High Maintenance on a Budget: How to Get the Clothes You Want For $200 A Year

This is the second installment of the High Maintenance on a Budget series. The series uncovers how to  look good, feel good and live well while working towards financial freedom. The first article was about how to save $4,000 a year on makeup and beauty. 


On average, Americans spend $1,786.00 per year on clothing and accessories. If you peaked in my closet, it would look like my spending is average too. Although my closet isn’t overflowing, the clothing I do own feels pretty luxurious.

My dresser drawer boasts Victoria’s Secret swimwear in various forms and my pant collection consists of Jessica Simpson brand and Zara exclusively. On most days, I wear a Michael Kors watch on my wrist. Often, I feel like I’m living in the lap of luxury, but the truth is I spent a grand total of $200 on clothes, shoes and accessories last year, and about the same to decorate an entire apartment.* In other words, I’m saving $1,586 more than average consumer…and that’s on clothing alone. After 10 years, I’ll be $15,860 richer than the typical shopper.

Living good and looking good doesn’t have to cost a fortune.** In fact, it shouldn’t. Even though I live on 50% of my (less than average) salary, I never feel deprived. And you shouldn’t either.


1. Sales are Completely Useless (Until You Learn How to Beat Them)

For the most part, sales are awesome but useless. The majority of “Sales Events” are designed to lure you to spend money on items that you don’t want or need. We’ve all been there (I distinctly remember the time I purchased 5 identical t-shirts because they were 75% off. Spoiler: I never wore them)

To avoid the allure of impulse purchases, wait it out. Most stores begin a sale, see what items sell and then lower the prices again. In some cases, this cycle can occur multiple times in the course of two weeks. Ensure that you purchase on the final days by scouting out sales and then revisiting the store in a few days time. For most big retailers, the largest sales of the year occur during January and February and then again during July and August.

 Rocking my $5 cardigan from H&M
Rocking my $5 cardigan from H&M

One of my best Victoria’s Secret purchases occurred during their semi-annual sale. The store is on my walk home from work and I noticed the neon pink sale signs (I had also seen it plastered all over friend’s Instagram accounts). The $70.00 bra I had been waiting for a year to buy was reduced to less than $40.I almost caved and bought it on the spot but resisted.

Strategically stopping by a few days later, I saw that the entire sale selection had been reduced by an additional 50%. My $70.00 bra now rang in at a glorious $21.00 before tax. Although the bra wasn’t the exact same one I had seen a few days earlier, it was the same style, same fit and even better deal. I’ve had similar experiences at Zara where $60.00 jeans were reduced to $15.00 and H&M where a $35.00 cardigan was priced at $5.00. Don’t just shop sales, own the crap out of them and strategize your purchases.


2. Discount Stores = Your BFF

Stores like Ross and T.J. Maxx are known for their treasure hunt like experiences. Often, the buyer is required to sift through racks or scour low-level shelves to find the perfect item. Fortunately, this type of shopping experience has been known to intimidate the faint hearted or weak-willed.

This is good news for financial freedom beasts (like you).

By embarking on a quest in a discount store, you are guaranteed to find gorgeous designer items that are severely reduced in price. My recent purchases include $10.00 heart shaped Betsey Johnson earrings and $20.00 Steve Madden wedges I had been scouting for months. Mind blown.

 $15 dress from Ross + $20 Steve Madden wedges = Vegas done right
$15 dress from Ross + $20 Steve Madden wedges = Vegas done right

But don’t stop there. Be sure to shop the sales within the discount store. Yep, that’s right—discount stores have more sales on already discounted merchandise. My greatest bargain to date occurred during a sale at Ross. A Nine West bag that retailed for $80.00 was already a steal at $20.00. But on sale, I bought it for the shocking price of $8.00. To this day, I get compliments on the purse and I can’t help but smile as I remember the $8.00 I happily spent.

As for strategy, try to frequent discount stores in affluent neighborhoods. Rich neighbors often overlook or opt out of discount stores entirely. As a result, the best items are left for you to find.

3) Splurge…But Do It Wisely

Some things are worth the money. Determining the splurge-worthy items can be difficult though. For starters, it should be timeless item that you plan to wear or use at least three times a week for the next two or three years. Anything less than three times a week (and two or three years), and the item is merely an accessory for your closet and not worth the cash.

Next, determine the impact the item will have on your wardrobe. Thirdly, research if you can purchase a knockoff.

 My Michael Kors watch...worth the splurge!
My Michael Kors watch…worth the splurge!

