On a Budget

Once upon a time, in a little cottage in the woods, there lived a mother and her two children. The mother was On A Budget, and her daughters were the fruit of her labors. Their names were Frugal and Frumpy, and they went everywhere together . . .

Wait, wait, wait. That’s not right at all. Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t look terrific. You just need to think carefully about what you have, and what you need, and what you’re wearing.

Frugal and frumpy are not synonyms (or sisters, either). Stupid fairy tales. Let’s see what On A Budget really COULD do to dress herself up.

Shop your closet.
Start every wardrobe overhaul by looking carefully at what you already have. Try everything on; see what fits and what goes together; assess all the possibilities. Identify the holes in your wardrobe, focusing on basics. If you’re on a budget, be honest with yourself: what do you really NEED? If every white tee shirt you own has a big chocolate stain on the front (what? it happens!) replace them. If your black wool skirt is in good shape and fits well but needs a button, fix it. Make a commitment to wear what you have, but rethink how you wear things. Always wear your black dress with flats? Try some heels instead. Saving that silk blouse for a special occasion? Make Tuesday special.

Think about what you will be getting dressed for: work? school? playdates? real dates? church? CAN you get dressed for all those things? If not, why not? Be honest about what you really NEED; make a list that you can carry with you when you shop, to keep yourself from buying (or just lusting after) pieces that don’t serve any purpose in your wardrobe.

Shop the sales.
It’s almost Christmas, which means that swimsuits will be in the department stores in about three days. Seasonal clothing always shows up a good half-season before you can really even think about wearing it, right about the time that you’re slogging around in your parka and boots, thinking oh I can’t wait for it to be summer so I can wear a cute sundress! and some flippy sandals! Don’t be seduced, though; wait a few weeks and everything will be on sale. Need a winter coat? Buy it in January. Bathing suit? Fourth of July is your best bet. Resist the urge to snap up that turtleneck sweater when it’s still 100 degrees out; it will be half the price come October. The one exception to this is basics that you KNOW will be hard to find later; last summer, I was KICKING myself for not buying shorts in March, because by June, my size was nowhere to be found. Maybe that’s just me, though.

Some chains, like the Gap, have corporate policies about how long merchandise can be on the floor before it must be discounted. Typically, mid-range stores leave things out for about six weeks and then start the markdowns. If you’re looking either for basics or for something really trendy, this is the way to shop. Basics–khakis, say, or jeans, or classic styles like turtlenecks and cardigans–go on sale because new shipments are coming in; trends go on sale because, well, they’re trends and they have little staying power. Use the internet to monitor sale prices, but keep in mind that the brick-and-mortar store may not be offering the same prices as the website.

The general rule of thumb is that you should NOT buy anything on sale that you wouldn’t have paid full price for. This holds true even when you are specifically shopping the sale rack; if you wouldn’t have paid $49.99 for those lime-green Bermuda shorts, they’re not a deal even at $9.99. Watch the sale rack for useful essentials: tees, tanks, sweaters, etc. Don’t buy things simply because they’re on sale.

Shop consignment.
Consignment shops are particularly useful for special occasion clothes; my favorite consignement shop always has a rack full of evening gowns for a fraction of their original prices. Most were worn once or twice; some still have the ORIGINAL TAGS on them.

While you can shop consignment stores in the same way you would any other boutique, I suggest you clean out your closet first and take your cast-offs in with you. Often, consignment stores will pay you in store credit, which you can then use to get whatever you’re looking for. Call ahead to get the scoop: do you need an appointment to bring stuff in? Can you be paid in store credit right away, or do you need to wait until your stuff sells? Are there specific things the shop is looking for? What do you need to do to the clothes before you bring them in? (Some places require that suits and evening wear be in tagged dry cleaning bags, for example.)

The very pretty Mir tells you how to work thrift stores (short version: buy at thrift store, resell for credit at consignment shop, leave consignment shop with evening gown or clothes for kids or whatever strikes your shopping fancy). She’s a pro at this, and I bow before her extensive knowledge. Also, she’s pretty!

