Redo your wardrobe on a budget

By Mir
October 10, 2007

Let’s talk about clothes, baby!

Kristin writes:

Hello pretty Mir! I’ve got a bit of a dilemma I hope you might be able to help me with. I lost a pretty significant amount of weight this year. Hooray, right? Yes, mostly, except for one thing – I quite literally have nothing to wear! Winter is approaching and my wardrobe consists of two pairs of jeans, a handful sweaters, a few of pairs of slacks to wear to work and one really rockin’ dress I bought myself as a reward. I need to do some major shopping and haven’t tripped over any buckets of money lately. I can’t wait for the end of season clearances like I usually would because I will very soon have to leave the house naked. I need pretty much everything – casual weekend clothes, business casual clothes to wear to work and a few cute things for date nights and the like. I not a clothing snob, but I don’t want everything I own to come from Old Navy, either. I generally prefer to spend a little more on something that is going to last. Also, I’ve worked hard and want to show off a bit! What does one do when faced with having to replace an entire wardrobe quickly and on a budget? Help!

Have I mentioned you’re so very pretty?

Thank you!

Congratulations on your weight loss, Kristin! That’s an awesome accomplishment, and you definitely deserve a fabulous wardrobe to go with your new bod.

You’re in the ideal place to shop for new clothes: You understand the value of spending a bit more on pieces which will last, but you also know that there’s nothing wrong with choosing value for some of what you wear. The issue becomes knowing when to spend less and when to spend more, and also having a sense of what you actually need.

Here I will insert my standard plug for the inimitable Susan Wagner, who writes eloquently on style issues here and here. Susan is chock-full of general wardrobe tips, and if you don’t already read her, start.

Let’s see if we can’t break this down.

Consider base layering and some other casual pieces disposable. What does that mean? It means that there’s rarely a reason to go spend $40 at Ann Taylor on a t-shirt. Of course, if you can get that tee on sale for $10, then we’ll talk… but in general? T-shirts, tanks, camisoles, casual shorts/capris and the like are not investment pieces. That means you should feel free to stock up on those things at Old Navy or Target. Coincidentally, these are the items you’ll need the most of, so getting them for $5 or $8 or $12 a pop works out well from a budget standpoint. This does not mean you can buy stuff that doesn’t fit, mind you, but it shouldn’t be difficult to find these items on the cheap, and you should feel at peace spending fairly little and then replacing them every year or two as they become worn.

Also keep in mind that Target does have some nicer stuff mixed in with the Cherokee and Mossimo. Some of the Isaac Mizrahi and other designer labels there are worth checking out.

Invest in classics. So where should you spend money? You should have a winter coat that you love, that fits you well and is weather-appropriate for your area and dresses up or down with ease. You should have at least one pair of jeans that fits you perfectly and can pass for business casual if need be. You should have a skirt or two that can be casual or dressy depending on what you pair it with, and ditto for pants. You should have at least one blazer-type jacket that goes with all of those bottoms. You should have a few tailored blouses, if that’s your thing, or some lightweight, tailored sweaters if they’re not. And you should have some awesome shoes.

(Yes, I have a thing for shoes. But in my old age I have learned that a fabulous pair of shoes will fit better and last longer than cheap imitations, plus they can smooth over a multitude of wardrobe issues if everyone is too busy admiring them to notice that you really need a belt with those pants.)

I think Susan wrote recently about having a great pair of boots for Fall/Winter, and I couldn’t agree more. A knee-high boot will go with both skirts and pants, and will lend your outfit a polished look that’s a whole lot more comfortable than a 3″ heel (unless the boots themselves are 3″ heels, in which case you’ll still look fabulous, but your toes might hurt later).

Shopping secondhand—if you have a good consignment store in your area—can be a great way to acquire some of those nicer pieces on the cheap. Even thrift stores can yield some finds, depending on your area. However, shopping thrift/consignment is time consuming and a gamble. Not everyone has the patience for it, and I get that. But it’s something to keep in mind.

