Affordable Office Attire: How to Buy an Entire Work Wardrobe With No Money

how to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money - guide to affordable office attireIt’s a common problem for people just starting out — you may need to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money or an extremely limited budget. Short of relying on the kindness of parents (or using credit cards — please resist the urge to go into debt to build your work wardrobe!), what’s a person to do? Whether it’s for an internship or a new job, let’s talk about it: what are your best tips on how to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money? Where can you cut — and where can you save? A fun question for today: what did your very first work wardrobe look like — did you have a strict budget? Did you buy it in one trip to the mall or over a series of weeks or months? 

The Guiding Principles: Know Your Office — and Let Your Work Speak Louder Than Your Clothes

If you’re just starting out at a new office, you don’t “know your office” — that’s the trick. You may THINK you know your office. But really you’ve got to work there for a week or two to get a feel for how people dress for work, what’s usual, what’s off limits or eyebrow-raising. The whole goal of buying a working wardrobe when you’re starting out is to let your WORK speak louder than your clothes. So in the beginning, you want to stick to the “safe” options that are appropriate for work at even the most conservative of places, and focus on doing a great job on your work. This isn’t to say you have to look frumpy or boring — think sleek, classic, polished, timeless.

Note that “business casual attire” can be even more complicated than conservative office attire because the margin for error is wider. You can check out our Ultimate Guide to Business Casual for Women, but when in doubt your best bet from a budget perspective is to buy more conservative options at first if you’re trying to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money. (This goes double if you’re just interning and might some day be working in a conservative office.)

Assess Your Existing Wardrobe: Know What You Can’t Wear to Work

Before we talk about what you need to buy, let’s talk about what you’ve already got — which may be easiest by going through what you can’t wear to a conservative office (and may not even be able to wear to some business casual offices depending on geography and industry). So: these are the items you shouldn’t wear to work until you know it better: graphic t-shirts, hoodies, ripped denim, maxi skirts and dresses, mini skirts and dresses (if it’s more than 5″ above your knee it’s way too short), spaghetti-strap camisoles (really anything that shows your bra or requires a special bra), jogger pants, cargo pants, and anything exposing your back or midriff. (See more discussions on what not to wear to work here.)

So…. what’s left? If that is literally your entire wardrobe, let’s look at your t-shirts or blouses — if any of them are too fancy to work out in (polo shirt, polyester floral t-shirt, etc) then you can probably wear them to the office. Look at your accessories: do you have closed-toe shoes that aren’t sneakers? Belts? Jewelry? You may want to look at the colors and metals in what you’ve already got — if everything you have is silver-toned and you’re not an expert in mixing metals, you may just want to stick with silver-toned stuff for accessories. If you have a bright red necklace you love, consider making that one of your accent colors (see below).how to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money tight budget The rest of the blanks you’ll have to fill with affordable office attire and some intentional shopping.

Your Initial Shop: WHAT and HOW MUCH to Buy

You really don’t need that many pieces to have a professional wardrobe, and if you’re trying to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money, it’s better to have fewer pieces to start. In your initial shop, buy enough clothes for 7 or 8 days of work, and look for pieces that you can mix and match so by the time you rewear the same pants to the office you’re wearing them with a different top. (It may be a bit weird if you wear the exact same outfit to work repeatedly, but mixing and matching, as well as a wardrobe full of neutrals, is just part of the game.) Reassess after you’ve worn everything to the office once. To that end, go for quality over quantity — if you’re building your work wardrobe you should look for classic pieces that you think will last you for a few years, and use fast/cheap fashion sparingly to add trendier pieces. You may want to check out our work outfit challenge, or our post on how to build a capsule wardrobe for work (one suggested wardrobe for a conservative office below) — note that all of these pieces can be mixed and matched, and if you need to transition from a conservative office to a more casual one, just the addition of one pair of dark rinse denim and a pair of funky shoes can go a long way towards bridging the gap.

how to buy a work wardrobe with no money - buy a capsule wardrobe!

If you need a suit that will probably be the biggest expenditure, so make sure you can wear the blazer, skirt, dress, and pants all as separates as well as together as a suit. For a business casual office, though, all you may need are separates. My best advice is to pick a neutral base (black or gray will probably easiest) and then a few accent colors (red, light blue, and white for example) and buy within those accent colors. Everything should work together; you shouldn’t have any closet singletons.

