Updated on 04.30.15

The Value of Personal Appearance

Trent Hamm

One of the greatest challenges of living a lifestyle of financial freedom is determining the exact value of personal appearance. How does one balance a desire for less expensive clothing and personal care items with the expectations of the culture that enables their income and personal lives?

On the one hand, many people who overspend are focused heavily on their appearance to others, often buying clothing and technology items in order to boost their appearance of affluence to others. Thus, the natural tendency for people trying to manage their spending is to drastically cut these costs, as expensive clothing can easily be functionally replaced by less expensive clothing or by reusing clothing more often.

On the other hand, a polished personal appearance is often vital to a person’s public persona, to their workplace situation, and also to their self-image. Many people cringe at the thought of not wearing designer clothes or having to wear outfits many times. Plus, a well-dressed appearance pays other financial benefits as well by creating a more positive general impression of yourself in the community. Others will have a higher opinion of you and you’ll subtly find yourself in better situations.

For me personally, this was a tricky balance, but it was one that I managed to figure out over time. The key was to make sure that I leveraged every inexpensive trick that I had, while also maximizing the utility of the expensive items. Here are seven tips on how to maximize the value of your personal appearance while trimming some fat and not hammering the credit cards as hard as you once did.

Take special care in cleaning yourself. I don’t mean buy expensive shampoos or such things; I simply mean take a few extra minutes to cleanse yourself thoroughly each morning. Take a thorough shower and clean yourself as much as you can. Use underarm deodorant as well. Cleaning yourself properly is the most valuable aspect of your personal appearance and it is also the least expensive, as there’s really no need for expensive shampoos or soaps in most cases.

Practice strong oral hygiene and use a strong mouthwash. Brush your teeth thoroughly at least twice a day; your breath is a key part of your appearance and “cover up” items such as Tic-Tacs often only work for a short while. It’s much better for your appearance to make sure your mouth is truly clean. For mouthwash, I recommend Listerine, but many people are hesitant to use it because of the extremely strong burning sensation it provides in the mouth. I also floss once a day, but this mostly serves to reduce dental bills.

Use a fragrance that smells good to you every day. For my own use, I have a small collection that I freely alternate between on a daily basis; I like every one of them that I use in this rotation. Among these are Eternity, Emporio Armani, Dreamer, Dolce and Gabbana, Acqua di Gio, and Platinum Egoiste. Don’t apply them by spraying, just spray a bit on your hand and rub behind your ears and the sides of your neck with your moistened hand; this creates just the right level of fragrance for both men and women and it also prevents you from wasting it, meaning you’ll have many more applications per bottle. I consider fragrances to be a worthwhile gift for a significant other; it gives my wife something to splurge on for me on occasion. Plus, it is a reasonably personal gift that you might receive from a close family member, such as your mother or your sister if you are particularly close. If you are single, a small array of fragrances is a better investment in your appearance than one extra expensive set of clothing – I’ll explain why in a bit. Also, don’t skimp here; you’re better off not wearing any fragrance at all in most situations than wearing Aqua Velva.

Buy only clothes that go well with the majority of other clothes in your wardrobe. I own only ten dress shirts and eight business casual pants and I work in an environment where business casual is a strongly expected mode of dress, yet I manage to regularly elicit comments on how well dressed I am. In the past, I used to shell out ridiculous amounts of money for complete outfits that really only went well with each other, which meant that I would own a closet full of clothes but I really only had fifteen or so options for dress. I’ve moved away from that and drastically decreased my clothes budget. Here’s the key: buy only clothes that go well with other items. This means buy high quality, but stick to the basics. My shirts are a wide variety of subdued solid dark colors, all of which go well with black or navy trousers. Even better, I was able to pick out several of these items in a very high quality at a consignment shop.

Clean and press your own clothes instead of buying new ones or taking clothes to the cleaners. Tending to clothing is an invaluable skill to learn, particularly if you’re travelling. Spend some time to really learn how to use an iron to press your own clothes; spend a few hours learning how to do this on a lazy weekend day by using this tutorial (which is for men’s clothing, but the basic principles apply to women’s garments as well). You’ll save a lot of money, be confident that you have clothes that are wrinkle-free and present you in the best possible way, and also be able to travel with confidence.

