The thought of having a closet full of clothes you love sounds amazing, but trying to afford it can seem scary. But even on the tiniest budget, a little bit of strategy and a few simple tricks can get you a great wardrobe without taking the fun out of shopping. I'll help you figure out how much to spend, what purchases will have the biggest impact, how to find quality clothes for a good price and how to get the most out of your shopping trip!
When I go shopping, I try to live by Vivienne Westwood’s motto: “Buy less, but choose well.” I try to treat my shopping like a treasure hunt for the ultimate wardrobe. When I buy new clothes, I make a shopping list, size up my options, and stick to the 70/30 rule that Kathryn Finney taught me: “70% of your closet should be classic pieces like a great white top and awesome black handbag, and the 30% should be for trendy, fun pieces like orange skinny jeans. That way, your closet is always in balance.”
As a result, I’ve been able to find better clothes for my body, personality and budget. I’m building a wardrobe that I love wearing everyday, and can actually afford. You can do it too! Let me show you how to shop on a budget, but still buy nice clothes and have fun doing it.
Have you ever seen a stylist’s moodboard plastered with magazine pages, fabric swatches, photos of celebrities, postcards of art, and other random stuff? Stylists use these collages to capture a specific mood or style while working on a project. You should do the same! Before you go shopping, think of yourself as your own personal stylist and improving your closet as your current project. Your goal is to build on what you have, enhancing and adding to your collection of clothes.
- Get Inspired - Gather style inspiration images in one place - like your Stylebook inspiration library. Look carefully for common threads like colors, prints, clothing shapes, etc. Since Stylebook is on your phone, you can reference these images while you’re out shopping. My inspiration above is a photo of blogger Christine Petric - she makes basics look so good!
- Make a Wish List Based on What You Own - Make a wish list of clothes that complement the favorites you already own. Look at your “Top 25 Most Worn” clothes in Stylebook’s Style Stats feature, to see what you realistically like to wear everyday. Keeping an actual record of what you wear may reveal some surprising trends in your wardrobe. While making your wish list, think about items that might pair well with your most worn items. You’ll get the most wear out of new items that look great with your current favorites.
- Avoid Repeat Purchases - Look at the clothes you still have from last season and compare them to your wish list. You may actually own similar items to those you were hoping to buy. Unless the ones you own are worn out and need replacement, you can take some of these off your wish list, freeing up room in your budget for higher-impact purchases.
- Find the Right Place To Shop - Look for a mall, street, or shopping center that has more than one store you want to visit. Athleta, The Gap, and Anthropologie are on my list of places to shop so I’m visiting a mall called MarketFair that's small but has all three stores. This will help you avoid wasting time (and potentially money!) browsing stores that don’t have the products you’re looking for.
STYLEBOOK TIP: How To See What Clothes You Wear The Most and Least
As you use Stylebook’s calendar, the app automatically records which clothes you wear the most and least. When you go shopping, look at your most worn clothes and try to shop for clothes that you can wear with your existing favorites:
- Open Style Stats.
- Tap Most Worn in the Clothing Stats menu.
- You’ll see a list of your most used items.
Determining your budget is super easy! Knowing how much you can spend ahead of time can help you prioritize your shopping. For example, I decided to save for expensive jeans but I skimp on my t-shirt purchases.
According to financial expert Peter Dunn, you should spend about 5% of your take-home-pay on clothes.
Your Clothing Budget = (Take-Home Pay) x 0.05
Your next step is dividing up your budget and striking a balance between what you need and what you want. Though you might want a new rose gold watch, it might be more important to your overall wardrobe to replace your worn-out flats. Knowing your total budget will help you figure out what you can buy now and what you should save up for.
- Narrow Down What You Want - Once you figure out how much you can spend, you can focus your wish list on items that you can afford and that will make the biggest impact on your wardrobe. It’s all about quality, not quantity.
- Consider Wardrobe Gaps - For me, these are pieces I frequently wish I owned, but don’t. For example, if you’re always dissatisfied when going out because your pumps always hurt your feet, you may wish you had a better quality, more comfortable pair. Consider filling that gap while making your wish list.
- Beware of The “Investment Piece” - Don’t spend every penny of your budget on an “investment piece”. I’m serious - don’t! And, if it’s an item like an “it bag” - we need to have a talk. That is not an investment, that’s a trendy, expensive handbag you’ll probably be embarrassed to carry in six months. If you were thinking more about classic items like a quality trench, leather jacket, pumps, LBD, etc., they go on sale EVERY season. This is not the last time you’ll see it. Instead, create a savings goal (say, $500 for a leather jacket) and create a savings envelope (virtual or physical) and stick your leftover clothing budget money and pocket change in it. When you have enough, go shopping for your classic item. If it’s a true classic, you can wait until you have the money.
