wear it.
A Burberry top is 20x the price of a Forever21 top. It will also last 20x as long. If you are a healthy shopper and don’t have a legitimate addiction, shopping isn’t the enemy. Fast fashion is.
Now, instead of using my shopping energy to consume, consume, consume because it feels good, I apply that energy into getting the lowest price possible on the exact item I want and scouring for items I know will last.
First, a few disclosures about the guide:
This is primarily about putting together a wardrobe full of basics. These items are meant to function both for work and casual outings.
LB Note: As I’m updating this during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m having a hard time remembering what “outings” look like, but I promise we’ll all return to life outside the home soon. In the meantime, retailers are offering great deals to stay afloat so now is the perfect time to try and snag quality items at a discount.
Also, investing in “dressier” items for work means they’ll last you for years. Good staple items intended for the business casual don’t change as often as trendier items, you can cycle them in and out with your seasonal buys, and if you invest these will work for you year after year.
Since up until recently, I was in (and then out) and then in (and now out…again…) of the workforce, over the last few years I shopped with work in mind. Which is another reason why this post looks like it does.
But with COVID (and my recent pregnancy), I realize many people may not need as many “office appropriate” clothes since they’ll be working from home for the foreseeable future, so I swapped out a few of the items to reflect the “new normal” we’re all living in.
Here are a few other tips as you go through the list.
Shopping for clothes on a budget Tip #1 – DO NOT buy all these items of clothing in one swoop. (I didn’t.)
It took me YEARS to build up this closet. In the meantime get a $20 white tee instead of a $200 one. But look for high quality investment pieces and be okay with spending a bit more as your budget allows.
With that said, $3300 is a lot to spend in one year (unless you have a crazy massive salary where that amount equals 5% of your take-home pay.) This post is meant to show you how to invest in a wardrobe, over time, so that you can add key pieces in year after year.
It took me three years to amass 75% of this list, and (as you’ll see) I’m still working on a few final items. That’s part of the fun!
Shopping for clothes on a budget tip #2 – Go for quality over quantity. And go for items you can dress up for events. It’s easier to dress something up than down.
Obviously, each season you’ll want to get new t-shirts, a swimsuit, a great pair of sneakers. You know, the fun stuff you rotate in each season. This is not that post. Here we are focusing on key pieces for your foundational wardrobe. The workhorses that are going to last for the next five, ten years, or beyond. While this may seem expensive, or boring, I promise in the end you will end up saving money because you don’t have to replace cheap clothes year after year.
Tip #3 – there’s a great deal of power in always having something on hand for any occasion and knowing you could throw something together in a pinch.
I never felt this way back when I was shopping in fast fashion, which led me to the cycle of always having to buy more and more because nothing ever felt quite right.
You don’t need more clothes. You need better clothes.
How did you come up with the guide on what to buy?
Here are a few of the articles I used to cull together my own personal “hit list” of what I needed for a great foundational work wardrobe.
- 50 Simple Pieces for Building a Classic Wardrobe [The Cut]
- The Real Simple Guide for How to Build a Wardrobe [Real Simple]
- The 12 Wardrobe Essentials Every Woman Needs [StitchFix]
- 30 Fashion Staples to Own by 30 [ELLE]
- The Luxe Strategist – One of my favorite bloggers who talks a lot about how to make your money go further by shopping designer. Tons of great resources on her site!
These are excellent articles, but they don’t tell you how to get really great brands for less, which is where this guide fits in.
Where are the best places to shop for designer clothes on a budget?
A.k.a. Where do I like to shop? Let me tell you.
I listed where I bought each item below. These are the discount clothing stores I have in my rotation. You have to search early and often, but it is worth it and it’s easy to do shopping online.
- Black or Navy Suit
Maybe your office isn’t really a suit-type place. Doesn’t matter.
Suits are great to have in your wardrobe because you can split and wear them as separates and then pull them together in a jiffy when you need them. You can wear suits for job interviews, formal events, and funerals. I like to throw the blazers on over jeans for work, brunch, Baby Showers, whatever.
What I Bought – (Retail: $2343/ $515)
Black Armani Single Breasted Blazer – Purchased from Rue La La (Retails currently for $1048/ I Paid $320 BRAND NEW) The black silk of the pants matches perfectly with the silk lapels of the blazer, so it turns into a suit. Unfortunately, given my work from home lifestyle, I don’t get these items together as much, but I know I have it when I need it.
Black Silk Pants – Purchased from Thred Up (Retails for $1295, I paid $195.)
- Long sleeve white top with collar
- Short sleeve white top with collar
- Sleeveless Cream Blouse
- Colorful Silk Shirt
Yes, you will need more tops than this in your closet. But these are the ones I’m highlighting as foundational/basic pieces for your wardrobe. You may be surprised by how many outfits you’re able to make with just a handful of neutral-colored tops.