Create a different presentation every day. By presentation, I don’t merely mean visual; I mean that you should liven things up using the other sense you can affect, the sense of smell. The key to not making yourself seem repetitive is to bounce around through the clothing colors; I never wear the same colored shirt twice in a row; though I may have three red shirts, they never follow another red shirt. But that’s not what completes your appearance; make sure that if you’re even close to a clothes presentation you assembled earlier in the week, you are using a different fragrance than before. I make sure to never repeat a fragrance during a given week.

Greet everyone you meet. This seems strange at first, but close your eyes and imagine the way you remember people who seem friendly to you versus the people who do not. In almost every case (unless there is a weird jealousy/hero worship aspect going on), you’ll imagine the genuinely friendly people in a positive light, making them appear better than they really are, and imagine those who antagonise you in a negative light, making them appear worse than they are. You can help capitalize on this subtle mind shift by making an effort to be friendly to everyone around you. Make it a point to talk in a friendly way to everyone you are near on a daily basis, even if you don’t like them.

Each of these tips enable you to maintain a strong personal appearance while also minimizing the impact on your pocketbook; while everyone else is buying clothes by the ton and gossiping in the office, you can maintain a smile on your face and cash in your wallet.

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  1. Antonio says:

    The suggestion to use Listerine, or anything with huge amounts of alcohol is not a good one. My dentist recommended the latest Crest Pro Health offering, which does not use alcohol. The reason? Alcohol, when it evaporates, dries out your gums and if you have any hint of gum disease (or worse, periodontal disease), your gums will never heal. It sounds good at first, as you will be killing all those nasty bacteria… but if your gums are constantly dried out, they will never “seal up” against your teeth again. The bacteria are always going to win out, so just like you would seal up around a leaky window to keep out the wind, let your gums heal.

  2. Clever Dude says:

    How can your mouth dry out when it’s always got spit in it?

    I definitely agree with making sure you’re cleaned. Also, make sure you’re groomed too. A few guys in my office come in obviously missing a few whiskers while shaving. Some of them don’t shave for days because they think they don’t grow beards, then they show up with 20-30 1-inch hairs all over their face.

    One other thing. Deodorant is very important, but also important is if you cook highly-seasoned foods at home (more “ethnic” dishes), please be sure your work clothes aren’t in range to absorb the smell. A guy I work with always smells like spiced tomato sauce, and it’s very pugnant.

  3. Bill says:

    Buying separates also works for jacket & tie workplaces.

    But most etiquette guides for men I’ve seen discourage _any_ fragrance at work.

    I don’t floss often enough, but using an oral rinse (either the new Crest or old generic alcohol) has substantially reduced tooth decay for me.

  4. Nez says:

    I usually buy clothes from thrift shops, though I dont always get what I want, I regularly look through their clothes and find a branded shirt/pant/coat which is in impeccable condition.
    That’s how I save on clothes and not compromise on branded stuff. Works for me. Same goes for shoes to. Patience is the key here though.

  5. Kristi says:

    “also important is if you cook highly-seasoned foods at home (more “ethnic” dishes), please be sure your work clothes aren’t in range to absorb the smell. A guy I work with always smells like spiced tomato sauce, and it’s very pugnant.”

    Clever Dude, I’m SOOO glad you said that! A couple years ago, I had a roommate who cooked with African and Asian spices all the time and my close friends (the honest ones) always commented that I smelled like the spices. My bedroom was even very far away from the kitchen. I started putting a small bowl of baking soda in my closet and put a towel at the bottom of the closet door to help seal it. May seem extreme, but it stopped me from walking around smelling like a restaurant all the time.

