Updated on 12.20.11

Five Cheap Shirts or One Good One?

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Kerry D. says:

    I agree that lovely clothes can be found at Goodwill, other thrift stores and yard sales… Many people buy clothes and don’t wear them much, or that sit in the closet because they don’t fit. It just takes patience and a good eye…

    On how nice to dress–I’d like to offer a different way of thinking about it, rather than “keeping up with the Joneses”… I like to think of dressing to express myself, knowing that my appearance says something about me. So I just ask “what message do I want to send?” Obviously, not disheveled or ratty. I’d like it to say something like “reliable, professional, kind, dynamic, creative.” That usually narrows it down to a nice looking basic, like dark jeans or slacks, a well fitting top that’s kind of elegant, and a dash of fun/color from a scarf or shoes. Super easy, comfortable, and I can do it on a very small budget, many parts second hand. (Around the house or feeding horses is another story.)

  2. Johanna says:

    I don’t really understand the association that cheap = casual and good = expensive = dressy. Both casual clothes and dressy clothes span a wide range in both price and quality.

  3. LB says:

    Cost isn’t necessarily correlated with quality of clothes. A $50 sweater may pill and stretch out faster than a $25 sweater (or a $3 one you bought at the thrift store). Some of my most expensive t-shirts got holes in them after 2 or 3 washes, while I have shirts I got for free from volunteer events that still are in good shape after 3 or three years of regular wear. I’d like to say that it helps to find a quality, but affordable brand and stick with it, but I have been disappointed multiple times when I went back to buy more shirts or slacks from a brand I had good luck with and they’ve changed the stitching or are now using cheaper materials.

  4. lurker carl says:

    Price isn’t the guiding factor, quality is. Some very expensive items are crap and some cheap items are golden. The problem with poorly made, poor quality clothes is performance. Wears out fast, seams/zippers/snaps/buttons break, cloth puckers and stretches and shrinks and fades and thread-bare. Perhaps that look is fine at home but not so good in the workplace. Perhaps that look is fine at home but not so good in the workplace. The expression, “I’ll be all over you like a cheap suit,” comes to mind.

    Appearance matters.

  5. Valleycat1 says:

    Ditto #s3 & 4

  6. Riki says:

    Definitely agree with #3 and #4

    I find I don’t have to buy “house clothes” — when my nicer stuff starts showing it’s age, it becomes a house shirt. When it really starts looking unfortunate, the house shirt becomes a painting/housework/messy work shirt. Eventually it becomes a rag.

    Trent, I think you significantly underestimate the value of dressing well. You work from home. You’re out of touch. Thanks for reminding us that we shouldn’t wear a ripped t-shirt to meet a professional acquaintance. Jeez. Also, even when I’m home, I tend to be more productive and feel better in general when I make a little bit of effort with my clothes.

    I’ve actually be wearing the same t-shirt to dye my hair for the last 10 years. It has an interesting accumulation of colours.

  7. Marinda says:

    The Ralph Lauren pink shirt at Macy’s 50 dollars–the very same shirt at Goodwill, tags still on 3 dollars.

    Coldwater Creek linen shirt, last season and Guess vintage winter white blouse both $1.50 each at a church sponsored thrift store.
    Both had to ironed, people don’t like to iron, but I have the time and actually enjoy it, so it’s not an issue.

    Designer jeans 80 dollars online, at a Houston Texas consignment store, 10 dollars.

    Know your favorite labels, the size you need and check for wear and stains. Go through your closet and for every piece you purchase, take a piece out and send to the resale shop of your choice.

  8. JC says:

    I would disagree that you are responsible for how other people feel about the way you are dressed. As long as you feel like you are a reflection of your best-self (or close) then how another person reacts to your clothing is really not your problem and beyond your control.

    I love that show on TLC – WHAT NOT TO WEAR. It’s not about shopping (though that’s the fun part to watch) but so much of it is about making sure you look your best so that the outer-image is a positive reflection of the inner self-image.

    As Stacy and Clinton say, it’s about fit and looking like the best-version of your confident self.

    Lately, I’ve been shopping in my own closet and forcing myself to come up with more coordinated and polished outfits. It’s been fun, I feel less schlumpy at work and some of my friends have commented that they can tell the difference in the effort I’ve made. I’m not a shopper so the time/effort to go to thrift stores seem far more intensive than buying an occasional new piece that really works.

  9. Carole says:

    I remember reading something quite a while ago that has stayed with me—try to dress even with others, not better than any one else and not less than most in that particular situation. That is what Trent said too. I remember it also suggested that women in the workplace should dress conservatively since “who really wants men going bananas over her body at work?”

