Building a work wardrobe for under $500

You know, even if I hadn’t put myself on a clothing hiatus, I probably wouldn’t have bought any clothes this month.  There’s nothing I really need, and the one thing I really want (a skinny yellow belt) is the one thing I am allowed to buy if I find it in the store.  Now that I’ve made it a goal to stop buying clothes until fall (which is really not that far away… where did summer go??), I have been obsessively checking clothes websites.  Clearly, I am a masochist.

It seems as though everywhere is having sales right now, and I started looking at work clothes at Banana Republic.  They have some decent sale items, and I started imagining myself with a work wardrobe full of BR items.

How much do you think you’d need to create a work wardrobe?  I like round number, so I decided to see if $500 would be enough for a passable work wardrobe for someone just starting out.  My assumptions:

  • Said person has roughly $500 to spend on creating this wardrobe.
  • She has casual clothes for your days off; she’s not a nudist or anything.  She also has the proper undergarments: bras, panties, perhaps a few sheer tank tops for layering.  
  • She’s working in a business casual environment (nice pants & shirt required, but no suits or anything) with jeans being acceptable for Fridays.  She doesn’t have much (if anything) that is appropriate for this kind of environment.
  • She will be making enough money to gradually build up something nicer; right now she needs passably professional clothes.

More under the jump….

1. Five pairs of acceptably dressy pants or skirts.  The key phrase here is “on sale.”  Since this is a work wardrobe, you want the pants to be of high quality, but to keep from paying too much, you should make a beeline for the sale section.

If we assume $40 per pair of pants or per skirt: $200 spent, $300 left.

2. One pair of jeans.  These should be in a dark wash (I know light denim is supposed to be in right now (yuck), but since we’re trying to make you look professional, stick with a darker wash), not too trendy (no embroidery around the pockets/hems, probably a boot cut or straight leg as opposed to something skinny).  Again, look for sales!

Let’s assume $40 for the jeans ($260 left to spend).

3. Nice shirts.  I always like to have a lot of shirts, it makes getting dressed in the morning more fun!  Also, while it’s unlikely anyone will notice you wearing the same pants, they probably will notice if you repeat a shirt twice in the same week.
Blouses & button-downs:  These provide the most professional look, assuming they fit correctly.  As I am a busty lass, I keep my button-down wearing to a minimum. 

2 button-downs: average $20 each

Knits.  These are great for more casual atmosphere, which means you can wear this kind of stuff outside of work.  There is a danger of this kind of look being too casual, so make sure that everything fits correctly (not too tight!).

3 knit tops: average $20 each

Sweaters. Basic sweaters are great because they can be layered over button-down shirts to create a different look. I am a big fan of H&M for their basic sweaters.  You can get crewnecks, v-necks, scoopnecks, and cardigans.  Their professional wear in general, while not top quality, is stylish and affordable.  If you’re careful washing them, these things could last several months (until you’re able to save up for a higher quality sweater).

2 H&M sweaters: average $15 each
2 H&M cardigans: average $20 each

A blazer.  I’ve noticed that a blazer always makes an outfit look more polished.  Sadly, they are often expensive.  I’m going to suggest H&M for this as well.  Get one in a neutral that matches the majority of your clothes.

1 H&M blazer: about $30

By wearing the pieces separately or layered together, you can create enough new looks to keep you looking great up until laundry day.

Totals so far: $440 spent ($60 left).

4. Shoes.  We can’t have you wearing hiking boots or sneakers with your lovely new dress pants!
Heels. If you can handle heels, go for it! They look best with dressier pants, and they’ll create a nice lean line.

Flats.  They are a lot more comfortable than heels, but that doesn’t mean they have to look less professional!  If you’re in a slightly casual environment, ballet flats are a decent pick.  If not, go for something with a pointy toe.

The problem with shoes is that you do sort of get what you pay for.  I’ve selected a lot of cheap shoes here (I’ve had no problems with Nine West shoes, but I know that Payless shoes tend to rub in all the wrong places) because if the rest of your wardrobe is polished, people aren’t going to be focusing on your feet.  I suggest discount stores, like DSW, since they aren’t selling lower quality in exchange for the cheaper price.