  6. nathaniel says:

    alcohol does dry out your mouth although im not quite sure how if you have used mouth wash containing alcohol u should have noticed that it does indeed make it dry and makes your breath much worse and also how you say you floss to reduce dental bills that is a consern beacause you need to be checked on at least twice a year wether your teeth apear/feel clean or not

    (Tending to clothing is an invaluable skill to learn)
    just so you know invaluably means it is not useful

  7. Gabe says:

    I liked this article. Found it to be very helpful. By the way, “invaluable” means priceless. Shoulda used a dictionary before you critique someone.

  8. Thompson Hunter says:

    Mouthwash kills bacteria. Very helpful at first, but it kills the good bacteria as well – the ones that actually help maintain good breath. (Coffee does the same thing.) Therefore, mouthwash acually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy leading you to consume more and more. Use it occasionally when you have a real need and just brush and floss the rest of the time. Flossing is important because it cleans out the junk between your teeth which can smell very foul after a few days buildup.

  9. Astreil says:

    Great post. I’m off to the consignment store for more buys for hubby. He usually goes to the nearby thrift store, but I’ve wanted to check out the men’s consignment store.

    Just a note for any stay at home parents and work-at-homers. Dress for work, even if you don’t go to work. It’ll make your day go better. I homeschool, and I notice my kiddos learn better and are more focused when I dress the part of teacher. Not formal, but neat. I’ve ditched those over-sized or scrubby t-shirts and pants with holes in the knees. I opt for “playground casual” instead. I try to remember earrings. I don’t wear make up or fragrance due to some family sensitivities, mine and my son’s, but I do scrub my face and fix my hair. You’ll be setting a good example for those little sponges.

  10. Kat says:

    Wearing fragrances at work is terrible. 99% of the men I have come in contact with, reak of the scent and about 50% of those men can be smelled before they even enter the building. Women are the same only they have another offense as well. Scented lotion. Scents should be left at home.

  11. UltraD says:

    Tongue cleaners! Most of the bad breath bacteria sits on your tongue. Brushing the tongue is not enough. A metal tongue cleaner works best. They make you feel clean all day long!

  12. daydreamr says:

    There is a growing awareness about sensitivities to scented products. I’ve worked in offices where there were policies regarding perfumes, etc. Some of these are highly toxic chemicals. One thing to consider is stayibg away from products containing alcohol if you are going to take a drug test. I sprayed myself with body spray before going to have lab work done and I tested positive for alcohol even though I don’t drink. Baking soda is good for fresh breath abd salt is very effective for bacteria. My dentist recomended this instead of the comercial products which really aren’t healthy in the long run.

  13. Nadine says:

    I agree that fragrance should be worn SPARINGLY or not at all. A lot of people are scent-sensitive and some perfumes can trigger asthma attacks. I personally prefer NO fragrance on my husband (he isn’t a cologne wearer anyway). It’s enough to smell his soap and shampoo.

    I like to use Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap purchased at the health foods store. It smells strongly of peppermint in the shower, but by the time you are dressed and off, the scent is not noticeable. In this way, I get the benefit of the aromatherapy without subjecting everyone else to it.

  14. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for your informative articles. This last one reminded me of my father, who has always dressed well and made an impressive presentation. I never knew until recently, that he, too, has a small number of clothing items. He has designed a rotation system within his closet for each day. When he purchases a new shirt or slacks, he removes one from the rotation. This way, he is always prepared for each day without having to buy in excess and without wasting time deciding what to wear. I wish he would have taught this skill to his children…

  15. t says:

    Good topic.

    I’ll vote with those who say please please no fragrances at work. I don’t have particularly bad allergies in general… but even sitting next to someone who’s used Irish Springs soap can make me sneeze repeatedly and sometimes start wheezing.

    You may think it’s lightly applied, but if you’re used to it, you’re just not going to be sensing it to the same degree that your coworkers / those sitting next to you on the train / your boss will…!

