How I Did It: I Cut My Clothing Budget to $600 a Year

Marisa Torrieri

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.

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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.

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$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.

  • Fl

    Wow, this really makes me feel extravagant. I have been tracking my purchases this year and I am going to try and reduce spending if I can on clothing. So far I have far exceeded the author’s budget, but I would def like to pare down mine.

    I honestly know that a lot of advice to save money says to unsubscribe to the email lists of retail stores, but for me, it has actually helped me save when I needed clothing. For instance, Express has great sales and even mails out coupons. This has helped me pick up more than a few items at that store without breaking the bank. I think those sales and emails can be beneficial if used wisely. I hate paying full price for anything.

  • Amber Finkelstein

    I really appreciate the fact that the author acknowledges that her budget is extravagant for some areas – it made it definitely more relatable.

    Since my divorce and move to a new city, I’ve been trying to make my current wardrobe last as long as possible – with the exception of some pieces for weddings this year, I haven’t bought any new clothes. It’s been difficult, but worth it. I actually have money in savings, albeit not much, and I’m happier than I have been in a long time.

    • mari donofrio

      With all your gift cards you really are not just spending $600 year on clothes. The gift cards spent toward your wardrobe count too. Nice try though trying to rationalize that extra spending.

      • maritorri

        Gift cards are like coupons. If you use $15 worth of CVS coupons and only spend $10 on shampoo, you still only spent $10 on shampoo.

        • ✪✪✪┳ㅌ८८ᏬᏊᏥАीᎴᏋᏌЯ✪✪✪

          Umm, no, it’s not the same. The gift cards could have been spent on something other than clothing. Whatever she uses the gift cards for is what category of spending it goes under. AmEX gift cards could be spent on groceries, gas, home decor – anything.

          • jessi

            All good points. Gift cards can be tricky because often the giver expects the card to be spent on something fun, and is only giving the card instead of the actual item so that the person has the freedom to pick out the style/fit/etc herself. So I think a lot of people ask for their birthday and holiday gifts to be in areas of their budget where they wish they had more money but don’t feel responsible spending it. That’s what this author does too–she does stick to her budget and then decides that any extra clothing is a luxury that will have to come out of whatever gifts she receives for birthdays or holidays. Maybe her wardrobe costs more than $600 a year but I don’t know that she herself “spends” that–I’d say her family and friends spend the extra, just as she spends money on their gifts.

  • Liz

    Who spends $15 on potholders?

    • maritorri

      Hey — author here. The last potholder I bought was $14 at Williams-Sonoma.

    • maritorri

      plus tax. If you’re going to get a potholder, do it right.

    • Lisa Joy Bates

      Hmmm, my potholders I’ve had for several years were $3 from walmart. They’re a neutral color, have tone-on-tone flower shaped grippy things on them, and I expect at least another good couple years from them. And yes, I just own the one pair, never even use holiday themed ones and I cook at least 2 times a day and we rarely ever go out to eat, so they are heavily used. I also never flinch at giving them for gifts because they’re cute and durable. I’m with you…$15 seems like highway robbery. Get out of Williams-Sonoma! Gorgeous store, but they’re overpriced for your basic kitchen necessities. Even their popcorn popper is overpriced…you can get a great one for $10-$15…

  • ✪✪✪┳ㅌ८८ᏬᏊᏥАीᎴᏋᏌЯ✪✪✪

    Why does the author feel the need to only buy name brand clothing?

  • paganheart

    Not really mentioned here but another option for saving money on clothes is shopping secondhand stores, like Goodwill or Plato’s Closet. At least where I live, Goodwill has several stores that are bright, clean, well-lit and well-stocked and offer an excellent selection of nearly-new clothing at great prices (barely-worn Lucky jeans for $10, anyone?) Granted you have to have the patience to pick through the racks, but if you do, you can find some real gems and get an entire wardrobe of work clothes for around $100! I’ve done nearly all my clothes shopping at Goodwill for the last couple of years; the only things I bought new were underwear, socks and nightshirts (which came from Target, great back-to-school sales) and shoes and bras (which I got at Kohls, great post-Christmas sales.) You can also donate your old clothes to Goodwill.