An initial shopping list might look like this — note that if you’ve already got a suit you may already have some of these pieces:

  • 1-2 pairs of nice trousers in a neutral color (not too tight, not too loose)
  • at least one skirt in a neutral color that isn’t too short
  • a neutral dress in a flattering shape – no special bra required! Sheath, shift, or fit & flare are the most common.
  • 4-6 nice tops (you can go for a basic t-shirt here or sweater here! — they just have to fit well and not be washed out or workout wear
  • 2-3 toppers: cardigan, jardigan or blazers
  • 1-3 accessories: a watch, a scarf, a necklace you love — I’d go with necklaces to make the biggest impact on your wardrobe
  • 1-2 pairs of neutral, classic shoes you can walk in — for my $.02 I’d argue one pair of heels and 1 pair of flats, but that’s me. You always want to be able to let your shoes “breathe” for a day between wearings so you should be able to alternate.

Where to Buy Affordable Office Attire: Stores, Thrifting, and More

Fast fashion is everywhere these days, and if you really have to buy your entire work wardrobe at one of those spots, so be it — but don’t get carried away and get 100 pieces because everything’s so cheap. (I would suggest shops like Express, Uniqlo, Old Navy for reliable basics — H&M, Topshop and Zara can be hit or miss in terms of what’s too trendy or youthful for a conservative office.) You may want to check out our regular series, How to Build a Work Wardrobe At… to see which are the best-sellers/reader favorites/repeat classics from the various workwear stores.

If you are REALLY working with an extreme budget — and truly are wondering how to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money — look to thrift stores and eBay — sometimes you can buy an entire work wardrobe that someone’s outgrown or no longer needs in a single lot. Don’t forget your friends, either — if you all graduate together and then start work together soon, odds are good everyone will have some hits and misses. Schedule a closet swap party for a few months in so you can swap the misses out early.

How to Pay For Your New Work Wardrobe

I would argue that you should NEVER go into debt to buy a bunch of new clothes — don’t put it on a credit card and figure you’ll pay it off later! If you can start early, one way to make a big spend less painful is to put aside a little bit of money each week or month so that it builds up over time. If you put $20 away each week you’d have $520 in six months. If that’s your budget, you can still buy a work wardrobe for that first year of working, but it will likely be very much on the minimal/capsule side.

Readers, what are your best tips on how to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money? What are your favorite spots for affordable office attire? Do you have any hacks or tricks for building an entirely new wardrobe on a very tight budget? 

Pictured at top and on social media: Deposit Photos / IgorVetushko

It's a really common problem if you're just starting a new job or internship: you're hunting for affordable office attire and wondering how to buy an entire work wardrobe with no money or an extremely tight budget. We rounded up our best tips for buying a work wardrobe on a tight budget, a mini shopping list for your initial shop, a few notes on quality vs quantity, and suggestions of the best work stores for affordable office attire.

Comments

  1. Lana Del Raygun :

    I am also consistently happy with the quality at Target! They typically have a lot of their basics in many colors, which makes it easier to have enough pieces to get dressed every day for a week without investing too much *time* if you’re planning to upgrade once you’re getting paid.

    • pugsnbourbon :

      I am a dedicated bargain shopper. I can’t help it, I’m from Ohio.

      The vast majority of my current wardrobe is from Target, Kohls and TJMaxx/Marshalls. I usually buy black pants at Loft and I like the ponte dresses from Land’s End. Those pieces are more expensive but the price per wear is great.

      What helped me was to be strategic about what I buy/develop a capsule wardrobe. Everything has to go with everything, and I only buy things that I really love.

    • Anonymous :

      Any favorite brands at Target since they got rid of Merona? I know their suits and jackets looked rather matronly but RIP their basics. I rarely see anything that beckons me in from the aisles any longer, but not sure if that’s the new brands or just this moment in fashion (cold shoulders, ruffles, etc.).

      • Merona has been replaced with A New Day at Target – it’s more trendy than Merona but has some good staple pieces in the collection.

        Also overall Target is completely revamping all their in-house lines in A&A, Home & Tech so there are still more apparel brands coming through 2018 and 2019.