  16. Angela says:

    Thank you for posting this article. I think it is very important to maintain a professional appearance whether you are the director or the mail clerk. It shows that you are serious about the work you do, and that you pay attention to details. I hate it when people show up for work looking sloppy and unkempt. I personally think that the reason some peoples’ cologne reeks is because it is a cheap cologne, and is improperly applied. When applying cologne, you should not rub it. For example, a lot of people will spray cologne on one wrist and rub both wrists together to spread the scent, but this changes the scent making it bitter or sour in some cases. It is called bruising the scent. One way to avoid this, and to lighten the scent is to buy an atomizer (at a drug store like Walgreen’s) and some rubbing alcohol. Then you add about 3/4 alcohol and 1/4 fragrance to the atomizer (this can be adjusted to use less fragrance, it is a personal call). This way you get a much lighter scent that is not bruised, and you get more for your money with the cologne. Then apply a light spray to pulse points. Do not spray frangrance into your hair. The oils in your scalp will react with the scent distorting it and making it stronger. You should only be aware of the scent of another person if you are in intimate contact with them like a hug; otherwise it should be a very light hint of fragrance. It should not precede them or make them instant losers at hide and seek. I sell Avon so I have had training on how frangrance should be applied, etc. If there are people in your office who have this problem of overwhelming scent, you can offer this tip to them by saying, “I heard this tip on how to save money on cologne by using an atomizer. Then explain the drections. Then you can benefit second hand by reducing the noxious cloud effect of your coworker without having to tell them they make your eyes water.

  17. P.Valin says:

    I have noticed well dressed business associates with perfect hair, grooming, movie star teeth, with badly shined shoes. No matter how professional they are from the ankles up, the shoes are a dead giveaway and the effect is lost.
    I think many do not realize this often overlooked
    point makes the city slicker look like a country cousin who just fell off the turnip truck.
    When I feel down I head out for a brisk walk and a shoe shine. I feel like a million bucks when I step down.
    At home I just line up everything and make a project of it , providing there’s some good music or something interesting on the tube(or is it the flat screen now) The polish and old rags come out, and everything feels new .
    No need for fancy cleaners. Inexpensive hand lotion makes a great cleaner for any leather shoe or bag, and and old toothbrush dipped in black polish brings worn edges back . Black magic marker can be a quick fix for any scuffed spots, and Liquid Nails is great for fixing a split sole.

  18. Migraine Sufferer says:

    Wearing perfume or cologne is NOT a good idea. Millions of people suffer from chemical sensitivities; I’m one of them. People who wear perfume, even a little, trigger extremely painful headaches in me and many other people.

    Unless you’re going out for the evening or to a nightclub, please don’t wear scent. That goes double if you will be in public places like the supermarket, post office, mass transit. Hurting others can’t be good for your self-esteem.

  19. Migraine Sufferer says:

    P.S. It does not matter how cheap or expensive your perfume is. It will still make other people sick. Don’t wear it.

  20. Anna says:

    Mmm… I actually love people who smell like cooking spices… but I guess it’s not a professional smell!

  21. Melissa says:

    Thanks for this article…I am going to show it to my teenage kids…you have said some things that needed to be said!! Especially the comment about the strong spice smell on the clothing…this is why I rarely fry bacon in my home – I can remember kids at school showing up smelling like that & the other kids would make fun of them!

  22. Susan says:

    Oh people who are “allergic” and whine about scent – puhlease! Can anybody do anything anymore??? I think the stronger scents can be obnoxious – I agree. But I appreciate someone who is trying to be clean (Irish Spring) or at least smell nice. I think the ones who “overspray”, etc. are just out of touch in general – most likely they do and say things that people find offensive too!

  23. Kathy says:

    Interesting article. As far as personal hygene is concerned, most of my fellow co-workers pack the gear. Due to the nature of our work (chemists at the bench), I have never encountered any obnoxious aftershave or perfume. An added perk is that in this line of work,I can dress in the same manner as I did back in graduate school almost 20 years ago–(i.e. a “hippie” sans open-toed shoes which are considered a safety hazard in a laboratory setting.) Labcoats (furnished by the company) are required. Needless to say, there’s a *tremendous* amount of money saved on clothing and shoes, LOL!
    I usually replace my jeans about once a year. I’ll purchase about 3 or 4 pairs (the Levis Classics which usually cost less than $20 per pair)…usually from Target (or online through Wal-Mart) and rotate them throughout the year.