2 pairs of shoes (one black, one brown): average $30 each.

Total spent: $500.

Obviously, $500 is a decent chunk of change.  More obviously, you can probably find better deals on clothes at thrift shops and consignment shops.  It’s harder to quantify a Goodwill purchase, since some shops carry only shabby clothes.  It’s harder to recreate that.  This post is merely to show that you can build a wardrobe without spending thousands of dollars.  It won’t work for everyone (I am not touching the issue of needing to wear a suit to work every day), and if your budget is going to be stretched thin after you start working (leaving wardrobe upgrades as merely a fantasy), this is not the wardrobe you’re looking for.

11 Responses

  1. Fun post! I find BR sale stuff gets picked over quickly in regards to sizes (on the site, not as much in store) by the time they have really good discounts. I mean, is a $30 t-shirt really still a sale?

    Anyway, this is really good. I have no strategy for my clothing budget. I don’t buy new pants, because it is easier to buy new shirts (the fit is easier to get right, they are cuter, can shop online). And, as mentioned, I don’t buy new shoes, because I hate every pair I try on and end up buying some “these will do for now” shoes once my previous pair falls to peices, and wear them for six months straight. I really need a better plan.

  2. @SP: I am the same way — I hate pants shopping. In general I love shoe shopping because the shoes are always pretty, whether I’m feeling bloated or my hair looks wrong or I just noticed that my thighs touch.

    I cannot describe how tempted I am to go searching for shoes for you again. I love looking at shoes!

  3. Go to a thrift store. Seriously.

    When I started work I had maybe a couple hundred bucks. I went to a dozen thrift stores, and flipped through for hours, looking for labels. I got an Ann Taylor blouse there, a J. Crew blazer there, some Banana Republic pants there. I still have a few of those pieces after I seriously increased my work wardrobe budget. I had maybe ten work outfits for a whole day of work and $75.

  4. @dog: That wasn’t the point of the post. I had intended to show that it’s possible to build a decent wardrobe from typical retail stores. Certainly you can go to TJ Maxx or a thrift store and find stuff more cheaply, but some people dislike wearing other people’s old clothes.

    I always have bad luck with thrift stores. Often, I only find shirts with tears, or that have an old-fashioned cut. I am very particular about my clothes, so this isn’t something I’m wiling to sacrifice.

    obviously, you can find better deals on clothes at thrift shops and consignment shops. It’s harder to quantify a Goodwill purchase, since some shops carry only shabby clothes. It’s harder to recreate that (especially in an online forum).

  5. […] but it definitely was not in the clothing plan.Inspired by Paranoid Asteroid’s post on building a work wardrobe for $500, I realized I really need a better plan for my clothes. Sure, I randomly stated that I was […]

  6. this seems like a great post. I received a $500 incentive from work. We can choose any dollor increments gift cards from several different retail companies. I am in the process of losing a few pounds and wanted to update my wardrobe. I have choices like Macy’s, tjmaxx, amazon, etc. This list can really help me finally make up my mind.

  7. […] a week. I know, super difficult, right?  I also want to expand the scope of the blog a tad. My “How to Build A Work Wardrobe for Under $500″ is the most popular one so far, and hopefully it was helpful to the people who read it. One thing I […]

  8. […] more tips? Build a Work Wardrobe for under $500 Building a Work Wardrobe […]

  9. […] know I already tried to cover this topic in my Building A Work Wardrobe for Under $500 post, but I thought I’d talk today more in generalities than specific items from specific […]

  10. Thank you so much for this article. I’ve really been trying to decide where to begin building a fall work wardrobe. I’m an intern and my wardrobe at present runs more to “college castoff” rather than “business casual”. I’m working at an ad agency where summer casual was trendy for the hot season, but as it gets closer to fall, I see that the beach bum look is out, and tailored professional is in. Now I’m going to go read that other article linked here: Transitioning Your Wardrobe from College to Career. I really need it!

    Thanks again!

  11. Thanks for the advice. Now I can get started on my new work wardrobe and add to it as the paychecks start coming in!

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