Eight Strategies for Buying Clothes Without Destroying Your Budget

At our house, I’m the lucky one. I work from home so it doesn’t really matter too much what I wear most days, so I dress for comfort. Almost every day, you’ll find me in blue jeans and a t-shirt. I have some nicer clothes for social occasions and presentations, but those mostly just stay in the closet and are rarely worn.

The rest of my family… is a different story. My wife works outside the home and has to dress professionally every day. My children are all in school and while they’re not too picky about clothes, they do have some preferences and we want them to attend school in well-made and properly fitting clothes items.

With five of us, clothes shopping could easily be an item that busts our budget, so over the years we’ve had to adopt some strategies for saving money. I’ve mentioned a few of them before – in fact, the first few items might seem familiar to long-time readers – but most of our strategies have really developed and matured over the last few years as our children have grown older.

Here are eight key tactics we use for minimizing our clothing budget while still dressing well.

Start at Low-End Retailers

Almost always, our clothes shopping starts at thrift stores, consignment shops, yard sales, and the like. There’s a simple reason for that – people with more money than sense tend to basically give away much of their stuff unused or barely used, so why not take advantage of it?

Sure, you might browse through a thrift store and find absolutely nothing that works for you. So what? You spent fifteen or twenty minutes searching for a bargain and came up empty. Move on.

However, if you find even one or two items that work for your family’s needs at a thrift store or a consignment shop or a yard sale and save 75% or more off of the original cost of the item, then the stop was well worth it.

Buy Quality Clothing Items

Unless it’s practically free, you’re better off buying clothing items from good brands with a reputation for well-made items. If you give me the choice between a $10 shirt that’s falling apart after or a $100 shirt that still looks good after fifty washings, I’ll take the $100 shirt any day of the week.

So, how do you identify well-made items? Some people have better eyes for this than others, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the sharpest eye for clothing. Still, there are a few things that I know how to do when examining any clothing item.

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.

You can apply these tests anywhere, from the small consignment shop on the corner to the highest-end clothing store you’ve ever set foot in. Simple tests like these will point you toward items that last and away from items that will be disastrous.

I’m a rather tall guy, and even I’ve found some amazing stuff in thrift stores and consignment stores. Land’s End sweaters that fit me for $8? Yes, please. At one local thrift store, I found three practically new Todd Shelton shirts for $10 that immediately became staples of my dress shirt rotation – these normally sell for well over $100. Items like these are well-made – you can tell from the seams and the material – and have lasted me for many years.

Practice Appropriate Clothes Care

It’s not rocket science. Wash whites with whites. Wash similar colors together. Follow the directions on the tag and, if there are no directions, find out how to wash that kind of garment online.

The problem is that it’s really easy to skip this when you’ve got a family of five that seems to blow through clothes like there’s no tomorrow. We can easily generate four or five loads of laundry per week at our house if we’re not careful about it.

Thus, the key to practicing appropriate clothes care is to have a good system in place for all the clothes and knowing exactly how to best care for the different types of clothes.

In terms of maximizing the life of your clothes, a few clothing care strategies work really well. Try to avoid using your dryer for anything but socks and underwear and use a clothesline for your other items (that lint in your lint trap is the residue from your clothes falling apart under the rigor of the tumble dryer). Use a front-loading washer as it’s gentler on clothes. Don’t wash jeans and other sturdy garments every time – instead, wash them when they’re actually dirty. All of these tips will greatly extend the life of your clothes.

Approach Baby and Toddler Clothes Differently

Almost all of the tips described above go out the window when you’re considering baby clothes. Why? Babies grow so quickly that they only need their clothes to last for a few months before they’re on to the next size. This pretty much holds true until they’re roughly two years old.

Prior to that, the best way to save money on baby clothes is to buy them cheap. You don’t need to worry about ensuring a long life for an outfit for your three month old because they’ll likely only wear it a few times before they outgrow it.

Utilize Hand-Me-Downs

When the kids get older, the rules change quite a bit. In fact, if you have multiple children, it is really worthwhile to get sturdy well-made clothes for the oldest child because those items can easily be handed down from child to child.

The majority of our youngest child’s wardrobe is made up of the better items from his older brother’s wardrobe from a few years ago. The cheap items? They didn’t make the cut because they were simply worn out. Kids can be really tough on clothes.

So, once your oldest child escapes toddlerdom and aren’t outgrowing their clothes every few months, look to the future. Are you going to have more children? Are those children already present? If they are, take extra care in looking for sturdy clothing for your oldest child. You’re far better off spending twice as much on a t-shirt with good stitching compared to one that’s not well made because the well-made shirt will likely stick around for the younger brother or sister… and maybe even the younger sibling after that. The poorly made t-shirt will likely hit the rag bag.

Along those same lines, if you do have a well-made item of clothing, don’t ever be afraid to hand it down. As long as it still looks good, it’s essentially free clothing for your younger child.

Buy for Opposite Seasons

We buy most of our summer clothes in early fall. We buy most of our winter clothes in early spring.

The reason’s pretty obvious. In early fall, retailers are getting rid of their summer stuff and there’s often a ton of sales with incredible markdowns on pretty high quality garments. The same thing is true with winter items in early spring and for spring and fall items at the end of those seasons.

In fact, it’s only during those opposite season purchases where we find new quality clothes that match the prices of the better consignment shop items.

Use Clothes Sales, But Don’t Fetishize Them

One healthy approach for keeping your clothing spending in check is to limit the size of your wardrobe. Keep only a certain number of each clothing category, then agree to only add new ones when old ones need replaced.

For example, I have eight long sleeved dress shirts, eight short sleeved dress shirts, some number of t-shirts (I haven’t bought any in years, so I’m not sure of the numbers), eight pairs of blue jeans, and six pairs of dress pants. That makes up most of my wardrobe. If an item wears out, I replace it.

This leads into clothes sales. The best way to use a clothing sale is to fill a slot in your wardrobe to replace an item that’s on the way out. That way, you have some time to look at a number of clothes sales and patiently wait for one on items that you actually want – as well as give yourself plenty of time to check thrift and consignment shops when it’s convenient – before actually taking the plunge.

Buy Current Sizes, Not “Goal” Sizes

Sometimes people are tempted to buy clothing that’s a bit smaller than their current size and use it as some sort of motivator to get in better shape. I highly recommend avoiding this strategy, particularly on sale items or anything that can’t easily be returned. (Obviously, this doesn’t apply if the store you’re buying from has an incredible return policy.)

Focus your clothing dollars on items that are useful, not aspirational. It’s not an effective use of your money to buy something that has a significant likelihood of not being worn. The motivation for true weight loss comes from an internal motivator – something you want to change in your life – not an external one, so investing money in an external one will usually not pay off. Keep your money in your pocket and seek out other motivations.

Not only that, if you actually need to return a new item because it doesn’t fit well, it’s going to feel a lot better returning something that’s too big than returning something that’s too small.

Final Thoughts

Most of these tactics are common sense on their own, but when they line up together to form a coherent clothing strategy, they tend to reinforce each other and amplify your savings. I have spent less than $50 per year in 2011, 2012, and 2013 on clothing and I dress well when I need to and comfortably (but still presentable) when I want to.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.