For me, designer shoes aren’t worth the splurge. Not only can I buy mid-level designer shoes at discount stores, but I am also perfectly content to adorn my feet with knockoff heels and boots. But watches and sunglasses are another matter. Watches are always visible and often serve as a focal point in my outfit. Whether I’m going to the office in a $10.00 off-brand skirt or out for drinks in a and-me-down tank top, my $200 Michael Kors watch upgrades my outfit and creates the illusion of expense, no matter what I’m wearing.

Similarly, I splurge on $150 Ray Bans sunglasses.  Sunglasses are daily accessories in sunny Southern California. Even beyond that, they are noticeable items that sit on the center of one’s face. In other words: worth the splurge. Determine your must-have designer items and spend on one or two of them without guilt. With proper care, they should last for 3-5 years. In fact, I’ve worn my Ray Bans 2-3 times per week for the past 6 years. You’ll be getting more than your money’s worth.


4) Ignore Ads (aka: Shopping Won’t Fix Your Problems)

One of the easiest ways to save money is to ignore advertising. In the past, this was a easier to accomplish. You could turn off the TV or avoid the mall. In the age of the Internet, advertising is everywhere. It’s on the sidebars of your favorite websites and flooding your Instagram feed in the form of “sponsored posts.”

If you want to get serious about cutting your clothing expenses, then you need to learn to tune ads out. The easiest way to do this is to take breaks from the Internet. Set aside time where you are able to unplug and focus on yourself. Also, feel free to unfollow and unsubscribe from the worst offenders. Your headspace is precious. Don’t give it away for free. Your wallet (and brain) will thank you.

Secondly, learn the power of saying “no” and ignore the lure of more crap. For every pair of Steve Madden wedges I buy from Ross (which is a grand total of 1) there are 100’s of items I don’t purchase.

We all know this, but it’s worth repeating: buying items won’t make you happy. Similarly, it won’t make you a better or more interesting person. The hard questions in life about happiness, success and fulfillment can’t be answered by swiping a credit card at the store.



*Sometimes a particularly expensive purchase (like running shoes—never go cheap on those!) will increase my clothing expenses for a particular year. Some years are higher or lower than others depending on my “big items” (or lack thereof) but my average for each during the past 5 years has been $200.

**For most people (myself included), “looking good” is an elusive goal that is largely defined by how we feel about ourselves. These are the stores and items that help me feel attractive and capable as I face the world. (If yours are different, or don’t include shopping at all, that’s awesome!) But ultimately, knowing that I’m saving large amounts of money while living a life I love is the biggest benefit of all.



How much do you spend on clothing each year? Any tips for saving money?

23 thoughts on “High Maintenance on a Budget: How to Get the Clothes You Want For $200 A Year

    1. Taylor says:

      Hi Sofia 🙂 I completely agree! Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how many sales you shop or “splurge” items you plan—it’s about being happy with what you already have and recognizing that no item can change your internal state. I love how simply you broke it down here. Thanks for the comment!


  1. Des @ Half Banked says:

    I used to be the WORST for spending on work clothes. Even though I’ve always worked in small tech companies where jeans were the de facto uniform, I always felt – as a young woman in a male dominated environment – that I had to “step up” and “look professional”. For the first few years, that equated to being “on trend” and buying new clothes – a lot.

    Then I kept hearing about the capsule wardrobe / minimalism movement, and especially reading features about how really powerful men in tech often wear the same thing every day. If it’s good enough for Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, right? So I floated the idea by my boss to get his take, and luckily he had read the same articles and didn’t think I was totally out to lunch.

    Honestly, after the one-time expense of buying seven of the exact same shirt and three pairs of the exact same pants (American Eagle, on sale! Their black stretchy jeans are the only reasonably priced jeans that are long enough for me. Perils of being 5’10”) I haven’t spent a single dollar on clothing since. In my off-work time, I don’t care much about what I wear, and I have a backlog of comfy clothes from working at lululemon through school. Thanks to the “wear the same thing everyday” approach, I get to look professional every day, not worry about what I’m going to wear, AND not think that every single season means I need new work clothes to “keep up.”

    I love the way you’ve broken this down – I think, beyond just my minimalist approach, that I really needed the shop-the-sales encouragement for when I eventually need to replace something. Awesome post, as usual!


    1. Taylor says:

      Hi Des! That’s so awesome that you created a work “uniform.” Like you, I fell in love with the concept when I started working full-time after undergrad. What’s your daily “uniform”? I would love to get some tips! I was SUEPR tempted to jump aboard the uniform train because of the ease and overall awesomeness but decided to wait and use my current work clothes as my “uniform.” So it’s not really a uniform in the sense that it all looks the same, but I alternate between the same 5-8 work outfits each week. It’s saved me so much time in the morning and I genuinely think that no one realizes I reuse the same staple outfits, haha. Let me know how your future sale shopping goes! & congratulations on Rockstar Finance and Lifehacker today! Woohoo! You deserve it 🙂


  2. Maggie @ Northern Expenditure says:

    I have no style – I live in Alaska, so it’s cool… but my struggle is jeans. I’ve been wearing my crappy old navy jeans until they all got holes in the knee. Since $10-15 is as much as I’ve ever paid for jeans, I’m wondering what your experience is. Is there a set of good, durable (non-mom) jeans that I should just keep an eye out to go on clearance? Or do I pick up a pair of crappy ON jeans annually? Again… Alaska…. Jeans are my every single day thing. Khakis etc get dirty in the snow and lots of other hip bottoms are just impractical! Advice?