    Plato’s Closet buys, sells and trades used clothes, and skews more toward tweens, teens and college-age, but my sister-in-law has bought nearly all of my nieces’ back-to-school clothes there since they opened in our town a couple of years ago. The girls get all the trendy stuff their friends get, at literally half the cost! There are numerous other stores (small chains and independents) that offer similar deals.

    I know that in the US, where we are enamored of the new and shiny, the stereotype of the dirty, musty thrift store with old, worn out, ugly used clothing is persistent.

    But secondhand shopping has really come a long way in the last few years, perhaps due to the recession, or perhaps because a lot of us are growing tired of the culture of greed, overconsumption and waste. Whatever the reason, I would encourage anyone looking to save money on clothes to give secondhand stores a try.

    • RoseJB

      My trick at the thrift shops is to look for the vintage pieces, rather than the nearly new. I have so many quality, wool pencil skirts that were built to last. Usually some minor tailoring is all they need to update the shape (anyone can sew a couple of straight lines!). I see similar skirts selling for $150+ new.

    • Amy

      I once got a Lucky purse for $7 at a thrift shop! I own one other Lucky bag that was a gift from my parents (and 40% off at Macy’s) because I don’t do luxury, designer bag stuff — I’m still so proud of that find. Amazing.

  • AmGi

    You get a lot of gifts for Xmas. I get none. $600 for clothes? I probably spend a couple hundred…maybe 3-400 at best. It makes me feel bad. I’m just now 24, and people my age definitely still judge me by these things. Not the nicest clothes, not the most update haircut, I don’t have a new car, etc. When I end up with big shiny earrings, heels, or some other bold object, I feel like a fool.

    I think it’s amazing that people who make more money than I do have issues with it. You can make it work. Just don’t be greedy and gluttonous. That sounds harsh, but what more is there. $142 shoes? Are you serious? What’s wrong with Payless, what’s wrong with wearing $30 boots? What’re you gonna do if you can’t buy new clothes? You have some already…gosh. I’m not taking this against the author. I’m just saying, that MOST people in the world, including many many Americans, just don’t have all the resources for this crap, but they’re struggling to have it. There is more to life than your stupid name brands. That’s just me though. Our quality of lives are gone in the name of consumerism. I thought working was a way to a better life.

    I’m done ranting now.

    • RoseJB

      I agree with you, for the most part. I’m pretty thrifty (I buy most things used) but I do love fashion and I occasionally buy new items at a discount. Where we differ is on the quality issue. I’d rather buy the $142 shoes (on sale for $60) than a pair of Payless shoes for $30. I avoid fast fashion stores like Payless and Forever 21 because most of the clothing they sell is made to be disposable. I spend more on the individual items in my wardrobe, but I choose untrendy pieces that I will love and wear for decades. So you’re right – when I don’t have cash for clothing, I can wear what I’ve already collected.

      • Lisa Joy Bates

        I’m with you. I’m very thrifty and frugal, but a good pair of shoes, well-chosen of course, especially in a good quality leather with solid soles, can last many years, then be repaired at a shoe shop for a few bucks and last many more years. You’ll find the cost of constantly replacing cheaply made shoes is very high compared to just a couple pairs of well-crafted shoes. I’m also on my feet all day and the repercussions of bad shoes are very expensive… i.e.: foot problems, knee problems, back problems, all because of trying to cheap out on a shoe purchase. I’ve tried it and found it’s really not saving me any money. But that’s just me… I know it’s not true for everyone out there!

  • NC

    I think if you used the internet a little more, you can really stretch $600. There’s always Friends and Family sales for a lot of department stores, plus free shipping. Also, I think expanding the brands you shop might help. A lot of the nicer brands go on sale more often than you think.

