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How to Build a Work Wardrobe When You’re Broke

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After all the discussion about the part-time job I turned down, I’ve been thinking about what I’d do if I did need to return to work at some point. The first thing that came to mind was, Holy crap, what would I wear?┬áThe last two agencies I worked for allowed me to wear jeans, so I basically wore a t-shirt (with the company logo, at least), jeans, and sneakers or flip flops. I know how unprofessional that sounds, but it was SO NICE after a few years of wearing dress clothes! However, I know that most workplaces want their employees to look decent.

The fact is, if my situation gets bad enough for me to leave self-employment (even if it’s only part time), I probably won’t have the money to buy a whole new work wardrobe. After all, you get a job because you need money, not because you have too much of it! Yet none of my old dress clothes fit me now, so I’d have to find a solution.

When I got my first job out of graduate school, I was in the middle of filing for bankruptcy. There was no way I had money to go shopping for clothes! Since the dress code was business casual, though, I knew I had to figure out a way to build a basic work wardrobe without spending a lot of money – exactly what I’d need to do this time around.

Pants

Since pants are the most basic (and boring) part of an outfit, that’s where I started.

Men could probably get away with wearing the same khaki pants every day for a week without anyone noticing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way for women. For peace of mind, I allowed myself four pairs of pants for work (all of which came from Walmart or Target):

  • One pair of black
  • One pair of brown
  • One pair of gray
  • One pair of khaki

Obviously I had to repeat a pair of pants each week – I wore the black pants on Mondays and Thursdays (to space them out as much as possible) because black is one of the least noticeable colors. The khaki pants were for casual Fridays. This was the most expensive part of my work wardrobe at about $70, though I could have done better by shopping sales.

Shirts

Shirts are great because (1) they’re relatively cheap, (2) they can go with multiple pant colors, and (3) people don’t really remember them unless they have a distinct pattern. When I was building my initial wardrobe for work, I bought 12 shirts (not counting a few I already had that were appropriate for work):

  • 4 short-sleeved
  • 4 long-sleeved
  • 4 sweaters

Almost all the shirts I bought were in solid colors. That way I could mix and match them with my pants, and/or layer the short-sleeved shirts underneath. I went to multiple stores for these, including a killer sale at Old Navy, and only spent $55.

Shoes

As a shoe addict, this part was easy for me at the time. I had two pairs of flats – brown and black. I wore the black shoes with my black and gray pants, and the brown flats with the brown and khaki pants. I also had boots in brown and black for winter, as well as other shoes that worked depending on what shirt I wore. I did spend $10 on trouser socks, 4 pairs in black and 4 pairs in nude.

Accessories

This is where you can have fun with an otherwise plain wardrobe. Scarves, jewelry, belts, and even nail polish are super cheap ways to make your work clothes look more put together. Fun fact: I have a black sweater that I LOVE, but when I used to wear it to work, no one ever mentioned it. The first time I wore it with a scarf, everyone was chasing me down to say, “Cute sweater!” Just more proof that accessories make a difference. :)

When I built my first work wardrobe, I didn’t spend any money on accessories – I just used what I already had.

Total Wardrobe: $135

Until I started receiving regular paychecks, I wore the heck out of my $135 work wardrobe. I planned ahead on a printed monthly calendar so that all my shirts would be spread out – heaven forbid someone realize how few clothing items I owned!

Every payday, I would add a shirt or two to stretch my wardrobe further. Eventually, I had enough basics to begin adding decent pieces that would last longer. By the time I got a job that allowed jeans, I had a huge work wardrobe that honestly didn’t cost much money. I’m just sad that none of it would fit me now if I end up getting another job!

How did you build your first work wardrobe? Any tips for places to shop, items to buy, or mistakes to avoid?

About Andrea Whitmer

Andrea is a freelance web designer and single mom trying to maintain a sense of humor in an otherwise chaotic world. She blogs in hopes of helping others avoid the same mistakes she made in the past. Join in the discussion here on So Over This, or connect on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Plus. You can also subscribe to new posts via RSS so you never miss out!

Comments

  1. April Stotler says:

    Goodwill usually has work pants for around a couple of dollars a piece. I worked at Wal*Marts from the age of 18-21 and we had a uniform of khakies and blue t-shirts. The most expensive piece of my work wardrobe is always shoes. When I got a different job that required a little more variation, I just went back to the Goodwill, got some brown and black pants from other areas (digging required but it yeilded decent results)  and then just got a rainbow assortment of polo-style shirst. (Again, I was working a retail job.)

