How to Be Stylish on a Budget

The most popular question I receive is how to be stylish and look great when you don’t have a lot of money. I don’t believe that money equals style. Think of style like a college education. Jane gets a full scholarship to State U, Sara’s parents fund her entire four years at the same college, and Amy works full-time and takes classes when her schedule and budget permits. All three get degrees, all three have to work equally hard in the classes to get that degree, they just fund it in different ways. Your style can happen no matter your income level, it just may take a bit more time or a bit more effort and creativity.

Here’s some of my tried and true tips to be stylish and look great, no matter your budget.

Don’t Buy a Fake

If you can’t afford a real Birkin, don’t buy a fake one. That means don’t buy those faux designer bags that are sold on street corners in the city, and don’t buy bags from lower-end designers that are trying desperately to look like another. No monogrammed fabric, no padlocks, no trends replicated right off the runway.

This also goes for shoes and accessories. If you can’t afford the original, don’t buy a cheap copy. You are an original, make sure your style is as well. The only place where I think it’s okay to wear fake is when it comes to fur. Fake fur can be done well and can be darn fun, but don’t try to fool anyone with a floor-length faux mink!

Follow the Trends

No need to subscribe to every magazine under the sun and watch livestream of New York Fashion Week, but be aware of designer fashion. Know what the hot designers are featuring each season so you can stay one step ahead in translating it. Not only will this help you avoid fakes, it will help you understand how to style unique pieces and mix prints and colors in a modern manner.

Most fashion magazines do a web-based recap after each Fashion Week showing what trends were hot and what designers showed those trends. In these slideshows of 30 – 300 images, you’ll see the underlying themes of the upcoming season, be it a certain print, heel height, fabric, skirt silhouette, or lipstick color. This is also a great time to use Pinterest – follow Pinners who are knowledgeable about fashion and see what they pin the week after Fashion Week. See what appeals to you, and what is feasible to add to your wardrobe considering your lifestyle and budget.

Shop for Need not for Want

Shopping feels good. The ego is boosted when you put on a new dress. The idea of something new takes the stress off a first date or a job interview. I get it, I know, and I do it often. The thing is, when you shop, even if it’s for $5 clearance earrings, you’re taking away money that could be used for something better. Consider the Return on Investment (ROI) on each thing you buy, even if it’s 99 cents. Don’t buy just to buy, don’t buy to feel better. Buy to fill wardrobe holes and to look better today and a year from today.

Focus on Fit

One reason big box clothing is cheaper than designer is because more are made at once. The piles of fabric are higher when they are cut for the pattern, which can cause pieces to be different sizes. This is why sometimes a jacket has one sleeve a bit tighter or one pant leg a hair longer. Also, vanity sizing is more common in lower-cost stores.

Because of these two things, it’s imperative to try things on before you buy. Same dress and a 10 may fit but a 14 may be too small. Ignore the size on the label and if in doubt, buy a bit too big. It’s easier to style something a bit big than make a too-small piece look polished, and many simple alterations can be done at a reasonable price by your local dry cleaner.

And with everything, when you have the money, hit the tailor.  A tailor can make a clearance rack find look like a custom piece!

Choose Solids

This is my most controversial tip, but I stand behind it. A solid black dress will look more expensive than a floral. A solid blue top will be more classic than a plaid. Prints can look dated quickly. Prints can fade if not done well. Lower-priced garments often try to replicate runway prints and we already went over wearing fakes. Also, lower-priced prints aren’t as likely to be matched up, making the cheaper fabrication far more obvious.

Don’t Buy Any Old Fabric

I don’t buy 100% cotton shirts from lower-priced retailers because the cotton is often rough and more likely to wrinkle just if you look at it. I don’t purchase cashmere or cashmere blends from discount shops because the gauge is usually so low it’s transparent or else balls up and pills within an hour of wearing. Don’t just assume all fabrics are made the same; some are just better when purchased from reputable and higher-end brands. That being said, jersey knits, matte jersey, merino wool, ponte knit, chambray, polyester and blends are usually just fine at a lower price point.

Shop outside your Comfort Zone

You know where I do find budget-friendly cotton shirts? Lands’ End. Their prices are reasonable, their quality is stellar, and you can do returns at Sears. Lately I have received quite a few fab dresses from Gwynnie Bee and have been surprised to see they are from Coldwater Creek, a shop I previously considered to be “mom clothes.” My point is that there’s more out there than you may assume. Use blogs and Pinterest to learn about new retailers, Google them to see their ratings, and if they have a good return policy or a store nearby give them a try. You never know, the one item you have desperately needed may be for sale there and at a very nice price!

Baby your Purchases

Polish your shoes and get them reheeled and resoled when needed. Follow the laundry instructions. Hang up after wearing, don’t throw on the floor. Spot clean instead of laundering after every wear. Iron and steam to have pieces look like new after being worn or washed. Mend fallen hems, keep a jar of spare buttons so you can easily find and replace when necessary. It doesn’t matter if it cost $10 or $100, if you care for it, it will look better and last longer.

Quality not Quantity

You don’t need a completely different outfit for every day of the month. You don’t need 10 pairs of $1 Old Navy flip flops, a dozen pairs of jeans, or even three purses. Style comes from choosing wardrobe additions thoughtfully. Not only that, if you didn’t buy 10 pairs of $30 jeans, you could afford a pair of $100 jeans and have them professionally tailored to the right length and to prevent gaping at the waist.

When it comes to quality, it can honestly be found at any pricepoint. One of the most versatile dresses in my wardrobe was $39.99 at Target; I bought it four years ago and still get compliments each time I wear it. My favorite denim shorts are Mossimo and I self-distressed (using this video as a guide) to make them look old and cool and expensive. Thrift stores are always a goldmine, but so are your neighborhood big box retailers.

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Alison Gary is the author of Wardrobe Oxygen, she is a 30-something working mom located in the suburbs of DC.

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