Teenager chic on a budget

By Mir
November 27, 2007

Suzanne writes:

Dear Mir,

I was searching the web for tips on how to redo my wardrobe, and I came across the perfect site… yours! I am a 16 year old girl on a rather small income. My parents won’t let me get a job until I’m done with high school, and I have to pay for gas. I get $100 a month from them. While this sounds like more than enough for someone my age, my problem is that I would like to give my wardrobe a little make over. I’ve always been the boring T-shirt and jeans kind of girl. Recently my style taste has changed and I’d like to wear something more fashionable. I am into darker clothing, without going over into the goth/emo area. I really like the layered look too. Also, most of my friends are guys and I like imitating their styles with a feminine touch. I have a closet full of clothes, but it seems like I’m missing what I need to complete my look. Do you have any advice on some key pieces that I could use to boost my style a little (without leaving me stuck at home because I can’t afford gas)?

I’m so touched that there’s a teenager in the world who doesn’t think I’m hopelessly dorky, that I am now mentally hugging Suzanne and stroking her hair. She, on the other hand, is now questioning her decision to write to me.

Today we’re going to do something a little bit special. I shared Suzanne’s query with my buddy Susan over at Friday Style, and we’re teaming up to give a complete answer that covers both style and shopping.

First, go read Susan’s style advice here. I love her emphasis on using what you already have, and figuring out combinations that get the most mileage out of each piece. (And I’m not just saying that because of that cable zip hoodie I have that I wear all the time but put different colored shirts underneath so that it looks different. Ahem.)

Now here’s some shopping tips, for the things you truly need to buy.

Hit the thrift stores. When you buy used, it takes a bit more time, but you can often score some great bargains. Get expensive designer items for a buck or three at your local Salvation Army, Goodwill, or other thrift stores. At your age you can also get away with some campy choices and look adorable, whereas if I wore the same thing I’d look like a bag lady. That means a brightly-colored lacquerware necklace or a quirky little vest you find there for $1.50 makes your whole outfit pop. Do not be dismayed by the sea of polyester plaid that will likely greet you at the doorway—there are treasures there if you dig deep enough.

Hit the sales. When I go to Target or Old Navy (both great options for cheap basics), I head directly for the clearance racks. The bad news is that you have to be prepared to buy off-season to get the best deals, but the good news is that if you like the layered look it’s no problem—the short-sleeved shirts you’re getting on sale now can be layered over longer sleeves until it warms up again. (And, again, age is on your side; you’d look awesome in a cute graphic tee over a thermal long underwear top that’ll cost you $2, whereas older folks wearing the same thing just look homeless.) Target in particular carries lots of great basics for not very much money, so when you snag stuff there on clearance they’re practically giving it away. Also remember that even the Marshalls and TJ Maxxes of the world have clearance sections.

Get your friends together. Have friends in similar sizes? It’s possible you could all swap some clothes around. But that’s not actually where I was going with this. If there’s someplace you want to order something online, gather a group, if you can, to either minimize shipping costs or get your order up above a minimum to get free shipping. The big $10 sale is on at Threadless right now, for example, and I’ve yet to meet the teen who can’t find a shirt or ten there that appeals. Threadless’ shipping is dirt cheap, but dividing it over a dozen shirts rather than two makes it an even better deal. So start rounding up your pals.

Get what fits but ignore the labels. Here’s something to consider: Certain items simply aren’t going to fit right if you wander out of the right department at the store. Jeans, for example. But depending on how you’re built, you may be able to cheat into a different department. (Stacy London and her cohorts are dying from the blasphemy which I am now spouting.) This does not mean you should buy stuff that doesn’t fit. But if you are of very slight and not very chesty build, it’s possible you’ll be able to get some deals on shirts by buying in the girls’ department. If you normally shop Juniors you may find some basics in the Misses department for less, and vice versa. And for layering underneath, you may even find a few stretchy tops in men’s that will work. Again: Please make sure it fits. But keep an open mind, is all I’m saying.

Make more money. Okay, this isn’t technically shopping advice. But if the issue is that you need more money, put on your thinking cap. Will your parents pay you extra for extra chores? Will they allow you to babysit? Do you have clothing or other items you really don’t want or need anymore that you could take to a local consignment store or sell on eBay? Can you ask for cold, hard cash (or clothing store gift certificates) for the holidays? Get creative, girl.

Above all, remember that you make the outfit, not the other way ’round. If what you’re wearing fits and you feel comfortable in it, you’ll look good. Concentrate on getting a few things you really love rather than a bunch of stuff that sort of works.

Thanks for writing, Suzanne, and thanks for your help, Susan!


  1. I so miss getting to wear campty choices, and wearing long-john shirts under T-shirts. Bummer.

    (Shhh – sometimes I dress like a bag-lady anyway, don’t tell!)

    Great advice – and when the season is right, hit the church rummage sales. Again, there’s a sea of plaid polyester, but if you’re willing to search, you can find dirt-cheap treasure.

  2. I think also, one thing that jeans & t-shirts teenaged girls have trouble with is accessories. (Because, well… jeans & t-shirts don’t need many accessories!) If she wants to go layered and a little more fashionable, scarves, hats, a decent bag and even like slouchy gloves can go a long way to update your wardrobe without costing a lot of money… especially if you can hit the thrift stores, or craft your own.

  3. Along with these great suggestions (I love the thrift store idea especially if you know the brands you are looking for!), I have heard good things about the national chain, Plato’s Closet. Here’s the website: http://www.platoscloset.com/about_us.html

    It’s a resale shop that caters to those in their teens/20’s.

  4. Two words: Plato’s Closet! It’s an awesome chain of resale shops aimed at teens.

  5. Really great advice, Mir. And this coming from a not cool 45 year old mom of teens.

  6. Yes, fantastic advice.

    I still wear long-john shirts under Threadless t-shirts, and I’m pushing 30 🙁 Am I a bag lady or mutton dressed as lamb?

  7. I’m 36 Carmie– doin’ the same thing–so I must be a bag lady in comparison!

  8. If you have a Steve and Barry’s in you area, hit them up. Nothing retails for more than $20, and they carry Sarah Jessica Parker’s Bitten Line as well Amanda Bynes’s Dear Line. Watch for the quality though….some things are well made while others are not.

    I got an adorable coat there for $20, and I know they have jeans on sale right now for about $10!

    also check out the clearance section on wet seal. it can be really hit and miss, but you can find some amazingly awesome deals there…like basic tops and layer pieces for around $5-$10.

    happy shopping!!!

  9. Seconding Melissa’s advice about Plato’s Closet and tennesseegal’s recommendation for Steve & Barry’s! Also, although not quite a STORE you can often find really cute stuff on ebay, oftentimes new with tags. I buy my pre-teen daughter new stuff on ebay (and the other stores I mentioned) all the time.

  10. I have to second the recommendation for thrift stores. I get almost ALL of my clothes there. Hopefully the writer (teen) lives in a large enough city that there are many to choose from — some of them seem to have better clothing than others. But even a small-ish town should have several — my mother lives in a town of fewer than 100,000 people and there are at least 5 thrift stores. Her fave is the one run by the hospital auxilary, because the donations are generally from doctors’ families. She gets some amazing deals there!

    Good luck on your quest!

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