Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

Abandoning Early Retirement
January 7, 2017

I mentioned that I went on a brief early retirement kick a few months ago.

At the time, I had just switched to a new job that was proving to be completely unfulfilling. The pay was amazing, but I’ve learned that no amount of money can really make up for a boring job. Although I knew realistically that I could leave whenever I wanted (my old bosses wanted me back, and I had offers from another company), the day-to-day reality of waking up and going to that job wore me down.

The timing for this malaise was especially bad since we’d just bought our house and wanted to try for Baby #2.  I punched number after number into J Money’s Retirement Calculator, tweaking the numbers for every possible eventuality. I started reading blogs like Freedom 35 and Early Retirement Extreme and even Mr. Money Mustache, at least until the hyper-frugalism and frugal smugness grated too hard.

Early retirement is only slightly easier to plan for than regular retirement.  Would we keep the house or sell and move to a lower cost of living area? Would we downgrade to less demanding jobs or work part-time or just be bums? Every set of numbers had a different set of assumptions, and this can make the answer really different.

Interestingly, though, one truth became clear: people can retire – are retiring – on what we currently have saved.

And like a baby sucking its thumb or hugging a teddy bear, my calculations were soothing to me.

I’d done something similar when I hated my first job and considered going back to school full-time.  Calculating living expenses vs. savings and knowing that I could quit at any time and still finish school made it easier to go to that soul-sucking job every day.

(Of course, I’m older and wiser now and more skilled and more likely to speak up for myself.  I went to my boss and told him it wasn’t working.  He immediately changed my duties to be more in line with my experience and the job I hated quickly became a job I loved. Early retirement suddenly seemed way less important.)

Still, the knowledge that I really wasn’t tethered to a job – any job – was a little eye-opening.

Realistically, I get way too many of my feelings of self-worth from working. I also have a pretty neat job in a really cool industry where I get paid a healthy salary. And even if admitting this makes me a  terrible mother, I’m also way more partial to working than to childcare (sometimes it’s just nice to sit and drink a whole cup of coffee while it’s still hot, you know?), though Mom Guilt often sneaks in and it’s hard to balance everything.

So what do you do when you’re sort of financially independent except you’re risk averse and not interested in not working?

I was inspired by a former coworker who worked 2 days a week for about 10 years. Her resume has no gaps, and I doubt any future employers will ask her if she worked 40 hours per week during those years. I wasn’t interested in working quite that little (plus we depend on my benefits too much).

Our solution is for D and me to each work 4-day weeks.  This gives each of us a chance to get chores and errands done, or to spend an extra day with the kids. With the arrival of Baby #2, it was a good opportunity to ask our bosses for these reduced schedules.

My concern in the short term will be my control freak tendancies at work and the lack of understanding from our coworkers.  I found that three days a week was too hard – too hard to get my work done, too hard to meet with other employees, and too hard to be as involved as I wanted to be with our projects.  I also got a little bit of pushback from some coworkers. Why can’t we have a meeting on [day you’re taking off]? Can you cover XYZ that’s not only on your day off but also at 8pm? How long are you going to be part-time? Etc.

In theory, this does make our nominal budget very tight, especially since the two biggest line items – mortgage and daycare costs – are relatively fixed. That said, we can always work more if money becomes a problem.  Right now, the lowered stress and extra time with our kids seem to be in far shorter supply.

What would you do with almost financial independence but with a lot of uncertainty?



Job Applicants and Interviewees: My thoughts from the other side of the table
April 18, 2012

My coworker and good friend moved to a new job in another state and my boss, D, has just begun interviewing for her replacement. I was lucky enough to be selected for the interview panel (I like to joke that it’s because we are also interviewing for the job of being my New Best Friend).  I’ve never been on this side of an interview before, and it has definitely been enlightening!  What follows is hopefully not condescending like this email, just the things that I’ve personally taken away from my experience.

I wasn’t around for the initial resume review, but there were a ton of applicants, even with the specific qualifications.  I’m speculating, but it’s likely that there were keyword searches involved.  The posting requested one particular certification, and anyone who didn’t put this on their resume was probably filtered out without a human even glancing at their resume.