    1. Taylor says:

      Hi Maggie 🙂 I’m so glad you stopped by! I love that jeans are your staple. They’re the best. What type of pants do you like—stretchy or typical jean material? If you like stretchy, I would HIGHLY recommend Ross, specifically the YMI brand they carry for a 60% discount. My most recent YMI pair from Ross (it looks like there a few in Alaska!) were $15. They’re absurdly comfortable, never stretch out and are durable. Zara also has great sales on pants. For regular jeans that don’t stretch, Express and American Eagle are the best I’ve come across. Typically, their jeans will set you back $50+, but if you wait for the sales (which will probably occur leading up the Christmas and definitely be happening for the whole of January) then you can snag an awesome pair for $15-$20. Walk straight to the back of the store (and ignore the absurdly priced items along the way, haha) and you’ll see the sale items. Let me know if you have any success!


      1. Maggie @ Northern Expenditure says:

        I’m glad someone fashionable can weigh in here! We don’t have any Ross stores up here, but I do not want stretchy, so that works out. We also don’t have Zara or Express… so I’ll just have to watch American Eagle in January. That makes shopping easy! One store. One month. 🙂 I will definitely let you know if I have success! Thanks for the tips.


  3. Veronica says:

    I love that the focus of the article is that you can still live luxuriously without the high price tags! I feel the exact same way and I’m lucky enough to live about 5 minutes away from a Marshall’s, where I can usually find designer clothes for less than clothes at Walmart 🙂 I even find really high end designer clothes at garage sales in more wealthy neighborhoods-thank you, rich kids!
    Buying items from retail sources definitely makes me sad, not happy anymore due to the outrageous prices.
    Great post!


    1. Taylor says:

      Marshall’s is the BEST! Definitely in my top 3 favorite stores. I completely agree about buying full priced items at retail stores (ahem, Nordstrom) it’s so expensive and disheartening. Garage sales sound awesome. I haven’t tried them before, but it sounds like a good idea and you are the garage sale queen, so I will definitely scope them out 🙂


  4. DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    Work clothes are what drains my finances. It’s a bit ironic I’m reading this post now as this was the first week I started to wear a tie to work.

    I like your tips about waiting for “rounds” of discounts. This is true even at relatively affordable stores like Target. I’ve gotten some great shirts for $3 or $5 there. Unfortunately I’ve also paid full price – or at least only a slight sale price – many times as well.


    1. Taylor says:

      Hi, DC! Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Work clothes are the worst because they are a necessity and probably not even what you want to wear, haha. A tie sounds fancy! What field are you in? Rounds of discounts are the best and Target is such a great example! I’ve gotten shirts and dresses for $5 as well. Such a steal, especially when you need them or have been hunting for awhile.


  5. Sarah Noelle @ The Yachtless says:

    So I have to admit that I haven’t really gone clothes shopping since the point (earlier this year) when I finally started thinking seriously about my money and how I wanted to choose to spend it. I’m too scared! Suddenly everything just seems too expensive. I keep thinking, do I *need* this? And the answer, so far, has always been no. (You should see my 6-year-old Chucks — they haven’t actually quiiiiiiite fallen apart yet, so I haven’t had to actually replace them, but they are laughably full of holes.)

    So anyway, I do have a point here. 🙂 And my point is: this post is very timely, because I know that even though I’ve been avoiding it for a while, very soon I’m going to have to go clothes shopping, because a) I’m looking for a new job, which will most likely involve at least a slight enhancement of my current wardrobe, and b) I live in Boston, and winter is approaching…. Anyway, I’m feeling inspired to go check out TJ Maxx to see if I can find some good deals. Shopping for me can be overwhelming, but this was a good pep talk! 🙂


    1. Taylor says:

      “Do I need this?” is the BEST question to ask yourself (and also the hardest). Congratulations on scaling back and avoiding the potential pitfalls of shopping! You are killing it 🙂 Shopping for work/interviews can be SO hard and expensive, especially because you want to look your best while also feeling good. When I had my interview for my current job, I waited too long to start shopping for my first interview outfit. It was super stressful but I had a lot of success at Zara for attractive black work pants (which are surprisingly hard to find) and Target for my blazer and shirt! Good luck as you prepare to graduate with your PhD! 🙂 That’s seriously impressive. What is your field of study?


