18 Tips to Dress for Less

For many, clothes are more than an expense, they’re an expression, which can make overspending easy. But whether you view clothing as art or afterthought, use these tips to save a bundle.

The three basic necessities of human life are food, clothing and shelter. In a previous post, I offered 28 ways to save on food. Today I’ll talk about saving some cash on clothes.

I should start by admitting that when it comes to shopping for clothes, I’m no authority; I tend to go years without clothes-shopping at all. Pretty much everything I wear was given to me as a birthday or Christmas gift, and I tend to wear things until they either literally dissolve or become stained and/or torn to the extent that whoever I’m with won’t let me out of the house with them on.

In other words, I’m your typical guy.

Happily, however, I’ve gotten help with this story from a person who holds clothing in much higher regard: my girlfriend, Sara. She finds clothes so interesting (compelling, actually) that she’ll literally wander a mall with no intention of buying anything. Just to look!

That would be entirely incomprehensible to me, but I feel the same way about boats and motorcycles. So I understand the desire, just not the object.

Now that you know where I’m coming from, let’s start to get where we’re going: tips you can use to slash your clothing costs. Check out the following 90-second news story I recently did about saving on clothes. Then meet me on the other side for more.

Now let’s continue by summarizing those five tips with a bit more detail, then add a few more:

  1. Single best way to save on clothes: Sell what you’re not wearing at a consignment shop. Before you buy your next article of clothing, go into your closet and remove everything in there that you haven’t touched for a year. Take it to a consignment shop. Take the stuff they don’t want to a thrift store so someone else can benefit. When you get cash for your old clothes, use it to buy some new, pre-worn ones. Hint: When you’re selling or buying used clothing, go to the fancy part of town. You know how rich people are; they’ll pay more for your stuff and give away theirs when they get bored. This is also true with thrift shopping and garage sales.
  2. Buy out of season: shorts and bikinis in January, coats and sweaters in July.
  3. Don’t ever buy anything without checking a coupon search engine first. Think of it as a instant savings dispenser attached to your computer.
  4. If you’re a woman shopping in a department store for something unisex like a t-shirt or sweatshirt, you might find it cheaper in the boy’s or men’s department. Apparently the sexist pigs who price clothing believe women will pay more for comparable clothes than men. Call ’em on it.
  5. Don’t over-wash your clothes. It wears them out faster. Avoid dry-cleaning if possible, and when you do wash your clothes, avoid dryers. That lint in your dryer screen is made of little pieces of your clothes that get rubbed off. Hanging them on a rack or clothesline is better for them and your electric bill.
  6. Develop a hangup: How many times have you had to wash otherwise unsoiled clothing just because you threw it in a wad on the floor?
  7. Learn to sew: My mother wouldn’t let me leave for college until I’d mastered simple stitchery, like button-sewing. Next time you’re in a fancy hotel, take the sewing kit.
  8. Trends are not friends: I realize this is easy advice for a man to give. After all, with the exception of fedoras, we’re basically still dressing like they did in the 40’s. Nonetheless, even I can tell when a silly trend isn’t going to last. Avoid them.
  9. Shop outlet malls, but carefully. Did you know that some labels actually make less expensive, lower-quality goods specifically to sell in their outlet stores? Check out this story I did on outlet shopping.
  10. Use a budget: This is a tip that works for everything. If you plan what you’re going to spend, you’ll spend what you plan. Going over-budget? See tip one: It’s time to sell some clothes.
  11. Use cash: Cash, along with budgets, are the ultimate way to avoid impulse buys. Remember all that stuff in your closet that you never wear? That’s where it came from.
  12. Use a list: This applies to everything you shop for and is also effective at preventing impulse buys.
  13. Swap with your friends: Have a small party and ask everyone to bring stuff they’re not wearing. What doesn’t get taken can be given to charity. Besides, your friends are going to borrow your clothes and not return them anyway… might as well get something back.
  14. Shop online: Check out auction sites or discount clothing websites. That could save you sales tax, but make sure shipping isn’t eating up your savings. And before you check out, do a quick search for a coupon code for both the store and the item you’re buying.
  15. Buy outfits, not items: It doesn’t do you any good to buy a shirt that doesn’t go with any of your pants. Plan ahead. Build a wardrobe around a few key things and make sure new additions build on that foundation.
  16. Don’t buy clothes to change your mood: Don’t shop for the high, to build your self-esteem or to fight off depression or boredom. The good feeling you get by buying new clothes (and most other things) is temporary, ineffective and expensive. Physical solutions have no effect on emotional problems.
  17. Shop alone: If you really need someone’s input, fine. But be aware that friends, especially when combined with our own ego, often result in purchases that we might not otherwise make.
  18. Buy the right size: This almost sounds too obvious to mention, but even I’ve done it: “It’s a little too small, but that’s OK because I’m about to lose a few pounds.” Who am I kidding? If I’m really about to change sizes, what the heck am I doing shopping now?