  10. Temi says:

    I’ve had a different experience. (Maybe because I’m a more common size.) I use thrift stores mainly for my work outfits. Some of the highest quality pieces in my wardrobe were found in thrift stores. I have trouble spending $50 to $100 on a high quality shirt or pair of pants new, but have had great luck in finding good quality, well-maintained designer clothes in thrift stores. My theory is that rich people know how to take care of their clothes and need the tax deduction donating items provides. For me, shopping in thrift stores is a bit like treasure hunt. It can be fun. The main drawback is that trying to put together complete outfits can be difficult.

  11. deRuiter says:

    Good quality wears well, fits well, flatters. Classic clothing doesn’t go out of style quickly. Shop the more upscale resale shops, thrift shops, estate and yard sales. Rich people buy better quality things to begin with, and use them gently or sometimes not at all, notice all the clothing at sales with original tags intact. Hospital charity shops run by the wives of doctors at the hospital have wonderful things. The rich, and the upper middles don’t wear out their things, they donate and buy new, giving jobs to many people in the process, and freeing up amazing bargains on beautiful real linen, wool, cashmere and cotton clothing for the for the thrifty and savvy shopper who knows a really good tailor. Don’t buy worn out clothing for yard work, demote some nice quality piece which is looking a little shabby. Why dress like a scarecrow just because you are going to work around the house or yard? As for advice to dress “under” the quality of the person you’re meeting for business, forget it! People want to do business with successful folks, not polyester clad “poor but honest, diamond in the rough” types who exhude failure and ignorance. Everyone responds to winners, so dress for success, which is the name of an out of print but still useful and interesting book. The author of this blog is a nice, well meaning person, but unsophisticated, unworldly man, never exposed to the finer things in life, spell check or grammar books, hence his desire to dress in rags at home, and in low end clothing when doing business meetings. If I’m going to a business meeting, I dress stlyishly in tailored to fit, elegant quality clothing with minimal, tasteful real jewelry, from resale and estate venues. People want to do business with me because I look successful and capable.

  12. Annie says:

    I live in Maryland and on the weekends in PA with my mother. I have visited thrift stores just for fun to see what kind of goods they carry and I have never seen anything of value, it’s always worn out crap. The designer labels like Gap, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, etc are all out dated clothes. I used to work with a girl that shopped at the thrift store and wore suits from there, everyone in the office could tell that is where she got the dated sutes from and thought she was cheap. I think if you find a great bargin that is still in style you got lucky. I have no luck with these things. I do find however that Macys always has sales, Boscovs, American Eagle Outfitters recently has 40% off their entire purchase, the clothes look super nice and I think it’s worth the money. I have never brought a shirt from Macys that didnt’ last me for 5 years. I think most people like Trent who work from home don’t know how it is in the office environment, especially if you are in meetings or meeting clients…the way you dress shows professionalism and seriousness about making money and being a good role model to other employees.

  13. Annie says:

    excellent summation, I agree with you a 100%.
    You expressed what i feel that couldn’t get out with the right words.
    thank you!

  14. Kate says:

    I recently went to a Goodwill store with my daughter and they are a different world than they were even ten years ago. I bought a shirt that I have worn to work and gotten so many compliments on that I have stopped counting. It was a designer label and couldn’t have been worn more than a handful of times before it was donated. It takes time, though, to find those gems and I find it is better for me to shop sales at regular stores and buy fewer clothes.

  15. Kate says:

    Wow, @DeRuiter. Don’t hold back! Can you say harsh?

  16. Genny says:

    I stick with consignment shops….they have lovely stylish clothes and jewelry with the tags still on in many cases. For my tween daughter, we also do consignment stores and Ebay-I got a box of 35 garments with the brands she likes for $150.00.

  17. Kevin says:

    I agree 100% with deRuiter.

    I wear a shirt and tie to work every day. I actually LIKE dressing up, it makes me feel confident. I exercise regularly, and I enjoy selecting stylish, quality clothing that flatters the form I’ve worked hard to achieve. That confidence comes through in how I carry myself, and I sincerely believe it contributes to my success in other, unrelated areas of my life.

  18. SwingCheese says:

    My general experience with thrift stores is that if I’m looking for something fun and funky (and not something I would necessarily wear to work), then I can find items that are in good shape. Also, when I’m looking for jeans, the “not in style” aspect works in my favor – I dislike the current “skinny jeans” fad and it is not flattering on me, so it’s nice to be able to find jeans in a style that is flattering to me at a very cheap price.

  19. Karen says:

    Some thrift stores spray their clothes with Fabreeze, and other old clothes have been washed in fabric softener by the previous owner, and all fragrances bother me a lot. I recently discovered that washing soda removes these thrift store smells from clothing!

