How to Be Stylish When on a Budget

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How to Look Stylish on a Budget - tips on how to look great, maintain style, and not break the bank by Wardrobe Oxygen

Many of you have asked for more budget-friendly options of items I feature on the blog. You’ve also asked for tips to be stylish on a budget. A budget is a different size for everyone, and it’s hard to write such a piece because one person’s mega-steal price is another’s pipe dream. But below are my tips on how to be stylish on a budget that should translate to any budget size.

Tips on How to Be Stylish When On a Budget

1. Define Your Style

When you don’t know who you are, what you like, or what looks good on you, you can’t shop smart. It doesn’t matter if that dress is $5 or $500, it’s a waste of money if it doesn’t make you happy or work with your lifestyle.

2. Journal Your Closet

Before you buy anything, really assess what you already own.  I wrote a piece about how to take charge of your closet by journaling your way to personal style; I recommend you read that before continuing through this piece.

3. Go Shopping… But Don’t Buy Anything

The best way to define your style is to get clothes on your body. Whether this is spending a day at the mall or at Goodwill, this isn’t a shopping trip but a research trip. Try on trends, a variety of silhouettes, different concepts. Each time you try something on, think:

  • Does it work with my lifestyle?
  • Does it work with the rest of my closet?
  • Does it make me feel good?

Working with your lifestyle means exactly that. Can you wear it to your job? Is it the kind of thing you’d wear on the weekend? Does it have laundry instructions that are realistic for your life and budget?

Does it work with the rest of your closet? If you buy these pants will you need to buy new shoes for them? Will that top work only if you buy a slip, a minimizer bra, and a pair of high waist trousers? Even if you hate your current wardrobe, there’s no way you can afford to replace all of it. Pieces you add to your closet should be able to work with what you have but still have the feel of your future wardrobe.

A safe bet is to find base colors. For me, black is my base color and silver is my base hardware. I don’t own any brown or navy shoes, I only buy things that work with the shoe wardrobe I currently own. I don’t buy anything that doesn’t work with my current drawer of underpinnings. Little reminders like this will keep you on budget.

No matter your budget, new purchases unless they are bought in an emergency, should make you feel good. A color you like, a fabric that doesn’t make you itch, a style that makes you feel fun or cool or sexy or feminine or svelte, nothing that digs or gaps or feels awkward.

Take notes when you shop. What styles of pants or skirts feel and look the best on you? In Gap you’re a 12 but in J. Crew you’re a 14 and in I.N.C. you’re a 10? Note it down. What design elements do you like (and work with your wardrobe) and which ones do you not like? I find writing these down in an actual journal more helpful than on my phone; it takes more time, and I remember details more clearly.

When you go on this shopping trip, wear comfortable shoes but pack shoes you often wear in your bag. Wear the undergarments you usually wear (I recommend a seamless nude-to-you bra and smooth underpants that fit well and don’t segment your belly.) Don’t go hungry or too amped up on caffeine, bring a hair elastic, some powder, and lipstick to refresh yourself after multiple try-ons. Treat this like a job, and you’ll get the most out of the experience.

4. Find Inspiration

Everyone claims Instagram is the next big thing for inspiration, but every time I go there for it, I just end up wanting to spend more. I recommend going old-school and make a vision board, or create a Pinterest board. Put items in there that realistically inspire you.

Love the cropped pants and slim turtleneck of Audrey Hepburn, yet you live Florida and would get hyperthermia in a turtleneck? Pinning such a photo isn’t going to inspire you, it’s going to make you critical of yourself or your life. However, glean from that what you like – maybe it’s the column of black color, maybe it’s the sleek simplicity, maybe it’s how her ankles are highlighted. Take that, and run with it to other photos that may be a better choice for your life, your figure, your lifestyle.

By consolidating all the pictures you’ll end up with a better picture of your personal style. Shocker, when I’ve done this I’ve ended up with striped tees, leather jackets, blazers, denim, colorful frothy maxi dresses, statement shoes, fun earrings, and colorful square scarves and bandanas.

5. Keep it Simple, Sweetheart

Let’s be realistic, all those ruffles and frills cost money. Adopting new trends require replacement when they’re no longer in style. Wild prints and embellishments are harder to mix and match, dress up and down. If you’re desiring style on a budget, the most chic thing you can do is keep your wardrobe simple.

Find a base color, a base denim hue, one or two neutrals you like and one or two “signature” colors. Think black, white, dark denim, navy, hot pink, and coral. Brown, cream, grey denim, blush pink, and taupe. Of course, you can vary from this color story, but you’re always looking for items that will work with your signature color story. This isn’t boring, this is creating a signature style.