Well, that’s it… My 18 tips to dress for less. While I’ve tried to avoid the obvious, I’m sure there are things in my list you already knew. But hopefully there were a few you didn’t.

Did I leave anything out? I’m trying to build the biggest list of savings ideas on the planet, so if you’ve got something I should add, fire away! And remember, whether you save on food, clothing or anything else, don’t fritter away those savings: use them for something important. Like paying down debt or building your bank balance.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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  • Honour

    _Learn mending._ Especially in the 'rich' part of town, stuff gets marked down to 50, 60, 75% off because there's a hem down or a zipper loose. I regularly get top-of-the-line clothes for Walmart prices because I know how to reverse a damaged collar or put a butterfly over a stain. (Tip: If you need one stain patch, add six or seven. That way, the patch becomes a custom embellishment.)

  • maryjack

    This is cool from a man. I like it, thanks.

  • timada

    Great tips!

  • moon815

    These are some fantastic tips I am always on a quest to find really good but really cheap clothing, it is surprising how many great places there are for this if you just do some regular research and exploring. Over washing is something far too many people do, I know because I used to do the same and my clothes would always wear out quickly.

  • All of this I agree with. except the outlet thing. I think the problem with outlets is that people believe they are getting “better quality” from designer outlets, and consequently, they're ready to pay more for it. Not smart. Sure, pay for better quality, if you see it. Turn clothes inside out, look at all the seams, buttons, hems, make sure they all look pristine, tight, perfect. Ideally as many seams as possible should be covered or sewn enclosed inside the lining. I've seen designer pieces that weren't as well constructed as some of the clothes at my local Target. The name means nothing. If you wouldn't pay more than five bucks for a T-Shirt at Penny's or Target, there's no reason to pay more because its “designer”. So outlet mall shopping is fine so long as you are really aware of what your buying, not just what the label says.

    Also, think about dry cleaning in your expense analysis. If it's a great deal, but your going to have to pay to dry clean it, when you could find a similar item that was wash and wear, then maybe not such a great deal. Of course some things, like wool, have to be dry cleaned no matter what. But be aware.

  • Good advice, and I would like to add that Ebay is also a good way to buy clothing if you shop carefully. I put together a nice Ann Taylor wardrobe for myself for pennies on the dollar this way. Many times items are sold new with tags or in gently used condition. Thrift stores and garage sales are great, especially in areas near colleges at the end of the school year when students are cleaning out and getting ready to head home for the summer. I’ve found that overall outlet stores are a big disappointment and I avoid them. And one thing I would like to point out is that “out of season” is usually near the end of season. In other words, shorts and bikinis are clearance priced in August (not January), and coats and sweaters in February. That’s when the real bargains are. For big ticket items, like winter coats, there is always a retailer somewhere offering a 50% off sale price during the winter season. Many times you can find one of the big retailers online offering discounts and free shipping. Finally, I’ve made it a tradition to clothing shop for myself on Black Friday when there are awesome deals on all types of clothing!

  • G

    First line retailers regular prices are outrageous, but they do generally have more great, well-made items in stock than outlet malls. Catch the sales, usually associated with changes in season (as the article says), and you’ll achieve great value. 50% off a great, well-made clothing item that you’ll enjoy for years is worth it. Spend smart, but don’t be a cheapskate.

  • Thats an excellent idea will have a go at making one of these sometime….

  • Solid information for saving money in 2011. Appreciate the insights.

  • Julie North

    Don’t forget the remainder stores like Loehmann’s and Off Fifth.  A patient and well planned visit can yield designer clothes at thrift store rates–and, the clothes have not been worn.  My classic find: a coat and dress ensemble by Dana Buchman for $49.90.  The price at her Fifty-nineth Street boutique in Manhattan: $490.00. A 90% discount!  The problem was that the dress was labeled as size 6 when it was really size 8.  Perfect for me.

  • Julie North

    Don’t forget the remainder stores like Loehmann’s and Off Fifth.  A patient and well planned visit can yield designer clothes at thrift store rates–and, the clothes have not been worn.  My classic find: a coat and dress ensemble by Dana Buchman for $49.90.  The price at her Fifty-nineth Street boutique in Manhattan: $490.00. A 90% discount!  The problem was that the dress was labeled as size 6 when it was really size 8.  Perfect for me.

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