    Now I'm going to be in an actual office position in a few months and I'm not quite sure WHAT to do. I guess I'll start piece-hunting soon. (shrug)

  2. Jessica Ortiz says:

    I have 2 part time jobs..one business casual one dress down aka Jeans. Since I wear my jeans ALOT outside of work too I do tend to go with better quality jeans to last me forever, I also buy classic cuts, nothing too trendy so it flows from season to season year after year. When I go classic I do like to go a little higher end since I know I will have that item until a. I grow out of it b. it disintergrates :-) If I want a cute trendy something I go cheaper since it is only for 1 season maybe 2. But my motto no matter what is get it on sale and find a coupon code :-)

  3. I've put a lot of money into my work wardrobe, and I afford that by buying sporadically. I buy like one item per month, so even if it's $80 it doesn't kill my whole clothing budget.

  4. I think this goes without saying, but check EVERYTHING you buy and make sure it can be washed in the washing machine. There was a store I frequented when I first started out that I loved, but sometimes I made the mistake of purchasing a dry clean only item (some of these, like skirts and blazers, can be washed on the gentle cycle in cold water at home, but you're always taking a risk when you do that). Sometimes the most random things in regular stores can be dry clean only, and you have to keep an eye out.

    I agree about rotating the basics so you get more use out of your items. I have a sweater in mind for today and I think I'm going to pair it with a cute scarf, thanks to you! 

    • Good point – I despise dry clean only items! And there's nothing like throwing them in the washer without realizing they're dry clean only. Not that I would know or anything – I just heard about it. *innocent face*

      •  It's not always a disaster. :) I machine-wash almost everything, including several items marked "dry clean only". They won't last as long as if they were properly treated, but they look presentable — and replacing them costs a LOT less than paying for dry-cleaning.

  5. Oh! And if you're just starting out and you have a job where you're on your feet a lot, invest in a solid pair of shoes. Your feet will thank you.

  6. Deborah @impulsesave says:

    I've been building my work wardrobe over several years (I was one of those kids in high school who actually asked for a blazer for Christmas!), but of course sizes change, styles change and now I'll be needing to get some more items before heading off to grad school and eventually a career. Thanks for the tips! Its nice to know you can do it without spending a fortune :)

  7. Grrr clothes. I really need to get a job that lets me wear jeans to work every day. I hate business casual clothes, probably because I'm an akward size and usually have to shop upscale to find nice things that fit that I really can't afford or dig through tons of stuff at goodwill type stores and hope. I think the other reason is that I donated most of my nice wardrobe and then proceeded to lose an obscene amount of weight due to illness that I have never gained back, putting me at the same size I was in high school. Needless to say I dropped about 6 sizes so none of my wardrobe fit. Then I promptly got laid off and had to look for work in clothes that seriously didn't fit. That was an adventure. Go go JCP outlet and Half of the Half (best consignment store ever). That was almost 2 years ago and my wardrobe still hasn't recovered from the shock.

    Oh and just to bitch some more they cancelled casual friday today because we have "visitors" in the building. As if these people have never heard of casual friday. Ugh.

    • I really don't understand why so many workplaces insist on business casual. In one of my stricter jobs, I came to work in jeans one day because we had a power outage and it was about 45º in my house that morning. Several of my clients commented that they felt a lot more comfortable seeing me in "normal" clothes and not all dressed up. That made a big impact on me. (For the record, I got written up within an hour of my arrival at work. My supervisor's office was an hour away, which means someone was uptight enough to report me. SO glad I don't work there anymore!)

      • Who knows why I have to be in business casual? I'm locked in a room all day with my department. Most of my fellow employees can't even get in without knocking. When they do building tours, they skip us. My entire interaction with the public consists of talking to them on the phone or via email. I'd be a lot happier in jeans. Oh well.

        OMG I hate workplace snitches for the most part. Unless someone is obscene, let the boss figure out who needs to be written up. Confession: I have reported someone for a dress code violation, but it was because her dress was cut so low that I could see her breast bone. If she'd been more than an A-cup, I'd have been able to see those too. It freaked me out.

  8. Ariella says:

    I think the worst part about gaining 40lbs since my last good-paying job, is the inability to wear all of the corporate work clothes I bought. Since then I do the bulk of my shopping at Goodwill. It takes a little digging to find things, but when I do, it's gold. I often get compliments on my outfits too. I work two part time jobs now so I don't really spend too much time at either one. This allows me to rewear a lot of my wardrobe. 

    • I feel your pain! I'm about 30-40 pounds heavier since the last time I had to wear business casual, and it is infinitely harder to find things that look good because I was small(er) for so long. Now I seem to have moved into the most popular size in the universe because I have trouble finding things that fit.

  9. I only have 2 pairs of work pants- both black.  We get to wear jeans on Friday. They were both $20 at JC Penny's.
    The shirts I wear at work are usually nice t-shirts or polo style (from Lands End), none of these cost more than $15 each.  However, I've had these for a LONG time (six or more years)
    I wear the same shoes everyday, black Merrells- I got them on sale.  I replace them every 4 years or so.

