Received mail offer?   |   Log In

Fashionably Frugal: Building an Affordable Professional Wardrobe

Posted by MoneyKey on December 17, 2018
It's easier than you think to build a stylish and professional wardrobe

When you’re searching for your first job out of college, it can feel like you’ll never get one. You may face rejection letter after rejection until, eventually, it happens: a hiring manager finally responds to your email with a request for a meeting. You smash the interview out of the park, and within days, they offer you a position.

If this has happened to you recently, then congratulations! This is an exciting moment in your life, especially as a new graduate. As a part of the first of the Gen Z group to enter the workforce, you lead a pack of 61 million Americans about to enter the job market— many of whom will be working in a workplace for the very first time.

Your new position may be the cause of a new conundrum. Those sweats and hoodies that were comfy while you were in school aren’t a great look for your new role. You’ll need a wardrobe that matches your job description — and soon.

Luckily, you can keep your costs low while shopping for a professional wardrobe — even if you’re just starting out. Let’s take a look at and how you can dress to impress on a budget and how this guide may help you save some money!

woman in burgundy coat with shopping bags

Apply the five percent test to your closet

Armed with the goal of “dressing well”, it would be easy to splurge on designer pieces to impress the office. There’s no upper limit to fashion like there is on your finances.

Figuring out how much you should spend on a new wardrobe may be tricky, especially if this is your first job in an office or professional setting. Without a base set of clothes from previous jobs, you’ll have to purchase more to fill your closet.

Financial planner, Pete Dunn, suggests professionals spend five percent of their annual net income on a professional clothing allowance.

Translating this “rule” into a dollar amount is simple. All you have to do is multiply what you earn, after taxes, by 0.05.

Net Income x 0.05 = Clothes Allowance

By this calculation, someone who earns $30,000 a year after taxes may spend $2,500 on clothes each year — or roughly $208 each month.

Use a simple calculation (Net Income x 0.05) to determine your clothing allowance

With a few taps on your calculator, you can easily figure out what five percent of your income looks like. This number is a good starting point for your budget, but it only goes so far. 

Rather than a hard and fast rule, five percent is merely a suggestion that you may need to tweak for your personal situation. You shouldn’t follow it if it puts your ability to fulfill other responsibilities into jeopardy. You shouldn’t spend all five percent in one shopping trip, either. This may leave you unprepared for your remaining financial responsibilities.

If you end up needing a personal loan because you used up your paycheck at the mall, you’ve gone overboard. These online loans are meant as emergency backups when you face urgent repairs or unexpected bills that exceed your household budget. You shouldn’t rely on them to cover routine bills, nor should you think of them as a quick way to extend your buying power at the mall at the mall.

Boost your budget responsibly

Making a budget may help you determine if five percent is a realistic clothing allowance for your situation. If a budget shows your money is tied up in other ways, five percent may represent too much of your income. That’s okay. Reviewing your finances may help you find out how much expendable cash you can afford to spend on new clothes.

There’s no need to feel blue if this amount is a lot smaller than what you were expecting. You may be able to increase this allowance by tweaking your budget in subtle ways.

A well-made budget may help you gain a better understanding of how you spend your money. With an up close and personal look at your expenses, you may notice reoccurring themes in your monthly spending. Small yet regular purchases have the power to steal cash from your wallet and reduce what you can devote to your wardrobe.

Evaluate how small purchases like coffee can eat into your budget

Watch out for things like your streaming services subscriptions. Individually, streaming services are cheap compared to cable, with membership fees that cost typically between $7 and $15 every month. They’re such a steal you could easily sign up for a few memberships, and that’s how the problem arises. If you create the ultimate viewing experience with every possible streaming service, you may end up paying more in monthly membership fees than for cable television.

The same goes for your ride share apps. Let’s say there’s a torrential downpour outside, and you forgot to bring your umbrella to work. Arranging a pickup may be a convenience worth splurging on every once in a while, like when the weather is nasty. But regular rides may put pressure on your budget when you use Uber or Lyft every time you need to get somewhere instead of walking or taking transit. These unnecessary expenses may minimize what you can put towards your savings.

Your spending habits may hold the key to unlocking more cash for clothes. Look through our savings guide to find more common impulse purchases and mindless expenses that can waste your money. If you notice you’re spending in similar ways, try eliminating those bad habits. For every purchase you don’t make, you’ll have more cash to put towards your closet or savings.

Know when to splurge and when to scrimp

Once you have a good idea of what you can afford, your next goal is to limit what you spend on individual pieces, with the aim to buy more for less. This may be a challenge as you scroll through Instagram or swipe through clothing racks for inspiration. A lot of professional clothes are expensive, leading you to mistakenly believe you have to pay these prices every time you go shopping.

In some cases, the extra cost of a well-made piece is worth it. But in other cases, there’s no reason to spend more than you should. To help you strike a fine balance between the two, we’ve split common closet items into two categories.

