How To Spend Less On Clothes

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Knowing how to spend less on clothes is a great way to reduce your household spending. As someone who despises every aspect of clothes shopping, you’d think my clothing expenses would be minimal but for years the opposite was true.

My hatred of malls, snooty salespeople, and high prices used to lead me to shop online so I could do it from the comfort of my living room. Of course, that often meant I’d shop after a glass or two of wine.

Before long my clothing budget was out of control, yet I still had nothing to wear because, despite carefully looking at each online retailer’s size chart, most of the stuff didn’t fit properly. Rather than paying return shipping and restocking fees my online purchases became closet fodder that languished unworn.

My clothing expenses were insane!

Widowhood made it essential to get a handle on my budget. One of the first things I did was eliminate online clothes shopping entirely. If I can’t try it on before buying, I’m not buying it. That’s when I set out to learn even more about how to spend less on clothes.

After talking with several of my fashionable yet frugal friends, I’d learned some tips that reduced my clothing budget to roughly $30 per month for myself and another $30 for my son, usually saved up and spent like $180 every three months when the seasons change. For those not interested in doing the math, that’s $360 per person per year — and it includes shoes, undergarments, and outerwear. I’m embarrassed to admit, but I used to spend that much in a couple of months on just myself!

So if you’re looking to stretch your budget, too, here are the 10 things I’ve learned.

How To Spend Less On Clothes

How to spend less on clothes - Inventory what you have

1. Inventory your closet

Doing a closet inventory takes a couple of hours, but it’s an excellent way to discover what you own — and what you don’t need to own any longer. As Apartment Therapy explains, you simply try on everything in your closet:

While you’re trying things on, consider making a quick tally list of types of clothing you have. That way at the end you’ll have a good idea of whether or not you have 20 pants and 1 skirt or your tank top to long sleeve shirt ratio is way off. With cooler temperatures on the way, make sure you have what you consider to be enough warm weather clothing items.

Until I inventoried my closet a few years ago, I had no idea that I owned four pairs of black capris, six white long-sleeved shirts, and three gray cutaway sweaters — all practically indistinguishable from each other. I just knew they were parts of my go-to errand-running outfit. Apparently, whenever I saw a piece on sale I’d buy it even though obviously I didn’t need to.

Since then, I’ve made a habit of using my printable closet cleaning checklist every Spring and Winter to inventory my closet. That way I know what I have, what I need, and what I need to get rid of. Thanks to the other 9 tips below, I find fewer things to get rid of each time I do a total closet clean-out now.

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2. Have a fashionable friend style what you have

Many of us go shopping out of boredom with our current clothing selections. That’s certainly what led me to shop as often as I used to, at least. The problem was that I’d buy fun pieces but didn’t know how to put them together, so they’d hang there gathering dust while I wore the same old thing over and over again.

Then a fashionable out-of-town friend came for a weekend and needed to borrow something to wear to church on Sunday. As she went through my closet putting outfits together, it inspired me to ask her to create a couple of dozen more “go-to” outfits for me.

We never made it to church, but we had a fun time, with her holding up clothes and me grimacing then nodding in agreement after I looked in the mirror. It was like one of those girlfriend makeover montages in a 90s movie — minus the zippy electropop song in the background. Taking photos helped me remember the outfits so I’d wear them. Suddenly it felt like I had an entirely new wardrobe, but I hadn’t spent another cent!

If you don’t have a fashionable friend to turn to, there are phone apps you can use instead. With an app, you don’t need to take photos to remember your outfits, and you’ll have it with you when shopping to keep you from buying yet another white long-sleeved shirt you don’t need.

3. Shop out of season

You know the law of supply and demand affects prices, and that includes the cost of clothing, too. The best times to buy clothing are when they’re out of season so demand is low.

People shop for winter coats when the temperatures begin to plunge. Smart shoppers wait until the worst of winter is over then scoop up outwear at a substantial markdown. Come summer, stores will display colorful t-shirts at full price. Wait two or three months, though, and you can snap up three for the price of one.

Using this approach in September, I was able to spend $15 to buy six tank tops that a month earlier were $9 each. Delaying that purchase saved me $39 and paid off all winter as I’ve worn those tank tops layered beneath cardigans and v-neck sweaters.

4. Look in the boy’s or men’s department

There are a number of items that women should buy in the men’s department to save money. Casual clothing like t-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies cost far less in the men’s department — or the boy’s department if you’re a petite woman. These days you can often save on scarves in the men’s department, too.

Last year I’d had my eye on a pair of boyfriend jeans in the women’s department but just couldn’t see myself paying $95 for them. After waiting for them to go on sale, I still didn’t like the $70 price tag… so I walked over to the men’s department and found a pair for $29. Yes, they were a little long, but everyone’s wearing their jean cuffs rolled anyway, so what did I care? They’re some of the most comfortable jeans I’ve ever owned!

