Author Topic: Next up: career clothing on a budget  (Read 7432 times)


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Next up: career clothing on a budget
« on: August 11, 2014, 12:11:42 PM »
My husband and I are both working professionals with dual careers. I work in a business casual environment and had a baby last year, and none of my pre-pregnancy clothing fits my new body. We have a debt emergency, which we are paying down aggressively. I have purchased next to nothing since the baby came. I now have 1 pair of slacks, 1 skirt, a few shirts that I rotate, and a couple of maternity shirts I still wear out of necessity but which don't fit properly (our baby is almost 1). That's it.

This morning I had an interview to become a board member for a local Young Professionals group. I was flat-out embarrassed sitting next to these manicured, sharply dressed professionals. How on earth would they ever take me seriously? My hair is shaggy and graying because I don't get it cut/colored often enough, my nails are unpainted because I my polish is old and goopy, my jewelry is cheap, my shirt is a faded pilling maternity top that doesn't fit well, my shoes are cheap and too casual, and my pants are nice but too tight. I am an accomplished professional but you would never know it based on how I present. First impressions matter.

I have resolved to purchase some new clothing for fall because I'm working on a career change and I simply have to be ready to present more professionally in case I get interviews, have opportunities to network, etc. This was a wake-up call for me. I haven't attempted clothing purchases since we adopted a version of the MMM lifestyle and I don't know how to handle it. Tips? Tricks?

Would appreciate hearing from professionals who manage a frugal lifestyle but still dress appropriately for their career culture. I'm not a big fan of spending money on budget items that don't wear for more than a season, I would rather spend more on fewer items that last. I'm open to thrifting (everything except footwear), if I can find high quality items. Tailoring thrifted items maybe? TIA!


  • Stubble
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #1 on: August 11, 2014, 12:22:45 PM »
SALES!!!!  Honestly, it's the best way to do it.  When I came back to work after baby #2 last year,I spent about $300 at Banana Republic (because their pants fit me, lol) and had a great wardrobe that I could rotate.  I signed up for their credit card, which gave me an extra $15% off that day (I *never* sign up for cards) and paid it all off at the end of the billing period.  I think I bought two pairs of pants, four sweaters and a couple knit tops.  I joined it with the few clothes that fit from pre-baby, and have added an item in here and there to keep it fresh and updated for seasons (e.g., not wearing long-sleeved sweaters in 90 degree heat).  I got a coupon from the buying I did that day, and another for being a card holder, so when Christmas rolled around I asked for a gift card from the IL's and bought another pair of pants and sweater for $50.

For the summer, I've been mostly dressing in casual tops underneath 3/4 sleeve cardigans with the pants I bought last year and a couple other pairs that now fit from pre-baby.  I get the sweaters at Target...if I hit a sale, I can get them for $15 each.  I still wear several maternity t-shirts (love how long they are!) underneath the cardigans, and also bought a few tanks (at Target) to wear under them for hotter days.  I also love the cardigan/tank look because I can wear it with jeans on the weekends to church, or even just the tank if I'm running errands/hanging out at home.

I have a couple of nicer outfits for when I have important meetings, but I stick with the basics every other day.


  • Pencil Stache
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #2 on: August 11, 2014, 12:34:29 PM »
I'm a guy, but I think some of the principles are similar:

Thrifting + Tailoring where it's worth it - inspect garments carefully before pulling the trigger - especially if the store is in a wealthy area likely to see lightly-worn good-quality items.

Purchase multiple pairs of shoes that can be rotated and that go well with a lot of outfits, spread wear and tear plus gives a day for shoes to breathe.

Plan your wardrobe in advance in order to create the maximum possible of good combinations. Factorials!

And I'll second the sales thing - especially online sales - make sure there are free returns. If you keep an eye out and do research, there are seasonal trends and deep discounts to be taken advantage of. I can't speak to particular brands for women's clothing but J.Crew on sale and Banana (which are always on sale) should be good for solid staples.