- Buy Your Most Needed Piece First - Concentrate on items that will make a big impact on your everyday wardrobe. If you have ill-fitting basics, look into upgrading your most worn pieces. If you have your basics under control, look at special items that take your outfit to the next level. Search your Stylebook closet for any clothes that have the “Should Replace” status to see what items you’ve considered repurchasing in the past.
STYLEBOOK TIP: How To Search For Clothes Marked “Should Replace”
Over the season, you can mark worn out clothes with a “Should Replace” status in the clothing notes. You can then easily search for these items before your next shopping trip.
- Open the closet feature and tap the magnifying glass.
- Select “Should Replace” from the status field on the search screen.
- You’ll see a grid of all the items marked with this status.
After reviewing my closet, I discovered my basics were a little lacking, so I assessed my most worn items to see what was most in need of replacement. I need to replace my black skinny jeans that are stretched out and developing thin spots; I want a pair of comfortable heels for my boot-cut jeans, a long delicate necklace, a striped t-shirt, a lightweight jacket, and a dress to wear to my cousin-in-law’s wedding.
The first thing you should remember is that building a wardrobe takes time. You’re not going to be able to buy everything at once. If you’re patient, you can take advantage of sales and discounts that will allow you to buy better quality items with a small budget.
- Classic Styles - Look for repeated or signature styles that go on sale every season. DVF wrap dresses, True Religion skinny jeans, and Rebecca Minkoff cross-body bags are all examples of items that are reintroduced every year in both classic and trendy colors. That means every time new styles come out, the “old” selection goes on sale, but they’re essentially the same item.
- Department Store Sales - Larger stores have better sale sections with more frequent sales. Sign up for their emails and troll the sale section for your wish list items. You may even find items that are still full-price at other stores.
- Get Really Specific - I’ve had success when I look for a very specific item (for example, Paige Skyline skinny jeans) because I can compare prices at multiple stores and set sale alerts. This enables lightning-strike shopping, but it only works if I know in advance that a particular item is a good fit for my body.
- Natural Fibers - When you go into inexpensive stores, look for clothes made of natural fibers like cotton and linen, especially when it comes to basics like t-shirts and ribbed tanks. Sometimes, you can find real gems that look just as good as more expensive versions.
Some people hate going to the mall and I get that - it can be frustrating. If you just drive to a mall on a Saturday with no budget or shopping plan - you'll end up settling for the best clothes out of what you happen to see, rather than the best items for your personal style - just because you don't want to leave empty-handed. But if you do a little research in advance and take advantage of retailers' websites, you'll have much better results. If you have a plan, going to the store in person has A LOT of perks. Below are my top six reasons you should go shopping in real life.
- Find In Store - Before you go to the mall, use the “Find In Store” feature on the store’s website to see if your local store carries the items you’re looking for. If you go to the store with a specific item in mind, you’re less likely to blow your budget on impulse buys. Even better, you won't have to pay for shipping!
- In-Store Hold - Some store websites (like Banana Republic) have a button that lets you put a hold on a specific item. The salesperson will put the item behind the register for you so no one else can buy it before you! I love this because it combines the advantages of in-store shopping and online shopping: you can try on an item and decide if you want to buy it without getting distracted or worrying about an item selling out!
- True Fit - Some stores (like Lord & Taylor) incorporate a program called True Fit on their website that allows you to enter information about your measurements. It can then suggest items they think will be an “excellent” fit. This gives you a starting point when trying to decide which jeans to try on before even going to the store. If you look at the store’s selection online first, you can choose several of your True Fit matches to look for when you get to the store.
- Free Tailoring - Ask your store if they offer free tailoring - many stores like Nordstrom offer complimentary or very inexpensive tailoring, which can help you save money that would have otherwise gone to hemming your new pair of jeans.
- Free Shipping From Store - Many stores, like J.Crew, Athleta and Banana Republic, will give you free shipping if you place your order in the store. Even if you know the store doesn’t have your size in stock, go check out the item and make sure it’s the color, shape and quality you were expecting. You can even try on the size above and below your expected size and see if they work. Then ask the salesperson if they offer free shipping for ordering in the store. Don’t waste your hard-earned money on online shipping! If you don’t like the quality or sizing, you may end up having to pay for return shipping or restocking fees PLUS the original shipping cost.
- Free Personal Shoppers - Share your measurements, favorite colors, style inspirations, and wish list with a personal shopper and let them find merchandise that fits your needs - FOR FREE. Nordstrom, Anthropologie, J.Crew, and Topshop offer complimentary shopping services. Show them your Stylebook closet and outfits so they can quickly get an idea of your style and they can help you find things that look good with the clothes you already own.
STYLEBOOK TIP: How To See All The Clothes You Already Own While Shopping
You can easily look up what you clothes you have at home with Stylebook. This can help you match new purchases to what you have or help you avoid purchasing items similar to something you already own.
- Open Stylebook’s closet feature and select the category you want to view
- With the category open, tap the thumbnail of the closet item you want to see
- You’ll see a full screen version of the clothing item
When you get to the mall or store of your choice, it can be difficult to stick to your original plan. Pretty window displays and amazing sales can be distracting and lead you astray from your budget. Here are 6 tips to help you stay focused and get the most out of your trip.
