How to Stop Wasting Money on Clothes

You spend hours trying on clothes, you spend hundreds (maybe more!) buying those clothes, then you open your closet and, lo and behold, nothing worth wearing. It’s a common dilemma and a financially wasteful one, too. Here are some common traps we fall into when we shop and how to get more bang for your buck.

Go for Quality

Fast fashion is tempting, but cheaper clothes usually mean cheaper material and construction. Over at Quartz, writer Kaila Tyner compares the way we approach fashion to the way we approach food:

Much of the cheap clothing we consume in droves is like our fast food diets—high in calories (quantity) but low in nutrition (quality). We are a culture that buys a lot of junk. Think about your own wardrobe—consider how many items of clothing you own and how often you wear each of those items. My guess is that most of us wear about 20% of our clothing 80% of the time. That is a lot of wasted space and wasted money.

These fast pieces also wear out quickly. So when you open your closet doors and look at them, you skip them because they’re faded, worn out, or just dated.

To combat the trend, crunch the numbers. Look at your annual spending on clothing, add up how much of that goes toward fast fashion, then focus that budget on fewer, higher quality pieces. Tyner suggests:

The average American household has a median annual income of approximately $50,000. If it spends 3% of their income on clothing, they’ll have $1,500 a year, or $125 per month to spend. Instead of buying five fast-fashion, low-quality items costing $25 each, they could invest in one or two quality items at a higher price point ($125 or $63 respectively).

There are a couple of caveats to this. First, quality items are expensive, and not all of us can stomach spending $200 on a pair of pants, even if it does last us ten times as long as a $20 pair. Quality doesn’t have to be expensive. You can find secondhand quality clothing items at consignment stores or even on eBay. It takes a little more digging, but you likely spend a lot of time digging for fast fashion, anyway, so save some time and money and buy better, fewer pieces you’ll actually wear.

Second, don’t use “I buy quality” as a justification to spend even more on crap you don’t need, which is a tempting alternative. Part of the appeal of fast fashion is that it allows us to indulge our shopping impulse for cheap. If you’re always giving into that impulse and you’re buying quality, your clothing budget will add up fast.

Know Your Fit

One of the main reasons I can never find anything to wear in my closet is that nothing seems to fit right. Sure, I can get that pair of pants on my body, but once it’s on, it looks sloppy. (As personal stylist Lauren Messiah says, “just because you can get it on doesn’t mean it fits.”)

Blazers are a good example. I’ve bought so many ill-fitted blazers over the years because they seemed to fit when I tried them on in a dressing room, but when I’d wear them to a work event, they looked off compared to all the put-together people around me. Basically, I had no idea how a blazer was supposedto fit. Messiah breaks it down in this YouTube video:

[Shoulders] are the most important area to fit on a blazer, so you want to look at shoulder seams first. The seams should be right where your shoulder ends. If it’s too long, jacket’s too big. That’s the first cue that your jacket actually fits. The second test…give yourself a little hug. It should be a little snug, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re Incredible Hulk-ing the blazer.

There are more details, but the point is: just because you can’t put an item of clothing on doesn’t mean it fits you properly, so invest some time in researching how different items are supposed to fit. Here are some guides to help you get started:

  • A Video Guide to Help You Find the Perfect Fitting Dress Shirt Every Time
  • Getting the Right Fit on Trousers/Pants
  • How Jeans Should Fit
  • How To Find A Bra That Fits

You can also work with a tailor. A good tailor will explain to you how your clothing is supposed to look on you, then customize your items accordingly. In fact, consider taking your existing wardrobe to a tailor before shopping for new clothes. If you can never find anything to wear, you might just need to tailor your clothes so they’re wearable. One trick for finding a good tailor: give them a test run. Have them alter an item of clothing that’s not super expensive, then make sure the seams line up and the item fits well.

Also, avoid dressing room mirrors because so many of them are designed to make you look incredible. I’m not saying you don’t look incredible, but I’ve made so many questionable purchases after being seduced by flattering lighting. “I know this jumpsuit doesn’t fit at all, but I look amazing so I should probably just buy it!” And then I never wear it.

Instead, consider ordering items online and trying them on at home, then return what doesn’t fit. I’ve also used clothing subscription boxes like Trunk Club and Stitch Fix to help me find better fitting items. You give them your specific measurements, then a stylist picks stuff for you. You keep what you like and return the rest. Sometimes they’ll send items that fit incredibly well but I don’t like the style or color. But at least I can take note of the brand and size so I know what works for me.

Buy for Reality

It took me a long time to admit I’m just not a person who wears heels. At 5’2, I feel like I should be that person, but I’d rather be short and comfortable. Did that stop me from buying many, many heels for years, though? Of course not. I love the idea of being the kind of girl who wears stilettos to dinner, but until I become that girl, I have to buy for reality.

Here’s how former Get Rich Slowly contributor April Dykman put it:

Consider your lifestyle.

Your lifestyle dictates your clothing needs. Maybe you are a busy mom, are pregnant, or work from home. Age makes a difference, too. Someone in their 30s has different needs than someone in their 50s. If you buy the majority of your clothes for a fantasy version of your life, instead of the reality, you’ll end up with a lot of clothes to store and nothing to wear.

Jessica says, “When shopping, I’m always thinking, ‘Would I wear this today? Does it work with the pieces already in my closet?’ If I can immediately scream ‘yes!’ to both questions, it’s a go.”

Also, reconsider items that only work for very specific occasions. The more pieces you own that can be dressed up and down, the more wear they’ll get.

As Dykman points out, if most of your clothing items support the life you fantasize about rather than the life you actually live, chances are, you’ll have a huge wardrobe with nothing to wear. This isn’t to say I should never own a pair of heels, but they certainly shouldn’t make up the majority of my shoe wardrobe.

Consider the following when making a purchase: how you spend your day-to-day, how many similar items you already have, and what the climate is like where you live (if you live in Arizona, you probably don’t need a million coats, despite how nice they look on you).

Take Care of Your Stuff

Finally, maybe you have nothing to wear because all of the stuff you love to wear is destroyed. Maybe moth holes keep appearing on favorite sweaters, or maybe you keep shrinking your tops, or maybe you’re just too lazy to iron the shirt you want to wear (guilty, which is why I stopped buying shirts that need ironing).

It helps to understand the basics of clothing care, which seems simple — toss your clothes in the washer and press the button — but there’s a little more nuance to it than that.

For one, your clothing pieces come with complicated symbols that explain exactly how they must be washed. Learn to decipher those symbols (this handy chart can help). Also, here’s a video that explains a few things you’re probably doing wrong with laundry. For example, most of us use too much detergent, and it can get stuck in the seams and crevices of your clothes.

If possible, avoid the dryer. There was a study presented to the American Chemical Society in which researchers found that drying cotton garments repeatedly caused the clothing to crack. This caused pilling and reduced the garment’s fabric strength by 25 percent or more. You definitely want to keep delicates, like bras, out of the dryer. You may want to invest in a few clothing care tools, too, like mothballs, dryer balls, and garment bags.

“A closet full of clothes and nothing to wear” is a common problem, and ultimately, the solution comes down to a little more awareness. Most of us don’t give our wardrobes much thought.

We shop when we feel like spending money, if it looks good, we buy it, and then we shove it in our closet with a bunch of other lackluster pieces. It’s just clothing after all, so who cares? If you find yourself spending way too much on stuff you never use, though, it might make sense to give your purchases a little more thought.


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