What you should never, ever buy secondhand is shoes. It’s not just icky (yes, that’s the technical term), shoes tend to form to your feet over time. This means someone else’s shoes just aren’t going to fit you properly. For your shoe needs, take a cruise through the clearance section at Endless. If/when you find something you like, make sure to look for it over at Zappos to see if doing a pricematch might make it even cheaper. Both stores offer free shipping and free returns, so it’s risk-free shopping, either way.

Your best local source of the more work-appropriate clothing on a budget is going to be the off-price brand stores like Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, Steinmart, Ross, etc. They’ll have the high-quality stuff for less and are always a good place to start. If you live near any outlet malls, you might want to take a trip to whatever brand stores you enjoy and see what bargains you can find. I happen to really like Liz Claiborne, for example, and try to get to the outlet now and then as the prices there will trump even their online sales.

Local and online, you’ll want to look for department stores that have regular sales. Kohls and even Macy’s have constant sales, and a good selection of higher-quality items. They now sell Lands’ End stuff at Sears stores, and their online Overstocks often have items which are in season (but maybe are last year’s colors or whatever).

Specialty women’s stores—Ann Taylor Loft, Coldwater Creek, Liz Claiborne and the like—can yield great bargains, but typically only during sales. Ditto for places like Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer, and Gap. Timing is everything, so if you hit it right, great, and if not, you’ll probably move on.

Please do not start buying clothes off of eBay, particularly with a new-size body. If you find the perfect pair of pants and decide to buy exactly that style in a different color or whatever, fine, but eBay is generally going to be the wrong place to spend money on items where fit is so important.

Keep in mind that savvy shoppers buy clothes that can do double- or triple-duty. Don’t shy away from t-shirts and tanks because the weather is turning colder; not only will those items be cheaper, now, but a crisp shirt with a tank layered underneath looks more polished than a shirt alone. A knee-length denim skirt will work through the winter with a pair of boots and a sweater and be just as appropriate as the weather warms with sandals and a t-shirt. A sleeveless dress (of proper-weight material) can be worn all winter long with a jacket. Before each purchase, ask yourself “How does this fit into my wardrobe? What can I wear this with?”

I hope this helps, some, Kristin. Happy shopping!


  1. I love you Mir. Where were you when I was in dire need of fashion consultation when I was growing up? 🙂

  2. Great job, wise and oh so very pretty Mir! I just lost 60 lbs myself and was too silly to think of writing to you before replacing my wardrobe! I did manage to figure out most of what you just told Kristin to do, though =) May I put in my two cents’ worth? J. Crew has really awesome sales and the best fitted T-shirts, for my money. And if you’ve worked hard to lose weight, it’s all about fitted to show off the new bod, right? I go there, try on the different styles, and either wait for their “final sale” items to go an additional 20% off, or wait for the exact items I like (and that I know fit me well) and stalk ’em on eBay. I agree that eBay is otherwise a crapshoot as to fit- you’ve got to try on the clothes from different stores first to know what fits you well.

    Hey Kristin, you wanna come shopping with me?? I need a new winter wardrobe..

  3. I have a friend who hits the mall only to “cruise” through the sale racks at certain stores–Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Gap, etc. She has found some great scores that way, but like Mir, said you have to have the time to do that (and/or consignment shops). You have to know what you are looking for and be familiar with sizes in the different brands too.

    I will second the vote for Kohl’s for some basic pieces. They often have buy one, get one free sales on tops and bottoms. I’d hit Ross Dress for Less and TJMaxx before I’d go to the outlets because I often find lower prices there.

    Good luck on your shopping adventures! 🙂

  4. A plug for J Crew’s tshirts. They last for years and don’t shrink much at all. I get mine from an outlet nearby for $7 each or so. When I get stains on the white or lighter colors, I buy a couple boxes of Rit and dye over them.

    Also, if you have a Nordstrom rack near you, you can get some fantastic deals on nice shoes and clothes there. I recently picked up a pair of Diesel jeans for $9.