    I will also replace my single pair of daily-wear tennis shoes once a year and will purchase them online. In this case I’m willing to spend just a little bit extra (i.e. $50) as I’m on my feet for long hours during the workday.

  24. LJ says:

    Susan– you are absolutely correct. I should suffer in silence with my migraine at my cubicle, because being deprived of wearing scent to work would affect the other person’s quality of life far more than being free of excruciating pain while being somewhere I have no choice about being (if I hope to keep my job) would affect mine! How selfish of me, to want to be functional when I’m at work.

  25. Jade says:

    @LJ – Migraine? Just be glad you can still breathe through your nose when someone wearing perfume walks past you…

    I never wear anything scented because everyone in my family would have their noses swell shut and start wheezing every time they were near someone with perfume on. Fortunately I don’t have that problem, yet… So I try to avoid hanging around perfumes, I don’t need to develop an allergy and not be able to breathe right because someone in line at the grocery store put too much perfume on…

    And please, when getting your taxes done, if you’re going to sit at the desk with your preparer for an hour or two, please take it easy on the perfumes! I’m not as sensitive as my other family members, but after two hours of heavy scents… taxes are hard enough to deal with when you don’t have a headache, watery eyes, and itchy nose! And of course this client had sold several stocks which had been purchased using a dividend reinvestment plan, and nobody had kept track of her basis…

  26. Marie says:

    Headaches are no joke. Even the scent of cigarette smoke on clothing can make my head hurt. Allergies are very real people.

    Believe it or not, I even grew up with a smoker. When the smoker quit, my body mounted an offense. So, now, the slightest whiff sets my head ablazin’.

  27. Prufock says:

    The scent tip is a big no-no. Many workplaces these days even have scent-free policies that discourage the use of any strong colognes, perfumes, deodorants.

  28. Joanne Bussell says:

    Good article! This is something I do. The only work I have ever loved is – the radio business. Thanks to automation and corporations that have scaled back, it doesn’t pay the big bucks it once did. I’ve had better-paying jobs that absolutely made me miserable. The secret of happiness for me is to love my work.

    So, I make myself the best I can be every day – by always doing my hair & being sure it sparkles thru the studio window under the spotlights above the control board. I do my own haircolor and do it often so…the gray doesn’t show & it never looks dull or faded. I do shop at thrift stores and have managed to find good “labels” for both myself and for my husband who does the same work. I take meticulous care of my skin and use high-end potions and foundation. Friends at Neimans and Macy’s (where I worked in cosmetics – good money but was unhappy) give me samples. Also I buy the creams that WORK, found on ebay as cosmetics salespersons sometimes sell the free product they are given. It’s the same you’d pay a mint for if you find the “good sellers.” I keep my mani/pedi perfect myself, iron our clothes, even the jeans. I probably have 3 pair of shoes max and sometimes I complain that I am the only woman in America with “no shoes!” But I keep them in good condition & shop at DSW Shoes who sends generous coupons and has lots of style. Dollar store workout socks are the best! CVS is a lifesaver – with my Extra Bucks I get most of our soaps; that all-important top dollar tooth whitener; good toothpaste and the BreathRX mouthwash which is the best ever & has no alcohol. My neighbor gets $65 for a haircut but, I mix, edit, and burn his CDs for him and in return get the best haircut in Houston! Lastly, splurge on good foundation garments and you’ll rock. With money in the bank!

    As for fragrance, that’s one reason why I left cosmetics as a part-time well-paying gig…I can’t stand fragrance. My airways simply lock up. SO…I use great-smelling liquid soap in the shower which makes you smell great without taking your breath away. I buy the manly ones for my DH. I love mens’ fragrance but not the strong smell of most. Plus, the new clinical-strength deodorants are the best & the prices are coming down as more lines are producing them.