  2. I just went through this with helping a family member get set up for her first (entry-level) job in a business casual workplace. I helped her come up with a work “uniform” (ankle pants, top, cardigan/blazer). We got 4 pairs of Uniqlo ankle pants in a combo of black, navy, and windowpane; 5 short-sleeve knit tops from J. Crew Factory; 4 cardigans from Ann Taylor Loft; 2 blazers from a secondhand shop; 2 pairs of shoes from DSW; a couple small necklaces from Nordstrom Rack; and a purse from Zara. Spent about $500 total over a period of a week.

    • Anonymous :

      That sounds like a really great start and basically how I dress every day in the fall/winter.

  3. Anonymous :

    In really cheap times, I have purchased interview suits at a thrift store, and the suiting line at Target. The Target suit looked shockingly good for dirty cheap prices. I grew out of it and suspected it would pill quickly so I can’t speak to its durability, but it was comfortable and well cut for me.

    • Kudo’s to you. I paid nothing for my initial wardrobe, but I am fibbing a bit b/c my dad paid for everything. He always reminds me that he spent over $3000 for me back in 2009, and I do NOT have even one thing left from then! FOOEY! I think I kind of outgrew some of it, lost some of it (my relatives visiting took some w/o permission) and gave the rest of it away to Good Will or NY Cares. But all is well b/c I have a job with a clotheing reimbursement that allows me to buy new clotheing every year and get it 60% reimbursed! YAY!!!!!

  4. Anonymous :

    This was me when I started my real career (and tbh I still shop pretty cheaply). I get a ton of clothes from Old Navy, no lie, although I’ve always worked in casual/business casual offices. Also, stalk items online waiting for the prices to drop, be aware of sales and promotions, and utilize discount stores like TJ Maxx. I’ve gotten some really good unicorn finds from there.

  5. Has anyone here seen a therapist for procrastination problems?

    • Anonymous :

      I wanted to. Never got around to it.

    • Similar fate :

      Following for my self.

    • Yes. It was helpful in that she helped me realize that my procrastination was a form of perfectionism. I don’t know that therapy was super helpful as far as directly helping me address procrastination, but it was goodin terms of helping me handle the anxiety that went hand in hand. I also found the book “The Now Habit” by Neil Fiore to be useful, I believe someone on here recommended it.

    • I love Mel Robbins take on procrastination. You can check out her Ted Talk.

  6. For thrifting, you’ll find much better quality stuff at small church-run thrift stores than bigger places like Goodwill, which tend to be a lot more picked over. If I were looking for a work wardrobe, I’d head to small church thrift stores in wealthy areas. Avoid the ones in college areas where everything will be very young, casual and already worn down.

    Pants are hardest to find when thrifting because fit needs to be so exact and when someone has a good pair of pants, she usually wears it out. However, blazers, skirts and work tops abound, and people do get rid of good quality current stuff when they gain or lose weight. Sweaters might be a little pilly but that can be fixed with a $5 sweater shaver.

  7. I’ve had to do this a few times: when I was just starting my career, and when I needed to rebuild a wardrobe after maternity leave and knew I didn’t want to invest a ton into transitional pieces. My advice is to limit your choices — pick a color palette and basic style, and stick to it. I had good luck at Loft, Target and Ann Taylor on sale. J. Crew Factory is also a good choice, if it fits you. (I’m slightly too tall for a lot of their stuff.) Completely agree on sticking with a lot of neutrals. I’ve made lots of bad wardrobe decisions by being all over the place with pretty colors. Not saying you can’t have color, but edit your choices!

    • Lana Del Raygun :

      Can I ask how tall you are? There’s a J. Crew Factory opening near me this fall but I’m 5’9″ with long legs.

      • I’m 5’9″ as well. The biggest issue is the length of tops and dresses, actually. So, it might be fine if your torso is more average-sized.

  8. London in September :

    For Scarlett — thanks for the tip re: Dishoom late lunch reservations! They actually take “lunch” reservations until 5:45pm, so we nabbed that spot for our arrival day, when we’ll want to eat on the earlier side anyway.

  9. Cookbooks :

    When I was on a strict budget, the outlets during a long weekend were fantastic. Crowds and parking hassles aside, I got some solid pieces from the Ann Taylor and JCrew outlets. I still have several of them; they’ve held up well.

  10. ThredUp. I buy almost all my work clothes there. I stick to brands that I know fit my body and filter by “excellent condition” or “new with tags”. I order a huge box and pay their flat fee for return shipping for returns because I don’t want to have a credit.