  • Bristles
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #3 on: August 11, 2014, 12:36:38 PM »
Summer: Dresses + belted at the waist + cardigan/jacket if necessary
Winter: wool pants + tank top/blouse + cardigan/jacket if necessary
Winter variation: skirt + tights + blouse + cardigan

Two years ago I bought a handful of washable dresses at Target ($15-30 each) and they've made dressing for work so easy. I can dress them up or down, depending on what's going on at work. Highly recommended, plus it's flexible for a changing body size. (Belts! Oh belts are the key!)

And my fallback for traditional work staples (pants/cardigans) is Banana Republic. Watch the fiber content though, they've been getting cheap with it (adding stretch/poly to wool pants and cardigans which gives them a shorter lifespan.)

For tops I hit up the thrift store. I've found some great pieces that stepped my game up quite a bit for just a few dollars. Even if they're cheaper brand items, when I get them from the thrift store I can tell if they'll hold up in the wash or show their wear quickly.

A smaller, higher quality work wardrobe is better than a variety of ratty pieces. I really do wear the same (nice) things every week. I can't remember what my coworkers wore last week, or hell even yesterday, so I assume that's true for everyone. I'm much more confident in the workplace now, especially in meetings.


  • Pencil Stache
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #4 on: August 11, 2014, 12:37:17 PM »
I find even sales aren't good enough for me...  Every time I try to shop a 60% off-all-sale-styles clearance sale at Ann Taylor, I always find something I like more for less money at Twice (my referral link)

I've gotten really great pants, snazzy blazers, and some basic tops there for good prices.  It's a bit more expensive than a thrift store, but much less than sales at most stores.  Easier to sort through things, but you are dependent on peopel sending in things of your size and style preference, so it can be limiting.

I did, however, buy my first suit at Ann Taylor (after shopping at the common Banana Republic, Express, etc etc.)  It was a major expense and I ended up signing up for a credit card for the first-day-discount (no fees or other consequences).  PRO: Now I know my size at these stores, my general style preferences, so shopping online is easier.  CON: EVEN WITH that Ann Tyalor credit card, those sale-on-sale sales are more expensive than Twice.  (Or is that another pro?)

(For basics I still tend to shop Old Navy or Target.)

I don't wear jewelry or makeup, but I have a light sheer nail coat to wear (it helps me not bite my nails), and cut my own hair to a simple but classic long bob style.  (Pro tip: long hair can be worn up very professionally for only the cost of some hair pins and clips.)


  • Handlebar Stache
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #5 on: August 11, 2014, 12:46:36 PM »
Try going back through your pre-pregnancy wardrobe (assuming you like the quality of those items) to see if there are things you could salvage for use now.  For example, a tailored shirt that's too tight might work if you leave several buttons open and wear a tank top underneath.  Or maybe a blazer works if you never button it.  Or a wrap dress with a tank top.

Accessories and jewelry should mostly work with your new body.   

Frankies Girl

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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #6 on: August 11, 2014, 12:54:59 PM »
Find some of the thrift stores in the "good" parts of town and browse their racks. I've gotten some really nice stuff for pennies on the dollar - including name brand. Even shoes.

I don't paint my nails since I tend to chip them minutes later, but I have a good nail file and buffer so they're always neatly trimmed and shiny.

Hair - I do splurge on my hair, but it's pretty easy to dye it at home if you feel like you need to dye it, and basic haircuts are cheap if you can't trim it yourself. I see most young girls wearing their hair slicked back into neat ponytails lately in my office.

Jewelry. Do you need to wear much? I don't generally wear anything but my wedding band, and occasionally a pair of basic earrings (everyone probably has one decent pair of "professional" looking earrings, right?)

former player

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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #7 on: August 11, 2014, 01:16:55 PM »
A well-fitted T-shirt under a jacket sorts the top half.  T-shirts are cheap and don't need ironing, wear them in "power" colours - red, purple, navy, black (think formal military uniforms for "power" colours).  Make sure you have a good and well-fitted bra underneath: they keep a good shape for longer if you hand-wash.  A jacket needs to be decent quality and to fit well.  As you are in business casual territory, it can be a softer knitted jacket or smart heavier-weight cardigan instead of a formal suit-jacket.  The bottom half is less important - most of the time you will be sitting down behind a desk, and even if you are not most people won't be looking at your bottom half most of the time.   Go for plain and classic, and fit is much more important than anything else.   