    I have never read this advice in an article before and I enjoyed seeing it here. I thought it was just ME trying to overcompensate for not having the bucks for an expensive wardrobe.

    So…maybe DH & I are not just a couple of clean freaks after all – maybe we were onto something all along. Great article…thanks much!

  29. Carl says:

    I can tell you that allergies are real, I suffer from them. But to the person who commented that expenisve fragrances are no different to cheap ones allergy-wise, i assure you they are. I have a genetic predilection for migraines, and even just brushing by someone wearing cheap deoderant or fragrances will not only set off a headache, but also cause me to get a rash. BUT THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR SMELLING BAD. I always make an effort to be well groomed, even if im just going to do the groceries, and im only 21.

    I never wear cheap or mass-market scents. Axe/Lynx is a NO NO, as are MOST dept. store fragrances. I stick with tradtional men’s frags that are classic, but at the same time contemporary-smelling, and layer with flanker products to get the full impact, but without setting off allergies. I have also been repeatedly complimented on my smell by people of all ages, including Madam Allergy, in the cubicle next to me at work, who appreciates that I smell like natural class and quality, no cheap aroma-chemicals.

    Some further tips: ties should be knotted with a Windsor not, socks should always be cotton and black, your hairstyle should always be trendy and contemporary (but for the love of god, make it look neat with a non-greasy hair product – use hairspray, and dry the obvious look of hairspray away with a blow dryer), brush teeth thoroughly twice daily, wash hands before and after every meal, toilet break, wash face twice daily with quality cleanser, use high-quality anti-persperant, press your shirts, and if you smoke, do it down wind (as I do, reduces smoke-stink majorly)

    Also, recomendations for classic, yet contemporary, low-allergy men’s frags: Monsieur de Givenchy, Dior Eau Fraiche, Knize Ten, Eau Sauvage, Zizanie, Paul Sebastian Fine cologne, I.Mani PH (like a soft mix of Irish Spring and Aqua di Gio, less chemical smelling).

    And, might I add, here is another pearl of wisdom: look people in the eye when exchanging conversation, as this demonstrates social confidence and competence.

  30. kristine says:

    I agree- no fragrances, especially if you ride an elevator! For those of us who are sensitive to the fumes (and they are just that- toxic chemical fumes), a 30 second ride with a fragrance wearing individual can give me a headache that lasts for hours. Even if you just “mist”, or dab the wrists, whether it cost 20 bucks, or 200 bucks.

    Essential oils are non-toxic natural scents, and lotions are a good option- they are lighter, and can only be smelled if you get very close, and I mean kissing close. If you have ever been complimented on your scent, chances are that there are 10 other people who do not like it, and are too nice to say. For sure if someone 2 feet away can smell it you are wearing way too much.

    Please, please, do not wear fragrance to work! Ever, at all! It is a huge office faux pas.

  31. Kevin says:

    Reading this article made me appreciative of the job that I have. I am a technician and I wear the exact same clothes on a workday as I do on a weekend. It sounds like the office culture is pretty demanding appearance wise, and that is unfortunate. I guess I know where to not get a job in the future!

  32. Prabu Rajasekaran says:

    What exactly are subdued solid dark colors?

  33. Mel says:

    Am I the only one reading this who generally prefers a person’s *actual* smell to soaps, deodorants, lotions and fragrances?

    I have an confession – I don’t shower every day.
    I brush my hair and teeth every day, but shower maybe every second day (with exceptions – a ‘lazy day’ might mean I skip a shower when it’s due, or exercising or a hot, sweaty day might mean more than one shower a day).

    Every so often, my boyfriend mentions he loves my smell (at close range). More often than not, it’s on a day when I haven’t showered – even after a skipped shower. The same goes for him: after he showers, he either doesn’t smell at all or just smells like soap. After a day or so, up close he smells *wonderful* – manly and enticing. It’s only after a few more days that he starts smelling unpleasant.

    Have we (developed Western world as a whole) really become so ‘civilized’ that the human smell itself (not stale sweat, not bad B.O, just ‘humanness’) is something to be avoided??

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