Budgeting for Work Clothing: What Percent of Net Income?


In 2009, Americans spent nearly $325 billion in clothing (yes, a BILLION), which, if averaged out, works out to about $1,800 per household. The way you dress in your professional life has a huge impact on the way you’re seen by others; a fashion misstep at a key moment (on a job interview, for example) can have serious repercussions. LearnVest recommends that you spend no more than 4% of your annual income on your clothing budget (the national average per household is 3.8%).

Listen up: It’s okay to shop! If you enjoy shopping, you shouldn’t feel guilty. Before you go, just do some quick math to figure out what 4% of your post-tax salary is. When you go, simply make sure that you’re choosing really great items that you’ll wear in the future—and that you don’t exceed that 4% figure, and remember that that 4% has to last you all year.

Even if you’re starting a new job with a different dress code, don’t chalk up clothing costs as a business expense. There are ways to look great for work without buying a million new pieces for your wardrobe. We spoke with L.A.-based Barbra Horowitz, the super savvy professional stylist and author of Closet Control, for her advice.

Clothing Is Not an Investment

“Our homes and retirements accounts are our investments,” says Horowitz, but shirts and shoes aren’t. Rather than buying expensive items you fantasize will last forever (they won’t), she recommends you shop regularly and slowly replace worn out basics each season, picking up just a few trendy-but-affordable pieces as you go.

Don’t Do Event Shopping

Horowitz warns that people overspend when they’re under pressure, whether it’s because they’re attending a wedding or going out of town. Instead of buying a new dress for your coworker’s wedding, could you borrow a dress from a friend? If you feel you must buy, start looking as soon as you get the invite in order to find something in your price range.

Accessories Make the Outfit, Anyway

Stretch your wardrobe with accessories. Have a few good staple items, and then make them look different on a regular basis by mixing them up with simple accessories.

Shop for the Waist Up

Horowitz counsels her clients to keep the “see level” in mind. Own two pencil skirts and two trousers, and wear them into the ground. Mix things up with jackets, shirts, jewelry, shoes, and bags.

Don’t Obsess Over Brand Names

Don’t let yourself get emotional about labels. Horowitz loves lines like Forever 21, Club Monaco, and Zara for cute, on-trend, and affordable items.

Buy for Work and Weekend

If you work in a very formal environment, this rule may not apply, but try to buy separates that work for day and evening whenever possible. You’ll feel better going out after work, and you’ll get way more bang for your buck, too.

Know That Personal Shoppers Aren’t Just for the Mega Rich

Another awesome secret: Personal shoppers at Bloomingdale’s offer an array of services for free! These salaried employees don’t work on commission, so they’re not trying to push you into buying stuff you don’t need. They can help you get new pieces and even work with items you already have in your closet to build out your wardrobe. Our friends who’ve gone this route have been extremely happy.

What’s the smartest clothing purchase you’ve made lately? Tell us in the comments section below!

  • carolinewaxler

    I got a pair of Chanel shoes at a Doctors Without Borders and supermodels charity sale. (Seriously.) A model, Kirsty Hume, donated her pair that she wore on the runway. (Great condition. Only thing wrong w them–and, actually, this was kind of cool–were the scratches put in on the bottoms, too, so she wouldn't take a tumble.) They're great, classic, and I can wear them for anything fancy I need to go to. I never, ever would have bought them retail but glad to have them. I got them for well less than $100. (This isn't a “lately” purchase but it's my best.)

  • Raanah

    a pair of $10 dark wash skinny jeans from Forever21. they fit amazingly and can be worn for the day time, at work, or for a night out on the town.

  • AZ

    Wouldn't the median expenditure per household be a lot more informative than the mean expenditure per household (assuming that by average you meant mean)? I would imagine that spending on clothing skews right, as do most expenditure and earning measures. The median is probably a fair bit lower than $1,800, and perhaps a better guide for most women.

  • kodemonki

    This is excellent advice and can be nicely paired with clothing “dieting” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/fashion/22SIX…). Do you have any recommendations for stores that'll buy back clothes? I think Plato's Closet does. Know of any others?

