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6 Tips for Building A Work Wardrobe On A Budget

Trading in your college sweatshirts for office-appropriate attire can be daunting, not to mention pricey. From my own experience, here are a few ways to build a simple work wardrobe on a budget.

9150554790_22acb632f4_z“I’m sorry, do you have some prior commitment? Some hideous skirt convention you have to go to?”

Fortunately, this is a line from “The Devil Wears Prada,” makes me laugh and is not from my real life. The newsroom I’ve been working in is (fortunately) not that of a chic fashion magazine. But the playful fashion banter from that movie has been haunting me lately as I’ve made my transition from college to the full-time working world.

As I mentioned in a previous post, dressing like an adult has been a tough — and pricey — part of my post-grad life. I’m putting the school-spirit T-shirts away and trying to compete with professionals who have been in the workforce for much longer. I know I feel more confident when I look put-together, and it’s worthwhile to me to invest in quality items.

That’s not such a bad perspective, says Kat Griffin, who runs the fashion and career blog for “overachieving chicks.”

When she was working as a lawyer, she says she spent all her time either at the office, out at night or working out (to which I can now relate). If her clothes didn’t fit in one of those three categories, they weren’t worth investing in, she said. Plus, there are cheap options for nightlife clothes that do the trick (H&M, even Forever 21), and unless you’re a Lululemon addict, there’s no need to shell out for Soul Cycle threads. So all things considered, your workwear is where the money should go.

With help from Kat, some friends and Money Under 30 readers, I’ve come up with six tips for building a work wardrobe on a budget that should help me avoid Miranda Priestly-style glares from co-workers.

1. Invest in a few keys pieces, and slowly.

Here’s a tip I partially picked up from binge-watching “What Not to Wear.” It’s much better to have a smaller wardrobe full of great pieces than a closet full of junk.

That’s why I’m gradually adding to my wardrobe and buying one thought-out item every few weeks. Kat says that’s a good strategy. “Quality pieces, taken care of properly, will generally last much longer than cheap pieces,” she says. “It makes sense to invest in things you know you’ll wear.”

She suggests spending more on items like black trousers, pencil skirts and blazers.

2. Keep it simple.

My friend Maggie has, since high school, been one of the best-dressed women I know. She works at a design firm in Michigan right now, but she recently visited me in New York and conversation turned to my work wardrobe insecurities and how much I envy her style.

That’s when she let me in on a secret: Pretty much all she’s wearing these days are all-black outfits and bold necklaces she mostly buys at T.J. Maxx.

Brilliant! As a former school uniform-wearer, I love that idea. I know she was exaggerating a bit; she doesn’t only wear black. But I do like the idea of making mornings easier with simpler choices. For my own adaptation, I’ve taken to buying exclusively nude-colored flats. They match everything and make walking in the city easier … and not once has an editor called me out for unimaginative footwear. If it happens, I’ll let you know.

3. Stay away from full-priced department store items.

When you’re on a budget, it’s not necessarily possible to walk into Nordstrom and go straight for the full-priced items. Luckily, that’s not a barrier to finding some great pieces.

Kat suggests shopping at stores like T.J. Maxx and Chelsea Premium outlets, especially if you know your brands and what you’re looking for.

Money Under 30 readers Laura D., Kate and Sarah said consignment and thrift stores, especially in pricier New York neighborhoods, can be good options, too. They’ve had good luck at stores like HousingWorks and even Goodwill, they said.

4. Shop online.

I’m sometimes hesitant to shop online because I like to try the clothes on, particularly if they’re staples like I’d be buying for work. But after getting some tips from Kat, that’s a habit I might change.

She says she likes flash sale sites like HauteLook, but cautions it’s important to understand a site’s return policies. It’s also a good idea to do a quick Internet search before buying to make sure it’s actually a good price.

Another good tool for deals, she says, is the Shop It To Me newsletter. Using this service, you enter your sizes, favorite brands and when you want to hear about deals, and they’ll send you them automatically.

If you find a piece you like, and need help finding a better price on it, there’s a site called Hukkster that will email you when it goes on sale.

And is a great way to find coupons for checkout, she says.

Finally, Kat recommends Amazon’s 70% off sections. It can be hard work, but can yield some great deals.

5. Sell old clothes to offset the costs.

In college, at the end of a semester, we would often clean out our closets and try to pawn some clothes off at a consignment store. We were rarely successful (the store had pretty high standards for merchandise), but it was always worth a try.

Money Under 30 reader Kate suggests trying the same thing now. She began selling her clothes on eBay as she entered the workforce, she says.

“That way you help the next generation, and it provides you with some cash for the clothes you need,” she says. “You may be able to sell your clothes and perhaps even find some other outfits that may work for you now, but cheaper.”