  5. I have lost a significant amount of weight and Ebay is a godsend. Once I know what size I wear in a particular brand (by trying it on in a store), I do a search by size within that brand and I find so much stuff. Occasionally, I take something to be altered, but it has worked out great.

  6. I’ll plug J. Crew layers, too — I just picked up a couple more basic tanks for layering for about $7 each. Already marked down to $9.99 and then on sale beyond that. Lately, they have had a veritable rainbow of colors available and so what if most of the colors on sale are summery — I picked up a nice olive-y green and a navy just last weekend out of the “summer” pile, which I plan on using under shirts and sweaters this winter. Or, should I say, “winter,” since I’ve given up on actual cold weather.

  7. Thank you so much Mir! I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, but now I’ve got a game plan. And a list. I live to cross things off lists. I perhaps need a new hobby. 😉 But thank you a million times, Mir!

    DebbieS, I would love a shopping buddy! Also, we’ve lost the same exact amount of weight. It’s a sign. 🙂

  8. get on Tim Gunn’s new show and he’ll biy you a new wardrobe!

  9. I think I have found my People — all of you who are singing the praises of J. Crew have my undying love.

    Also may I suggest grabbing a copy of Tim Gunn’s book (from the library, if you prefer)? He has some FANTASTIC advice about how to pull your closet together and make it work for years to come.

    Finally, Mir is pretty. That is all.

  10. What about resale shops? Thrift stores? Salvation Army? (Don’t let the name put you off, there aren’t any soldiers visible in the store.)

    I shop almost exclusively at such stores, and I get great deals. I can get a full wardrobe for less than $30, including a winter coat.

    You have to be careful and check each potential purchase carefully for tears, missing buttons, broken zippers, and stains, but you can find fabulous bargains.

    And often you find the best quality clothes there. Check it out – what have you got to lose?

  11. Ah, THIS is the real reason I can’t lose weight, it’s the financial reasons! 😉

    Congrats, Kristin and DebbieS!

  12. Any insights for men? My wardrobe is starting to get worn, and I have neither fashion sense nor a wife to dress me.

  13. Dave, you must have a sister, cousin, female friend, friendly co-worker, guy friend with fashion sense, etc. who would be willing to go shopping with you, right? And really, if you’re wearing anything other than jeans and a t-shirt you’d already look better than most of the men I know. Sad but true. Shop off-season – men’s clothes don’t change with the whims of fashion designers like womens’ do. There’s still some warm weather stuff on the racks right now, so go find a steal and save it until spring.

    Chakalote, I have found one or two things at my local thrift stores, but I envy people like you. I rarely find anything I couldn’t get almost as cheaply new at Target or wherever. I obviously need to do some research and find the one that’s closest the richest neighborhoods. I hear all of these stories about people finding a Coach bag for $10 or something equally ridiculous and I think, “Dude, where is that thrift store?!” 🙂

    I’ve never heard of Tim Gunn. I’ll check it out. Thanks everyone.

  14. I am a 100% thrift store shopper and it saves me LOADS of money. Others have said, and it bears repeating – – it IS time consuming (as most stores don’t group clothes according to size very well, etc.) and you have to REALLy check out the items to make sure nothing is broken or torn.

    BUT – make some time for it, and you will be successful! Our local stores even have 50% off days! Even better!! Go with a list in mind of what you want/need and instead of aimlessly searching through racks, your eye is going to be looking for that red shirt, those khaki pants and that black dress.

    Good luck!

  15. I am a huge fan of Christopher Banks. This summer, I tried on some of their dresses and really liked a couple of them. I knew they would go on sale this fall. So, I went in this weekend. The $39.50 dresses were down to $9.99 and $6.99. So I bought three. They were the only ones in my size. I love them. Plus, since they are sleeveless, I can buy sweaters to put over them and call them a fall/winter dress. For less than $10 each, I can now afford to purchase an extra piece for them. I may also have them shortened a la Stacy and Clinton, and I can see paying for that as they were inexpensive. If I had purchased them at full price, I would never do it.


  16. One thing that is also a factor for thrift store shopping: there is a knack for it, and if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. I don’t.

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