Look at some of the style icons over the past century – they stuck to a core collection of colors, silhouettes, and general styles. Simplifying your style is increasing your budget and increasing your style quotient.

6. Shopping is Not a Sport

If you don’t have any money, don’t go shopping. If you don’t need anything, don’t step foot in any retail establishment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cute little thing from the dollar bin at Target or a designer purse, it’s too much money spent if you don’t need it and/or can’t afford it. If you’re not where you can shop, you won’t be as tempted to justify a purchase.

Along with this, unsubscribe from emails from retailers (unless you create a filter for your favorite brands, learn more about this tactic in this blog post). Unfollow shopping bloggers on Instagram, unfollow tempting pages on Facebook, heck stop reading my blog. Such things not only encourage shopping, but they create a feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out). Suddenly you feel your style is lacking because you don’t have lantern sleeves/cold shoulders/high waisted jeans/whatever trend is out there that you’re perfectly happy and stylish not owning.

7. Make a List, Check it Twice

So you’ve defined your personal style. You’ve unsubscribed from emails and haven’t been in Target for two weeks. You’ve analyzed your wardrobe and know some key elements lacking that will create cohesiveness and style. Write those items down and be specific. A black blouse that is a bit silky but the sleeves can be rolled and will look good untucked with my skinny jeans or cream ankle pants, but look nice tucked in with my pinstripe pants, purple pencil skirt, and grey pantsuit. Something that specific will keep you on track so you’re not swayed by a blouse with full sleeves that won’t fit under your suit jacket or a style that doesn’t look good untucked.

Now every time you open an online boutique, visit a mall, or wander into the clothing department at Target, you’re armed with that list. Open it up, if need be recite it. No, I don’t need that tee shirt with the cute message, I’m here for toothpaste only. Ooh, this navy blouse is really nice, but it would only go with my grey suit and cream pants, not the rest of the things in my closet.

8. Step Outside a Mall… and Outside the Box

Think because you’re on a budget you can only shop certain stores? Think the best deals are at big-box discount retailers like Marshall’s? Think again!

Being stylish on a budget takes time, takes research, and takes ingenuity. And most of this needs to take place outside your standard shopping mall. Malls encourage spending, malls make you feel that if you leave without a purchase you have failed. Mall stores stock what a buyer in Columbus, Ohio thinks is right for the general demographics of where you live. I worked in malls for over a decade and I hardly ever enter one any more. Sure I can’t shop 11th hour for an outfit, but anyone who is trying to build style, no matter her budget doesn’t shop in a panic or with a deadline.

Tips on where to shop for great clothing when you're on a budget.

Where to Shop for Style on a Budget?

  • Thrift Stores. I know, I know everyone says this and it’s not always easy to find good clothes, especially when a certain size or height. The key is finding the right thrift store. Find one that gets donations from areas that work with your personal style. If you love vintage, check out thrift stores near older communities. Like designer? Drive a little further to find the Goodwill near the chi chi neighborhood. Looking for corporate fashion? Your best bet may be suburbs right outside a major city. Get to know the staff, find out what days they stock the store, what days they have special discounts. This time can end up saving you serious money.
  • Online Secondhand Shops. ThredUp and Poshmark are fantastic for finding very specific items at reduced prices. Love the fit of J. Crew blazers but hate the price? Search these sites with specific keywords and you very well may find exactly what you’re looking for at 50% off or more. These sites are better for specific brand items than the general pieces on your shopping list; without the ability to return or try before you buy you could end up losing money if you search such places willy-nilly.
  • Mall Store Clearance Racks. When I think of great clearance racks, I immediately think of Ann Taylor. J. Crew and Banana Republic also have some fabulous clearance sections in their stores. Walk in, and walk right to the rack, armed with your list. Search your size, and if you don’t see it, roll out. Don’t stroll around, don’t try something else, don’t get swayed by 70% off. But each time you visit a store that has style that works for you, head to the back and take a quick look. I’ve scored full suits from Ann Taylor for less than $100 because I’ve bought the pants from the clearance rack on one trip, the blazer a different time.
  • Nordstrom. Wait, what? Nordstrom is a nice department store where there’s someone playing piano near the elevators and the fitting rooms don’t smell like Frito’s. How can it be a great place to shop when on a budget? Because Nordstrom has smart buyers, especially online. Bypass their stores where selection can be limited depending on your needs and size, and go to the web. Click right on Sale in their top navigation, and narrow down by category, size, and even price. I’ve found cashmere for $30, leather pumps for $20, elegant bags for 80% off in the Nordstrom sale department. No need to wait for their big semi-annual sales, Nordstrom has sale product year-round and it’s worth the occasional gander.  FYI, the same holds true for Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s; sometimes they have crazy good sale prices online. Honestly, I usually find better sale prices at these department stores than TJ Maxx or Marshall’s.

how to make discount clothes look expensive

How to Make Discount Clothes Look Expensive?

