Build a Wardrobe on a Budget

Build a Wardrobe on a Budget

Two things happened this week that inspired this post: I had a couple of friends over to my apartment for the first time, so naturally we did a wardrobe exploration; and I found the draft of an old post that I wrote maybe six years ago when I was a contributor to another site that was lolz.  In it I said that I bought a jacket for $50 and then basically apologised for being such a spendthrift.

*looks at jacket situation now*

This combination of factors reminded me that I am Grand Supreme Master level when it comes to finding deals and stretching the dollar so that I can have the comprehensive wardrobe that I love. While you might not want to have quite as many options as me, we all need to buy clothes to some degree so I figured I’d share the practical tips and personal philosophies that mean I can have fun dressing up every day, without being flat broke.

The philosophy of targeted spending

This is the most important, but most boring, part: being super deliberate about how and where and when you spend money.  You must truly believe that every dollar you spend on your wardrobe is precious and has to be carefully allocated.  I’m sorry to tell you: you must make a budget.

Now, I haven’t always been a good adherent to this philosophy, and all that happens when I get free and loose with the spending is I end up with a bunch of stuff that I don’t wear. The real trick is taking this mindset everywhere you go – even to the op shop or a clothing swap.  Gone are the days when I would come home from Savemart with a bag full to the brim – now I’m much more likely to buy one or two items that I really thought were worth the spend.

I’ve written about my fashion maths before, in this post.  Budgeting is very personal, but at the very least I think having a good honest chat with yourself about the amount you can spend on your wardrobe is an important step.  Then carry that number in your mind and try to (a) stick to it (b) find new sources of money to divert to that budget line and/or (c) get really cheap about your cost per item.


You gotta hoard some money if you want to spend it

Okay, there’s two ways to get bang for your buck here: increase the budget for fashion via specific income lines, or increase the volume by decreasing the cost per item.  This is the former.

As long time readers know, I have something called the Frivolous Things account.  It’s literally a bank account that I siphon money into for spending on clothes, shoes, other frivolous things.  Now, because I love fashion I do send a set amount to that account every month as part of my budgeting, but I also have three additional categories of income that are immediately attributed to the FT account.

Plannable extras:  for example, when I go on annual leave, I get paid slightly more than I do for normal work because of the way my remuneration is structured.  That little bit of difference goes to the FT account.  When I started writing for Capital Mag I decided any income I made from that (less tax) would also go to FT.  If I sell things via Recycle Boutique, that money either goes into FT or it gets spent as credit in the store.  Even when I was in Uni and very very poor, I did a similar thing when I worked extra hours in the holidays.  It might not be big amounts going in each time, but even a few dollars here and there a few times a year is enough to put toward a beautiful vintage coat for $20 from the op shop come winter.

Unplannable extras: sometimes life gives you a little financial windfall.  For my birthday, my Dad and my Nana gave me some money.  I put it in FT because I didn’t know I would get it and I didn’t have a planned use for it.  Now, there have been times in my life when these sorts of windfalls came at just the right time to e.g. pay a power bill.  Again, though, even a $5 diversion can make a difference over time.  

Hotpoints: my credit card has hotpoints linked to it.  I convert these into vouchers at various retailers once every year or so (and so they indirectly flesh out the FT account).  It’s like getting presents from my bank and I enjoy it.

To be clear: if any of these sums are verging on substantial, y’all should consider saving them or investing them.  But for little plops of cash or gifts: hoard every extra penny you can.  It’s really easy to piss bits of cash away on stuff you don’t even really realise you’re buying, so I find having a separate account really helps.  


Have a Cost per Item strategy

If I had bought everything in my wardrobe at full RRP, I would be in the kind of debt that small nations usually accrue.  I consider myself to be a fairly generous person – I never scrimp on rounds of drinks, or paying for dinner, or gifts – but I am FOCUSED when it comes to how much I pay for clothes.  

Nowadays I am very privileged to have a good amount of money to spend on a few items each season that are (a) full price and (b) relatively expensive, usually because they are locally made.  That is an important part of the cost per item strategy – I cannot buy lots of expensive things.  I can only buy a few.  If I want a navy blazer as well, then I need to find a way to get that navy blazer for a cost that will essentially drive down the average spend and keep me from going wildly over budget.

I am not the kind of person who would be proud to wear an outfit that cost a thousand bucks – instead, I love an outfit that cost a surprisingly small amount.  Today, my dress was a vintage silk number I bought for $20, my 100% wool coat was $24.99 from the op shop.  Both of them are proof that good quality clothes don’t need to be expensive.  

The Cost per Item strategy is why I rarely, if ever, buy clothes from chain stores nowadays.  If you know you can buy a seemingly endless supply of beautiful clothes secondhand for less than you pay in a high street store, spending $24.99 on a top seems crazy.  I could buy at least two tops for that! That are nicer! That I will wear more! And have a smaller environmental impact!


Okay! Let’s spend all the money *throws cash into the drain*

You’ve budgeted! You’ve siphoned off a few dollars here and there! You’ve figured out the things you’ll spend on and the things you’ll save on!  So now BUY BUY BUY AMIRITE???!?!?!?!

First up, we are all susceptible to something and although my Mum says buying shoes is better than lots of other things people buy, you gotta fight your impulses so you don’t end up with a wardrobe full of stuff you won’t wear.  That’s not a good wardrobe on a budget.  That’s a waste of money and clothes.  

I maintain a wee list of things I’ve seen that I like, or things I think I would like.  This can be item-specific (like “Beecroft bag”), or general (like “good swimsuit”).   I try to put most things on the wishlist instead of buying them, so I can think about them.  Being mindful of what you definitely don’t need is just as important when you’re standing in front of a really desirable version.  Current suspensions in my life apply to: white shirts, gold statement earrings, jumpsuits.

Finally, in this blog post that has become an epic, you’re going to throw the net wide.  Here are some of the places I’ve found clothes that I have in my wardrobe today:

  • A blueberry farm

  • TradeMe, Etsy, Felt, Ebay

  • A costume company that was closing down

  • Op shops

  • Workroom sales of varying levels of terrifying competition

  • My Nana’s wardrobe

  • A literal cardboard box of what appeared to be rags

If you have a good sense of what you like to wear, the world is your oyster, bargain-wise. 

I don’t want to shop for four hours on a Saturday – I like to do sprints, where I pop into a shop on my way to somewhere else.  Keep your eyes peeled as you pootle about (holidays are ace for this) and see what opportunities the fashion gods serve up.  But remember: only buy things that are worth it, in terms of both quality and likelihood of being worn.  You can only build a wardrobe if the things you buy stay in it for long enough for you to really enjoy them.


This outfit: skirt and shirt from an op shop and TradeMe, respectively. Shoes “bought“ on deep discount and with Hotpoints vouchers. Earrings from Qualms via the Cool Sh*t Happens pop up. Sunnies from Glassons…five years ago? Maybe longer?

Coming up soon: two reader requests addressing successful online shopping and how to find gems at the op shop!