6. Be yourself.

When I first started commuting to my office in Midtown, I became mesmerized by the professional wear other women were sporting. They looked so formal and fashionable, and I felt casual and young in comparison.

It finally dawned on me that they did look formal — much more formal than the look I should be going for. They were likely headed to jobs in finance, where there is a different culture and they’d be making much more money than I would as a journalist.

Young journalists in my office don’t look like that, and I don’t really have to either. As I got comfortable in my environment, I started scaling back on the skirts and heels (which, frankly, made me feel a little more Joan Holloway Harris than Peggy Olson, and not in a good way) and upping the number of days I wear pants, blazers and my trusty nude flats.

That also makes me feel more comfortable, and not like I’m trying to lead with my outfits instead of my (super-recently earned) diploma.

At the end of the day, these tips are not going to land me a job at Vogue. But I’m not too upset about it. From what I’ve seen in the movies, a job like that is pretty stressful.

Are there any workwear tips I missed? What are your favorite stores and websites for professional clothes?

Published or updated on September 17, 2013

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About Maria LaMagna

Maria LaMagna is a recent graduate of Northwestern University where she served as editor-in-chief of the university’s award-winning daily newspaper and studied for five months in Argentina. Before joining Money Under 30, Maria worked as a reporter for CNN and the Indianapolis Business Journal. Follow Maria on Twitter @MCLaMagna.


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  1. ling says:

    Biggest mistake when I first started working was wearing dry clean only clothing. Buy work pants from gap that are washable -saved me so much money and time.

  2. Eva says:

    Also check out outlets at the end of a season. Buy summer suits from upscale outlets in August and September and winter staples in March and April. I’ve purchased a wool/cashmere blend coat at a top department store outlet that was originally $1,000 for $300 just because of the season (it wasn’t damaged or irregular either).

  3. Mayor McCheese says:

    Couple suggestions:

    1) Shop online, but bookmark the things you want – don’t buy them right away. Then check back over weeks/months. You’ll have a chance to reconsider exactly how necessary/desirable the thing is (there are lots of times when the buy impulse fades the next time I see something). Also, lots of times you’ll come back to find that the thing you wanted is now on sale. Once in a while you’ll have missed it in your size altogether, which sucks, but almost as often you’ll get it for 30% off, or at least free shipping or something.

    2) Give your clothes a once-over to see what could maybe be tailored to fit better. I’ve had loads of shirts that went from I-don’t-know-why-but-this-looks-like-sh*t, only-when-I’m-desperately-low-on-clean-clothes to solid go-tos just by doing, like, $20 worth of tailoring.

    • sarah says:

      that’s a great point – tailoring is always, always, always worth the investment! Sometimes I buy things that don’t quite fit but are a fabulous deal, and then just invest the $15-30 in tailoring them. I’ve never once regretted it.

    • Portia says:

      I started a board on Pinterest for this very purpose. I can tag things I like and view them over time, and since I’ve signed up for email offers from Express, Gap, and other stores that I like to shop at, I know when the good deals are. Gap’s stuff is casual, but they’re always offering 20-35% off something. I use the coupons instead of getting the store credit card, and then use my Visa card to earn miles for vacations. Express also always has good coupons–these are 2 stores I will *never* pay full price at. Good luck! My pinterest is if you want ideas. Happy (financially responsible) shopping!

  4. Irene says:

    thanks for sharing your experience!
    It is really a challenge for young adults to look professional and to keep one’s own style, all that with a limited clothing budget. I am currently in a similar situation. Good luck with your job!

  5. Jessica says:

    I have my favorite stores–like White House/Black Market–and exclusively look at their sales/clearance page. I’ve gotten $130 heels for $30, and their clothes are timeless. They offer a “Seasonless” line of black suits that will last the test of fashion time–and they pair very nicely with any “fancy” shirts that you want to add to the emsemble. I also love Kohl’s, as their office wear section is usually very attractive to a younger audience–and some of their shirts can double as going-out-to-dinner wear. But as a rule of thumb, if you’re working for more than the salaried equivalent of minimum wage in any type of a professional office setting, a “decent work outfit” is going to cost/be worth at least $200–cheaper LOOKS like it’s cheaper and your professional reputation is worth the investment.

  6. Sarah says:

    Glad it’s working out. If you’re in NYC or Philly, you can also try reselling your clothes at Buffalo Exchange. They’re picky, but it’s a nice option. As for your workplace, I’d recommend emulating your boss. Whatever he/she wears, dress similarly (with a little bit of your personality thrown in). It’s an easy way to stand out every day.

  7. Kate says:

    I’m glad that some insights could help!

    When buying (or selling) on ebay it’s a good idea to know your measurements as well. Most sellers will have this information included in their listing (if not, just ask!) and will help determine if it’s a good buy.

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