Lesson #1: Read job postings before you apply. Insert keywords if you’re doing the whole tailor-your-resume-for-each-job thing, but really, if the job posting specifically says “Include this on your resume,” you want to do it!

In addition to the sheer volume, D was amazed at the number of very overqualified people applying.  I’m talking people in their late 30s and 40s applying for a job that was most recently held by someone who hasn’t even gone through a quarterlife crises yet!  It actually made me sad, because this demonstrates how very bleak the job market is right now.  We’ve interviewed a couple of the overqualified people, but some of them have specifically asked about chances for promotions. (In the interview! Don’t do that.)

My “favorite” applicant so far has been the one who emailed D, saying,”I don’t know much about [our company, our business, and our project], but I figured I’d throw my hat into the ring.”  He does at least know D, but given the number of times I’ve heard the story, I don’t think that guy is getting an interview!

Lesson #2: Networks matter. Since the job posting was internal, D has done a lot of coordinating with applicants’ current management, in some cases asking these other managers to pick their best workers from the stack of resumes. (Luckily, these managers support the movement of their employees – this counts as a pretty decent promotion & jump in responsibilities!)  Those who were recommended got interviews.  One of my favorites was recommended above and beyond all of the other applicants from one department, and her manager wrote her a letter of recommendation.  That’s impressive.

In contrast, I spoke to a guy who had applied (he didn’t know I was involved in the process at all), and he said he hoped he got an interview.  He also said that his current manager really dislikes him and that they butt heads a lot.  Guess who was not recommended for the job?

Lesson #3: Your work also matters.  This is linked to #2.  A few of the interviewees are people we’ve worked with very closely before.  The ones we’d seen in action and the ones who distinguished themselves, they not only got interviews, but they were probably a lot more seriously considered afterwards.  It’s one thing to say you go above and beyond, it’s another thing when you’ve gone above and beyond to help the very people you’re interviewing with. Likewise, if you tend to do the bare minimum, the expectation is that you’ll continue to do so. D’s goal was to find someone who would work hard (since they’ve had unmotivated employees before and everyone hated them).

Lesson #4: Those boring interview tips are actually kind of right.  You know what?  I’m an engineer, and I understand why people ask about promotion potential and upcoming vacations. These things are important to you, and when will you get another chance? (The answer to this is when you get offered the job, by the way.  I definitely had classmates in college who couldn’t wrap their heads around why they shouldn’t bring this stuff up in an interview!) But I also have read those tips, and I know it’s bad form to ask them.  When I’m asked those no-no questions, I wonder how the interviewee has managed to not read anything in preparation for the interview.

Lesson #5: The interview does matter.  Your resume can be amazing, but if you can’t intelligently talk about all the things on it, it might as well be blank.  Thinking about questions – even if this leaves the room in silence while you speak – is a good thing.  Asking for questions to be repeated is as well!  Relate questions to the experience you can talk about best.  Even if you have something that sounds really impressive, if you can talk more clearly about something that doesn’t sound as cool, go for the boring thing.  Your interviewer can tell when you’re BSing!  And bonus points for those little interview best practices – another one of my favorite applicants wore a suit, brought extra copies of his resume, sounded so prepared every time he opened his mouth, and also sent a nice follow-up email.  His resume was great and he’s a hard worker, but he totally wowed me in the interview!

I’ve given D my opinion on the interviewees, but I’m not involved in the actual decision.  I actually prefer it that way – picking a couple of favorites is easy, picking The One Who Should Be Hired is a whole other thing that I’m glad is not my responsibility!

Two paths diverged
December 10, 2011

I mentioned before that my current boss is leaving.  He’s hanging around to do our year-end reviews since they don’t have a replacement manager yet, but he’s already splitting time between our group and his new job.

Because of the desire to cut costs in our organization, my ex-boss’ bosses are still debating how to list the job posting.  They seem to be reaching a consensus to list it as a very low-level management job, despite the fact that it comes with a group of 25 underlings and a host of other program management responsibilities.  In fact, the level is so low that the most senior people on my program can’t even apply because it wouldn’t pay even close to what they’re making now.