    My big splurge was on jackets.  Coldwater creek had an amazing sale, so I got 4 blazers for $100 total. 

    • I love Lands End – their stuff lasts FOREVER! I had a coat from there when I was a kid, and I desperately wanted a new one. My mom told me I could get one when the Lands End one wore out. I tried my hardest to rip or ruin that thing and it still lasted 4 years!

  10. I shop the sales rack if I absolutely have to have something. I also go to consignment stores when they are having their sales. I'm not exactly skinny (HAHA) and I think that a lot of times women my size just don't shop at stores like that because they think they won't be able to find anything. Bad for them, good for me! I don't spend a lot of money on clothing AT ALL. I'm trying to remember the last time that I bought something and it's been so long that I honestly can't remember.

    By the way, I love that you made a calendar with outfits! I have done that in the past and am glad to know there is someone else out there who does that! Thank you.

    • Hahaha, I'm so glad to know I'm not the only person who makes calendars! My ex-husband used to think I was a lunatic, planning out little details like what shirt I would wear. He just didn't understand what it's like to be a woman!

  11. I've been really good with my spending. I try to buy quality pieces that aren't too trendy.

  12. So when I did that closet cleanout I ended up donating a lot of ugly (even fugly) work clothes I just could not stand to look at anymore. I was like, "If I have to wear this middle-aged woman black and white cloud print work shirt one more time I am going to quit!" So I ended up getting rid of so many drab, shapeless work clothes that I have a very small work wardrobe left. I eventually need to replace some of the old stuff, but it's not going to be expensive because I'm only going for the basics: black pants, black flats, additional pair of black heels and maybe another dress shirt and sweater. I think I could find all that for under $90 with my new money-saving ways!

  13. For tops, jackets and pants, I shop a lot at Goodwill in the wealthier suburbs (great way to find designer stuff for next to nothing), places like Marshall's or Nordstrom Rack, or consignment stores. I also like H&M for basic tops and fun jewelry. 

    • I am SO JEALOUS that you have H&M close by! I got to shop there once on a trip to Chicago to see my cousins, and I was amazed at all the stuff they had. Actually, I still have two of the shirts I bought – they've last a LONG time.

  14. I use charity shops for a great deal of my clothing, but since I've gone minimalist I've figured out that the best way to save money on clothes is to buy as little as possible, and accessorize the heck out of them. 

    • That's what I've been trying to do, though I'm definitely no minimalist. I think it's a lot more fun (and cheap!) to choose simple clothes and great accessories. I could spend hundreds of dollars on jewelry, shoes, purses, and scarves. I think partially because you can choose accessories without worrying about whether they'll fit!

  15. I'm lucky that my office is casual and allows jeans.  Occasionally I'll get a $10 off coupon from JC Penney and match that up with a jean on sale for $20 and get a pair for $10.  Tops, I seem to have good luck finding nice shirts at Ross for $7-8 each on average.  Shoes are harder for me since I wear a narrow width and those are more expensive and harder to find. But, I'm easy on shoes, so when I do make a purchase they last quite a long time before I need to replace.

    • That's always my reason for owning a bazillion pairs of shoes – since I have lots of them, I never really wear out a pair. The only exception was when I did case management in a 7-floor hospital. I ran through expensive shoes every 2-3 months!

  16. National uniforms for all!!! Provided "free" from our benevolent government :) 

  17. I've found the best deals on work clothes at places like tj maxx and nyandco. i loooove nyandco for work clothes because they always have fantastic sales.

  18. Go to a well-to-do area and check out the consignment stores / thrift stores. That's probably the best way of getting something quality for an affordable price. Otherwise, look out for sales at Gap / Banana Republic – the suits there are more than fine for business casual work places. You can also find good suit sets at places like TJ Maxx and Marshalls.

    • I used to have a lot of luck at TJ Maxx, but in the last few years I haven't been able to find things I like there. I think when I moved out of juniors sizing, it became too depressing.

  19. I've found a number of things that have held up well from the Target clearance rank, surprisingly.  I like their Merona brand.  Totally agree with you that a work wardrobe doesn't have to be too involved or expansive to look professional. 

  20. I actually took a part time second job, in retail, when I got out of school.  I devoted all of the money I earned to building a wardrobe, and got an employee discount on purchases, too! I had to work every Saturday, open to close, but the benefit to my wardrobe was substantial. I took advantage of being there when mark downs occurred and knowing that the particular item I wanted was going on mark down in two days. I worked that job for over a year.

