Updated on 07.17.15

The Deceptively Tiny Wardrobe: A Clever Method for Saving Money and Time With Clothing While Still Having Plenty to Wear

Trent Hamm
laundry basket on washer

Photo: Emily May

Over the last few years, I’ve bought almost no new clothes. The only exception I can think of at all is some replacements for my socks and underwear. As clothes have worn out, I’ve simply tossed them in the trash or the rag bag.

My goal, in the end, is to have a “deceptively tiny wardrobe.” What do I mean by that? I mean that I have a set of clothes that generates a surprising number of distinct outfits out of a tiny pile of clothes, a wardrobe that will fit in a small fraction of our bedroom closet and in my dresser.

Why? Let me walk you through the principles behind this idea.

Principle #1: Minimize the Total Laundry Loads of Your Wardrobe

I tend to measure the size of my wardrobe – and the wardrobes of others – by how many laundry loads it takes to wash all of it. The smaller the number, the better.

In an ideal situation, you’ll regularly find yourself with most of your wardrobe dirty, but washing it only requires one or two loads of laundry that can be done in an afternoon.

Why focus on this as a target? When your wardrobe is relatively small, you save a lot of money in a lot of different ways.

First, you simply don’t own that much clothing. That means you haven’t spent a ton of money on that clothing and it means you can pay a little extra attention to each item, something we’ll discuss below.

Second, your wardrobe doesn’t take up a whole lot of space. If you stick with this principle, everything you own can fit in a small dresser and a tiny portion of a closet. You don’t need a huge closet. You can easily get away with a smaller bedroom, which means that you can easily get away with lower rent and/or a lower mortgage.

Third, you spend less time dealing with it, which is time you can spend elsewhere. That time can help you with your career, your side business, or with other tasks around your home.

So, how do you pull that off?

Principle #2: Buy Only Very Inexpensive or Very Sturdy Clothing

Whenever you do make the decision to purchase new clothing, focus on items that are well-made and will last through many washings. The only exception to that rule is for clothing you might wear on the weekends when you’re doing household chores, in which case go for the cheap.

I work from home, so a significant portion of my wardrobe falls into those “around the house” clothes, which I generally buy as cheaply as possible. I wear nicer, well-made items when I leave the property – no one needs to see me wearing shirts with holes in them, for instance.

However, that wardrobe split was still true when I worked outside the home. At that time, most of my clothes were in the “nicer” part of my wardrobe while the rest of my clothes were in the “cheap” part.

So, how do you identify sturdy clothing? By “sturdy,” I simply mean clothing that will still look good and not wear out after a bunch of washings. In my earlier article about buying clothes without destroying your budget, I suggested the following steps for finding well-made sturdy clothes:

The first strategy I use is to glance at the seams. The seams of a well-made clothing item versus a cheaply-made one tell the difference – the stitching is far better in the well-made item, meaning the item will hold together for much longer. There aren’t strings dangling off and it doesn’t look like you could easily rip it apart with a tug. The seams on a good quality item are usually perfectly straight, too, and any patterns should match up well at the seams. Also, keep an eye on the material. Try to stick to natural fibers and blends that last a long time, like wool, and avoid synthetics like polyester. The tag will tell you this information.

I also tend to trust clothing brands that have a reputation for being long-lasting, like Land’s End.

Principle #3: Using the Other Principles, Strive to Maximize Your Total Number of Possible Outfits

My goal, as I cut my total wardrobe down to an amount that can be washed in two laundry loads, is to simply maximize the number of outfits that I can make from the clothes I have left.

What I mean by that is that each pairing of pants and shirt that I would wear in public counts as an outfit. If I wouldn’t wear a particular pairing in public – say, pants and shirt of colors that would clash – I don’t count that outfit.

My goal with my wardrobe is to maximize my outfit count while keeping my wardrobe size small enough that I can wash all of it in two loads. That’s the end goal.

To do that, I focus on keeping (for now) and buying (later on) well-made items that go well with most of the items I already have. In particular, I stick with shirts that go well both with jeans and with dress pants and with the assortment of ties that I have so that I can easily dress anywhere from “around the house” to business casual with what I have on hand (I also have a suit that I wear for appropriate situations).

The nice part is that almost every shirt in the world works with jeans and almost all dress shirts work with ordinary dress pants. So, rather than buy something unusual in those categories, I focus on rather ordinary items that are just very well made and will last for a long time.

This maximizes the number of outfits that I have. In all honesty, the true limiting factor for me is shirts, as each shirt I have pairs with virtually every pair of pants that I have and vice versa. In fact, Sarah has somewhat joked that I’m headed for the kind of wardrobe that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg utilized, where almost everything consists of the same shirt and same pants. That doesn’t sound altogether unappealing to me.

Principle #4: Replace Worn Items on a One-for-One Basis

This is easy. When an item begins to show signs of obvious wear, to the point where you would no longer want to wear it in the usual places where you would wear that item, replace it. I usually toss such clothes into a rag bag out in the garage because they’ve reached a point where no one would want to wear them.

When a pair of jeans wear out, I replace them with a similar pair of jeans that’s well made. When a pair of dress pants wear out, I replace them with a similar pair of dress pants that’s well made. When a shirt wears out… you get the idea.

For the moment, as I alluded to above, I’m not actually doing any replacements at all. The replacement cycle will kick in once my wardrobe shrinks a little more, down to a much more manageable size. Until then, I’m just getting rid of worn-out stuff.

Principle #5: Wash Only the Dirty Clothes

Many days, the clothes I wear while doing things like working at my office desk or doing minor household chores simply do not get dirty. If I take a shower in the morning and spend most of the day working at my desk or around the house, those clothes aren’t dirty.

So why wash them?

Washing clothes is one of the biggest sources of wear and tear on your clothes. A washing machine beats on those clothes, often doing far more damage than you do to them while wearing them.

If your clothes aren’t actually dirty – meaning you didn’t get sweaty or do anything to get them dirty – and don’t appear dirty or smell dirty, then don’t wash them. Fold them up and use them again in the future.

Focus your laundry on the clothes that are actually dirty and actually need a washing.

Final Thoughts

The end result of these principles is that you’ll find yourself with a smaller wardrobe that takes up far less space than before. Those items will, for the most part, be long-lasting items, which means you don’t have to replace them nearly as often.

That means big savings in terms of both time and money. You’ll spend less time dealing with clothes and laundry and less money on buying and replacing clothes. Plus, you’ll always have a functional set of clothes on hand for almost any situation.

Try these principles on for size. You’ll be glad you did.

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