Looking to invest in a few more? I’d stay with neutral colors like navy, black, and gray. Those never go out of style.
What I Bought – (Retail: $1,383 / I Paid: $362)
Long sleeve white top – Burberry (Retails for $188 / I Paid $188. Purchased from Nordstrom. This is the one item on the list I paid FULL PRICE for because I loved it so much, it went with everything I own and I wear it 900 times a year.)
Short sleeve white top – Theory (Retails for $195 / I paid $50. Purchased from The Real Real)
Cream blouse – Narcisco Rodriguez – (Retails for $850 /I paid $64 because I snagged this little number from ThredUp. Was gently used, but a great deal and the condition was very good.)
Colorful silk shirt – Rag & Bone (Retails for ~$150: I’ll Pay $60. Y’all this still has the TAGS ON. I haven’t found a shirt like this for my wardrobe yet, but can you imagine all the possibilities? Wear it with pants or a pencil skirt for work, or with jeans for date night on the weekend? This is such a versatile piece and adding in a color keeps your wardrobe from getting too stale.)
- One black crop trouser (can be work in Warm and Cold months)
- One pair of nice jeans
- One high waist trouser in non-black/gray/blue color (for variety)
What I Bought (Retail: $858 / I Paid: $180)
Black Crop Pant – Tory Burch (Retails for $188 / I paid $45 plus shipping NWT (new with tags) off EBAY.) I don’t have the photo of exact item, but here is a dead ringer that I found on the T.J. Maxx website.)
Really nice jeans – J.Brand (Retail for $275 / I paid $50 lightly used. Bought from The Real Real and the website listed them as in pristine condition and that’s how they came!)
High-waist trousers – Rebecca Taylor – Retails $395 / I’ll pay $85. I haven’t bought these yet, but if I were I’d buy this $85 NWT option from The Real Real.)
Work Appropriate Joggers
Joggers for working from home or work-appropriate black. Perfection. Bought from Nordstrom.
- Nude heels
- Black Heels
- Nude flats
- Black flats
- Hunter rain boot
- White sneakers
What I Bought (Total Retail: $1,583 / I Paid: $410 )
Nude Heels – Neiman Marcus (Retail $238/ I paid $57 and bought from ThredUp and they came in Brand New condition. No scuffs or wear on the bottom, nothing!)
Black Heels – IRO (Retail: $390 / $77.99 again, in Brand New condition from ThredUp.)
Nude Flats – Jimmy Choo (Retails: $595 / I Paid: $145.) Scored for a steal on TheRealReal. Came unworn but were marked in some kind of tag sale, so bottoms were marked through with a pen. They did not look new on the inside but did on the outside.
Black flats – Margaux – (Retails for $145/ I paid: $0.) Full disclosure, I got these flats as part of a sponsored collaboration I did last Christmas. These are expensive for flats but well worth the expense. They’re probably one of the most well-made shoes I’ve ever owned and I’m including my Jimmy Choos and Stuart Weitzman’s in that mix. Everyone needs a great pair of black flats.
I also mention these here because I want to encourage everyone to be creative. Even if you’re not an influencer, try doing a clothing swap with friends or shopping estate sales for high-end designer finds.
Rainboots – Rainboots (Retail for $140 / I paid $95.) These were a gently used pair I scored (again) from my bae, TheRealReal. These were also lightly used, but since I wear them maybe 1-2 months of the year during heavy rain season. I feel good about the price per wear value on these.
White Sneakers – (Retails for $74.95 / I paid $34.97.) I bought on sale from Nordstrom Rack, but Nordstrom also has good deals on white sneakers. I wouldn’t pay a ton for this staple since they can get dirty very easily and you’ll wear them a lot. Invest in a medium-low brand, and more importantly, make sure they’re comfortable!)
- Denim jacket
- Camel (or Black) overcoat
What I bought (Retail: $2368 / I’ll pay: $483)
Denim jacket – (Retails for $79 / I paid $0)
Camel Coat – TopShop – (Retails for $99/ I paid $57.99.) I scooped this up during the Nordstrom Black Friday Sale. If you wait until November or July to shop for items on your list, you’ll score the deepest discounts as these are the two biggest retail times of the year. The coat below is shown in black (only photo I could find) but really it’s a camel color and this is the one you want. Somehow, it’s chicer than black and goes with even more than black does. Ha!
Trench – Burberry – ( Retails for ~$2190 / I’ll pay $425 ) I’m dying to have a Burberry trench. This and the LBD are the two biggest items in my The Real Real wishlist right now. This one doesn’t have tags, but I’m looking to invest in the quality of the item, not the label/size tag, so I’m okay with it being gently used. These are often in neutral colors, so if I can find one less of a “camel” and more “white,” I’m into that.