Our group works well because of the camaraderie between members of our group and the free rein we’re given as long as we get our work done (and we get a lot of work done).  This often means pancake breakfasts, bets on football games (whoever loses the bet buys bagels for the whole office), midday coffee breaks in the conference room, etc. As such, there is a desire to keep the management job “in the family,” i.e. making sure no new guy/girl is going to come in an attempt to change the culture.

At this time, there are only 2 people who have the required experience and also don’t make too much money to apply. I am one of them.

I’ve been getting a little bit of pressure to apply for this job.  Part of it is that there’s no one else since the job is ridiculously underpaid for the amount of work (they think I don’t know this), part of it is that they’ve done the same math I have, and they know I’m one of two potential “insiders,” and hopefully part of it is because they like me and think I’d be good at it.

As a career move, it’s not a bad one.  I’d be making more money more quickly – it would amount to the promotion I planned to ask for this year (I am convinced it will be denied this year and next year, but possibly 2013), or just slightly over.  It would set me up for more management responsibility in the future, all the way up to CEO. (Just kidding.)  I do think I’d enjoy the money aspects of it, given how much I enjoy my own, much smaller, budget.

Still, I’ve always said that I wanted to stay technical.  I love the challenge of engineering, the moment of clarity when you’ve finally figured out the solution to a problem.  My career aspirations were always to be an expert, to run the analysis that drives the evolution of technology.  I hoped I would be smart enough to get there.

In the teeny, tiny, gossip-ridden office I work in, everyone would know if I applied, interviewed, or was offered the job.  Which means they’d also know if I turned it down.  In all the pressure to get me to apply, I was assured that I’d have a good chance of getting it.

I just can’t decide if I’d want it.

I fear change.
October 17, 2011

My manager let us know that he’s taking a new job, and thus won’t be our boss for much longer, although he’ll be around until the end of the year to do our year-end reviews.

I’m going to miss my boss!  He never took anything too seriously, and sometimes would hang out and chat and joke with us on Friday mornings or over lunch.  I’m convinced he’s a big part of the reason that my department has a reputation for being the happiest group at our work site.  And lest you think that this is great for the workers but bad for the company, our group is actually one of the best-performing.  And!  We get a lot of long-term employees who enjoy working here so much that they stay for decades.

He’ll still be working for our company, based out of our work site, and this is really a very nice step up for him.  I’m excited for him, and yet…

Since this is my blog and I’m a very self-centered person, I have to wonder what this does for my plans to get promoted next year.  It’s hard enough to get a promotion when you have someone advocating for you, and I don’t know how easy it will be trying to convince someone who has very little idea of what I’ve accomplished.

Well, I guess this will take some of the pressure off.  At the year-end review, I think I’ll bring it up as a “What do you thing my chances are?” and see if he’ll be willing to give me some concrete advice on what will be the best way to stand out, to show that I’m able to fulfill the next level (our promotions are mostly just pay-grade – the people several pay bands above me do essentially the same work but just have more years experience).  After all, he’s been a manager for years and years, and he knows how higher-ups make the decision to promote.

Or is that really tacky and desperate?  I feel like I will never get the hang of work etiquette.

Have you ever had a boss leave?  Was the change good or bad or not a big deal?

I’m working too much!
September 19, 2011

Okay, I like my job, I really do.  But I do not like it so much that I am willing to give up weekends, or work 12-hour days (or 22 hour days, as I had to do last week), or miss college football.

I had to work on Saturday.  And last Saturday. And Labor Day weekend. Without going into too much detail, it was not exactly planned.  My boss always compares us to firefighters: sometimes we might sit around playing cards (if only we actually got to play cards, that would be sweet!), but when the bell rings, we are there to restore order. So there was a “fire,” we had to put it out.

I got phone calls at 2:30am, worked over the holiday weekend, missed the Penn State season opener, and just generally ran myself ragged.  And in all fairness, there were people who ran themselves even more ragged, but I’m learning that some people just do that and them working more than me doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to be tired.

