September 19, 2012

Ask Allie: Career Wear on a Budget

I am a young professional without a "mentor" or any experience in the professional world other than the two years at my current job. I am getting a new boss in January and she is beautiful, powerful, and extremely sharp. I am the girl with the hot pink iPhone case, the ubiquitous plastic venti coffee cup, wearing Teva sandals with my work outfits, trying to pass black jeans as "dress pants," and still wearing the same bangle bracelets that I had in high school. I desperately need an upgrade in... everything... but I'm broke.

Are there any suggestions that you can make about taking my college student wardrobe and upping my game while still being able to feed my family?

You are not alone. It’s hard to be new and rise the corporate ladder without going into debt. You come into the workforce already with student loans and then have to shell out a lot just to look as though you want the job you fought hard to get. Jobs are hard to get, so you want to show that you care and have the drive but you don’t have the money to build a professional wardrobe from scratch. A few tips:

Thrift It. I know from your email that you’re already hitting Goodwill, but it can be frustrating to weed though racks and racks of faded knit tees in hopes of finding one decent pencil skirt or blazer. Make it a weekly date – find out when they stock the floors and visit that day. Befriend the folks working there – it may just get you a new friend, or it may get you friends who will see pieces and hold them for you or give you a heads up when they are stocking the floor.

While there, consider going up a size or two. A thrifted pair of pants can easily be altered by the nearby dry cleaner, and the price for both is still going to be cheaper than a new pair of pants on the sale rack.

Join Freecycle. My local Freecycle often has people giving away large bags of clothing in a certain size. People who have lost or gained weight, passed away, retired. While a good portion of the bag’s contents may be wrong for you, you could end up with a real gem in the process. And that which doesn’t work, re-Freecycle or donate. Once you have established yourself on your local Freecycle as a person who gives as well as takes (great way to clean out the house of old toys, knick knacks, and that dusty treadmill in your basement), you can request certain things. I did this once and was amazed with the generous people who replied with items or suggestions on how to get what I needed for less or free.

Find Local Swaps and Consignments. Twice a year, my community has a swap where people bring old baby clothing and equipment and trade for that which they need. It has grown to where this swap often has adult clothing. Local fashion blogging communities will often host or know of swaps where for a small price or a bag of clothes to donate, you can attend and pick up some amazing scores. Consignment sales are another place to find thrift-store priced clothing but a more carefully curated collection. At such events, you can also network with other frugal shoppers.

Nothing in your community? Set one up! It can be anything from a happy hour at your home with a few friends and neighbors, or you can set something up at a local community center.

A sample capsule wardrobe of simple pieces: how you can create over 20 different business casual outfits from just eight pieces of clothing.  Every outfit works with black pumps or flats.

Buy Simple. Simple blue oxford, gray pencil skirt, black blazer, plum cardigan, black pants… pieces like these can be mixed and matched a hundred ways to create completely different ensembles. Don’t buy difficult silhouettes that only go with one piece – create a bit of a uniform with few silhouettes so they are more versatile and less memorable.

Prints and bold colors are memorable; stick to neutrals and soft hues until you can afford a larger wardrobe.

Make a Priority List. What holes are in your wardrobe? Focus on those first. Don’t worry that this season is about oxblood or that a pair of leopard shoes would update your look. Get those basics you need to not be naked or in inappropriate fashion at the office. While I usually encourage buying accessories to switch up basics, at this point I’d say save your money. It’s better to go without any accessories at all than to try to make do with cheap pieces or spend your budget on a bracelet.

Unless you find one for an incredible price and it’s gorgeous, focus more on separates than dresses. Separates can mix and match for more outfits, and can better be tailored to fit (or made to look tailored with belts, Stitch Witchery, and strategically placed safety pins).

When you buy, stop and think what in your wardrobe can it work with. If you can’t imagine three outfits, don’t buy it. Even if it’s only $3 or only $5, that’s $3 or $5 you could save for the right wardrobe addition.

Know No One is Keeping Track. It’s okay to wear the same black pants two or three times in a week as long as they are clean. It’s okay to wear the same shoes every day until you can afford more. You can even carry off the same shirt multiple times in one week – one day on its own tucked in to a skirt, another day untucked under a sweater with pants. As long as the pieces are clean, in good condition, and properly pressed no one is going to care. The effect is far more important than the individual pieces.

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