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How to build a work wardrobe on a budget

Shop for office-friendly apparel at a fraction of the price.
by Nicole Spector /
Female architect reviewing model at table in office
Want to focus your work wardrobe? Create a capsule wardrobe or collection of essential, timeless pieces. Getty Images/Hero Images
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As if landing your first real job after college, or making a major career change isn’t stressful enough, there’s the onus of having to “dress the part.” I remember when I was interviewing for an editorial job at magazines straight out of university, I had one suitable outfit: a Ralph Lauren dress my godmother purchased for me after graduation, a hand-me-down blazer that frankly did not do me any favors and T-strap heels I’d owned since junior prom. I had always been into fashion — but to me that meant raggedy jeans, band t-shirts and flirty vintage dresses. Entering a business environment meant I’d have to spend some dough on new attire.

And spend I did, often on stuff I didn’t truly like. While I’ve since managed to build a spiffy collection of office-friendly apparel, I wish I’d had a style guru or two to help me build a professional wardrobe without breaking the bank. I imagine many women today are in the same position I was, so I consulted a number of fashion connoisseurs and bargain shopping pros to make a list of essential pointers. Since I’ve become something of an expert myself in recent years, I threw in some hard-earned tips of my own, too!

1. Borrow or trade clothes

Before you commit to purchasing anything, see what you can get away with borrowing. Not only is this free (ideally), it will help you get a feel for what you like and give you time to scope out your new company's dress code.

“Reach out to a few friends who are around your size and ask if you can borrow a pair of pants or a top for a couple of weeks,” says Kaarin Vembar, co-host of the fashion podcast Pop Fashion. “Keep a list of what you are borrowing and whom it belongs to. Do the neighborly thing and clean it before you give it back.”

You might also want to arrange a clothing swap with your friends.

“Clothing swaps were huge in the mid-2000's, and I'm all for continuing on the tradition,” says Vembar. “Everyone brings a few pieces that they aren't wearing anymore to a party and everyone swaps clothing. It can infuse new life into your wardrobe.”

2. Take your time

One mistake I made was thinking that I needed a whole new wardrobe to make the transition from college kid life to working adult life. Not only did I waste money with this approach, I got a lot of stuff I didn’t need (or particularly want) — plus, I ended up with massive clutter since I didn’t want to part with any of my non-work clothes.

“Too often people feel like building a business wardrobe means they have to buy everything (an entire wardrobe) all at once,” says Patrice J. Williams, style expert and writer. “But when you're on a budget, that just isn't feasible; instead I suggest creating a list of essentials and prioritizing them based on your job's daily functions. For example: if you're on your feet a lot at work, a pair of comfy sturdy patent pumps would be a priority. If you take a lot of meetings with clients on off-site locations, a structured bag would be a nice option. Slowly building a wardrobe is a great way to go.”

3. Create a ‘capsule wardrobe’

Creating a capsule wardrobe (aka, a collection of essential, timeless pieces) is not only useful if you’re looking to downsize, it’s a great way to bring focus to your closet makeover.

Here’s what Holly Quartaro, fashion stylist at Galleria Dallas recommends as your professional capsule wardrobe staples:

  • Black suit (can be worn as separates)
  • White or cream blouse
  • Black pumps
  • Large structured handbag

The idea is to get items that “can be mixed and matched with existing pieces to create a wide variety of looks,” as Quartaro notes, so choose a neutral shade like beige, black or taupe.

Two-thirds of the time people focus on the upper one-third of the body. Spend your money on dress shirts, blouses, and/or jacket.

4. Splurge on a classic pieces

If you can manage to splurge, be discerning. Rather than going for something super trendy and in-season, opt for a classic piece.

“Good investment pieces are those that will stand the test of time,” says Maria Duenas Jacobs, a style expert at the online subscription and personal shopping service, Stitch Fix. “Stick to classic styles and silhouettes for splurge items. I recommend investing in big-ticket items like leather jackets, coats, blazers and a nice handbag. Choose one item per season to splurge on and soon, you’ll have your go-to pieces.”

My first big splurge was a navy blue Kate Spade shopper and I still love it nearly a decade later. But you may want to focus your splurge shopping on items that you wear on the top of your body.

