Five Cheap Shirts or One Good One?

As many of you know, I sometimes buy shirts and other items of clothing at Goodwill, thrift stores, and consignment shops. I don’t have too much luck finding tall things (I’m six and a half feet tall), but I do find a lot of clothes for my children and my wife sometimes finds items for her as well.

The reaction that many people ask when they hear this is aren’t you just wearing shabby, worn out clothing? The general perception is that most of the clothes that you find at such places are well worn and won’t look good on a person.

To an extent, that perception is correct. There are a lot of clothes at such stores that I wouldn’t want to wear and that I wouldn’t want my children or wife to wear.

I shop there for two reasons.

One, sometimes I find a gem in the rough. I found the single most beautiful dress my daughter has ever had at a consignment shop for less than $3. I found a pretty-much-new sportjacket for myself at a Goodwill that fits almost like a glove for $5.

Two, these are the perfect places to get “weekend” clothes. These are clothes that you’re happy to wear when you’re out in the garden, mowing the yard, doing housework, or spending a lazy day around the house reading. Old t-shirts, old jeans, whatever – as long as it fits, it works.

These two scenarios make up most of the clothes in my wardrobe. I do, of course, have a selection of nice clothes that I wear outside the home.

Of course, this brings up a second question: why bother at all with nice clothes?

I don’t ever try to be the best-dressed person in the room. That’s a rat race that you never win, and there’s negligible reward for winning that race even some of the time.

On the other hand, I think there’s significant value in not being the worst-dressed person in the room. I won’t wear my old torn-up Chicago Cubs t-shirt when I’m meeting a professional acquaintance, for example.

I usually strive to hit the average – or just below the average – of the level of dress of people I’m with. This is a level that achieves every goal I want in a social situation: it makes the other person feel comfortable, but doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable because I’m way overdressed or underdressed compared to them. If I achieve that, I’m happy.

The thing is, that’s pretty easy to achieve on a low clothing budget. I don’t need very many items of “nice” clothing to pull this off, and most of my other clothes are just comfortable ones for workdays at home. Even when I worked in an office environment, it wasn’t particularly expensive to maintain a level of appropriate dress. I just needed a small number of nice shirts and a variety of pants that worked well with all of the shirts, and mixed and matched them.

So, would I rather spend a certain amount of money on a bunch of cheap shirts or one good one? I don’t think either answer is correct. The cheap shirts are perfect for wearing around the house or doing dirty work in. The one good one won’t be worn very often, but it will last for a very long time.

As with everything, it’s all about maximizing value. You get a lot of value out of an old well-worn shirt at home, but you get more value out of dressing appropriately when in public. Careful shopping can minimize your costs in both regards and not leave you wearing an expensive shirt in the garden or wearing beat-up clothing when you’re out and about.

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