  • Get a Tailor. It makes more sense to spend $30 to tailor $30 pants than spend $60 on nicer pants that don’t fit well. Don’t think because your garment is a Walmart special it doesn’t “deserve” to be altered. To be stylish, your clothing needs to fit. Style doesn’t come from money, but from knowing and dressing your unique body. If need be, buy cheaper clothing to have the money for alterations.
  • Have a Simple Color Palette. I mention it above, but it bears repeating. A rainbow-colored closet may be pretty to look at but on the body it won’t likely translate as expensive, luxe, or chic. That doesn’t mean you have to dress in all black or neutrals, but keep a simple color palette so items mix and match better and you wear the clothes not the other way around.
  • Baby your Clothes. Whether you spend $20 or $2,000, treat your clothing well. Hand wash, line dry, hang up after wearing, fold carefully, spot treat stains, consider getting a budget-friendly travel steamer to get out wrinkles without spending a lot of time at the ironing board.
  • Buy Less. Stylish women repeat garments and repeat outfits. If you have a simple color palette and a defined personal style, people won’t know if those are the same black ankle pants you wore the other day or not. They won’t care, they will just notice they’re a great fit. You don’t need more than one or two pairs of jeans, one or two pairs of pants. Buy carefully, take care of them, and you can easily wear the same thing multiple times in one week and look stylish every time.
  • Don't Buy Just to Buy.  When you buy because you feel sad, or fat, or unstylish, or frustrated you only make the situation worse.  Happiness will never be found on a hanger.  Save that money so you can buy what you really want and need.  Go outside and be aware of your breaths for a count to 100.  Go in your car and drive around the block scream-singing to Celine Dion.  Drink water – when we're hydrated we think better and are calmer.  Give yourself a massage.  Find a way to feel better and stronger without spending that money so you have it when you encounter the items that truly deserve your hard-earned money!
A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. Some women love shopping and some ladies not so much. But the fact is, everyone has got to wear clothes. Many women think that- they can’t look stylish on a budget. It is only a misconception. Nothing else. Better they consult a money moron, because he is the one who can tell how to get the fashion wardrobe while staying on the budget. First, you need to decide what type of fashion you really want. Buy fewer things from a reputable boutique, scale down, and concentrate on what you really love, by which you can stay fashionable without wrecking your budget.

  2. Can I also add about reviewing and updating your accessories when reviewing what your wardrobe is missing? I’ve been feeling recently like my work wardrobe is in a rut and that I need to go shopping for some new work clothes. But I think what’s actually happened is that I’ve somehow ended up in a position where it’s been too hot to wear heels and my comfortable flat shoes are too scruffy for the office… I don’t actually need any new clothes at all – just new shoes! (Finding the perfect ones of course is another matter…)

    For non-sale items I like the idea of putting items in my online shopping cart and then sitting on it for a couple of days… helps me weed out what I actually need and what’s just boredom-induced impulse shopping!

  3. I really appreciate this post as we’re approaching Fall. I need to identify if there are gaps in my closet and how to fill them thoughtfully instead of impulsively. Defining my personal style is proving to be a slow process but I think I’m getting there, thanks largely to you!

  4. Thank you fir this excellent post! You are such a thorough person and an entertaining writer! I will be rereading this one.

  5. Two other blogs I read recently posted that they received requests for more budget friendly items. I think this is a result of bloggers shilling expensive clothes from retailers that don’t fit into the average person’s life. It is not so much as the cost but rather the cost combined with the impracticality of the item. If the item the blogger was shilling was a $200 suit you could wear to work, then people probably wouldn’t complain as much. But when it is a $100 straw clutch or a $200 shift dress that hits at the mid thigh that is too casual and short to wear to work but is too dressy for the weekend, then people start making these budget friendly requests.

    Since so many bloggers have gone the way of posting nothing but sponsored or “c/o” posts with items that are expensive and not realist for the average woman’s life, there is a real opportunity out there for bloggers to go back to their roots and start posting clothes at reasonable price points that people can wear in their daily lives.

    1. This is an awesome comment and I thank you for sharing it here.

      I know for me, I am not the same person I was over a decade ago when I started this blog. I moved up the corporate ladder, I make more, I have a different figure, and different sartorial priorities. I don’t share clothes from budget-friendly stores because I just don’t wear them. As a 42 year old soft curvy woman, discount clothes don’t give the professional or polished look I desire, so I purchase much less, save up, use coupons, re-wear things.