- Develop Tunnel Vision - Use Stylebook to bring your wish list and style inspirations with you when you go shopping and stick to what you came for. If you want a new pair of jeans, only shop for jeans.
- Bring Your Closet - It’s easier to buy clothes that look good with what you already own if you can look at them together. Since you can’t drag a suitcase full of clothes to the mall, use your Stylebook closet to compare new purchases with what you have.
- Minimize Distractions - Wear a simple outfit that is easy to change out of in the dressing room, eat before you shop and leave your coat in the car so you don't have to worry about carrying it around.
- Be Picky - Don’t buy the first thing you see. If you know you want flat gladiator sandals, check out several stores (both full-price and sale sections). Compare price and fit. Your goal is to find the most flattering version that fits your budget.
- Assess the Clothing Quality - Going to the store means you can carefully look at the clothes to make sure they look just as good in real life. If you see tears, pulls, pills, or other damage in the store, chances are it’s only going to get worse. Here is a great guide on assessing clothing quality.
- Try Before You Buy - Try on several sizes to get the best fit. Don’t be stubborn about trying a different size - no one can see the size tag inside your clothes, but they can see if the item doesn’t fit you correctly. Sizes can vary from store to store, so forget about the specific number on the tag. If you skip the dressing room, there may be a chance you’ll end up stuck with a mediocre fit, just because you won’t want to go through the trouble of exchanging it.
Don’t forget this is YOUR wardrobe! Friends, salespeople, and random shoppers will have strong opinions about your clothes but at the end of the day, you have to wear them and pay for them. Be honest with yourself and stick to your style and budget.
- Take Flattery with a Grain of Salt - I’ve bought so many items that didn’t fit my style or my body because another shopper or a salesperson told me “That looks amazing!” and it wasn’t really true. They were just being polite or didn’t really get my personal style. To truly get a good idea of how something looks, take a photo in the dressing room mirror instead. It’s easier to see potential flaws in a photo. If you feel a nagging doubt, put it back.
- Shop For You - You’re shopping for yourself, not to impress anyone in the store. Don’t be embarrassed to leave a store without buying anything and don’t get discouraged if you don’t find your perfect fit right away. You’ll be so glad you waited when you do find that perfect fit.
- Don’t “Just Get It!” - Don’t spend all your money on an expensive splurge, like a pair of Louboutins, just because a friend tells you to. Sure, you probably do deserve them, but if you can’t afford them, you’ll regret the purchase - and you may have made it more difficult to get an item you really needed. Wouldn’t you rather have an entire wardrobe instead of one pair shoes you can only wear on special occasions because they were so expensive?
Determine if a piece of clothing is right for you with this quiz. If you agree with three or more statements from the “yes” column, then it's probably a good choice for you.
Sometimes you can’t avoid online shopping. If a store you like doesn’t have a location near you or if your style is just unique, you may find that you need to shop online. Here’s how to stick to your budget when shopping online.
- Shipping Fees Can Quickly Eat Into Your Budget - Check the store’s return policy and confirm that there are no expensive restocking fees or excessively high shipping costs. Look for the piece on several sites to see if any offer free shipping.
- Online Chat Is Your Friend - Some stores can give you detailed measurements on their merchandise, which can help you determine if the item will fit or not. While you’re chatting, you can also ask if there are currently any promotions you don’t know about.
- Promo Codes - Sign up for store emails (many stores will give you a 15% off coupon just for signing up) or check RetailMeNot for promo codes. I often find either free shipping or 10% off. Don’t pay full price unless you have no choice!
- Set Sale Alerts - Websites like ShopStyle let you set up sale alerts on specific items so you can get exactly what you want at a discount. Since there’s a chance a specific item may sell out in your size before it goes on sale, be flexible. Increase your chances of landing a sale by putting several alerts on similar items.
- Don’t forget about your tailor. If the sleeves are just a little too long or you think a top would look better with darts, definitely consider altering an item, but don’t depend on this totally. In my experience, basic alterations typically cost about 20% of the item’s original price.
- Be wary of fast fashion. While fast fashion stores can definitely supplement your wardrobe and help you find on-trend items for an awesome price, sometimes they’re just too cheap. If everything you buy falls apart after a few washes, you’re going to exceed your budget, so proceed with caution.
- Sometimes you can cure your shopping craving by just going to store to see an item. It might not fit quite right or it might look cheap in person.
- Don’t think of shopping on a budget as depriving yourself. Skipping a $300 top you spotted on your favorite blog will actually help you buy a more complete wardrobe in the end. Planning your wardrobe as a whole will give you better everyday style.
- Happy hunting!
NOTE: Posts in the Style Guides series include affiliate links to some of the products discussed. Stylebook receives compensation for purchases made through links to affiliates.