  • Lisa Gordon

    I went to the Barneys sample sale last fall with the sole purpose of getting work appropriate pencil skirts. I found 2 designer skirts that were amazingly well made and I wear them with everything. I bought a dark color and then another fun mustard color that seems to go with everything. I went with a budget, a focus, and determination. I agree that event sales can be a lot of pressure but come with list in hand and allowance to buy one or two unexpected items WITHIN budget.

  • Genibre

    I wouldn't say lately but one of the smartest clothing purchases I have made is a pair of skinny, dark wash jeans from Forever 21- they have lasted season upon season and cost me like $20. Another great one? A black pencil skirt from Old Navy that I have had for about five years.

  • Alexa

    i had NO clue about the personal shoppers….in fact, I would never, ever considered one without reading this!

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  • Elphadyre

    I bought a pair of Old Navy pinstripped slacks about six years ago and I am still wearing them at least once a week. I keep saying to myself that I should get rid of them but I can't seem to find a pair I like better!

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  • Anonymous

    My blog focuses on this subject. I have a monthly budget of $250/month, and I help women make the best shopping decisions (including info on sales and coupons), and show them how to re-work pieces over and over again to minimize the need for new clothes. You should always consider your own situation when making a budget though – some people who wear scrubs or uniforms to work may need less clothing $, while others who are lawyers might need more. If you are a parent, you are also sharing this budget (between 4-8% of your income) with your children!nnhttp://www.jseverydayfashion.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/AshleyVictoriaBurton Ashley Burton

    I did the math, I could be spending $280 ($7,000) on clothes guilt free, wow…and here I was feeling guilty because I replaced an old belt! Does this include shoes? I have been wearing the same Nine West hand me downs/consignment finds for years! I normally shop at Pay Less! But hey I’m debt free and often people ask me why I am so “dressed up”. I don’t really have casual clothes just work ready….

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=143700268 Kim Stiens

    I feel like people spend waaaay too much on clothing. I shop Ebay whenever possible, and I did a whole wardrobe refurb for about $200, including 3 or 4 shirts, 2 skirts, 2 dresses (my favorite pieces), three belts and some assorted jewelry. Ebay is AWESOME, you just have to be willing to spend a little extra time on looking. 

  • Duh4evr

    Does the 4% include or exclude shoes?

  • Anne

    I buy fewer, better, classic clothes rather than a closet full of cheap clothes that fall apart or fit poorly and go out of style quickly. I have them altered so they fit me beautifully.  Then I study trends for that season and add accessories and mix in bargain items to make my classics
    more trendy.   No one can tell where the good stuff ends and the
    cheap stuff begins.  One of my favorite blouses is a silk leopard print I
    got for $12 at JCPenney.  With a $400 suit it looks fantastic and
    people always compliment it.  I never tell what I paid for it- just smile mysteriously. I also play around with outrageous costume jewelry (I’ll mix a gold bracelet with bangles my kids made me) and interesting ethnic pieces, and try to dress with a sense of humor while still looking professional.
    Classics work well for me, so I get a lot of Talbots and Lands End, which can be easily dressed up or down.
     I wait for the super sales (Dec 26 for Talbots, periodic purges at the Lands End shop at Sears – sometimes 70% off) and stock up then.  I go straight for the sale rack – if it’s not on sale, it doesn’t exist.  If something looks great on me and it’s a real bargain (more than 50% off,) I buy a couple in different colors.   So I shop less often, and spend a lot when I do shop, but I this way I’ve been able to buy thousands of dollars worth of really nice clothes for a tiny fraction of their retail value.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=507576270 Suzanne Miller

    Three months ago, I scored a nice pair of pants at Anne Taylor/Loft on sale for about $20 and they had been $60! I wore them to my interview and got the job. :) I’m very happy with them.

  • Shmargi

    I stopped by the Dress Barn (which actually does have some cute stuff!) in mid June and they had a nice semi-formal dress marked way down from $75 to $30 because the fact that it was dark blue made it ‘out’ of season.’  I am wearing it to a wedding in October, and i can use a couple different shawls and matching shoes combos I already own to wear it again when needed :-)