Clothing Yourself

Clothing Yourself: Rethinking How Much Clothing You Really Need

My biggest piece of frugal advice? Stay out of the stores.

While I’m not saying that you should never buy clothes again, I challenge to think about how much you really need. Do members of your household have sufficient clothing to get between washdays? Does it fit properly? Is it in good repair?

As the old saying goes, “Enough is as good as a feast.” Sartorially speaking, enough is as good as a mall.

Personally, I believe that people in this country tend to have too many clothes. By “too many,” I mean “more than they can actually wear regularly.” For the next few months, stop thinking about your wardrobe unless it’s to replace holey socks or shoes with worn-down soles.

Seriously: Don’t shop. At all.

There’s no reason to go into a clothing store unless you need something. Clothing has gotten so cheap that sometimes people buy because they can’t think of a reason not to do it. (These jeans are only $6! What a steal!)

But if you don’t need any jeans, what’s the point of buying them? Besides, unless you’re in a secondhand store, those $6 jeans may not be such a bargain. Cheaply made “fast fashion” tends not to last as long.

New, or New to You?

And if you must replace some wardrobe items? Thrift shops are a great place to begin. Some of us were shopping there long before Macklemore & Ryan Lewis made it hip-hop-cool. Even so, some people still think that la Segunda is low-rent and/or that it has a funny smell.

The smell part may be true. Sometimes the things I get from Value Village or Goodwill do seem a bit musty, but laundering fixes them. As for the low-rent aspect, I think of thrift store shopping like a treasure hunt. You might get a designer-label shirt for a couple of bucks or a good-quality wool sweater for 50 cents.

On the other hand, you may get nothing. The stock changes regularly so you need to keep checking. The bigger the town/metropolitan area, the more choices you’re likely you are to have.

The thrift shop’s cousin is the consignment store, which offers higher-end stuff as a rule rather than a lucky find. You’ll pay more here, but the pickings may be better.

New to You, Part 2

Yard sales and church rummage sales are like temporary thrift stores. For a day or so you can get some great deals on all sorts of stuff – including clothes.

A few tips for getting the most from these venues:

  • Women: Wear tights or leggings and a sports bra under your clothes, in case there’s no changing area.
  • Practice asking, “Is this your best price?”; also practice smiling if the sale’s organizer replies, “Yes.” If you’re buying a ton of $1 shirts and pants, you might ask for a discount on the lone $5 item: I’m getting $19 worth of stuff any chance of getting a better deal on this jacket?
  • It doesn’t hurt to look at an item for a long time. Sometimes when I hesitate over a purchase, the seller offers me a better deal. Speaking of deals: Stop back by toward the end of the sale if possible, when sellers really want to ditch stuff.
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Multi-family sales provide the most bang for the buck, especially when they take place in the tonier parts of town. The rich are different – they have nicer stuff.

New to You, Part 3

When you can’t afford even a yard sale, try hosting a swap. Invite a few like-minded friends over and ask them to bring the sweaters they never use, the slacks they swore they’d lose five pounds to fit into and any other clothing items they’d like to trade.

A clothes-swapping party is like a personal consignment store. The difference is that it’s all free.

The clothes must be in good condition, and all trades must be mutually agreeable. Let it be known that you will permit no cajoling or whining, even the allegedly good-natured kind. Nobody should be bullied into trading her Michael Kors dress slacks for a “Go Mets!” T-shirt.

Make a bathroom or bedroom available for try-on at your private Freecycle. And set this rule in stone: “Untraded items must leave with their owners.”

Buying Retail (If You Must)

Although I’ve focused thus far on secondhand venues, I don’t have anything against traditional stores. It’s just that if you’re on a tight budget, then you need to be conscious of every dollar. Why spend more than you must?

If you can’t find what you need in a non-retail setting, stores like Nordstrom Rack, Ross Dress For Less and TJ Maxx have some pretty skookum deals on well-made clothing. The clearance rack and end-of-season sales at other stores are also good places to look at.

Unless you have mad Jedi self-control, pay cash. Plastic seems to give some shoppers a feeling of invulnerability. Having to take dollars out of your wallet should make you eyeball each purchase very closely indeed.

If you’re absolutely sure about your size, check out the clearance sections at online retailers. Keep in mind that if the item doesn’t fit, it needs to be returned within a certain amount of time; miss the send-back, and you’ll be stuck with something you can’t wear.

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And again, paying with plastic online could tempt you to tack on those $10 jeans, or maybe a “Frozen” t-shirt for your 4-year-old niece: It’s only $3.99, and she loves that movie, and it’s been so long since she’s had a treat…

Except that $10 here and $4 starts to look like real money if you do it often enough. Think about the opportunity cost of those bucks – especially if you wind up not wearing the jeans much, or if they shred the second time they’re washed. Instead of dropping dollars on something you don’t truly need, keep your wallet in your pocket. Your budget will thank you. So will your overstuffed closet. Where would you put those jeans, anyway?

Editor’s Note: This post from Donna Freedman, author of “Your Playbook For Tough Times: Living Large On Small Change, For The Short Term Or The Long Haul” and “Your Playbook For Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs And Wants Edition.”

Are you interested in reading more of Donna’s work? Your Money Geek readers can get the e-versions (PDFs) of her books for just $5 each. Visit the payment platform (which accepts credit, debit, and PayPal) and then use the coupon code MONEYGEEK1 for “Your Playbook For Tough Times” and the code MONEYGEEK2 for “Your Playbook For Tough Times, Vol. 2.”

About the Author

Donna Freedman has been a college dropout, a single mom, a newspaper reporter in Chicago and Alaska, and a late-in-life university student. She has also picked tomatoes, worked on a chicken farm, managed an apartment building, inspected and packed bottles in a glass factory, babysat, cleaned houses, mystery-shopped, participated in medical studies, set type, and sold doughnuts, movie tickets, fresh Jersey produce and, when things got bad, her own blood.

During a protracted midlife divorce, she went back to school and helped support a disabled adult daughter by working a handful of part-time jobs. Her survival skills so impressed an MSN Money editor that he hired her in 2007 to create the Smart Spending blog and later her own column, Living With Less. Since then she has written for numerous other publications. The creator of the Write A Blog People Will Read online course, she holds forth on money and lots of other stuff on her blog.

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