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7 Tips to Dress Well on a Budget That Will Actually Make Your Life Better

by Matt Jones, CPA
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On one hand, I want to save money and build my Net Worth. On the other hand, I want to dress professionally. It sounds easy until you fall into the trap: spending too much for clothes that aren’t versatile or that fit the latest trend.

Over the years I’ve developed strategies to balance my priorities without breaking the bank. Although this is written from the male (my) perspective, many strategies translate to female fashion. These tips will help you get the basics right, especially if you’re a recent graduate with a tight budget or changing careers and require a new wardrobe.

I’ve found that these tips apply whether you maintain a business-professional dress code or work in a casual atmosphere – I’ve had both. In a casual setting, half a dozen t-shirts in solid colors go further than ten shirts with big logos or wild designs. 1 If you have a uniform (service, medical, manufacturing, etc.) this will still prove helpful for your extraprofessional clothing. 

7 Tips

1. Try to stay the same size, weight and shape (easier said than done, I know). 

This is the most important tip I can share for saving money on clothing. If buying a few new shirts sounds expensive, buying a new wardrobe because you’re now bigger/smaller might break your budget. The remaining tips are about buying the right clothes, the right way. 2 

2. Buy simple, plain clothes (at least at first) 

I made the mistake after college of buying a few nice, but highly unique shirts and shoes (patterns, prints, bold colors). These items were so distinct, it was obvious if I wore them often. Because I didn’t have many clothes for the office yet, I did have to wear them frequently. 

The point of having unique clothing items is that people do notice when you wear them. Think of a tuxedo – it looks flashy and you feel confident. However, if you’ve worn your bright yellow boat shoes to the office three days in a row, people will notice and they won’t be impressed. You’ll just become “yellow-boat-shoe-guy”. 

Buying plain items streamlines getting dressed in the morning. Learn the basics of matching colors and patterns and only purchase a few color combinations before you branch out to the entire spectrum. Some men and women will find it helpful to choose one color that anchors their wardrobe or eliminate a color entirely. My wife doesn’t buy navy blue or brown dress clothes and her wardrobe is largely black and white. 

Simple doesn’t necessarily mean boring. I buy shirts in a wide range of colors but rarely with stripes or patterns. I buy admittedly boring (and expensive) dress shoes. See rule #5. 

3. Take care of your clothes 

Learn to do laundry, iron (or steam) your shirts and pants, and sew. Yes, learn to sew. I’m not suggesting you make your clothes, just that you have the basic acumen to mend a pocket and reattach a button. If you can iron your clothes you’ll save a ton of money not dry cleaning. I wound up ironing the shirts for two different grooms last summer at the requests of their brides. 

WARNING: Wearing the same outfits repeatedly doesn’t mean you should smell like it. Saving money is not an excuse for bad hygiene. 

I’ve found Sam Martin’s book How to Live Like a Gentleman helpful with the basics from ironing to using a styptic pencil. 

4. Wear the same things often. 

99% of people will never notice repeat outfits if you follow rule #2 (buy plain clothing). If the first items you buy are flashy or unique, it’ll be very noticeable when you wear the clothes again. Start simple and later on you can buy some different styles. 

Women tell me wearing the same outfits isn’t an option for them. I beg to differ: If you follow rule #2 and buy simple, plain clothes it can work. Don’t just take it from me, here’s a summary from a few women who tried it.

Your clothing will not wear out from frequent wear if you take care of it. Dry cleaning solution can irritate your skin and wear out your shirts. Buy shirts you can wash yourself, hang dry, and iron – they’ll last a long time. Unless you’re always working 80-hour weeks, you can find the time. 

During one of my early busy seasons in public accounting, I made it over a month wearing the same shirt from Wool and Prince everyday as an experiment. The company advertises their clothing can be worn 100 days straight without needing a wash. I didn’t make it quite that far and don’t suggest you attempt to either, but it certainly kept things simple. 3 

5. Don’t buy fads, buy timeless looks

I remember falling for the fad of buying jeans with holes. The following year they went out of style and I was out of luck. Don’t make the same mistake. 

My dress shoes are one area where I splurge (Allen Edmonds), so it’s even more important that they last a long time and have timeless design. I have a brown pair and a black pair and have them resoled professionally when necessary. 

Another advantage of this is you’ll always be dressed well in photographs. The last thing I want is to look back at a picture and think: “Oh, look at that fedora. It must have been 2015.” 4

6. Spend money where it counts, cut costs everywhere else

Dress shirts are another category where I pay for high quality. I’ve found they last longer and look better. In other categories quality matters less: underwear, socks, undershirts, ties, gloves, etc. I look for deals and discounts from outlet stores, websites, Target and my annual Secret Santa. When it comes to dress shirts, actually, I still look for deals and discounts, but I look at nicer brands like Brooks Brothers (4 for $199 dress shirts are a good deal if you take care of them). 

You might think suits are an area where it’s important to spend a lot, but you’d be mistaken. The best suit I own is still one I bought at Nordstrom headquarters in Seattle, but the rest of my suits are made to order through Indochino at half the cost. It’s possible to look good without breaking the bank even on historically-expensive suits. A word of warning though: made to order suits and shirts tend to fit tighter and so you have less margin for weight gain. See rule #1 and proceed with caution. 

Custom jacket/dress shirt with jeans and dress boots (on a budget)

7. Express your style with accessories (and find a bargain)

Items you’ll also wear often where it’s okay for people to notice are accessories like watches and bags. Buy quality and focus on timeless styles. For these items, you can often find a prior year’s version at a deep discount. 

I recently bought discontinued versions of a Tumi bag and Shinola watch at half price. Each was still several hundred dollars, but I plan to keep them for a decade – they’re timeless styles so I’m willing to spend more. I have one watch and one bag, that’s all I need. So, I made sure they match almost anything and last a long time. 

BONUS: When you travel take it a step further and only pack one color scheme. This way, everything you pack matches each other.  Nora and I only brought backpacks on our honeymoon in Southeast Asia. This method made it possible.

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that you love wearing different clothes everyday. That’s okay, these strategies might not be for you. But, you’ll have to budget more money for clothes or run the risk of financial instability in the name of looking, well, financially stable.

Paris

If you spend time in Paris you’ll notice that the locals dress impeccably (or so I’m told). But you’ll also notice after a week or two that the locals begin to repeat their outfits. Many of my ideas here are not original, just borrowed and repurposed from others, in this case French culture. 

Now, I’m no Francophile, and they may repeat clothes based on the size of their closets moreso than their budgets. But I’ve long since ignored the idea that you need to spend a lot of money on a lot of clothes to dress well. Perhaps now you can too. And when you realize that, you’ll find that any limits you had in mind for your finances are just that, in your mind. 

Don’t forget to sign up for my weekly email and download the Net Worth Budget. Email me any questions or ask anonymously

Thanks,

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