    • ukbusinesslady :

      I bought mine from there too until very recently! I highly recommend them… they just don’t ship to the UK anymore :-(

  11. For closet basics, aim for clothes that really fit you — or tailor them, & if money is really tight, look on YouTube for tutorials to DIY. Hemming pants/skirts is not hard to do, sleeves can be shortened, & waists can be nipped in (for example, if you’re curvy, buy the pant/skirt size that fits your hip & alter the waist to fit).

    But just pay attention to fit in general. Try on a ton of sizes! When you don’t have money, you have to spend time, shopping around, looking at every store & brand, trying things on, & really making sure an item works on you.

  12. Anonymous :

    My kids told me this weekend that our nanny left them in the locked, running car while she ran into the drug store to get something. I asked her this morning, adn she said she did, and that she wouldn’t do it again. I trust her not to do it again but I worry that she did it in the first place. How big of a deal is this?

    • Anonymous :

      How old are your kids?

    • How old are your kids?

      • Anonymous :

        Young – 5, 3.5, and 1. I think she went it to grab a bottle of water for them and parked right at the front, so it was probably a three minute trip. But it was hot. But the car was running. I am just conflicted on this one.

        • At those ages not okay. The 5 year old could have gotten out of his seat and decided to “drive” and gotten in an accident. They could have gotten locked in there and not known how to open the door for the nanny. Another adult could have jumped in the car and driven away with them.

    • I have a twin sister, and we were left in carseats in locked running cars for my working mom to run and grab things all the time–not like hour long shopping, but for a gallon of milk. In the midwest.

      We both have terminal degrees and productive lives. (?)

      • I am 57 years old and my mother smoked during her entire pregnancy with me. When I was a toddler, neither car seats nor seat belts were a thing, so I rode on the seat of the car without any protection of any kind.

        I have a terminal degree and a productive life.

        That doesn’t make smoking while pregnant, or forgoing using a car seat in 2018 an acceptable choice.

    • Anonymous :

      How old are the kids?

    • Depends on the age of the kids, the location of the drugstore, how visible the car was from the store. This is one of those things that is more nuanced than it appears on the surface, I think.

    • Anonymous :

      How old are your kids? Can they unbuckle themselves and climb out of the car if they needed to? Did they have a phone or another way to call for help? Was the car running because it was remote-started, or were the keys left in the car? How long was your nanny gone?

      Was she in the drug store for a personal errand or one for the kids/your family? If it was for a personal errand, are you OK with that even if she had brought your kids into the store?

      If your kids are older, I’m inclined to say it wasn’t that big of a deal. Now that she knows you don’t find it acceptable, it would be a big deal if she ignored your wishes. But different people have different tolerances for these kinds of things. I was left alone in the locked, running car all the time as a kid, but things are different now. (I wouldn’t do it now, with older kids, but more because I’d be afraid someone would call the police, and CPS would get involved, etc.)

    • Anonymous :

      If the kids aren’t close to old enough to drive (aka, remove themselves from the car if something went wrong) I’d say this is a huge deal. There have been 24 children who have died from heat stroke this year alone. Something goes wrong with the vehicle, the kid manages to get the keys and turn the car off, something happens to the nanny inside — or the nanny is okay with leaving the kids in the running car, is she okay with leaving them in the car with it off, then? “Just for a minute”? I work in the safety field and while it was okay this one time, it is her judgement that would concern me.

    • This is the kind of thing where I may be ok with a parent doing it but not ok with a caregiver doing it (and then not mentioning it to you). Yay for the 5 year old who reported this to you!

    • I would be concerned about her judgement, in general. I would never take that kind of risk with a)another person’s baby b)my income source. Maybe it was a one-off, but perhaps you could find a nanny with higher risk-sensitivity.

  13. Anonymous :

    One great tip is figure out what size you are in a particular brand, and then search on ebay. I find new with tags items for a fraction of the price.

    Also, I bought my interview suit and shoes at an outlet when I was a broke unemployed graduate.

  14. In-House in Houston :

    What about Poshmark? I’ve recently found some real steals. It’s like eBay, only better stuff. And you can make offers on everything, which means you can get an even bigger bargain. If anyone hasn’t tried it yet, I really encourage you to check it out. If you’ve never signed up, you can use my referral code (merrpg) and get $5 off your first purchase (I get $5 off too, full disclosure). I got a lovely, brand new Kate Spade necklace for $20.