    I also want to mention, I am not enchanted with the photo you show at the top of your post, particularly if you were showing those clothes as examples of business appropriate clothing. I am certainly older than you, but those skirts and tops don't look remotely look like work clothes to me. I own my own business now, working in a profession. I don't think short, flirty skirts and low cut tee shirts with obtrusive jewelry are work appropriate.  Even business casual to me doesn't mean that type of attire.  I have no objection to short, tailored skirts, or tee shirts, which don't fit tightly and which aren't low cut, if paired with a jacket.  I think jewelry should not be visually obtrusive, or make noise as you work, or hang down so low that it gets caught in your paperwork. Those outfits look like going shopping with your girlfriends, or out with your boyfriend to a picnic or the movies. My two cents.

    • Thanks for sharing your opinion, Zanne. That photo was just a stock image for "wardrobe" – it wasn't meant to imply that I would wear things like that to work. I'm more of a slacks and button-down shirt kind of girl myself!

  21. I just left a job that allowed skinny jeans and flip flops. So days I'd show up to work in a tank top. And I'm pretty sure some of my coworkers alternated between two outfits. 

    I've wondered what I'd do if I had to go back to work and update my wardrobe to something more professional. Since I have long legs, it's more difficult for me to find pants that fit. I'm relegated to only a few stores. I think I still have a couple pairs of black slacks around the house that I could wear until I could afford to do better. For shoes, I'd hit Off Broadway for a classic pump. Other than that, I probably could get by with what I already have. Hmm. Maybe I have nothing to worry about after all.

    • Pants are tough for me too, but I have the opposite problem – I'm too short for regular length and too tall for petites. I usually end up buying the regular length and having them hemmed. 

      I think the biggest challenge for me would be the mental barrier of returning to "real" work clothes when I haven't had to wear them in so long. Since I don't work in finance or business, I firmly believe that dark denim can look very professional if paired with the right elements!

  22. This is a great post. I definitely agree with others, Goodwill is a great place to pick up pieces. You may not find something every time but it's a great option. Also, Ebay is a great option as well. You can often get pieces of clothing for 99cents. 

    • I'm so jealous of the people who have Goodwill nearby! I have to drive 30 minutes to get to the nearest one, and over an hour to get to a "good" one. I didn't even think about eBay – thanks for reminding me!

  23. I sew and knit, so that's how I get a lot of my clothes (and one of my jobs is working in a yarn shop, so I get a discount on yarn).  It's more expensive than shopping at thrift stores (although I do that as well), but since I enjoy these hobbies, I look at the cost as being part of both my clothing budget and my entertainment budget.  And whenever I make a new garment, I make sure that it goes with at least two garments I already own.  There's no point in spending time and money on something that isn't useful in my wardrobe.

    • I've always wanted to learn to sew. My sister took some classes last year and I've been so jealous of all the cool stuff she makes! Judging by my previous attempts to be crafty, though, it probably wouldn't be a good idea for me. Glad you're able to kill two birds with one stone!

  24. Busted!  You totally went to the mall!

  25. I came to this realization just today and had the same fear and panic. I'm actually going shopping for a shirt and a belt to create one complete outfit for when I land an interview. After that I plan to build my wardrobe slowly to meet my work needs.

  26. Love this post! Starting a new job that required me to dress a little nicer was really stressful! I bought mostly clothes from Old Navy and New York & Company and while they looked nice, unfortunately I just cleaned out most of them from my wardrobe after about 18 months as they are worn out, out of style, or no longer hold their shape.

    Pants are the hardest since I'm really tall and can't wear pants for "regular people" so I special order the "tall" from the Gap for about $50 per pair, but there is almost always a coupon code, free shipping and cash back available.

    For shirts, I once found a white button down for $3 at Kmart! but I hate wearing them because I don't iron. I try to stick to layering tanks/camis from Old Navy or the Gap under sweaters from Express. There is almost ALWAYS a sale at Express (I used to work next door to one and shopped there all the time) and you can snag a few classic cardis for around $20 each on clearance that will last for years. The one downside is they almost never offer free shipping on their site, but they always have coupons/codes.

    For shoes, I had a very bad experience with Payless flats that shaved a whole layer of skin off my heels (!) so I stick to Boutique 9 flats from Nine West for about $69 or the Steve Madden "Heaven" flats from DSW.com for about $30. Super comfy and they last about a year, plus they look polished and expensive.

    Totally agree on the accessories/nail polish strategy for changing things up. I love wearing scarves, especially circle scarves, since they get in the way less when you're working on the computer.

    I am trying to invest in a few nice things since I'm trying to move up at work. There is a nice fitted blazer on the Gap website right now (available in tall, whoopee!) for $98 with 30% off, so I ordered it. We'll see how that goes!

    Hope this was helpful! 

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