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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.
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?
- 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!