Building a professional wardrobe on a budget

My exciting new teaching job starts in January (yay!). There’s a business-casual dress code, and unfortunately, all of the clothing I wore in my previous life as a professional was also worn in my previous life as a thinner woman who never had a baby (not yay). That means I’m in the market for an entire wardrobe of business-casual clothing.

I’ve never been that into clothing. I wear it to keep decent and warm, and I prefer to buy clothing that looks and feels good, but I don’t have a huge wardrobe. I like to keep a limited wardrobe with basic pieces that can be mixed, matched, and worn for years. I still wear clothes that I bought in college over 5 years ago.

Because I can think of a lot of things I’d rather spend money on than clothes, I’m trying to get creative about building this wardrobe. If you’re looking to build or refresh your wardrobe, here are some tips.

Lose the weight.

This was my first plan a year ago after Judah was born. I have several nice pairs of pants that are about a size too small. I even have a few pieces that are TWO sizes too small from my really skinny newlywed phase (it was short but fabulous). If I could shed the final 20 pounds I gained during pregnancy, I would double my professional attire wardrobe. Sadly, the chances of me losing that much weight in the next three weeks in the middle of the holiday season are slim (no pun intended). So it’s on to plan B.

Assess what you already have.

Many of the sweaters, blouses, and tops I have from before pregnancy still fit reasonably well. I also have a lot of pieces that I wear in casual settings, but they can easily be dressed up with nice slacks or a cardigan. Thanks to those pieces, I’m really only in the market for pants and maybe a few new pieces for layering.

Check the thrift stores.

Because of the nature of dressy clothing (many people own slacks or blouses that they only wear a couple times a year), it’s possible to find really nice dress clothes in excellent condition for unbelievably low prices at thrift stores. I’ve never had much luck with clothing at thrift stores, but I’ll definitely give it a shot.

Never pay retail.

When you see a really flattering top or pair of pants at full price, it can be tempting to buy it if really like it. Don’t do it! I worked in retail, and I can tell you, the turnover for stock at clothing stores is incredibly fast. What’s new and full price today will be marked down to clearance in a matter of weeks. Wait it out and keep a close eye on certain styles. Come the end of the season, that full-price item will be marked down at a fraction of the price. Even if your size is sold out in store, you can usually shop online for more sizes and colors.

Buy basic pieces that can be mixed and matched.

It’s not the most exciting way to build a wardrobe, but it keeps costs down and simplifies things tremendously. Most of my clothing is in dark colors that coordinate (black, grey, dark blue, brown). Every top I own can be worn with either black or khaki pants, which makes it easy to shop for new pieces that coordinate well with pieces I already have. Choose a color palette that suits you, and then look for clothing that will easily coordinate in several different configurations.

What tips do you have for building a professional wardrobe without spending a fortune?

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5 thoughts on “Building a professional wardrobe on a budget

  1. Kacie

    Because I clearly am a style icon, I have some ideas to share.

    Accessories are great for stretching a limited wardrobe! Scarves! Belts! They really do have an impact.

    You could do a “capsule” how everything goes with everything else, like you mentioned. Also keep colors to a certain limited selection can help stretch. Bottoms could be dark-colored and you could wear those a lot and no one will know.

    You might check consignment shops since you are looking for a nicer quality. Still cheaper than retail, most likely.

  2. Brittany

    Have you checked out eBay? There are plenty of sellers who sell things in “lots” — one price for a whole slew of clothes in a certain style (casual, sporty, professional) and usually all around the same size. I found success with that a time or two in the past when I needed work clothes stat and didnt have the time or money (or patience!) to deal with finding & buying everything new. Though inevitably there will be a couple pieces that won’t fit/you don’t like — but you can in return sell those in your own lot.

  3. Rachel

    OK, finally a topic I can weigh in on. I’m a bit of a shopaholic, but I definitely get my clothes on the cheap.
    Some of my most complimented outfits are from Target’s clearance racks. I’ve found some Merona dresses for under $10…which leads me to my next tip: DRESSES. So much easier to put together than pants, shirt, sweater, etc. I have a ton of neutral dresses that look different depending on the tights/cardigan/belt I wear with it. Also, you may look into joining the email list of the Limited or a store like them. Almost every day they send out 40 percent off sale coupons and whatnot. Apply that to the sale section and you have some basics for a fraction of the retail price.

  4. margot

    I don’t get why you need to “build an entire wardrobe.” I adjunct teach one course at a university. Teaching one course involves very few appearances on campus and in front of students. You can wear just about the same thing for every class (or every second or third class) and no one will notice or care. It sounds like your “new wardrobe” could easily consist of one pair of black pants that you wear each time you teach with one of your tops that still fits. Done and cheap.

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