Where I live in Fairfield County, Connecticut, one out of every four of my friends carries a designer handbag—and has at least two spare ones in her closet.
Some of those friends wear Tory Burch flats, gold initials buckled to the toes, on nice autumn days. Another friend has a closet rack stacked with Louboutins.
I admire these beautiful luxuries, but only from afar.
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For nearly two years, I’ve been living on a lean, self-restricted, $600-a-year clothing budget. Of course, I acknowledge that the word “lean” in clothing-budget terms is relative. $600 per year is extravagant in some parts of the country, where many families rely on less than that amount to clothe a family of six.
According to a 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the most recent data available, the average American household spent $1,700 on apparel that year, but the largest chunk of that — $562 — was spent on apparel for women ages 16 and over. But where I live, in the one of the 10 most expensive counties in the United States, spending at the "average” level for myself is considered paltry, to say the least.
And while spending just $600 a year on clothing has afforded me so many benefits, it requires discipline and dedication. Here's how I do it.
Why I Had a Bigger Wardrobe as a Kid
It’s not that I can’t necessarily afford to spend more than $50 a month on clothes. But as a journalist and mom, and co-contributor to rent, insurance, day care, groceries, living expenses and health care, there’s only a certain amount of discretionary income available.
There was much more discretionary income in my youth, however.
I grew up in a nice, upper-middle-class, Washington, D.C., suburb, and new shoes and clothes at the beginning of every school year, season change and growth spurt were just considered a given.
However, although my parents had money, they were thrifty. I remember childhood shopping trips to Sears; United Colors of Benetton was the most high-end label I ever wore. When I inherited a Givenchy necklace from my grandmother, I didn’t know how to pronounce Givenchy until a friend corrected me.
Still, even mall staples from the likes of The Limited, coupled with indie-boutique finds, can add up. By the time I moved to New York at age 29, I spent an estimated $2,000 a year on attire. And while I had a dozen outfits for every occasion, my savings account remained at about $500 for the entire four years I lived in Brooklyn.
Making the Decision to Downsize
Three years ago I moved to Connecticut, got married and started covering health insurance for my spouse, who works in sales and marketing. My cost of living skyrocketed, and my already-modest journalism salary (plus a tiny bit of income from a second job as a guitar teacher) was pretty much eaten up by living expenses, with only a few hundred a month to spare for all the nonnecessities.
I wanted to follow my parents’ advice and start saving at least $1,000 a year for retirement to supplement a small IRA I inherited from my grandfather, not to mention put a bigger dent in my student loans. I also felt badly that I never really seemed to have much money for Christmas gifts, either, except crappy $15 pot holders or Starbucks gift cards.
So in early 2011 I decided I would try to spend just $900 a year, or $75 a month, on clothes, which was something I could control. I would track expenditures in an Excel spreadsheet to make sure I didn’t go over or blow too much money early on in the year.
$900 per year wasn’t too difficult: I just had to watch the little things, like redundant tank tops and that extra pair of shoes. But by late 2011, I got pregnant and needed an entirely new wardrobe.
Were it not for the generosity of a few friends who were willing to loan their maternity clothes, and family who bought me key items like work dresses and elastic-waist pants, I would have had nothing to wear unless I broke my budget.
Still, with a baby on the way, I decided further cutbacks would be needed.
How I Spend My $600
In early January 2012, I took an inventory of my clothes—seeing what I had already, and noting what I needed. I decided to save most of it for the second half of the year, so I could buy some nice new post-baby-body clothes.
My son was born in July, and by September I spent just about $440 on two pairs of Express jeans ($130), a pair of boots ($142), three sweaters from H&M ($100) and a sports bra at Lululemon ($60). I had a $150 gift card left over from the previous Christmas, and that also went to more Lululemon stuff, including a pair of comfy mom leggings (which I love).
Spreading out $600 over a 12-month period has proven much more difficult than spending $900 per year, though I have a few advantages. One, my parents buy me a new pair of running shoes every Christmas. Two, my husband and other relatives tend to give me American Express gift cards for $50-$150, particularly because they know I am so frugal when it comes to fashion. I'm also a big fan of consignment stores and clothing swaps (you can find one near you here), and I avoid temptations like Gilt and Groupon like the plague.
Still, $600 can go fast if you don’t plan carefully. In January of this year I took a second annual inventory and made the difficult decision to skip a new pair of sandals (my three existing pairs were in good shape) and a new winter coat. What I needed the most were new jeans, shorts, bikinis (I hadn’t gotten a new one since 2010), and a few sweaters and sweatshirts. I also really wanted a new dress to wear to a handful of summer weddings.
"When I look at my closet with its boots, flats, leggings, jeans, coats, sweaters and shirts from the last five years, I realize that my stash is truly abundant."
I planned my first shopping trip for late February, when I knew winter items would be on sale, and scored one dressy sweater and a bright, slouchy sweatshirt at the Gap for nearly $70 off their original prices, plus a white summer cardigan at Old Navy. Total cost: $102.
In March, I combined a few coupons and a $50 gift card to purchase two pairs of jeans and two pairs of jean shorts, plus a nice shirt to wear out to dinner, at Express. Total cost: $175.
A trip to Macy’s on Memorial Day Friday meant huge sales—which is why I planned it so far in advance—and I managed to buy a beautiful, turquoise Guess dress, two bikinis and two summer dresses for $300. I also bought a really cute, secondhand Charlotte Russe sweater (plus a necklace and earrings) from a friend for $12, after she posted it to an online Facebook moms group.
Though it's August, and I have already spent $589 this year, I'm hoarding my last $100 gift card just in case there's something else I really need. It’s important to acknowledge, again, that the idea of “need” is relative: In homes built in the 1950s, bedroom closets were much smaller than they are today. There weren’t emails delivered weekly to your inbox touting sales at your favorite stores. There weren’t magazine layouts centered on “fall must-haves.” When I look at my closet with its boots, flats, leggings, jeans, coats, sweaters and shirts from the last five years—most of which are in great shape—I realize that my stash is truly abundant.
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The Tradeoff: Where My Money Goes Instead
Seeing Facebook or Instagram photos of my well-dressed friends or scanning People.com during my lunch break can make it hard for me to stick to my spending rules. I find myself thinking, “Hmm… I really need a nice military jacket,” or “Eva Longoria’s white jeans are so nice … I would look great in those.”
At the same time, my resolve is only strengthened when I think about how much I’ve been able to save for the future.
Two little rewards in exchange for my “sacrifice” are this: I’m now able to buy nice birthday presents and Christmas presents for my immediate family, and not scrimp on baby-shower or wedding-shower gifts for my friends.
For the last three years, I’ve been able to save for the future: For the first time, I signed up for a corporate 401(k) plan with my company and set aside 2% of my salary to contribute. I’ve put about $1,400 into my retirement accounts, and $500 into my investment accounts. While not everyone has the means to save, I can’t help but wonder if some of the well-dressed women I know couldn’t find a way if they just downsized their wardrobes.
Of course, I’d love to put in more money (don’t even get me started on health care costs for a family of three!), but it’s a start. And that money will be there long after the clothes I purchased this year have run their course and found their way into a thrift shop.
Marisa Torrieri is a writer, guitar teacher and mom who lives in Fairfield, Conn., with her husband and young son. A native of Silver Spring, Md., Marisa has written and edited for The Washington Post, The Village Voice, DailyCandy and Metromix New York.