    • Anonymous :

      Yes, it’s been amazing. I feel like I will never shop for new clothes again.

      • Anonymous :

        Me too! The bargains I’ve found have been truly incredible. If you know what brand works for you, say Ann Taylor size 6 or Franco Sarto shoes size 8, then your purchases on Poshmark are pretty safe. I’m somewhat addicted. Their app is so great too!!

  15. Anonymous :

    UGH. So over these “magical” shopping days and the websites that cannot support them. All I want is to buy an instant pot today on Prime Day as they are discounted to like $60. But the website keeps crashing and not working. Why can these online retailers not get it together!?

    • Anonymous :

      I dunno, you could focus on the fact that Amazon is pretty evil and so is rampant consumerism so maybe the website issues are actually doing you and the whole world a favor.

  16. Anonymous :

    Response in moderation. Try posh mark dot com, or the app. Great stuff, like eBay only better stuff. Use my referral code (merrpg) for $5 off your first purchase (I get the same). I got a really lovely brand new Kate Spade necklace recently for $20.

  17. Anonymous :

    Was terminated without cause but with good sev pay after having a baby. Was also a size 14 for the first time ever. I bought a brand new wardrobe from one store (everything basically the same in different colours) and it did wonders for my self esteem and made me very presentable for interviews.

    I’d recommend investing in yourself, it is worth it. Most of us will not find work appropriate clothing through thrift etc. At least buy some well fitting underwear and one good interview suit.

    • Anonymous :

      I agree that you made a good decision to buy a new wardrobe, and I wish I had spent more on my wardrobe at certain junctures in my past. But “good sev pay” is key. Try not to judge interviewees who spent as much money as they had and couldn’t choose to be more liberal with their budgets.

  18. Anonymous :

    A good wardrobe is an investment. Plain and simple, when people are looking to hire you they want to know that you can look presentable (especially at an interview because if you can’t do that they won’t believe you ever can do it).

    I interviewed twice heavily pregnant and once post pregnant (still with a lot of bloat) and I kidded myself into thinking I looked presentable (I probably looked sloppy). Yeah, it would have sucked buying a suit to suit how pregnant I was, however no one hired me wearing a black blazer with a black maternity dress that didn’t quite match.

    If you’re desperate and a smaller size you can maybe make things work at mall brand stores with some tailoring. That’s what I did. I realize this sounds heartless but it’s true- odds and ends and suit separates are not going to get you very far.

  19. Ann Marie :

    During college and law school, I always worked or interned in offices so I built a work wardrobe over time. I was getting paid when I worked so I had money to buy clothes. By the time I got a permanent attorney job, I already had a work wardrobe I could at least start off with. I find it hard to believe that by the time a person graduates from college/law school/grad school, he or she doesn’t have any work clothes or any money to buy clothes. Don’t people work and intern? I expect this dilemma more from interns than full-time employees.

    Also, if you really don’t have any work clothes, and you are only buying a few pieces, I suggest sticking to neutrals, like black, grey, and white. Boring yes but less noticeable if you are repeating outfits. I had an intern who dressed all in black. She probably wore the same three outfits all the time but I couldn’t tell or remember. All I remember is she wore black.

    For work clothes these days, I buy a lot at Uniqlo. They have reasonably priced basics. I buy my blazers at H&M. They have good ones, believe it or not. I also buy some pieces from TJ Maxx/Marshalls.

    • Anonymous :

      Or, you move from – for example – a business casual to business formal environment. I’ve made that move several years after finishing school, and it was challenging to build a wardrobe all at once.

  20. Happy Holly :

    Has anyone tried the betabrand work pants / yoga pants? I’m curious if they’re worth the expense for a business casual office setting. Also, I’m curious to know if they hold up over time. I mostly wear skirts because I can never find pants that fit properly, and I am lazy about hemming.

    • I think the yoga dress pants are really dependent on body type. I ordered a pair recently when building my business casual wardrobe in a hurry for a new job and I put them on an immediately knew they needed to go back. The fabric was thicker and nicer but they were still clearly yoga pants on my athletic hips and thighs. Very clearly could see my thigh gap. It’s possible if you have a straighter figure it might be ok? But for me they were way too form fitting and they went right back.

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