Budgeting, Thrift, and The Cost of Clothes

Everybody needs to wear clothes, so everybody needs to think about clothes at some level.  (Well, there are some people who decide not to wear clothes, but I can almost guarantee they aren’t interested in reading a blog called The Art of Getting Dressed.)  And one of the most basic and practical questions about clothes is What Does This Cost?  It’s the first thing I think about when I’m shopping and it is usually the major deciding factor in what I end up buying.

I’ve been buying my own clothes for a long time, so over the years I have slowly accumulated much clothing.  At this point, I don’t need to buy much – I’m no longer growing and my style doesn’t change very much.  When I was little, I remember having a yearly turnover of clothes as I grew out of things.  Lots of hand-me-downs from my older sister and from cousins, and once I grew out of the hand-me-downs, they went to my younger sister.  In my family, there are two older brothers, then a gap, then three sisters all pretty close together, so the girl clothes all looked pretty familiar after a while.  That didn’t bother me at all.  Why shouldn’t we all wear the same dress in different sizes?  It made perfect sense (and looked pretty adorable).

All that is to say, there are different budgets for different stages of life.  There are wardrobe maintenance stages and whole-new-wardrobe stages and I’m in maintenance mode right now.  I replace clothes as they wear out and seasonally buy a few things to refresh and complement what I already own.  But there are whole-new-wardrobe stages of life – going up a few sizes, going down a few sizes, having a baby – any time when the clothes just don’t fit anymore.  A wardrobe replacement budget should be more than a wardrobe maintenance budget, and clothing budgets needs to depend on income, the number of people you buy clothes for, and particular needs.  Families on the equator don’t need to own winter coats.  Families in Norway definitely need to budget for everybody’s winter coats.  (Maybe the real moral here is to move to a warmer climate to save money on clothes.  It’s something to consider.  It’s definitely something I consider when I’m surrounded by snowdrifts and hazardous icicles.)

Here are a few thoughts on saving money and being thrifty and practical when buying clothes!

Love What You Have


If you are not in the replace-all-the-clothes stage and you have some clothes that fit, love the clothes you own.  Wear the heck out of those clothes.  Use them up.  Mend them with they rip.  Mix and match and be creative.  The easiest way to save money is to not buy stuff.  I know that’s a duh statement, but we live in a world that’s constantly trying to sell us things.  There are whole Youtube channels devoted to “hauls” now.  Watching other people buy things has become a form of entertainment and envy and covetousness runs rampant.  In this and every age, contentment is rare, beautiful, and refreshing.

If you have clothes you never wear, you don’t need to feel guilty about giving them away or selling them, but I’d advise you to try them on first.  Don’t purge your closet only for the satisfaction of purging.  Getting rid of stuff feels good and responsible, but be practical about it and don’t act on feelings alone.  Think through the pros and cons.  Maybe that shirt doesn’t have the best fit on its own, but it would add some great color under a jacket.  When it comes to putting together outfits, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish and sometimes your least favorite clothes look good when paired with your favorite clothes.  Maybe you’re bored by that black cardigan that you’ve had for forever, but is it still useful?  I’ve never regretted owning boring black cardigans, but I have regretted giving away my “boring” clothes to the thrift store before.

My goal is to wear my clothes so much that the thrift store won’t take them.  I want to wear my clothes until they are ragged and thin and the memories associated with them are thicker than the remaining fabric.


Speaking of memories, this cream shawl-neck sweater has been through a lot.  I found this Eddie Bauer sweater at a Goodwill Outlet store and if you’ve never been to a Goodwill Outlet before, let me assure you that it is an experience.  Since there’s a high turnover for thrift stores, anything that doesn’t sell within a given amount of time goes to the outlet.  If it doesn’t sell at the outlet, it goes straight to a landfill.  That’s why everything at the outlet is beautifully displayed in dumpsters and at the end of your visit, you pay per pound of clothes.  Next time (if there is a next time), I would wear gloves.  But I found some great clothes and they were super cheap.  I probably paid less than 25 cents for the sweater, but I had to dig through a ton of terrible clothes to find it.  It was not a fun, relaxing, hanging-out-with-the-girls shopping trip.  The outlet had all the ambience of a state prison.  If you don’t like being yelled at while you shop, it might not be a place you want to go.

Thrift shopping has pros and cons, so here are a few to consider:


  • Inexpensive clothes!
  • You can find unique pieces that would be prohibitively expensive to buy new.
  • When I find something, it feels like finding lost treasure.
  • Lots and lots and lots of options.


  • Inexpensive isn’t the same as a good deal.  If a shirt is inexpensive, but you never wear that shirt after you buy it, it isn’t a good deal for you.  If it provides no use value, it is a waste of money, even if it wasn’t very much money.
  • If you need something specific, there is no guarantee that the thrift store will have it.  Or if you do find something that you love, but it is not your size, you’re out of luck.
  • Lots and lots and lots of options.  If you get decision paralysis, thrift stores will stress you out.  (I love making decisions, so thrift stores are fun for me, but I know that isn’t the case for everybody.)

If you are interested in thrift shopping, but also intimidated by it, keep a few things in mind.  First and foremost, don’t shop desperate.  This applies to all smart shopping, but especially to thrift shopping.  Be mentally prepared to leave without buying anything if you can’t find anything that works.  Start small and stay focused – don’t try to look through everything.  If you are looking for a dress, maybe you should only look through the dress section.  Limitations can help in the decision making process.

My process for looking through lots of stuff revolves around being picky.  I walk along the racks and let interesting colors, patterns, or textures catch my eye.  If I see something interesting, I’ll pull it out and look at it.  If it has a lot of issues (stains, rips, fading, smells), I put it back immediately.  It needs to be in nice condition for me to even consider it.  Textures that get my attention: cable knit, velvet, beading, tweed, genuine leather, silk.  Patterns and colors that I’m interested in vary according to the time of year.  Good brand names also help me decide if I want to try things on – Eddie Bauer, Ralph Lauren, Loft, Ann Taylor, Calvin Klein, London Fog, Boden, any Anthropologie or Nordstrom brands, etc.


If you like thrift stores, but get frustrated by the lack of size selection, discount retail is a good middle ground.  Places like Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and Ross are usually a bit more expensive than thrift stores, but they usually have multiple sizes of the same jeans.  I’ve had good success jean shopping at Marshalls, because there’s usually a good selection, multiple sizes, and a variety of fits. (See dark wash skinny jeans featured above.)  Just keep in mind that inexpensive doesn’t automatically equal a good deal.  Make sure to think through what you buy.  Thriftiness is all about being intelligent with money and making good choices.  Using a coupon to buy something that you don’t need and won’t use isn’t being thrifty and buying clothes just because they are marked down 40% isn’t necessarily thrifty either.

Saving Up

For more expensive items, like good shoes or a winter coat, it is worth setting aside a set amount of money each month until you find the right pieces to invest in.  The discipline of saving up will make you value your clothes even more.  Clothes are an investment, but sometimes we don’t think about that until we’re spending a significant amount of money.  A wool coat is an investment.  A tailored suit is obviously an investment.  But think of every clothes purchase as an investment – even that thrift store t-shirt.  Make sure you are spending your money on things that really suit you and suit your life right now.

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