Things you should consider splurging on:

  • A suit, including jackets, blazers, skirts, and trousers; work shoes

Things you should consider scrimping on:

  • Undershirts, underwear, socks, dress shirts, t-shirts, ties, accessories, hosiery, and day dresses

Consider allocating most of your budget on items than have a longer lifespan like jacket, trousers, and shoes

A keen eye will notice a pattern in the lists above. Things that create the foundation of your daily look (like dress pants or a suit jacket) should take up more of your budget. Things like a blouse, a dress shirt, or another item that goes in and out of style quickly should take up less of your budget, as you’ll need to replace these more often.

A good rule of thumb is to splurge on the fundamentals of a professional outfit, thinking of them as investments. Although it may be expensive, a well-made suit that fits you will likely last a long time. Scrimping on a suit may save you some money at the outset, but you’re more likely to have to repair or replace it. Cheaper clothing is often cheaply made with poor quality fabrics, making it more susceptible to wear and tear than superior clothing.

Shop the second-hand market

New and gently used items end up in secondhand stores often

You may be able to find even the most expensive parts of your new wardrobe at a discount by shopping the second-hand market. Charity shops and consignment stores are treasure troves of fashion — it just takes some time searching through the racks to find your prize. You may even get lucky and unearth perfectly good designer pieces. Depending on the store, you may also be able to trade in old clothes to earn a credit to keep your total low.

Find a good and affordable tailor

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find your size at these stores. Whether you’re drowning in an oversized blazer or wearing pants that are a little tight around the waistline, a tailor is a professional’s best friend. They can help take in clothes that are too big or alter clothes that are slightly too small, expanding your options regardless of your size.

With the help of a talented tailor, you can trick your co-workers into believing you have a designer filling your closet. They can alter inexpensive clothes and make them look like they were custom-made for you and you alone. Although their talents will come at a cost, it may be less expensive to alter used clothes on sale than to buy new clothes at full price.

For added savings, you may want to learn how to sew. Hand stitching requires very little equipment and a lot of patience. Once you know how to sew the basic stitches, you can make minor changes to your clothes (like repairing a seam) without paying someone else to do it. If you invest in a sewing machine, you may be able to create more elaborate alterations — or even make clothes from scratch!

Find a reasonably prices tailor to give you and expensive fit on cheaper clothes

Black is the new black

Your color choice plays an important role in your finances. While mustard yellow may be all the rage right now, opting for a full pantsuit in this vibrant hue doesn’t promise staying power. When you let unpredictable trends lead your purse strings, you may end up having to replace your wardrobe more often when these fads are past their prime.

Sticking to the classics, like black, is a much safer bet. Black goes with nearly everything, as does navy, grey, and neutral colors like nude or brown. Look for these colors when you’re shopping for the fundamentals; they’ll give your closet style, flexibility, and endurance. With a black suit or navy dress as your base, you can inject a bit of fun into your outfit by trying a daring pattern or trendy color for the less expensive pieces of your closet.

Shop in moderation

In the 90s teen classic, Clueless, Cher Horowitz is a trend-setting Valley Girl who goes on shopping sprees whenever she feels like it. Despite being a teenager, she’s able to fill her closet with designer clothes by using her father’s credit cards.

As a new professional waiting on your first paycheck, you may not have the cash you need to a go on a shopping spree of your own. Although you may be tempted to use a credit card to cover what you don’t have, you should think carefully before you swipe the plastic in your wallet. Shopping with a credit card with no means to pay it off is never a good idea.

So don’t be like Cher — you may need to shop in moderation, building your wardrobe piece by piece.

There are a number of apps that can aid your in building an affordable wardrobe

Let these apps find you savings

If your shopping timeline is as tight as your budget, you’re in luck. You may be able to find deals that help you buy more for less, so you can create a wardrobe all in one go. Sounds too good to be true? Check in with these five apps to see if you might multi-task saving while you spend.

  1. RetailMeNot

This all-purpose shopping app helps you pinpoint the best savings on all manner of items, from new dress shirts and blazers to jewelry and shoes. By connecting its users with coupons, online codes, discount gift cards, and rebates on eligible items, RetailMeNot may help you save some cash the next time you go shopping. With discounts updating constantly, it’s an app that helps you keep track of new sales all year round.

  1. Poshmark

Once you start collecting a professional wardrobe, you’re going to have to make room for it in your closet. One way you may free up space is by selling off old clothes you don’t wear anymore, making it ideal for anyone who’s caught themselves saying they, “have a closet full of clothes, but nothing to wear”. Poshmark lets you list used items to earn some money on your old clothes, or you can discover a ton of second-hand clothes for sale at discounted prices, including authentic luxury brands. 

  1. Mercari 

Like Poshmark, Mercari is an online marketplace for second-hand clothes. Unlike Poshmark, it casts a wider net, allowing its users to sell and buy a wide variety of items, including electronics, books, and toys. As a seller, you have the opportunity to list your used stuff as a way to earn cash on things you no longer need. As a buyer, you can pick up wardrobe must-haves while saving up to 70 percent on approximately 10,000 brands. 

