Monday, June 30, 2008

Stylish and fashionable on a cheap budget

We've all been there. Maybe one of your girlfriends bought a fabulous new (full-price) top that you've coveted ever since (if only it was on sale!). Maybe a pair of 4-inch high heels perched atop a display pedestal under a spotlight caught your eye as you flitted through the shoe section at Nordstrom's. You don't even bother looking at the price tag, though, because you know they're beyond what you should be spending on shoes -- they're in the uber-expensive section, after all, with nary a "sale" sign in sight.

For many of us, shopping and being stylish isn't just a fun hobby that men don't understand. It's a way of life. But being stylish does not mean you have to be broke -- it's tres easy to do yourself up on a budget, and it can make shopping twice as fun. Yeah, yeah, I know you've heard it all before. But just because you want to look good and save in the process does not mean you have to continually shop at T.J. Maxx (no offense to those who frequent this Mecca of suburbia). If you're anything like me, slumming it at discount stores can wear you down. It's an exhausting process digging through racks of unorganized clothing falling off hangers, as Huey Louis plays overhead and the mother of what seems like nine children is screaming at her kids to "stop using the clothing racks as a jungle gym!!" Just thinking about it makes me cringe.

For the amount of time I spend shopping for clothes, you'd think I have more than enough to wear -- and I do. But every morning when I open my closet, I find myself complaining to Love that "I have nothing to wear!" Usually I end up piecing together a knock-'em-dead outfit, complete with Love's response of "What are you talking about? Your closet is FULL." And maybe it is, but if you're going to be stylish on a budget, your closet is the first place you'll want to focus on.

First off, make three piles: The "use its" (for clothes you know you'll wear), the "lose its" (stuff you haven't worn in a long time, doesn't fit anymore or is plain passe), and the "fix its" (for clothes you've been meaning to get tailored or need to be tailored because they don't fit right anymore).

The "lose its" pile is KEY because this is where you can not only make space for any new wardrobe, but you can also make money to boot. Hopefully this pile ends up being meaty enough to either take down to Goodwill (you get a break in your income taxes if you donate, it's considered charity -- just save the receipt!), or take it to a clothing exchange, such as Crossroads or Buffalo Exchange, where you are paid per garment for your stash. If you're feeling especially entrepreneurial, consider setting up shop on Ebay, where you could even make it into a full-fledged side-business, selling your friends' throwaway clothes as well and picking up profits along the way. The money you make from reselling your old clothes is a perfect base to buy new items with.

After you've rid yourself of the old, you'll now need to evaluate your current closet. Every sharply-dressed girl needs a few staples in her wardrobe. These should include:
  • A trench coat (I prefer the classic khaki trench, and found a great Michael Kors one at Nordstrom's Rack recently for a fraction of the retail price.)
  • Slacks (I like gray, it isn't as harsh as black and goes with almost everything during any season. Be brave and try pairing with a bright orange top or bag!)
  • A little black dress ('Nough said.)
  • A crisp white shirt (Try a cap sleeve blouse for a more fun-yet-professional spin on this classic. Make sure there is NO pulling across the bust when it's buttoned. Not only does this look unpolished, but it also gives everyone who's standing near you a free ta-ta show between the gaping spaces between each button.)
  • A pair of black pointy-toed pumps, with a heel height of between 2 to 3.5 inches (These will go with everything and are always in style.)
  • Skirt (I prefer pencil, when it comes to a staple, but a-lines can be classic, too.)
  • At least one casual dress that can take you from day to night.
  • Jeans (No high-waisted, tapered mom jeans! Think dark denim with a sleek line to highlight your stems.)

I'm sure you probably have some, if not all, of these items, but they may need an update. These pieces should be of quality (aka not Forever 21), because they are the backbone of your wardrobe. I'm a huge advocate of throwaway clothes (Forever 21, H&M, etc.), but the aforementioned items should be timeless and of good quality, so if you're going to spend any money on clothes, the quality staples should take precedence. Mixed with your trendier clothing, they can make countless outfit choices for any day of the week.

Aside from these staples (which you could find for cheap at Nordstrom's Rack, or any sale at Bloomingdales or Nordstroms), whenever you're out shopping, remember what would go with your old clothes back at home. Many women make the mistake of buying shirts or shoes that can't be mixed with a variety of outfits. So, if you have three skirts but only one shirt you normally wear with all three, buy a few more shirts within the same color palate that would go with the skirts. Same goes with your dress slacks, cropped pants, or other garments. The idea is to work with and expand what you have, so that it can all be easily assimilated with one another.