If your hair is shaggy, learn an up-do for it (youtube!).  An updo with grey in it can look fabulous and will stand out in a good way.  For your nails, don't varnish, buff.  For make-up, ensure that your skin looks well cared-for and add lipstick (another "power" trick).  Shoes can be old as long as they are polished and in good repair.  For jewellery, a selection of cheap costume necklaces can dress up a T-shirt beautifully: try thrift stores and garage sales.

Thrift stores and second hand stores can be great, but for good quality stuff you need to go to the ones in high-end areas.  Ebay has a lot of clothes ("NWT" = new with tags), and ebay auctions can be better value than "buy now".  A day of going round shops trying things on for fit should tell you which brands and sizes are best for your new shape (you just walk out saying "not quite right I'm afraid", without saying that it is the price which is not quite right) and you will then be able to look to get the same brands and sizes cheaper elsewhere.

Good luck with the new you.

Mrs. Frugalwoods

  • Bristles
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #8 on: August 11, 2014, 01:25:03 PM »
I'm all about the thrift and consignment stores. Like Frankies Girl said, check out the shops in the pricey neighborhoods--they have the best stuff. I hardly buy anything new anymore, it's not even a comparison to how cheap thrift stores are. My fave professional outfits (I work 9-5 in an office) are dresses with blazers or cardigans. Since a dress is the whole outfit, it's usually cheaper than a top and a bottom AND they have the bonus of often looking more formal than a skirt. I rotate between a few cardigans 'cause no one can tell I've worn the same black cardigan 3x per week (for example).

When I'm desperate for some basics and I can't find them thrifting, Kohl's is a great deal. I like the "misses" section, which has the young professional outfits. The Apt 9 brand is usually cute, cheap, and lasts a long time.


  • Pencil Stache
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #9 on: August 11, 2014, 01:32:11 PM »
Great advice so far! 

I suggest you come up with a simple and low maintenance beauty routine.  Go with your natural hair color (or close to it) and choose a simple flattering cut.  Paint your nails clear and keep them clean and trimmed.  Get a capsule wardrobe (one skirt, slacks, jacket in a coordinating color, a cardigan or two, a handful of coordinating shirts and accessories.  Mix and match. Scarves are good for livening things up.

Take a friend with you and make sure you buy things that fit nicely - don't focus on size.  Get your staple items tailored as needed.

You don't need to be dressed to the nines, just clean and professional looking.  You're probably not as far off as you think.


  • Stubble
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #10 on: August 11, 2014, 02:41:22 PM »
Like others have said, consignment stores in ritzy areas.

Also, discount clothing retailers in decidedly NOT ritzy areas.  Ross, TJ Maxx, etc can carry some nice stuff, the trick is to go to locations where most of the other customers aren't looking for professional garb so it won't be picked over.

I wear polos most days and like Lands End for those.  They aren't super cheap but when they do 30-40% off and free shipping they're quite reasonable, they easily hold up better than any others I've had including Croft & Barrow.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #11 on: August 13, 2014, 01:29:18 PM »
I can completely relate.  My little one is now 6 months old and I'm squeezing into my old pants and with bf my tops rarely fit.  I've had good luck finding nice clothes at used clothing stores such as Plato's Closet.  A lot of discounted, never or lightly worn, designer clothes.

Good luck!

Rika Non

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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #12 on: August 13, 2014, 02:09:29 PM »
I'm fond of Stein Mart for business & business casual.  A much better selection of business clothing than Ross etc.