  1. ShopSavvy

Buyer’s remorse may hit hard when you realize you paid more for an item simply because you shopped at the wrong store. ShopSavvy helps make this a thing of the past by giving you a way to compare prices before you check out. All you have to do is scan the barcode of the tag with your camera for ShopSavvy to collect all the prices listed online and at local stores. Depending on the prices you see on the app, you might choose to drive to another location. Or you may use ShopSavvy to qualify for the store’s price matching policy.

  1. ShopKick

Do you get a kick out receiving free things? If so, you’ll love ShopKick. It gives you eight different ways to earn rewards (or what they call ‘kicks’) by doing small tasks while you shop, including simply walking into their partner stores or scanning barcodes of specific items. You may then redeem these ‘kicks’ for gift cards at participating stores and online retailers, making ShopKick an easy way to earn extra cash that you may use to buy more clothes.

The next time you have some spare time, take a look at these apps in more detail to see if they’re something you can bring along to the mall. Look through their summary, their privacy policy, and customer reviews to make sure they treat your financial information properly.

After all, many of these apps give you the option to pair them with a credit card. Your financial data is confidential. You wouldn’t take out an online payday loan without investigating how a lender treats your important details, and you shouldn’t download shopping apps that use your financial information without checking them out first either.

Clothes make the person, so shop wisely!

With the potential to save in your hands, you may be able to put together an impressive wardrobe on a tight budget. Not only will this fill your closet without wasting your cash, but your fashion choices may also have the power to enrich your time in the office.

Seven is an important number when it comes to meeting new co-workers and upper management. It’s how many seconds you have to make your first impression.

In less time than it takes you to figure out how to use the office’s fancy espresso machine, people will already have opinions about who you are. These preconceived notions may linger, affecting the way you get along with workmates.

Although there’s nothing you can do about their unconscious biases towards your race, age, or gender, you do have control over what you wear. By dressing and grooming appropriately for your office, you’ll leave a better impression. If you wear the right clothes, it may make it easier to build good working relationships with because you won’t have to overcome any lingering bad impressions caused by a bad wardrobe choice.

It may come as no surprise to hear your clothes affect the way other people see you, but you may not know how your clothing choices can affect the way you think.

Dress for success – especially around new coworkers where first impressions matter

In this day and age, “dress for success” is a common tip heard in-person and online. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the advice to dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Research from the California State University suggests you may want to pay attention to these tips, as there may be an element of truth in these maxims. They found people who dressed well were better at abstract thinking than those who didn’t.

Although the study only presented preliminary results, it poses an interesting hypothesis that the types of clothes in your closet may influence your self-esteem. After all, who hasn’t felt more important, more confident, and more attractive when they dressed well?

It’s possible to look good without spending a fortune

Test for yourself whether feeling good about your clothes improves your performance at work or impresses your co-workers. There’s no harm in looking good as long you stick to a budget.

Building a professional wardrobe from scratch may take time as you slowly add pieces to your closet, but it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of cash. The trick to an affordable closet isn’t in installment loans, which are better used in an emergency when you face an unexpected bill. Instead, you may keep your costs low by shopping for used clothing or using the right apps.

Like the classics, good money management never goes out of style, so keep on top of your budget and always be on the lookout for deals. These tips are relatively simple and, in many cases, timeless, so you can revisit them throughout your career to update your professional wardrobe on a budget.  


Disclaimer: This article provides general information only and does not constitute financial, legal or other professional advice. For full details, see MoneyKey's Terms of Use.

Posted in: Financial Tips Lifestyle

We’ve helped over 250,000 customers.Let us help you!

Not all applications are approved; duration of approval process may vary.

* If your loan is approved before 9:00 PM ET from Monday through Thursday, or before 6:30 PM ET Sunday, the funds will typically be deposited into your bank account the next business day, otherwise, your funds will be deposited into your bank account in two (2) business days. The date and time funds are made available to you are subject to your bank's policies.

Disclaimers: Product availability varies by state. To see loan products offered in your state of residence, please visit our Rates and Terms page. MoneyKey – TX, Inc. is licensed as a Credit Access Business (CAB), License No. 16641-62815, by the Office of the Consumer Credit Commissioner and registered as a Credit Services Organization (CSO), Registration No. 20110150, by the State of Texas. All loans for which MoneyKey acts as a CSO and/or CAB are funded by an unaffiliated third-party lender and serviced by MoneyKey.

In the State of California, MoneyKey – CA, Inc. is licensed by the Department of Business Oversight pursuant to California Finance Lenders Law License No. 60DBO43590 and California Deferred Deposit Transaction Law License No.1004516.

Reviews and any ratings referenced are based on TrustPilot reviews. Images are for illustrative purposes only. Reviews reflect individuals’ opinions and may not be illustrative of all individual experiences with MoneyKey.

Download Our Mobile App

Download MoneyKey app on Apple iTunes icon Download MoneyKey app on Google Play icon