D commented yesterday that he thinks I’ve been working too much.  What could I say?  I have been.  It’s stressing me out!  And next week I fly to California for some training (and OK, I’m stretching it into a long weekend visiting my sister).  In October I’ll be traveling again, up to Pennsylvania.  I may have to work a semi-graveyard shift from Halloween to Thanksgiving.

There is no end in sight, and it’s stressing me out! It’s hard to believe that I took a vacation only last month.  I’ve been go-go-go since we got back.

See, I’m the kind of person who needs to go hide in a cave in order to decompress.  I need a few days of doing nothing to start feeling rested.  In lieu of a day off, I’ve just started turning down every social invitation I get because it just sounds like too much work.  I even have to avoid just chatting with my coworkers because the earlier I finish my work, the earlier I can go home.

Here’s hoping I get a few days off and that balance is restored before too long!

I still sorta act broke
July 25, 2011

My workplace skews way older than me and a few years younger than me.  At 28, I don’t think I’m unreasonably old, but most of the younger people are about 3-5 years younger than me, which feels like a lot.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the older people really want to give advice.  Usually it’s for something I’m already doing (don’t they know who I am?!), like contributing to my 401K or saving for a house.  This doesn’t go unappreciated, since I know many of my closest coworkers are millionaires, at least in terms of the worth of their (sadly discontinued) pension plans, but also because they’ve all been working for 30+ years and you tend to accumulate money in that period of time.  One guy always tells me to buy gold.  Another one tells me what a bad idea it is to get married or have children.

Mostly, I don’t talk about money, unless I’m throwing in a little joke about being broke or how puny my paycheck is compared to theirs or how we’ll have to give up groceries to pay for our new smartphones.  Every once in a while I’ll share some of my nerdish leanings, like how at the end of last year I couldn’t work any extra graveyard shifts because the overtime would screw up my 401K contributions. (“Why do you even know that?” asked my boss.)

With the younger people, I try to take a bit of a guiding role.  I spent an afternoon waxing poetic about my Roth IRA to a good friend of mine.  I dragged her to a retirement planning seminar where I dozed as she scribbled down notes.  I’m planning to loan her my copy of I Will Teach You To Be Rich.  Still, I just nod along when someone says, “We had to take out loans to pay for it.  No one has $4,000 just laying around, right?”

It’s easy to pretend that we’re not doing as well as we are, because I keep setting excessive goals for us (I still don’t have complete confidence that we’ll make our savings goals for the year…) and thus I feel squeezed even if the only thing suffering is our savings.  I don’t dress as well as some other girls, and no one was impressed when I got my iPhone because it’s been out for a couple years now.  What I mean is, I’m not projecting an image of wealth.  And because I’m still relatively young and making a very good salary due to my degrees & some lucky jobhopping, no one really knows how much I’m making.

Or maybe they all read my blog and just shake their heads when I pretend I don’t have an emergency fund.

Do you hide your financial nerdiness, or are you loud and proud about your savings prowess?  Do you think people would treat you differently if they knew what your net worth is?

She returns
June 22, 2011

I walked out of the airport and was greeted with the roar of traffic. One of the things I always forget about LA is the sheer number of people. I always feel deliciously anonymous, which is not a feeling I get anywhere else. The palm trees made me feel homesick for a city I don’t live in anymore.

I was giving my briefing in the same building I used to work in, so there were lots of run-ins with the people I used to work with. I didn’t leave on bad terms, so it was all very pleasant, but it does get old, repeating, “Oh, I’m giving a briefing,” a thousand times.

My presentation went well! It even caught the attention of the man I call my “career crush,” since he has the exact job I want when I finally get good enough at all this engineering stuff. Not to brag (although I probably am), but my presentation was deemed the best of the day. This was owed in no small part to the animations I used for comedic effect. One goal for the month checked off! (Now, if I would just call the eye doctor…)

I fly back to reality tomorrow, so I’ve loaded my Nook with a number of trashy novels that won’t make me seem smart but will suck me in for most of my 6 hour flight. Sadly, this also marks the end of getting to buy venti lattes and premade salads and cookies as big as my face, just because it’s all going to be expensed anyway.