  • Amy

    I’m a 21-year-old college girl living in NYC, and I spend MAYBE $300 a year on clothes. I also live within a VERY small income, and live on my own, but the idea of spending $600 EVERY YEAR blows my mind. I mean, there are times when my clothes’ll run their course, I’ll donate tons of stuff, and then need a couple of things, but when I do I go places like TJ Maxx ($4 leggings!). I am all for higher-end quality items if you can afford them and live that lifestyle. But I personally try to spend as little as possible, while going with solid quality. The most expensive thing I’ve ever bought was a $80 LBD that is perfect for everything and looks great on me, as well as being the only real LBD I own. You can totally find great quality items for cheap, though, in department store sales if you just put in the time. (Burlington Coat Factory got me a great Calvin Klein sports/athletic jacket, for one, that’s high quality and fashionable; Daffy’s got me a CK leather jacket for under $100.) I’m not criticizing your lifestyle at all, do what you do, I just think that people like to argue about quality VS saving money, and I think people can do both if they’re smart.

  • rushmore

    I don’t consider anything she’s mentioned extravagant “name brands”. I actually think the brands she’s mentioned won’t last long. And they are the type of things you can find in the Salvation Army. I shop like the Europeans. Spend more for high quality items that last and buy less.

  • Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon

    The next big question is how to achieve the magic combination of keeping a clothes budget, obtaining quality pieces (even a tank top should last for more than a couple of wears!), and being ethical. The problem with most low-cost retailers is that their clothing is truly disposable, most of it is low-quality, and yet has a huge environmental cost – yet for most people, quality clothing not made in sweatshops is an unaffordable luxury. I once read that if you have the time and skills, one of the best ways to obtain quality, low-cost clothing while avoiding mass retailers is to buy stuff from the thrift stores for the fabric, and then alter it.

  • AF

    Wow this article really opened my eyes! I shop at The Limited and spend too much on clothes. I have decided this year to establish a clothing spending budget. It will be difficult but worth it! Great article.

  • Yamile Carpio

    I think the author is not getting the most out of her budget. $130 for Express jeans? They are usually around $80 and if you buy two pairs the second one is $30, so that’s $110, use a $30 off $100 coupon and you got them for $80 + tax, and that’s during regular season, if you wait for clearance you can get them for around $25 a piece.

  • JB

    Thank you for the article. I think the “world” is a more accurate descriptor for how extravagant American spending on luxuries is. Anyhow, I wish I could say that I was immune to the urge to spend . Sadly I am not. HOWEVER, I have turned over a new leaf in trying to spend the vast majority of my excessive clothing budget on environmentally friendly fabrics and retailers. I buy organic cotton, linen, and hemp, sometimes wool. I made the mistake of buying bamboo, (apparently it is heavily chemically processed). These natural fibers do not pollute waterways when they break down into tiny “micro plastics” like polyester and other synthetic fabrics do. United By Blue will actually remove one pound of plastic from a US waterway with EACH item! Rawganique doesn’t use synthetic dyes and they have a GREAT selection of items! Look for these companies, buy the right colors for you and you won’t waste nearly as much on clothes. If you have items that look fantastic on you, you won’t be looking for new ones as often. Know what you like and what looks good and it will help your budget out immensely.

  • TheSameLames

    Oh, bless your heart….you could only buy one $60 sports bra at Lululemon? Only one pair of expensive leggings? Your parents buy you new running shoes every year, even though you’re a grown, married woman and mother??? LOL!!

    • Emma

      I get what you’re saying but I don’t think it’s so crazy for her parents to buy her new running shoes every year. That sounds like a really good practical gift to me. I know people who buy their (yes adult) kids tons of cheap crap gifts that add up monetarily and would be better off spending that money (or even less!) on a single good pair of shoes. Christmases and birthdays dont end when you hit 18.