Better yet, when you're out and about and see something you fancy, scrounge up an old receipt or business card from the bottom of your purse, write down the designer, how much it costs and any other info you could use to search for it online. Once you get home, kick off your wedges and get comfy in front of your computer. Start Googling everything you've written down and see if you can find cheaper your items cheaper anywhere else. Usually I've had incredible luck with, and Ebay. Case in point: I once saw a pair of '70s-inspired Circa Joan & David wedge slingbacks in a Bloomingdale's in San Francisco that were almost $200(!). Being true to my moniker, I found them a few months later online at for about $50, proving that patience does pay off. Let's just say that I turn heads when I strut down 18th Ave. wearing my bargain(!).

Don't forget that a great bargain-hunting trick is to buy off-season items. So, if you really want a new bikini, but don't need one RIGHT AWAY, look for the greatest deals in late August, when summer is lazily exiting stage right. If you're in dire need of sweaters, strike when the cashmere iron is hot (sometime around late spring/early summer when long sleeves are a relic of the past winter). Remember that January and July are when stores have their biggest sales (Nordstrom's anniversary sale every July, for instance, is one of the best sales of the retail year by far).

One snag (pun intended) that this brunette on a budget runs into when shopping for deals is buying something just because it's on sale. I can spend countless minutes in a fitting room, looking from every angle in the mirror at a new shirt that I just don't find that flattering on. Why do I spend so much time analyzing it, when I could be out finding other fabulous buys? Because it's cheap, and I'm trying to mentally justify purchasing it.

Love hates this, because if I'm spending countless minutes in the the fitting room, he's generally spending countless minutes outside of the room, waiting for me to model whatever I've stepped in with. Sometimes I emerge multiple times with the same shirt/skirt/pants/dress on, double- and even triple-checking if he's "really sure" it doesn't look OK, or it doesn't fit right. Warning: If you find yourself doing the same, that probably means said item is just not working for you. And do you really want something to just look "OK" on, or do you want it to look spectacular? Just because you're on a budget doesn't mean you have to settle.

I know a 24-year-old girl, let's call her Petunia, who usually wears abhorrent outfits -- most of the time she's dressed as if she's stepped out of the pages of an issue of Cosmopolitan circa 1991, with her Dade-County-retiree-magenta-pink sleeveless shell and matching capris. Or her blinding yellow spaghetti strap dress, with matching electric banana shoulder wrap and giant yellow earrings (Crayola called, they want the color yellow back!). (Petunia also insists she doesn't need to wear makeup, and we all know that everyone should wear makeup in some capacity, but I digress.) My favorite garment of hers is a Pepto-Bismol pink corduroy mini skirt, complete with small embroidered mallards mid-flight. Why do I bring up her love of winged-animals personified in said skirt?

Because this is exactly the type of thing that many might buy just because it's $5 in some clearance bin. Remember that if you wouldn't pay full price for it, then why bother buying it on sale? You're only getting a deal if you find something you will wear, use and love. And if you think you'll ever wear, use and love a pink corduroy skirt embroidered with ducks, then we need to chat.

Mallards aside, fit is also an important factor when you're shopping for deals. If it ALMOST fits but you're dying to buy it because it's the last one, step away from the clothing! I can tell you from experience that I have bought many things thinking I'll just "take it in a little here," or "lose a little weight there." I've even been known to buy heels that KILL my feet and cut off all circulation to my toes, but I'll wear them because they're cute. Most of the time, though, it's a waste of money to buy something that doesn't fit, because it will inevitably end up hanging in your closet till it's time to make your three piles (see above) when you're doing Spring cleaning. This also applies to certain cuts that don't work well on your body type. If empire-cut tops make you look pregnant when they're full-price, guess what? They'll still make you look pregnant when they're on sale. Sorry, sometimes the truth hurts.

Got any tips to look great on a budget? What about any big yearly sales we should know about? I'd love to hear from you!


Cali Bar Girl said...

I know you're not a big fan of outlet shopping, but I went this weekend (to the Napa Premium Outlets) and found a lot of great deals. Coach purses that were $358 on sale for $150. A Kenneth Cole men's sweater originally priced at $88 for $20. Although I have gone outlet shopping quite a few times and ended up going home empty handed, I've found that if you go on a weekend where all the stores are having sales, you can get some fantastic clothes and amazing prices. Last weekend was the beginning of a lot of stores' 4th of July sales so everything at most of the outlet stores were 50% off the already discounted prices. So there's one option...and the Napa outlets list sales events on the website. Worth it for me this past weekend, but probably only because of the huge sales at all the stores.

Also, try signing up on which is a site that lets you check your favorite designers and notifies you when stores have items on sale for those designers in your size.

BTW, I love your blog!

Crystal said...

Thanks! I've never heard of shopittome, but I'm already loving the concept. You're right, I do need to be more patient with outlet shopping because there *are* some pretty sweet deals to be had (although I'm still wondering how my coworker snagged a $19 scarf - originally $250 - at the Burberry outlet). I'm so jealous you get to shop in Napa! I can't wait to move back to California.

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