Don’t shop, swap.
Have a closet full of lovely things that don’t fit? Or that you’re just tired of? Organize a Clothing Swap. Get together six or eight or ten friends (the larger the group, the more likely you are to find more than one other person who wears your size). Everyone brings her cast-offs and shops the offerings. Have your swap somewhere large enough to hang or lay out the clothes, so that everyone can see what’s there. Provide a changing space for things that need to be tried on. Serve snacks and drinks. Perferrably alcoholic drinks. (Okay, just kidding. Sort of.)

You can organize your swap in several ways: as a one-to-one trade where everyone leaves with as many pieces as she arrived with (you brought fifteen things; you go home with fifteen different things), or as a free-for-all, with unclaimed pieces donated to a women’s shelter (I’m all about this because once I’ve decided to get rid of things I do NOT want them back), or as some sort of actual flea market thing, where you tag everything and pay cash money for what you choose. Do whatever you and your friends are most comfortable with; the idea is not to make money but to pick up some new things and get rid of some things you’re not wearing any more.

Work with what you’ve got.
Once you’ve determined what you have and filled in what you need, make an effort to mix and match and wear everything. It’s great to have a couple of go-to outfits, things you know look great together in a pinch, but don’t default to wearing the same things in the same way all the time. Be creative–use accessories, mix and match casual and dressy pieces, wear things you wouldn’t normally wear. Have fun with your wardrobe.

On a Budget and her daughters followed the Fairy Godbloggers advice, and they all lived stylishly ever after. The end.

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9 responses to “On a Budget

  1. Susan, one thing that I do at the beginning of every season is buy a box or two of black Rit dye and re-dye all of my black clothes that have lost some of their richness. It’s amazing how this can pull a faded black cotton tee back from the brink of blah. I do it in the washer, so it’s no mess.

  2. I’ve done that with black pants, those pairs that I love love love and CANNOT find again ANYWHERE. It’s a godsend.

    And a GREAT idea. What else? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

    How do YOU look great on a budget?

  3. I love this tip: “you should NOT buy anything on sale that you wouldn’t have paid full price for.”
    I never thought about that before, but you just saved me from buying a pair of stone Jcrew chinos. $19.99! What a buy. Stone was the only color in my size, and what a buy! But, stone. I don’t love it, but what a buy! and your words flashed acroos my brain. Sadly, I left them sitting in my cart. But my $19.99 will go towards something I will actually wear now.

  4. Great post. I love the idea of the swap party. Now, if I can just find a few people in my area who would be interested… Personally anything involoving trying on clothes merits an alcoholic drink IMO.

  5. Boogiemum, you and I could totally shop together.

  6. Taking your advice on the basic wardrode, with a twist. I look horrible in white, but I’m assembling solid pants, short and long-sleeved shirts in solid colors. (I can usually find solid shirts between 5 and 10 bucks at Target, Ross, Kohl’s etc.) Then I’ve started picking up jackets at Ross (clearance rack, of course!) I have one in tan (a lightweight suede-looking something or other) and one in brown (knit–it sounds awful, but it actually looks pretty good) looking for one in black. The two I have I paid around $12 for, but they look great. Cords or slacks with a solid tee and a jacket and some pretty jewelry–I can wear that almost anywhere, including church. I may look slightly more dressy or slightly more casual than the others; I think either is acceptable. Black looks more dressy, even if it’s cotton, and brown looks more casual. I have a few patterned shirts for fun.

  7. Jeana, come over here and let me kiss you.

    Good work! And good job altering the basic advice to make it work for you. I’m so proud.

  8. I ran into this problem this year in not being able to find t-shirts ANYWHERE in Nov. or Dec. I finally wound up ordering some from Target (love their Mossimo ones) and getting free shipping, so it all worked out. Also, if you don’t mind not trying something on, you can get great deals on eBay. I did do a clothing swap as well, but something you need to think about ahead of time is making sure you invite people who are YOUR size. I wound up being the largest size, and consequently got only 2 items that worked. But I did get rid of all the other stuff as well, and consumed some great margaritas, so it all worked out in the end!

  9. LOVE the advice!! I’ve fallen into the buying something just because it’s on sale trap too many times before. Off to buy some RIT dye!

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