  20. Joyce says:

    In my area we have a lot of Goodwill stores and I am familiar with them all. I park my car next to the Mercedes and Lexus that are there and go in for most of my clothes and for my grandchildren. Have a plan when you go. What do you need or want to supplement your wardrobe? Go the colors you want and ignore the rest. Stick with classics. Don’t touch every item. Stand there and look at the color, material and style and then look at it. Saves a lot of time and energy. Most of my clothes are Ann Taylor, Gap, Banana Republic, Chico’s, etc.

  21. Johanna says:

    @deRuiter: “People want to do business with me because I look successful and capable.”

    Well, it’s sure not because of your charming personality.

    Also, if you’re going to criticize Trent for not understanding spelling and grammar, what does it say about you that you don’t understand paragraph breaks?

  22. teresa says:

    I volunteer at a Thrift Store and it is amazing how many clothing donations still have tags on them. I am so surprised to hear that people can’t find nice clothing at their local stores, not many people wear out their clothing anymore, the amount of donations in our small town(pop. 500)store is almost overwelming. I would have to assume larger cities would have an even better selection. New things are great but when something has already been washed you can usually tell if a garment is going to launder well or pill and fade. Most of the Thrift Stores also are non-profits and when you spend money there you are helping out an organization that helps others. When you buy new you are usually directly supporting unfair labor practices from other countries, not much is made in the US anymore. Besides it doesn’t matter so much where you purchase clothing as long as it looks good and fits well, I have seen some really horrid clothing in high-end stores that no one should wear! Not to say I havn’t seen some ugly things at a Thrift Store but someone paid full price for it and then donated it, I always find that funny!

  23. J.D. says:

    I 100% agree with you. I even buy dress pants at a consignment shop for work. They are usually barely worn, name brand, and a fraction of the cost of new. That’s how I made up most of my work wardrobe (I have to wear dress slacks and a polo/dress shirt to work). I always look there first, then look at sales. I rarely buy clothes, so I really don’t spend much at all.

  24. littlepitcher says:

    @Annie-i was in the Bucks Co Goodwill many years ago and the quality of the merchandise was superb. Now, some entrepreneur probably purchases the best items and resells them on eBay. If your secondhander is in a wealthy area, it will have designer duds. If it is in a working-class small town like mine, the clothes will be from WalMart or Bell’s.

  25. Availle says:

    It’s somewhat funny that you would wear other people’s old clothes at home – does your own clothing never wear out?

    I would never shop for “weekend clothes” to wear around the house. Everything that has a “strictly at home” tag has been something more or less dressy which got demoted when it was not fit for work any longer.

  26. EarthMaMa_Jo says:

    In the last five years, I’ve spent less than $100 for clothes. I live in an area that has many thrift stores and consignment shops – for that I’m lucky. Many of the clothes I’ve purchased still have the original tags. When I visit out of state relatives, the thrift stores in their town don’t offer up the same caliber of clothing, but are rich in accessories, many are vintage/antique.

    Recently, my daughter spent $30 on a designer jacket she found at a thrift store. She received many compliments at school. On the third day, when I went to pick her up….she didn’t have the jacket. She’d sold it to a classmate for $120. The classmate knew she’d spent $30 on it but insisted on paying her that much for it. Turns out, the girl had owned a similar jacket (paid the $300 for it brand new) and had accidentally left it at a movie theatre. The girl bought it to appease her parents who were still upset that she’d lost a $300 jacket. Everybody was happy.

    I work out of my house. When I meet clients (small businesses or individuals who also work out of their homes) I am often better dressed than they are – but their money is green, so I don’t judge.

    My clothing budget is low, I do the best I can. If I have a choice between a new blouse that is $50 on sale, or taking my money to a second hand store – the second hand store will get my vote every time. I can buy more with that $50 there than any where else. What good does one blouse do me when there are seven days in a week?

    My parents weren’t into fashion much. Criteria of a well-dressed person was “neat and clean”. I’ve learned that there is a little more to it than that. So I spend the time looking for the “gems”.

    Certain professions dictate wearing the latest fashions, but not everyone in those professions can afford to dress the part. If someone at your work is wearing older fashions, then judge them on the quality of their work instead. New, expensive clothing doesn’t necessarily translate to being a good or competent employee.

    To those of you who knock wearing second hand clothes – stay away from those stores – we who gleen the gems of such establishment don’t want your kind rubbing elbows with us, we just want your plethora of clothing that you buy and don’t wear.

    Whatever, my posts fall on deaf ears….this is just an exercise to voice my own opinion.