      Blogging costs more than you may think. I spend thousands a year just to have this site hosted and running at a decent speed. Thousands more for widgets to improve the functionality, security, and appearance of the site, royalty-free images so I don’t get sued again for using an image I didn’t own, and assistance to keep the site from breaking, updating, and all that behind the scenes stuff. The way to make the money to cover the costs and well as cover the time spent on this blog (I easily spend 30+ hours a week on it) is affiliate links and sponsored posts. You can’t affiliate link to thrifted clothing or last season’s clothes, and brands won’t pay you to sponsor a post that doesn’t show their current merchandise.

      While you may desire blogs to go back to their roots, traffic, analytics, and many other comments say most readers desire different. Better photos, more content, corresponding social media, newsletters, etc. All of that takes time and some of it takes money. Just as TV isn’t what it was a decade ago, or social media, neither is blogging. Blogs that don’t change with the times and the readers don’t survive. I have no idea what Wardrobe Oxygen will be a decade from now, but it won’t be what it is today. And neither will I be who I am today.

      As a blog reader you have the power to decide which blog to read. You also have the power to get inspiration from the outfit shown, and not necessarily buy the exact items. A $100 straw clutch may seem too pricey for you, but it may not be for 75% of the rest of the audience. Another blog may never link to items over $50, and another may have a similar clutch in her outfit post that’s only $25. Some bloggers will link to cheaper alternatives, but you can do the same. The way we find those cheaper alternatives is with Google. My favorite place to find budget friendly on trend accessories is Etsy. As for $100 suits, there’s few that really are well made that aren’t discounted. It’s hard to link to sale items because they sell out quite quickly and a blog isn’t helpful if it’s linking only to sold out items. Posts like these are “evergreen” posts, they make sense now and five years from now. Along with outfit posts and other content, they give readers ideas and empower them to make smart decisions for their specific lifestyles and budgets.

      You, the reader, have all the power. If a favorite blog is no longer offering the content that made you love it in the first place, let her know. Send her an email, connect with her, let her know it’s a real person who cares not a troll complaining. If you find a blog that offers all you desire, share it with others. Share her content on social media, leave comments, follow her on all her social channels. I wrote this piece a few years about diversity in blogging, but it also holds true for any type of blogging. You readers hold all the power. Don’t hate read blogs and give them traffic and social followers, Use that energy to promote and share the blogs you do love, connect with the bloggers you care about, help them grow and improve.

      BTW comments are awesome, thank you for writing one, sorry for responding with an entire novel. Not only am I blogger but I am a blog reader and lover and am passionate about the subject!

    2. Another perspective, if I may?

      I have no problem with sponsored or ℅ posts when they are honest, and I find Allie is. I no longer have her lifestyle and I am not her size but *damn* I enjoy her loving life and looking great. If affiliate links weren’t included then many more people would be upset that they can’t find the item they want/need/lust for and that’s not fair either: Think of vintage aficionados…at this point in time the clothes they wear are well beyond reach of almost everyone because of their age, but it doesn’t make them any less desirable (if that’s your style). I think of Allie’s blog as inspiration and not literal – no two bodies, or two people are. But if I can find something I want via a blog post instead of cruising the thousands of retail sites then I think using a link is a very tiny way to say thank you.

  6. Very comprehensive approach to getting and staying focused while mindful of one’s budget. Nice job. I’m going to remember your tips when feeling impulsive.

  7. Hey, great reminder of the everyday sales at Nordstrom’s. Just jumped on and snagged a cute pair of Lauren PJs with a note for $28! And I really needed them!

  8. Solid advice. I’m currently shopping my own closet for my clothes. I’ve recently replaced my beige walking shoes (I’ve walked all over Europe in those for years!) and finally found the leopard print scarf I’ve longed for. I plan to also replace my black walking shoes (both pair eventually lost their cushioning) but otherwise, if I need it, I probably already have it.
    I’m missing trendy pieces like cold shoulder or ruffled tops, but I don’t need them. I’ll add tassel earrings or necklaces and consider myself on trend. I’ve gotten to this point by spending all last summer clearing out every closet and drawer in the house in preparation for a downsize move. After all that hard work, I never want to upsize again!

    1. And I do like pinterest boards for giving me new ideas how to mix and layer the pieces I already have. I also use it to create a wish list for future purchases. That allows me time to consider whether I really need an item…

  9. So many good tips it’s hard to comment on only a few! I use my iPad to keep photos of outfits the bloggers are wearing that I know will work with my lifestyle. I make lists of what I need to filling a missing piece of an outfit…still looking for some “bad” rocker chick tees girlfriend! -Laurel

  10. Great analysis and advice. Very sensible. Even though i dont live in the States i like your approach in this article. I probably should unsubscribe from your blog but articles like this one keep me here. Thank you.

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