One more night, so I’m driving down to San Diego to visit my sister. Who needs sleep when there’s bonding to be had? San Diego always was my favorite, better than LA any day.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Traveling this week
June 20, 2011

The best part of traveling for work? Getting all the overpriced food you can eat at the airport.

The worst part of traveling for work? Traveling. Then working.

I’m headed back to my old neighborhood this week. Gonna get me a burrito!

If I Were A Boy
November 22, 2010

This post is part of the “If I Were A Boy” Carnival, a series where female bloggers share their candid experiences or observations about women in the workplace. This is not at all meant to be a male-bashing exercise! Please check out the links to other participating bloggers at the end of this post!

I had gotten most of the way through high school before I realized girls weren’t supposed to be good at math.  Sure, I could be good at doing sums in elementary school.  That was OK.  I was never supposed to be good at middle school geometry or algebra, but my mother passionately argued for my brain and had me moved up into the advanced classes.  I really wasn’t supposed to be good at calculus, but at that point there was really nothing anyone could do. Still, my smarts were stealthy. Our calculus teacher graded on a curve, and he used to write everyone’s test grades on the board as a way to illustrate our performance along that curve.  The nosier people in the class would try to figure out who had earned the best grades, the worst grades.  Once, I got a 100%.  The class investigators never even looked at me when trying to figure out who had gotten it.

When I got to college, I discovered that most guys will ignore the fact that you’re a girl if you can help them with their homework.  Still, it was around this time that I started having doubts about my own abilities.  I attended a seminar on the Impostor Phenomenon, which affects high achievers and makes them feel like intellectual frauds. Although I’m sure this affects people of both sexes, I noticed an interesting trend within my group of friends. My male friends, receiving a poor grade on an exam or lab report, would immediately launch into complaints about the professor. Us girls would shrug, tucking the paper into a folder, and think to ourselves, “I guess someone finally figured out that I’m not smart enough to be an engineer.”

When senior year rolled around and we were all freaking out about finding a job, a classmate and friend (who had copied my homework and who I had outscored on every test) snorted and said, “What are you worried about? You’ll get a job because you’re a girl.” Apparently, my hard work and good grades were nothing against the mighty power of quota-filling hiring practices.

It still took me a while to find a job, but I did get a few offers. I took the one in California because it seemed like the coolest place ever to a girl born and raised on the East Coast. Chad was still looking for work, but focused his search in LA. His job offer was $3,000 more than mine, despite the fact that my GPA was higher and we had comparable work experience. I don’t think this was gender-related at all, but surreptitious glances at the salary sheets in my new hire seminar showed that most of the men were making about $3,000 more than me. I’ve never quite been able to shake that feeling.

(As an aside, I understand that salaries are almost never fair. There’s negotiation skills and the amount of money available at any one time and job types. And I was working in a slightly less technical area, which generally means less money. Of course, all of the people working in my slightly-less-technical area were women…)

I did get lucky to have bosses who would advocate for raises and promotions (and I was hired during the good years, so I like to think I did OK). Two months before I graduated with my Masters degree, I got a raise that pushed my salary about $100 beyond Chad’s. With the job I was offered in May, I negotiated another promotion. I know that I’m now paid very fairly, especially since I got to sneak a peek at a coworker’s paycheck.

Even knowing that I’m fairly paid, however, doesn’t mean I don’t have to deal with sexist crap sometimes. I once spent an hour debating sexism in hiring practices with someone (thin, straight, white male. Shockingly.) who insisted that large engineering companies were hiring 50% women, when women (he claimed) only make up about 5% of engineering graduates. He based this off of the number of females he had in classes in college and how one time he worked as a recruiter and 2/4 people they hired had to be women. Upon further discussion, he revealed that his boss had insisted on the 2 females because he had already hired too many men. All of my explanations about inherent bias were dismissed, even though the story clearly shows that the hiring practices up until that point were influenced by the hiring manager being male.

