How to Build a Professional Wardrobe on a Dime

Spending less doesn't need to mean sacrificing style.

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For better or worse, how you dress plays a role in the impression you give to others, especially in the workplace. How professional you need to look will depend on your industry, office, and position, but no matter what the dress code (and you should find out what it is), you want to look polished and presentable.

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If you’re entering the work force as a student intern, a recent college grad, or a stay-at-home-mom-turned-legal-secretary, the cost of new work outfits may seem hard on your budget. It doesn’t have to be. Follow these steps to build a professional — and affordable — wardrobe.

Raid your closet

An easy way to spend less on your work clothes is to check your closet before you hit the stores. For every appropriate shirt, jacket, or pant that you already own, that’s one item you won’t need to buy. Don’t rule something out just because you usually wear it on the weekends with flip-flops. Instead, think of ways you can dress it up with other pieces.

You know that V-neck sweater that has been great for early-evening walks? You can layer it over a collared button-down shirt for a business casual look. The nice (but not too tight or revealing) blouse you like to wear when you’re out with friends? Imagine pairing it with a pencil skirt or gray trousers.

Shop thrift stores, outlets, and sales

You should dress for the job you want. A business suit is an investment. Great quality is worth the higher price. I get it — and I agree, for the most part. (I like quality, but I like it even more on sale.) Still, it’s hard to shell out a couple hundred dollars for an executive power suit when you’re just starting out professionally.

Check out your local Goodwill or thrift store. Follow a few simple criteria for thrift-store clothing shopping to make sure you get the best value. Next, move on to outlet stores and discount clothing stores, and keep an eye out for seasonal sales. You don’t need to make a mad dash to Express, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, etc. and pay full price for an entirely new work wardrobe. Build it as you go — and as you spot the price cuts.

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Choose versatile pieces

You probably sensed this when you combed through your closet earlier: Pieces that you can dress up and down will save you money. This should be fairly easy if you work in a business-casual environment.

If your professional wardrobe needs to be much more formal than your daily wear, you can still spend less by buying pieces that go with other work clothes. Mix up your tops, bottoms, shoes, and accessories to create many different outfits. You can also break up a suit to get more mileage out of the individual pieces.

Alter as necessary

Suppose you find a quality button-down in a color you like, at a price you can afford — but the sleeves are a little long and the next size down is too short. What a shame, right? Not yet! If a piece only requires minor alterations, like shortening the sleeves of a dress shirt or hemming a pair of pants, you can still get the polished look you need. Speak with your tailor to see what can be altered and how much they charge for it.

Difficult alterations tend to cost more, so keep that in mind when you shop. The wool blazer may have been on sale, but it may also cost a bundle to take in. The $10 skirt that only needs the hem lifted? Go for it.

Take care of your clothes

Anything you do to make your clothes last longer equals savings in the long run. Hang your dress shirts, polish your shoes regularly, and store your suit in a garment bag when you travel. Line up the seams of your dress pants and drape them on rubber or cloth-padded hangers. Treat stains ASAP. Even if you didn’t spend a fortune on your work wardrobe, it’s still an investment. Don’t let it wear out too quickly!

Amy Lu writes at Wise Bread, a blog dedicated to helping readers live large on a small budget. Wise Bread's book, 10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget, debuted as the #1 Money Management book on Amazon.com.