  6. Our Next Life says:

    So many great tips here! I would add two tips: buy classic pieces as much as possible, never the super-trendy stuff, and never buy anything that doesn’t fit perfectly. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve bought and never worn over the years that looked mostly good but didn’t fit perfectly, or that was out of style by the time I got around to wearing it. If I look at the clothes that have been in my closet for a while, they’re all classic — mostly black, classic cuts, no trendy details. That’s the best way to save money on clothes in my book — make sure you buy stuff you can wear for years! 🙂


    1. Taylor says:

      YES! Both of those tips are absolutely crucial to spending less on clothes. I am exactly the same with my clothes. I tend to only buy things that I love in a style that will last for years. Most people associate that with “boring” clothes, but so many fun pieces can be considered “classic” depending on your personal style and taste. Thanks for the awesome additional tips! 🙂


  7. Jen @ KeenConsumer says:

    I also live in Los Angeles and the biggest part of my living expense is rent! It is ridiculous the amount we dedicate to our income to rent/mortgage in LA, especially West LA. Being able to dedicate 50% of your income to reduce your debt is amazing discipline, there are just so many distracting entertaining things to do in LA. However we are lucky in which that LA has so many food options and shopping outlets. I love to shop at Ross also and my friend from out of state goes crazy there because there isn’t one near her!


    1. Taylor says:

      Hi Jen 🙂 I agree, it’s total insanity! It’s always nice to meet other people who understand the absurd housing costs in Southern California, haha. I actually moved to San Diego a few months ago and it’s slightly cheaper, but not by much. I definitely agree about the food and shopping options though. Despite the high costs, I love living in CA—beach, good food, warm weather. It’s hard to beat. Yay for Ross! The Ross on Westwood Blvd off of Wilshire has the best low-cost designer items I’ve ever seen. I think that because it’s so close to Beverly Hills (and tons of wealth), it’s vastly underused, hah. So if you’re ever on that side of LA, check it out! 🙂


  8. Brock @Cleverdude says:

    It’s all about a little bit of effort…..and patience. I’m as guilty as anyone at this……but so many people treat shopping as a military mission. Get in, accomplish the mission, and get out. As quickly as possible. If you take your time, select what you want, then search for deals until you find the item you want for as little as possible, you can save a ton of money. Thanks for sharing your tips!


    1. Taylor says:

      Hi Brock, thanks for stopping by 🙂 YES! I loved the way you phrased that — a military mission. It’s so true and it can be so tempting to do that, especially when you already know what you want. But like you said, a little bit of patience can add up to thousands of dollars saved.


  9. Alyssa says:

    Love this post! I’ve written a couple posts on my blog about how poor I used to be with my money, and that clothing was usually the top of my list for overspending. In my worst spending days, the highest I spent in 1 year on clothing was $2175.24! Super embarrassing.

    Now I’ve realized that I don’t need new clothing every single month, let alone year. This year I have spent $70 on clothing so far, and it was only on essentials. A jacket for work, and a skirt for work. Personally, I believe a good tip is to actually take the time trying to mix and match already owned clothing to create a new outfit. I still haven’t even worn half of my clothes when it really comes down to it. You can wear the same 5 pieces every week and turn it into a new outfit. Creativity is key.


    1. Taylor says:

      It is SO easy to spend tons of money on clothes, especially when they are small, cheap purchases that add up over time. (ahem, H&M) haha. I LOVE the mixing and matching advice. Once I started working in an office, I really saw the benefits of using different pieces of clothing to create the illusion of a new outfit. Awesome tip, as always.

      Congratulations on spending $70 this year! That is so amazing. Compared to your highest year, you’re already $2105.24 richer! Woohoo!


  10. a woman says:

    nice tips and tricks! Definitely I will pay more attention on next soldes 🙂 . Last year I used less than 200$, and I bought at solds a pant + blouse, that fit perfectly
    I will add more:
    – use the scissors and be creative. For example I cut some jeans destroyed down because of the shoew, and now there are capri (3/4)
    – buy a sewing machine. A old item, not appreciated could be refurnished 😉 (or destroyed for ever )
    – buy neutral shoes or pants. This will match with all coloured tops ;).
    – winter and rainy jackets are second hand/ garage sales. I looked carefully at the person, and I was lucky to find a person leaving to south, so I bought brand quality jackets almost never used. I negotiated. I will use it for years.
    – think price/ number of use. I will never pay 50 euros for one night dress, but I will pay 50 euros for a day by day winter shoes.


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