5. Wash your clothes less often

This bit of advice often makes people cringe, but it’s not about wearing smelly or stained clothing. It’s about knowing when clothing is still clean enough to wear, rather than automatically tossing things into the hamper. Jeans, for instance, can be worn several times before they need laundering. Ditto for sweaters layered over t-shirts or tanks, dresses, even hoodies. Washing your clothes less often reduces the amount of wear and tear on them, and it helps you do less laundry, too.

I still wash my t-shirts and tank tops regularly, but even with them, I’ve learned to think about whether they really need to be laundered yet. That’s because one day I’d just finished lecturing my son about trying on clothes in his room then tossing them on the floor and wearing something else instead. Come laundry day I’d find myself washing things he’d only tried on, not worn.

“Well,” he said, “what about that red t-shirt there, Mom? You wore that for 30 minutes while you drove me to my music lesson then came home and switched into pajamas.” Score a point for the kid.

6. Pick a color scheme and stick with it

Knowing what colors look best on you and sticking with your personal palette can save you money in a couple of ways. For starters, you won’t get home and try on your new puce sweater only to realize it makes you look jaundiced now that you aren’t under the store’s fluorescent lights. Plus, most items in your wardrobe will work well together.

In college, my closet was 90% black clothing for that very reason: I liked not having to wonder if my clothing clashed. (Also, I could make clothes look brand new by dumping them all in the washing machine and adding a few bottles of black RIT Dye.) Nowadays, my clothes are more colorful but still within a 5-color range that plays well together.

7. Opt for basics + layered accents

If you have the choice between an entire inexpensive outfit and a colorful accessory, spend your money on the latter because swapping accessories can completely transform the outfits you already own. Unlike clothing, accessories don’t wear out quickly or get torn or stained. A $30 blouse may last a year or two if you launder it carefully, but a $30 chunky necklace can easily last a decade.

I’d never understood the power of accessories until my fashionable friend put together those outfits for me. My favorite pair of basic black pants and t-shirt got funky when she paired it with a denim jacket, rolled up its sleeves, and added a chunky necklace and bright flats. The same pants and t-shirt suddenly looked elegant when she draped it with a silk pashmina and layers of faux pearl necklaces, then added a pair of strappy kitten heels. Now I intentionally look for solid colored basics because I know my accessories can make any outfit look brand new.

8. Honor the Rule of Three

If you can’t bear the thought of limiting your purchases to a personal color palette, at least make sure every new purchase goes with three items of clothing you already own. As Jaqueline Curtis at Money Crashers explains, following this rule ensures every new purchase adds value to your existing wardrobe rather than becoming closet fodder you’ll never wear.

Obeying this rule helped me pass up a violet leather motorcycle jacket I saw marked down 60% last summer. I have plenty of outfits that such a jacket would work with, but not in violet. Purple shades don’t look good on me, nor do they work with my color scheme. So, despite wanting to score a great deal, I passed. I haven’t lost any sleep over that choice, but I’m certain I’d have been upset with myself if I’d splurged on a jacket that I never wore.

9. Rent or borrow for special occasions

Unless your social calendar is filled with black tie affairs and you’re confident you’ll never change size, it just makes more sense to rent designer dresses for special occasions rather than buy them. You’ll usually pay one-tenth the price of the dress, and you don’t have to worry about styles changing — or a 10-lb. weight gain — before you wear it again.

Last year, I was invited to a ritzy black tie arts benefit. It’s been over 18 years since I’ve needed anything that dressy! So, thinking that being an adult probably means I should own a fancy evening dress, I went shopping. It took me less than 15 minutes of staring at price tags to remember I had a friend who wears the same size and has a closet full of fancy clothes. I rocked a beaded black designer gown that made me look like a million bucks…and only set me back the price of drycleaning.

10. Buy for the life you actually live

Clothing stores and catalogs are great at convincing us that changing our lives is as easy as changing our outfits. That nautical shirt and white linen shorts will have you lounging topside on a yacht if you just buy them. This $300 angora sweater will lead to cozy nights in front of the fire with a man who looks at you the way your dog looks at pizza. Never mind that you get seasick or live where the temps never dip below 70°!

If you really want to spend less on clothing, Get Rich Slowly says to shop for the life you’re currently living:

If you buy the majority of your clothes for a fantasy version of your life instead of the reality, you’ll end up owning a lot of clothes and having nothing to wear.

This was, I admit, the most difficult lesson for me to learn about how to spend less on clothes. For years when I’d see an empire-waist top with a Boho vibe, I’d snatch it up because I know that style looks great on me, and I like to think of myself as a little artsy. Then I’d never wear it because my real life involves working at home, mostly barefoot in yoga gear.

Once I gave up aspirational shopping, my clothing expenses plummeted. Now, if something’s in my closet, it’s there because I actually wear it, not because I want to be the kind of person who does.

There are other benefits besides spending less

Learning how to spend less on clothes was just one of many steps I’ve taken to save money, but it’s paid off in other ways, too. My closet is cleaner and more organized since it’s not crammed with unnecessary clothing. I can get dressed for just about any occasion in 5 minutes thanks to my “go-to” outfits and a color scheme that mostly works together. And, I no longer have that horrible, guilty shopping hangover when I’ve been on a spree buying clothes I don’t need and will never wear.

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