How To Minimize Clothes Costs, Maximize Their Use

Olof Hoverfält spent three years tracking every article of clothing he wore, and at the end of the day, he came to a number of interesting conclusions about buying and wearing clothes. It turns out that the things he noticed are actually very much in line with frugal best practices for clothes buying and wearing.

In short, Olof’s conclusions match up very well with the idea of capsule closeting, in which you maintain a surprisingly small wardrobe of clothes. It’s all part of an overall strategy for frugal clothes buying and care that works for almost everyone.

One key principle underlies all of this: The longer you hold onto an article of clothing, the less likely it is to fit you and the less likely it is to be of a style that appeals to you. People gain and lose weight over time, and their tastes and styles change.

Let’s walk through some of Olof’s conclusions and the big ideas of capsule closeting.

In this article

    Most of the time, people re-wear the same relatively small handful of clothes

    There are a number of reasons for this, but it mostly boils down to convenience. When we put clothes away after washing them, they generally go on top of our dresser drawers and in the most accessible spots of our closet. When we pick out clothes in the morning, we generally choose items that are the most convenient — the ones on top of the dresser drawers or in the convenient spots in the closet.

    What does this mean? Many of our clothes, particularly the ones that are rarely worn, simply weren’t cost-effective purchases. A cost-effective clothing purchase is one that makes it into your regular clothing rotation. If it’s not in that heavy rotation, it’s very likely that either the clothes won’t fit you or they simply won’t match your style long before they ever wear out, which means you’ll likely donate them, having only worn them a fraction of the time.

    Remember, the goal here isn’t to live an unpleasant lifestyle.  It’s to find that best “bang for the buck” so that you have a functional wardrobe while minimizing costs.  Minimalism and frugality are very different things.

    Solution: Only buy clothes if they’re going directly into your heavy rotation. Likely, it should be directly replacing a garment already in your rotation. In short, only have “favorite” clothes — you actually rarely wear the second-tier stuff, and you often outgrow it and get tired of it long before it’s worn out, so simply avoid buying it unless you literally love it and intend it to go straight into your heavy rotation.

    Shop only for what you need, then buy what you love that fills that need.

    Frequently worn items are more cost efficient if they’re well made

    It can be difficult for many people to feel OK investing a significant amount of money into a single article of clothing. A pair of pants that costs $20 is a lot more tolerable when you need a pair of pants than one that costs $80.

    However, on average, Olaf found that to a certain point the more expensive items will more than pay for themselves over the long run because you will get many, many more uses out of them before they appear worn or suffer damage. The $80 pants, in other words, will be able to be worn more than four times as much as the $20 pants, on average, before you need to get rid of them.

    Solution: Buy clothes for quality, not sticker price. Spend the time to learn how to identify well-made clothing. Learn how to examine the stitching and the quality of the fabric. You’ll pay a little more for the well-made stuff, but it will last many times longer than the cheap items and it won’t be long before you’re rarely buying any clothes at all.

    Items that are difficult to clean get worn less often

    There are two factors at work here.

    First, items that are difficult to clean simply don’t get worn because of the effort required to clean them. Perhaps you have to make a trip to the dry cleaner or maybe you have to wash the item by hand. Whatever it is, it’s an extra chore outside of your normal laundry routine, which means that the item simply doesn’t get used as often.

    Second, items that require special washing usually have some fragility to them. They aren’t designed to stand up to the rigors of a normal wash, which means that other normal rigors are more likely to damage them in some way. They inherently have a shorter lifespan.

    Solution: Avoid putting anything that’s difficult to wash in your heavy rotation. 

    Cross-compatibility is a huge money saver

    What’s “cross-compatibility”? It means that a clothing item that you have pairs well with a large number of other items that you might also wear with it. You don’t have a lot of items that clash with each other, in other words. This keeps your wardrobe size smaller because it means you effectively have a large number of outfits.

    Let’s say you typically wear a shirt of some type and pants of some type. You have 10 shirts and 10 pants. If each shirt only goes with one specific pair of pants, you have 10 possible outfits, which means you may start looking repetitive if you don’t buy more. On the other hand, if each shirt goes with 7 of the 10 pairs of pants, you have 70 possible outfits. You don’t need to repeat an outfit for 10 weeks. Likely, a garment will start to wear out before you exhaust that entire wardrobe more than a few times, which means that suddenly you have another seven new outfits to rotate through.

    Solution: Identify several colors that you like that synergize well and stick to items in those colors. For example, I choose almost all articles of clothing that go well with dark blue pants, so that I can either wear dark denim jeans or navy blue dress pants; almost everything I have works with those. If a pair of pants needs to be replaced, I look for something that’s dark blue. If a shirt needs replaced, I look for something that goes with dark blue pants.

    Small fixes save big dollars

    Simply knowing how to repair a minor issue in an otherwise well-made piece of clothing can save you a ton of money. If you lose a button on a shirt or see a minor splitting along a seam, knowing how to fix it on your own so it looks as good as new is likely to keep that item in your wardrobe for a lot longer.

    Solution: Learn how to sew. You don’t need a sewing machine for an occasional garment fix. Having a needle, thread, and buttons similar to ones on garments you often wear will work just fine. The trick is knowing how to use them. When a minor issue crops up, hit Youtube and learn how to fix it rather than replacing it. The worst-case scenario is that you don’t actually fix it, in which case you’re replacing it anyway and aren’t out anything more than a bit of time.

    Don’t feel guilty about moving on

    The goal of a cost-efficient wardrobe is long use, and that’s what these other principles are all about. However, there comes a point when an item needs to go: It’s showing significant wear, there are actual problems with it or it no longer fits you well. In those situations, don’t feel guilty about moving on. Divest of it appropriately.

    When you do this, consider whether you actually need to replace it or whether you can move on with a smaller wardrobe. This is actually the best route to shrinking your wardrobe to items you truly need and truly love over time. Just don’t replace things unless you need to replace them.

    Remember, you’re trying to be frugal, not cheap. Don’t hang on to ill-fitting or threadbare clothes. Instead, feel good that you got value out of them and recognize that it’s time to move on.

    Solution: When an article of clothing is clearly worn out or no longer fits you, don’t feel bad about donating it or (if it’s in good shape) selling it via consignment.

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    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.