“Two-thirds of the time people focus on the upper one-third of the body. Spend your money on dress shirts, blouses, and/or jacket,” advises Jill Swanson, author of “Simply Stylish: Look Great, Spend Less!"

5. Download these shopping apps for the bargain hunt

  • eBay is my go-to app, but it can take time to ensure you’re getting the product you want. Make sure that the vendor offers returns, has a high rating (I say 98 percent or more) and preferably is in the U.S so you get your item quickly and can feasibly send back if needed.
  • ASOS has flash sales galore and have a diverse collection for all body types. They also have a wide variety of “shopper” bags, which are sleek but big enough to accommodate a laptop, and approximately 800 other things.
  • Etsy is more of a boutique site/app, and hence pricier, but you can filter your search to be under $25, which has led me to great vintage finds.
  • Poshmark lets you search other people’s closets for name-brand goods they’re selling, and is also ideal if you want to sell some stuff yourself.
  • ThredUp is similar to Poshmark, functioning as the ultimate digital consignment store.
  • 6pm is powered by Zappos and has an incredible collection of new designer items at rock-bottom prices.
  • Zulily has an array of deals on select brands on a daily basis. Great for apparel, but also essentials like bedding and luggage. Only downer is that stuff can take weeks to arrive.

6. Download these browser extensions for quick discounts

  • Ebates is a cash-back website sporting the must-have browser extension the Cash Back Button. I’ve received as much as 14 percent back on purchases via personalized check. This is my favorite of all the extensions.

  • RetailMeNot’s site offers deal alerts and coupon codes galore, but also has a browser extension, RetailMeNot Genie, which scouts out any discount codes and cash back offer’s at retail sites.
  • Wikibuy searches other sellers in real time to see if you can get a better detail on the same item elsewhere.
  • Honey applies eligible coupon codes at checkout.
  • The Camelizer by CamelCamelCamel (for Amazon) tracks the price history of Amazon items so you can see how good the savings are.
  • Slice Watch lets you track items you like and monitors prices to alert you when a product is on sale.
  • Gumdrop by Goodshop finds deals/coupons and donates a portion of purchases to the shopper’s charity or school of choice.

Note that not all of these extensions are compatible with all browsers and seldom work in tandem with another.

7. Check out these stores for staples and sales

Shopping in person is ideal if you want to try things on first. Check out these bargain-friendly spots.

  • Uniqlo. I could write a book on how wonderful Uniqlo is, which would include a chapter on my favorite fashion hack: these “heattech” scoop shirts. They last forever, don’t fade in the wash, and despite the cozy name, the tanks and short-sleeved tees are very breathable and great in all weather. I love to dress these up with a pencil skirt and blazer.
  • Nordstrom Rack
  • Saks Off Fifth
  • H&M
  • Zara (not as cheap as H&M, but great for more formal wear, like suits)
  • T.J. Maxx
  • Marshall’s
  • Century 21
  • Ross Dress For Less. If you don’t find anything you like for work, then definitely hit up the fitness section. Insane discounts on top brands.
  • J. Crew Factory. This outlet touts a smaller collection than J.Crew, but it’s the same brand at a much lower price.
  • Target. Check out their jewelry section; you can find a lot of statement pieces for cheap
  • Kohl’s. Sign up for Kohl’s cash to get extra bang for your buck
  • Forever 21
  • DSW. Great for those neutral pumps that you can usually find on mega-sale.
  • Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Sears. Amid store closures and the general struggle to stay relevant in increasingly digital world, you can find endless sales in their racks.

8. These hacks can convert casual clothing into business

You don’t need to buy something “professional” to pull off a business look.

“To convert casual clothing into business, try pressing a center crease down the leg of your casual pants (or jeans), tuck in a shirt/blouse, add some jewelry, classy loafers or heels and you are good to go,” says Swanson. “A plain shapeless dress can be transformed into work attire by adding a wide belt to anchor the look and topping it off with some great earrings and a pair of pumps. Sweaters and shirts with a low neckline can be worn backwards and be made work-appropriate by finishing it off with the right accessories. I’ve also layered a simple black A-line skirt under a casual tunic top to lengthen it into a dress.”

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