How I Created a Wardrobe I Love While Spending Less Money Than Ever

I’m buying clothes that I once thought were out of my price range, but I’m spending less than $400 a year on clothing.
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I’m buying clothes that I once thought were out of my price range, but I’m spending less than $400 a year on clothing.

When I was growing up, I remember that the common wisdom for approaching your wardrobe was to invest in quality pieces when they were timeless, and get cheap stuff when it was a trend. Maybe that was true when my parents were holding the purse strings, but as I got into high school and college—aka paying for the clothes myself—my limited resources meant that there wasn’t really any occasion where I’d make an investment in clothes.

For the most part, this was reinforced by my peers. Nothing to do on a Saturday? Let’s go to the mall! A party coming up this weekend? Well, of course I need a new outfit! When you’re on a budget and blowing it all on clothes, the per-piece cost necessarily has to be low. There were exceptions, of course—I knew plenty of women who would splurge on a designer purse—but even those friends usually had closets full of random, disposable outfits they had snagged while wandering around Target.

But as soon as I was in the working world with—gasp!—disposable income, those jaunts to J.Crew and H&M became more frequent. Soon I had a closet bursting with options. But somehow when I went to my closet to get dressed, I felt like I had nothing to wear.

Judging based on my friends, this seems like a pretty common situation. But in the past ten months, I’ve actually managed to get rid of more than half my clothes and spend far less on new clothes than I used to. What I do buy are things that are actually high quality—and most are things I would have once deemed out of my price range. Here’s how I changed course.

01. Purge

I am an organizer by nature. I may have had a ton of clothes, but they were all neatly hung or arranged in my dresser. I also love reading articles on closet makeovers: a jumble of clothing and hangers transformed into organized bliss? Be still, my beating heart.

So it will come as no surprise that I read and loved Marie Kondo’s hit book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. For the uninitiated: Kondo’s key advice is to keep only the things that bring you joy. I would probably modify this to include things you absolutely need (and can’t afford to replace just now with something you love), but I took her advice to heart. I got rid of every item of clothing I disliked or that made me feel unattractive. Bye-bye, ill-fitting suit. See ya, extra pairs of black pants. I tossed not one but three white blouses. In the end, I reduced my closet by half, and I now own less than fifty pieces of clothing (not including underwear or workout gear—although I doubt that would tip me much past a hundred).

When I purged, I actually found out some interesting things. I had gotten rid of all my white shirts; not even a white tee was left. And you know what? I have yet to find myself wishing I had one. Probably because I don’t look particularly great in white, but even more because I truly love every item of clothing left in my possession. Who needs a white button-up when I have a lovely blue polka dot or a cozy cream cable knit?

02. Embrace Creativity

Because there are fewer options to choose from, I find myself being far more creative in my mixing and matching. Before, I was overwhelmed by choices and ended up wearing routine outfits I knew worked, or I forced myself to wear items I didn’t love just because they were there. I now know every item available to me, and I can pair more creatively (or go straight to a beloved combo).

What I realized post-purge was that I felt dissatisfied because I had so many items that were, truly, dissatisfying. The items I loved often got buried amongst the things I didn’t really like, and the whole experience became either routine, reaching for a couple of boring outfits I knew worked, or tiring as I tried to figure out what on earth was wearable.

I’ve also changed what I think of as what I “need” to wear. Granted, I no longer work in as formal of an office environment now as I did a few years ago, but I don’t really dress all that differently. Instead of dressing for some standard, I now dress appropriately, of course, but for myself in clothes I love.

03. Change Your Purchase Habits

One of the bigger shocks in sorting my remaining wardrobe was realizing that most of what I kept were pieces I had worn for years, and repeatedly. It wasn’t always the expensive items that made it, or even the basics—I have a clear love for brightly colored silk blouses, and the aforementioned dislike of white—but the items that made the cut were almost always things I had taken more care to find a good fit or had fallen so in love with that I wore them frequently.

One of my most-worn dresses is one I made a big investment on because I loved it—but I almost didn’t purchase it because I thought it might be “too much” (read: lots of sequins). I have worn that cocktail dress at least ten times, including to multiple weddings, and I think a good number of my friends have borrowed it as well. The cost per wear easily beat out several dresses I ended up giving away.

This got me thinking: What if I only bought a few things that I love, rather than a bunch of stuff that’s just OK? What could I afford?

I decided to halt all purchases unless there was something I felt I really needed or something I loved so much that I knew I would wear it a lot. In the past ten months, that’s amounted to six things. I haven’t fully made the switch away from fast fashion—sometimes a shirt from Gap just fits me best!—but now I have the ability to research my purchases to get the right thing for me, preferably from a brand that has an ethical supply chain, without having to worry as much about the price tag or giving in to impulse just because it’s on sale.

04. I’m Actually Saving Money

The fruits of my “only buy what I love” switch? In addition to being totally happy with my wardrobe and being more creative in my fashion choices, the total amount I spent on clothes last year came in under $400. I checked that against prior years (I’m an avid user of mint.com)—and it was nearly a quarter of what my prior annual spending used to be.

At first I couldn’t figure out how I would spend so much on clothes, but then I remembered aimlessly wandering into Zara or H&M or Banana Republic and picking up a shirt here or a skirt there. It adds up! Or I’d go for months without buying anything and feel so dissatisfied with my closet that I’d go on a shopping spree.

The $400 or so I spent on real clothes? After purging, I realized I didn’t have many dresses or skirts that I liked to wear on an average day, so when I actually found one I liked, I bought it. And because I wasn’t feeling down about spending so much on clothes, I bought quality items that fit me well.

I’m sure there will be a day in the not-so-distant future that I’ll feel the pull toward an impulse purchase or buy something I want to get rid of only a couple months later. I think that’s only human. But I don’t think it’s ultimately about what I’m able or unable to buy. Finding myself much happier with less was a good reminder that the stuff I own should not own me.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your possessions, especially your clothes, take the less-is-more challenge like I did, and see if it doesn’t make you happier. If you’re nervous about it, stash your unwanted things away for a while. If you miss them, bring them back. If you don’t, purge them. Life isn’t about having more things or even nicer or more ethically produced things. I think the biggest, and best, change is the joy of being satisfied with what I have and needing no more. And that’s a disposition no amount of money can buy.

Photo Credit: Kat Harris