Elizabeth Cline is the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.
What's the problem with the way we buy clothes?
Elizabeth Cline: We've broken away from the seasonal cycle of clothing. You no longer see new clothing lines two to four times a year; you're seeing them every week. The problem is that consumers are hooked on a cycle of buying and tossing clothes—or keeping them but not getting a lot of use out of them.
What does that mean for our finances?
EC: We're spending the smallest percentage of our income on clothing that we've ever spent. But we're essentially throwing that money away—$20 here, $20 there. It's not a lot, but if you're only going to wear an item once or twice, whatever you're spending on clothes goes down the drain. That's the psychology of cheap: We don’t value things we pay little for. With clothing, that means we’re less likely to sew a button back on or try to get a stain out.
Are men caught up in this "fast fashion" cycle, too?
EC: The men's market is less fashion-sensitive. It's easier to find a mid-market garment that is reasonably well-made and reasonably priced. But the fashion chains, such as H&M, are going after men, and they’re becoming more frequent consumers of clothing.
How can people get better value from their clothing?
EC: The key is being mindful. Set a budget, and think about how you want to spend it. Americans buy eight pairs of shoes and 68 garments every year, spending about $1,100. If you bought two to three pairs of shoes and ten garments per year, you'd be investing in clothes that aren't going to fall apart. Look for things that have a unique design or are classics, so they don't look dated as quickly. Follow the care instructions for proper laundering. Take them to a tailor to be mended or fit properly.
Where can you find (and how do you recognize) high-quality clothing?
EC: If you have a local or higher-end department store, start there. Dillard's, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom carry domestically produced lines. Find handmade and vintage clothing on Etsy.com. Flip the garment inside out and look at the seams; see if the buttons are sewn on securely. To learn about quality, I went to thrift stores to look at clothes made before 1980, when things were still pretty well put together.
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.