In reality, 20% of graduating engineers are women, while the total percentage of women employed in engineering is somewhere around 12%. These facts did not sway said male coworker. He also complained that our boss “hires only girls.” Two women, in fact, into a group of 15 people that had previously only included one female (sounds like got us up close to about 20%!). If our boss had hired 2 men, I doubt anyone would have even noticed. But which one would have been less fair?

The highest ranked woman at my work site is pretty incompetent.  She is one of many incompetent managers.  Most of the underlings have asked how such stupid people could be in positions of power.  It is only for her that they think they have the answer.

She’s married, but doesn’t have any kids.  Other women I interact with include a respected woman who is not married and has no kids, and a woman who would probably be in management if she worked more than two days per week (she takes the rest of the time off to take care of her 3 kids).  Interestingly, the second woman’s husband works with us, and I have never heard of him taking any time off for child-rearing.

Obviously, there is a lot of personal choice going on here (choice, or social conditioning?).  I just hate that I have no one to look up to as someone who was able to make it work.  If I were a boy, I’d have plenty.  My (male) boss has 7 (!!) kids.  Guess which parent cuts back their hours to watch them?  Nearly all of the men in my office have at least one child, but have wives who stay home or who work only part-time.  If I want to work full-time when I have kids, I’m going to have to blaze my own path.

If I were a boy, I would never have to worry that my accomplishments would be attributed to affirmative action. I wouldn’t live with the knowledge that my failures would reflect poorly on my entire gender – possibly even being used as an excuse to exclude women in the future. I would never have been asked, “Why are you studying engineering? How is that going to help you raise your children?”* I wouldn’t have to worry about family planning, trying to time a pregnancy so that I’m not getting pregnant too soon or putting it off too long. I wouldn’t have to struggle with knowing that I want to work after I have kids but that I will be judged for it. I wouldn’t think that just because I can be anything, I have to be everything.

Please check out the posts by other female bloggers, and feel free to share your experiences in the comments!

* Actual question asked by an elderly uncle.

Building a work wardrobe: revisited
June 11, 2010

About a month ago, a woman wrote into TSD with a question about building a work wardrobe for her new job. Trent told her that she should buy more ties and fewer shirts and make sure to get everything from a consignment store. He also told her to call her new coworkers and ask what brands they wear.

I agree with what he says, almost.  Mix & match pieces will go much further than a larger number of items that don’t go with anything else, even if his example didn’t apply to a female’s wardrobe. Consignment stores and thrift stores can be a good source of inexpensive clothes. And looking to your coworkers is a good way to gauge the dress code in any office. However, thrift stores can be a total crapshoot, and the consignment stores near me always seem to be selling clothes for the same price you’d pay during a great sale. Also, there’s no better way to alienate your coworkers than to ask them what brands they wear.  Most importantly, I felt like he was ignoring one of the biggest parts of her question by giving her a few vague tips and not some actual concrete advice on how to build a wardrobe.

I 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 stores. 

First of all, your industry usually dictates your dress code. Lawyers need to be more business professional, office workers usually need to be business casual, and technical people usually can get away with wearing a casual wardrobe. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask your new boss about the dress code, and if it’s a strict policy (e.g. pantyhose required for women), you’ll usually get a copy from HR.

If you honestly have no idea, make sure you have a killer outfit for the first day (a suit would be best, especially if you have a place to stash your blazer in case the workplace is more casual) and a few clothes to make it through the week. If you look all right the first day, most people won’t remember the rest of the week, and you’ll have a chance to scrutinize your coworkers outfits to determine the dress code.

Business professional means suits, or at least separates. If this is you, there’s no way around it: buy a suit. Buy as many as you can afford that will get you through the week. Buy both the pants and the skirt version (assuming you’re female) because blazers are expensive. (Bonus tip: Try to avoid wearing tanks underneath – I know it’s a cute look, but the less contact your suit has with your skin, the fewer trips you’ll need to take to the dry cleaner.) Make sure you have shoes that match in color and in height (no dragging hems or floods!). If possible, get suits that coordinate; you can wear a gray tweed blazer with the matching pants or with black pants.  Most importantly, make sure the suit fits.  A $50 suit that is the right size will look a lot better than a $400 suit with too-long sleeves or pants that encase your legs like sausage.