  27. Lori says:

    I have 2 college degrees and am a registered pharmacist and work in a very professional office (not retail)…so I am a “career minded” person and must dress professionally. Now, I also have 6 kids and have to clothe them and a husband. 95% of my shopping is at garage sales and thrift shops. I go to all the yard sales in the summer in the most expensive neighborhoods in my area. Ditto for the thrift shops. I get brand name, designer clothes for NOTHING. 25 cents an item for gap and abercrombie and american eagle and justice. I can afford to go to Macy’s and Nordstroms…BUT WHY?????? I take my kids with me and give them a budget and say ok, shop. They negotiate the price, understand the concept of a budget and how much they have left over and the value for their money. Two points I stress to them over and over is they are saving the planet and saving money. All the designer clothes they buy second hand don’t end up in landfills and we aren’t drowning in debt to look great. We always have fashionable, current, designer clothes purchased from spendthrifts in big houses with big mortgages. At Christmas and birthdays, my teenage girls ask for money. We get them some presents but then I take them shopping before Christmas so they can pick out whatever they want. They have a $100.00 budget each and I will drive them anywhere they want to go. We start at the mall and they look around and see what is in style and they look at the price tags and then they make me take them to their favorite thrift shops. THEY MAKE THIS DECISION, NOT ME. THEY TELL ME, “I WANT MORE THAN ONE SWEATER. THRIFT SHOPS LET US GET BAGS OF CLOTHES FOR THE SAME AMOUNT OF MONEY AS ONE THING AT THE MALL.” So, I am teaching by example and years of preaching, what I believe the true value of money. Bottom line, my kids and their parents spend an average of $500.00 a year on clothing for 8 people and we wear designer clothes that are in style.

  28. Maggie says:

    Was looking for a new handbag and checked at my local resale shop. Found a Vera Bradley, the perfect size for me for $12. Same bag at the VB store – $64. My bag is like brand new. Big bargain and I love it.
    My niece, on a very tight wedding budget, purchased her wedding gown from a consignment store for $50. It didn’t even need to be cleaned because it had just been donated but her mom had it cleaned for $35. You would have thought the dress had been made just for my niece. A perfect fit. She also bought a beautiful dress for her 3 yr old, for $3, that the child wore at the wedding. I think you have to check for what you need and have an idea of the original cost and quality in order to have a good experience.

  29. EarthMaMa_Jo says:

    (clinks coffee mugs with Lori) Bravo! Well put. Thank you.

  30. BirdDog says:

    I hate to go to stores to shop, I’d much rather spend the time doing something else. However, I love shopping online. I get great deals on clothing, mostly from Land’s End. As I’ve lost 100 pounds over the past two years, I’ve had to buy clothes several times in smaller sizes. I gladly donate the clothes that are now too large for me either to family members who can wear them or to the Goodwill. I don’t do it for the tax deduction, I do it with the satisfaction of knowing that someone will get a great deal on the shirt that I loved but can no longer wear. Sure, I may pay a little more than if I shopped at thrift stores but it works best for me.

  31. David says:

    Would respectfully suggest having five cheap shirts and one good one. That way, you can dress for any occasion.

  32. Tall Bill says:

    Just 6 1/2 feet tall Trent? You’re short my friend!!

  33. DivaJean says:

    I always go for the least expensive with the best quality. I try to start off with Salvation Army and Rescue Mission or consignment shops- but sometimes do not find what I need. When that happens, I start moving up the food chain of stores from least to most expensive until I find what I need. Case in point- I try to dress very classically– a few years back I needed to replace a white blouse in my wardrobe. A plain white blouse is about as basic as it gets- but it wasn’t the trend. It took me a while to find a suitable replacement, but I felt justified in knowing that $25 for the blouse was the cheapest the market would bear at that time. Since my clothing is very basic and I do not keep a great deal of extra on hand for myself- getting the replacement was somewhat time oriented- since my clothing choices would be more limited for a while until the replacement came along.

    As for kids clothes, our family has an intense recycling program with several families. CLothes get passed on to the next one down the line- and sometimes make their ways back. There are seasons into years when all we need to actually purchase for kids are underwear, socks, and a few key things to make everything work. The big rule of our group is no selling clothes or hustling them to consignment shops– if clothing of a certain size and gender is not needed it gets donated to our church’s clothing closet, where clothes are freely given to those in need. We coordinate about two van loads a year to give off among those participating.

  34. Sarah R says:

    I’ve found very nice pieces of clothing for myself with the tag still on at second-hand clothing places. For instance, I got a sweater (with tag on) that would have cost me $30+ new for $3 used, and all it needed was a small repair to one button hole that I could do myself with thread and a needle. I’ve also picked up several barely-worn pieces of clothing with designer labels. They have held up to much wearing and multiple washes MUCH better than things I bought new from discount stores.

    And my husband got a name brand dress shirt very slightly used from a thrift store and gets compliments on it ALL the time.

    In summary, you can find many well-made namebrand pieces of clothing that are new or almost new at thrift shops, and they often will last longer than poorly-constructed clothing bought new.

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