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How to Build a Professional Wardrobe Inexpensively

Updated on September 3, 2014

The Interview

Many people think that you must wear a suit to interview for a professional or office job. This may be true if you are interviewing to be a bank president, but if you are reading this, chances are you are looking at something fairly entry level. In this situation, your future employer will not expect you to show up for your interview wearing Armani. If you do not already own a nice quality, well-fitting conservative suit, it is better to look polished and professional in the best quality separates you already own rather than trying to piece together something that looks vaguely suit-like from thrift stores or items you already own.

For men, wear the best quality pants, shoes, and belt that you own. If you own a nicely cut sport coat (no tweed elbow patches), pair that with a subdued tie. You may want to splurge on getting your pants and shirt professionally dry cleaned and pressed, instead of doing it yourself. It will make a big difference in your appearance without costing too much.

Women may consider wearing a nice shift dress with a blazer, or slacks and blouse in the same color, with a blazer on top, creating a professional, pulled together effect that won’t look like you’re attempting to cobble together a suit out of mismatched items.

Focus on your grooming. Your shoes should be polished and your hair should be styled. Men should have their facial hair trimmed neatly or shaved completely. Jewelry should be small and add to your outfit, not detract from it. Women, it may be out of vogue to wear pantyhose right now, but you should wear stockings for an interview if you are showing your legs.

Congratulations, you got the job!

Now that you have the job, what are you going to show up to work wearing? You can’t wear your interview outfit every day for the first two weeks without causing some comment.

The easiest and most cost effective way to build an office appropriate wardrobe is to try to create a capsule wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe is created of a small number of items of clothing that can be mixed and matched to create many different “looks,” giving the impression of a much fuller wardrobe.

Start with simple colors, patterns, and silhouettes in neutral colors. As time passes and you acquire more money to spend you can experiment with more colorful or trendy things, but as you start out you want to be focused on getting the most for your money. Buy the nicest items you can afford. You should be able to wear each item with at least two other things in your capsule.

Where to shop

You don’t need to spend all of your money at a big department store. Aside from common sense advice, such as waiting for holiday sales, outlet malls, and doubling up on coupons, you can buy some very nice items from surprising places.

  1. Target and Old Navy. Their clothing is overpriced initially, but within a few weeks clothing items quickly move to the clearance racks. Read the fabric labels when shopping from these stores. You’re looking for natural fiber blends, such as cotton, silk, and wool. A $10 polyester sweater from Target looks cheap, but a $15 clearance wool sweater from Target looks timeless and elegant. Of the lower end clothing chains, I’ve found more quality items from these two stores than in stores like Kohl’s.
  2. Goodwill. Goodwill is a great place to shop once you’re familiar with fabrics. Choose a Goodwill in an area with higher property values. The stores may ship items back and forth to keep their stock fresh, but a Goodwill in a nicer area will generally carry more work appropriate clothing in better fabrics and styles.
  3. Consignment stores. These are secondhand stores that tend to sell nicer items, because the original owner gets a portion of the money when the items sell.
  4. Online only deals and coupon code websites like RetailMeNot. Keep a list of websites for stores that sell clothing you like and regularly check the “final sale,” “online only” or “last chance” links for the sale items that are now in limited sizes and colors. Before purchasing anything online, check RetailMeNot.com to see if a coupon code is available.
  5. Hand-me-downs. I have never been too proud to accept items of clothing from people at church or work. You can obtain some beautiful secondhand clothing that someone else may have received as a gift or that they discovered just didn’t work with anything already in their closet.

Taking care of your work clothing

It doesn’t make much sense to own a professional looking wardrobe if you’re going to show up looking like you’ve rolled out of bed every day. Fortunately, you also don’t have to spend a fortune on dry cleaning.

  1. Read the label. If possible, try to buy blended natural fibers. These are generally able to be machine washed.
  2. At home dry cleaning. This is great for less structured items, such as skirts, some pants, ties, and some blouses. Save your dry clean items in a separate basket so that you’re only using one at home cleaning wipe at a time. This will make your box of cleaning rags last longer. You can also rip them in half and store the other half in a zippered plastic bag.
  3. Learn to iron. I know a man who spends $50 a month just dry cleaning his cotton shirts. Don’t be that guy. Ironing has gone out of vogue thanks to easy care fabrics, but it really will make your cheaper cut items look better, and it will preserve the look of the things you use a home dry cleaning system for.
  4. Proper undergarments. Slips and undershirts will extend the length of time you can go between dry cleaning or gentle washing and ironing. For women, wearing a shell with a sleeve under a jacket instead of a camisole will extend the wearing time between dry cleanings, as you can launder the shirt underneath. This same rule applies for wool sweaters. It’s easier to clean a camisole or t-shirt than a cashmere sweater, so wear your easy care items next to your skin and top them with your nicer things.
  5. Hang up your things immediately when you’re home. This may be common sense, but if you start cooking dinner or housework, you’re increasing your chances of spilling or creasing your clothing, creating more work for you at the ironing board, or creating another dry cleaning expense.

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