My workplace is business casual, which can mean lots of things along the formality spectrum. Some people think it means you start with business professional and take off your blazer. Some people think it means khakis and corduroys with embellished t-shirts. If I were building a bare-bones business casual wardrobe from scratch, it would probably look something like this:

5+ bottoms in neutral colors. If “neutral” is a new term for you, it means any color that goes with every other color, and here means black, brown, gray, or navy.

1 dress in a neutral color. Women only, optional.

2 white shirts. Usually websites recommend basic oxfords, but if you’re a busty lady, any crisp, woven white blouse would be appropriate.

3 colored/patterned shirts. Again, women can go for structured tops. Some classic colors that go with almost anything would be best – a light blue or pink color, stripes, etc.

3-4 sweaters or cardigans or vests. These can be layered over the button-down shirts/blouses in case of a chilly office, or worn alone with a t-shirt or tank underneath.

1-2 pairs of shoes. Men, go for black and brown. Ladies, I’d go with a pair in black and a pair in a nude color that matches your skin tone. Remember, this is bare bones – you only need shoes that will match all of your bottoms.

1 large tote or briefcase in a neutral color. It’s OK to go a little offbeat with this one. I have an olive green bag, and I swear, it matches everything in my wardrobe. If you can pull off a brighter color, I say go for it.

Some fun accessories. This includes belts, ties (I honestly have no idea what the rules are for ties – my male coworkers don’t wear ties unless they’re presenting to a customer), necklaces, scarves, etc. Something to add visual interest to your look.

If you can afford it, a great neutral blazer. Black is the most classic.

Then, mix and match!

Men, pants + shirt + shoes. Add ties and sweaters as necessary. Cardigans on men are always very attractive and I wish I’d see it more often.

Women, you have a little more leeway to be creative. Belt a cardigan over a floral blouse & wear with a pencil skirt. Layer a turtleneck under the dress. Throw a few strands of pearls over a simple sweater and trousers. Wear a floral scarf with everything, or tie it on your bag.

I think that these items would work very well in any office environment. Just make sure everything fits correctly, since nothing will make you look less professional than too-big pants or hems dragging on the ground or buttons gaping open. I am firmly in the camp that it is worthwhile to spend money on work clothes, especially if you don’t enjoy shopping. In general, higher-quality items will be more expensive, but will last longer.

If you’d prefer not to spend a lot of money, head to a thrift store or a consignment store. I personally don’t do this, but it’s mostly because I have a hard-to-fit body type and thrifting excursions usually end in tears and vows to get liposuction. If something doesn’t fit quite right, if you need a size bigger, you’re out of luck. That is what I hate about non-retail stores.

I don’t have many specific store recommendations for men. Department stores are an easy starting point. J. Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, might be good places to check. If you want to spend $300 on a tie, go to Thomas Pink.

Ladies, if I had to choose one place to recommend, it would be LOFT. I have had nothing but good luck there, and though I fit into standard sizes, they also carry a petites line and plus sizes. The prices are also really reasonable. (I should also note that I have no advertising relationship with LOFT, I just really like the store. Although, if LOFT would like to pay me in cute clothes for constantly mentioning their website, I would not object.)

If you’re willing to pay a little more, I like Ann Taylor, J. Crew, Banana Republic. Anthropologie has the best patterned blouses and accessories, if you like something a little more whimsical and feminine. If you’re looking to spend less, I have had great luck at H&M – I still wear a pair that I bought there more than 5 years ago! I also love American Eagle since they have the only button-downs that will fit my chest without being huge in the waist.

If you find a brand that works for you, check eBay for items in your size. That’s how I got my Anthropologie shirtdress for about 1/3rd or the retail price (not much of a score if you think about how much their items cost full-price, but you know, I probably would have bought the dress anyway).

Readers, do you have any office style recommendations?  Leave your thoughts in the comments!