Another option that has worked well for me, is if you find a brand that fits and has high quality in a store, then shop specifically for the brand for sales on-line.  This only works for a clothing line that you know will fit / wear well.  I used to swear by cable & gauge for knits & cardigans since they were higher quality and could be worn for years.  I do not like the current offering from C&G, but finding a few good brands than using targeting shopping on-line for sales can work.  This won't get you a full wardrobe right now, but is something to keep in mind when shopping.  Especially for the things you look at the price tag and cringe at, go ahead and try it on, if it's nice wait for the end of season sales or watch the item on-line for the price to drop.  I seem to find better business casual clothes for the basics (pants / skits / button-downs) in the Fall / Winter.  Even a predominately Fall/Winter wardrobe can be worn year-round with just a few colorful accessories for Spring/Summer.

Also right now the outlet complexes near here have some good sales going for "back to school".  Though you are not looking for school clothing, the general complex wide sales environment is good.

Good luck, professional business casual is a horrific gauntlet.


  • Bristles
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #13 on: August 13, 2014, 02:30:21 PM »
I swear by Twice, like another reader said. And, you get $10 in credit when you first sign up, which can make a shirt super cheap. I also got $10 for installing the app on my iPad (not sure they are still doing that), and 50% off an order for installing the app on my Andriod. I particularly love Ann Taylor Loft and White House Black Market. And, return shipping is free - so get everything you think you might like, and then send back what doesn't fit! Here is my referral link: You can sell to them too, so you can sell the clothes that do not fit.

Another site I use that is cheaper, but I honestly do not like quite as much is ThredUp. For instance, I got the most lovely Ann Taylor dress for $20 - it is tea length with a liner and everything! You also get $10 when you sign up with them:

Also thrift stores and Ebay. You just have to dig! :)


  • Walrus Stache
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #14 on: August 13, 2014, 02:41:50 PM »
One thing I don't think has been stressed enough is to pick a colour and style and stick with it. For example, black, white and camel. Red, white and navy. Blue, brown and yellow. Whatever. It's a cliche in a way, but to really maximise a work wardrobe on a limited budget, everything has to go with everything else. You can have fun in your spare time.

Further, pick a set of pieces - e.g. Decide that you will only wear shirts, knee length skirts and jumpers. Or t shirts, trousers and cardigans. Buy legwear and knitwear in plain versions of your colours and tops in patterns. Two skirts, two cardigans, two pairs of shoes, three accessories (scarf/necklace) and five tops will get you through he working week looking smart and not like you wear the same clothes every day.

Skirt: 2 x 30 = 60
Cardigans: 2 x 30 = 60
Shoes: 2 x 60 = 120
Tops: 5 x 15 = 75
Accessories: 3 x 10 = 30

TOTAL = 345

And I'm sure you could find clothes for less than that if you really tried. I'm ball parking the cheaper ranges in M&S which would be totally respectable for smart-casual in England.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #15 on: August 14, 2014, 05:38:30 AM »
+1 for the Twice suggestions. In your situation I think it's a good idea - you can sell them your pre-pregnancy clothes that no longer fit and use the money immediately to buy some business casual clothes (just picked up some Express editor pants which people on similar threads on these boards say really last). Would help get you get through your debt emergency at least!


  • Bristles
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #16 on: August 14, 2014, 06:52:06 PM »
Good luck! I had to go through this last year because I transitioned to a new job where I have to dress business casual (more business than casual) instead of the scruffy jeans and t shirts I worked in before.
I have a hard time finding my size at thrift stores because I am tall. I loosely followed these websites for advice:
Also, if you can stand the angst and extreme consumerism, Corporette website has some nice primers on dressing professionally. It is for female lawyers, so it has a lot of information about how the way you dress affects how people will treat you at your job.