- Little black dress
- Little white dress
Everyone needs a “goes-with-everything,” “dresses up and down” little black dress. You need one in white as well for the Summer months, too! Just these two and you should be set for whatever event comes your way.
What I Bought (Total retail: $1197 / I’ll pay $380.00)
Little black dress – DVF (Retails: ~ $498/ I’ll pay $180. This is another item I haven’t managed to find one I like yet, but if I do have my eye on this NWT options from The Real Real. I love the figure flattery (and forgiveness) of a nice wrap dress.)
Little white dress – Manning Cartell – (Retails: $699 / I’ll pay $200.) You can’t wear an LBD in the summer. For one, it’s just too effing hot. And most LBD options come in non-summer friendly fabrics like crepe and wool. Get you a LWD (little white dress) to round out your wardrobe.
The T-Shirt Dress
The key here is to get a high-quality fabric so it looks more intentionally like a dress and less like pajamas. This way, you can dress it up or down and use it for both work and play. I like this option from Theory that I found at Nordstrom Rack for a very nice 72% off. The color also breaks up a lot of the neutrals you buy for a foundational wardrobe.
Shopping for Clothes on a Budget: The Ultimate FAQ
How do you build a wardrobe?
First, think about what you need in your closet.
Do you need basics like jeans and tees? Long sleeve shirts because you just moved to a place that experiences a real winter?
When building out a wardrobe for any season, I first take an inventory of my current closet to get a sense of what I need. Then I then think about any events I have like a wedding, a big trip, or other special occasion and add it to my list. Then I shop! This keeps me from overbuying and focusing only on items that will integrate well with what I already have.
Second, think in terms of “price per wear”
I always keep a quick rule of thumb in my head. Instead of thinking about the price on the tag, I consider how many times I’ll reasonably wear the item, which takes the sting out of paying a higher dollar amount for a piece of clothing.
How do you dress fashionably?
If dressing fashionably isn’t something that comes naturally to you, don’t be afraid to copy fashion bloggers or influencers on Instagram who have a style you adore. After studying them, over time you’ll be able to visualize outfit inspiration and see what pieces might work for you, your body type, and what you already have in your closet. Fashion influencers are also great for highlighting trendy pieces that look great but don’t cost a lot.
But being “fashionable” isn’t about copying someone else’s style or always wearing the latest trend just because it’s a “thing.” Being fashionable is about wearing what you like, what you feel confident in, and what works for you.
I know many use Pinterest for fashion inspiration, but I really leveled up my fashion game once I started using the Finery and Like to Know It apps. They make it so easy to compile looks and save items you see on blogger that you might like to earmark for future purchase.
How do you build a dream wardrobe?
You build a dream wardrobe in much the same way as you build your dream life.
- Figure out what it is you want.
- Figure out how much what you want costs.
- Set a goal for how to save to pay for it.
- Rinse, repeat.
I will say it’s important to try new things, but often with wardrobe building, it makes sense to stick to retailers you know, and like, who make the clothes you like. The internet can be so overwhelming, so it’s nice to have a few “go-to” stores you can shop first when looking for something specific, before worrying about if that item from (X store) you’ve never heard of will work for you.
How do I get a new wardrobe for my budget?
I’m not saying only spend your money on investment items and ignore fun pieces. It’s all a balance. The best way to shop for clothes on a budget is to make a list of what you need/want and then figure out a rough price per item.
If it’s something trendy, like a leopard print shirt that may not be “en vogue” in a few years, perhaps you wouldn’t spend as much as you would on a fantastic pair of jeans you’ll wear 50 weeks out of the year.
The best part about investing in basics is that each year, your closet gets bigger, not smaller. It gets bigger because you’re buying more investment pieces that last, but because the trend pieces can mix better with a large backdrop of basics to play with.
So, for example, say I have $600 to spend.
- I know I’ll need another black bootie (because I wore my old ones out,) a new rainjacket, yoga shorts, and I also want a second pair of snake print booties that are very trendy right now.
- I’ll take $600 and divide by 4 and get $150 which is around what I can spend on each item (ish.)
- But, if I know the yoga shorts are only going to be around $35 each, I can buy two pair and put the rest back into the budget.
Having a budget in mind makes it super easy when shopping online to sort and filter by price. That way I can find the best deal for my dollar.
The article above details real pieces I bought and own in my closet and how I bought a $9700 designer wardrobe for $2330, a savings of over 75%. Since this website is all about living your best life (and living it for less) I wanted to show step-by-step how I get great discounts on designer clothes.