5 Ways to Dress for Success on a Budget

Here's how to put together a work-appropriate wardrobe without spending a fortune.

For young professionals, dressing appropriately for work can be just as important as showing up at meetings on time or making project deadlines. With a professional wardrobe, you can help battle negative stereotypes associated with Generations X and Y and show the higher-ups that you’re serious about your career, says Hallie Crawford (opens in new tab), a career coach based in Atlanta. "You want to let people know that, despite your age and lack of formal professional experience, you care about your job and take it seriously," she says.

But how can you afford a wardrobe for the office on an entry- or mid-level salary? Here are five expert tips on how to stock up on work essentials that are professional, stylish and budget-friendly:

1. Take Stock of What You Already Own

Before buying anything new, browse your closet for basic pieces that you already have, says Barbara Mesecke, vice-president and general merchandise manager for Sears’ Ready-to-Wear division. A few items she recommends you check for: a black dress, a blazer, a pair of trousers and several colored button-down shirts.

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Kathryn Finney, founder and editor of the style blog The Budget Fashionista (opens in new tab), recommends assessing your wardrobe on a cost-per-wear basis to help you gauge which clothes are worth your investment. “If you have a brown dress that you wear to work three times a month, then you’ll probably want to buy more similar items because it’s something you obviously like and wear often,” she says.

2. Keep Your Work Wardrobe Classic

With their timelessness and versatility, several key items will help you get the most value out of your attire. For men, a solid navy or gray suit goes great with a variety of shirt and tie combinations, says Melissa Merrit, a customer relationship and personal styling director for Nordstrom.

Women need a pair of trousers, a single-breasted one- or two-button blazer and a pencil skirt that hits mid-knee, says Alia Ahmed-Yahia, chief style director for LOFT. You don’t need all three to be the same color, she says, but if you go that route, pick a classic shade like black or charcoal gray so you can wear them together or separately.

You don’t have to shop at expensive boutiques for work clothes. You can find all of these essentials at reasonable prices. For example, a woman’s suit jacket (opens in new tab) at Bloomingdale’s retailed for $277 in mid September, but I found a similar single-breasted blazer (opens in new tab) at Macy’s for just $100, more than 60% cheaper.

You can buy suits off the rack at stores such as Men’s Wearhouse for considerably lower prices than those that are custom-made or designer brands. For example, a lightweight wool suit (opens in new tab) by Armani at Bluefly.com, an online designer fashion store, was on sale for $1,285 in mid September. But at Jos. A. Bank, a retail store that specializes in menswear, I found a similar suit (opens in new tab) on sale for $208.

3. Know When It’s Worth Spending a Little Extra

If you decide to splurge and buy a higher-quality item or two for your new office wardrobe, focus on the things you’ll be using every day, Finney says. For example, if you use a tote bag to carry your laptop to and from work, going for a higher-quality bag that will last makes sense.

Spend any extra cash on pieces that are classic rather than trendy, says Yujin Wood, co-owner and editor of WorkChic.com (opens in new tab). A few items worth the splurge may be a sturdy, structured handbag or briefcase, a business suit, a watch and a trench coat.

For these kinds of purchases, consider registering for private-sale shopping sites, such as BeyondTheRack.com, Gilt.com, Ideeli.com or RueLaLa.com. All offer deeply discounted deals for a limited time only on designer clothes, shoes and accessories. For example, in mid September, I found a wool cardigan by 3.1 Phillip Lim (opens in new tab) that was marked down to $139 (originally $339) on Gilt, and a vinyl tote bag by London Fog (opens in new tab) on sale for $70 (originally $150) on Ideeli. The trick with these sites is to log-on and make your purchases right when the sales are posted, as many deals tend to sell out within a couple of hours (see What You Need to Know About Private Sales).

4. Shop at Outlet Malls and Discount Retailers

You can also snag some higher-quality clothing, such as suit separates, coats and shoes, at marked-down prices by shopping at outlet malls. Many high-end clothing stores that a younger worker with a limited budget might not be able to afford, such as Neiman Marcus, Tahari and Theory, offer outlet locations.

Plus, two of the major outlet companies in the U.S., Premium Outlets (opens in new tab), which boasts daily deals of up to 65% off, and Tanger Outlets (opens in new tab), which touts a “guilt-free shopping experience” because of their low prices, offer VIP shopping clubs. Members receive exclusive online coupons that take an additional percentage off sale items.

Among the downsides to outlet shopping, however, is that you’re limited to what’s available at that time, says Sarah Lahey, co-author of the “Born to Shop” travel guide series. Also, “[there are] no special orders, no tailoring and often no returns. So it’s important to buy wisely.”

You can also try shopping at discount retailers, such as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. I worked at the former for a year while in college to earn some extra cash and to feed my growing shopping addiction (two words: employee discount). While I did score some stylishly cheap finds -- several of which are still in regular rotation in my closet more than a decade later -- many items in the store were either out-of-season, irregular or slightly damaged. Take that into consideration before stocking your entire work wardrobe at these types of retailers. You may end up spending the cash you saved having to alter or repair problem clothing.

5. You'll Find Great Deals Shopping Online

If you don’t feel up to fighting the crowds at the mall or outlet, you can also find bargains on the Web. “Online clothing stores like Asos.com and ModCloth.com offer the latest trends, as well as classic styles, for men and women at reasonable prices,” says Wood. But keep in mind: With online purchases, you can’t try the clothes on. And exchanging or returning items may have to work around the mail’s schedule, unless you can take care of any issues in person at a brick-and-mortar store.

To do some comparison shopping before clicking the “buy” button, Wood suggests visiting sites, such as ShopStyle.com and MyShoes.com, that allow users to search through a wide selection of brands and prices for specific clothing or accessories, even drilling down to color and size. For example, when I typed in a search for “men’s blue dress shirt” at ShopStyle, a range of options showed up in the results -- from a Prada classic blue striped spread-collar shirt (opens in new tab) for $310 at Bluefly.com to a Club Room blue stripe French-cuff shirt (opens in new tab) for $50 at Macy’s.

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Andrea Browne Taylor
Online Editor, Kiplinger.com
Browne Taylor joined Kiplinger in 2011 and is a channel editor for Kiplinger.com covering living and family finance topics. She previously worked at the Washington Post as a Web producer in the Style section and prior to that covered the Jobs, Cars and Real Estate sections. She earned a BA in journalism from Howard University in Washington, D.C.