First, I decided on my colors so everything I bought would mix and match like a capsule wardrobe. I signed up for the emails from J Crew, Banana Republic and Ann Taylor so I could get the discount codes and know when the sales were. Then I ordered a couple of suit sets (jacket, pants and matching skirt or dress in the same fabric) because I had to get them in tall sizes. I had to take them to the tailor as well so I added that into the cost. I also had a few pair of dress slacks I got tailored to fit better. I bought a couple of new blouses at Ross Dress for Less for my interviews, to go with the suits. I found some nice scarves and classic-looking necklaces in the Goodwill in the rich part of town. I also had to buy new shoes. I bought cardigans from Lands End in various colors to wear on days I don't have to wear a suit jacket. A few tips: dryclean as little as possible. I am shooting for once a quarter. When you dry clean, be sure to take in all the pieces of that suit together, because otherwise they will start to look different if one piece gets drycleaned more than another. I have been trying to find dress shields to cut down on drycleaning of my jackets, because I am in a hot, humid climate and I sweat. If you can find shirts with sleeves to go under your jacket that helps. Keep your shoes and jewelry polished, have a little pair of nail scissors at your desk so you can cut any threads hanging off your suit or tote bag. Those little details keep you looking polished. I also baby my clothes. For my washable clothes, I never put them in the dryer. I dry my cardigans flat and then iron them inside out, and that seems to keep them from pilling or looking worn. The only one that looks faded now is the black one, and it is 100% cotton. Next time I will remember to get washable black clothes that have a bit of synthetic fiber so the dye will last longer.  I change clothes the minute I get home from work so no cooking smell gets absorbed and my kid doesn't get grime on them. I also make sure to rotate my shoes so they don't get smelly. It was a big chunk of money to buy my work wardrobe from scratch at one time, so my goal is to make it last for 5 years, with small infusions of new things or accessories from Goodwill.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #17 on: August 14, 2014, 08:19:58 PM »
And this is when I feel incredibly lucky to be a guy working for a company where shorts + a t shirt are perfectly acceptable. Hell, shorts, a graphic t, and flip flops will even do the trick. (That said, people still notice if you're pushing the extremes of the spectrum too hard)

You all have my condolences.


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #18 on: August 14, 2014, 09:23:34 PM »
Oh, I can totally relate to how *nothing* fits after kids!

As former posters have mentioned, dresses are my go-to now. I go to Marshalls and TJMaxx now and buy dresses for about $30 (some are more, some are less). They are so much more forgiving than pants after having kids and they automatically come across as professional. I am always getting compliments about how nice I look and I always just want to tell everyone, hey, this is the easiest thing in the world to do! You only have to make one decision (no worries about matching) and scarves or sweaters and shoes/tights can dress things up or down.

I honestly have way too many pre-pregnancy (I have two boys, 4 and almost 2) clothes still in my closet that I just need to let go of. And boy, do I ever know about those pilly maternity clothes! I really mostly only wear dresses and it's wonderful. Shift dresses are good for structure, and an A-line with a nice, comfy full skirt points out your waist and makes everything below look good (hallelujah)!

It did take me some time to get used to wearing what I used to consider "fancy" clothes to work but now I absolutely love it. And get a basic black blazer for winter (mine is from Target) and you look very polished and professional. I do wear heels too, but I tend to buy them from Target and Payless, and the compliments continue to come in. Granted, the librarian world is a dowdy one, but it's easy to rock on the cheap (while still looking professional!)


  • Stubble
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #19 on: August 14, 2014, 10:28:04 PM »
If you don't care about brands, is the way to go. Just check their clearance occasionally. I've gotten a ton of blazers there for $10-$15. I also regularly buy dresses for $10. If you have a Target card, you save 5% and don't have to pay shipping. Plus anything that you don't like you can return to Target stores. I regularly get complimented on my cheap little Target clothes! (Of course, if brands matter to you, this won't work!)


  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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Re: Next up: career clothing on a budget
« Reply #20 on: August 15, 2014, 09:55:26 AM »
People have already mentioned sales + Banana Republic, etc. I would also suggest signing up for the Banana Republic newsletter -- it will inform you when they are having warehouse sales, which can be anywhere from 70 to 90% discounted. The items will of course be from previous seasons (whatever) but the quality you are looking for will be there.