Closet 101 Money Style

Reader Letter: A Closet on a Budget

A few weeks ago, a very sweet reader Barbara sent me this message (paraphrased a bit for length):

I always enjoy reading your blog and I love the fact you are so ” down to earth” about fashion & shopping.

Your shopping advice  is always very useful and I was hoping that in the future you could do another one of those posts specifically for… low budget? Which brands and items would you consider as good buys for the future, good alternatives?

Barbara’s email really got me thinking about some of the best values in my closet, and what lessons I might glean from all of my many, many mistakes in the past. There were a bunch (believe me!) and today I wanted to share three of my personal tips/learnings about building a great closet on a budget – where to save, where to spend, and some of my favorite brands.

Save: on evening wear and cocktail dresses. I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite items to peruse when browsing through luxury racks are the dresses. I sweep right past all those neutral cashmere Akris shells on to the excellent satin sheaths, the sequined slip dresses, the printed A-lines. Unfortunately, cocktail dresses and gowns get probably the least wear in my closet. And, they are never as versatile as I think they’ll be. I have TWO white Temperley dresses that I adore but that sit dormant whenever there’s a wedding (same goes for the bandage dresses). There are gowns that are too formal for whatever event, dresses that aren’t formal enough, and the list goes on.

And, some of my favorite dresses have cost less than $100, and some less than $50. One of my most complimented dresses ever is a little black slip dress from ASOS that one of my most hawk eyed, Hermes croc toting friends thought was Dior. Yes it was kind of dark and there were a few drinks involved, but STILL. Dior! And I’ve worn it probably five times so far, which is actually a lot in the life of a cocktail dress for me – bringing the cost down to something like $10 per wear. A $2000 Pucci dress, as fabulous as it may be, is going to take a heck of a lot of wears to get it down to something like even $50 per wear. And by that time you may be sick of it.

A few recommended go to places for dresses (note that you still need to exhibit taste when selecting…a mantra not limited to cheap dresses): ASOS, Banana Republic (bringing a hem up can do miracles), Adriana Papell, and Ann Taylor.

Corso Como pumps, from this post

Spend: on shoes first, before bags. When I say spend on shoes, I don’t mean necessarily Louboutins or Manolo Blahniks. I just mean good, comfortable and reasonably sturdy shoes that in most cases should hopefully be made with and lined with leather. A fabulous pair of shoes, like a fabulous bag, will last you YEARS. And if you time a sale right, you’ll spend under $100.

Some of my favorite shoe brands that are well priced: Corso Como, Ann Taylor, Cole Haan, Nine West, Franco Sarto (thanks Irina!)- and all five go on sale. But please go to a local DSW, Nordstrom Rack, and try on lots of brands and styles, and see what you like.

Why spend on shoes vs. bags? A cheap, ill fitting pair of shoes will be murder on your feet for hours and will give you blisters. A cheaper bag might be bad for your style ego, but it isn’t going to give you pain. And there are so many fabulous “cheaper” bag brands out there. Especially in Europe I just love walking around and finding random no name bags from shops. I’d recommend again going for all leather styles generally.

Some of my favorite reasonably priced bag brands: J.Crew, Longchamp, Kate Spade. If you want to spend a little more (but not exhorbitant amounts) I really like Coach’s Legacy line, and Furla.

Always check fabric content

Be selective: with sweaters and knits. I’ve mentioned before how much I love my sweaters. They’re so comfortable, and so easy to throw on on a cold morning and just head out the door. The right ones will fall beautifully on you and always add something extra to your outfit. And, you can wear them for years…..

….only if they are made out of good fabrics. OK? Please, if you see a sweater and it says 100% acrylic or something else synthetic, put it down. Even if it’s on super sale (well all right, maybe if it’s like $5 and you really like it). But honestly synthetic knits are never good. I’ve never had a good experience with one.  And I know that all the super cute sweaters that are cheap out there are usually all acrylic (I’m looking at you, ASOS! Why is anything you produce with awesome cats on it, ACRYLIC!). But stay away. Find something with natural fibers, that fits you well, that’s still either a classic design, or cut, or color, and you’ll wear it all the time.

My favorite places to find affordable sweaters and knits: J.Crew (on sale), Zara (check the fabric content though!), L.L. Bean (for preppy styles that more affordable than J.Crew, with fabulous customer service), and Gap. I get tons of compliments on my Gap sweaters.


All right that’s it for today – my three pieces of advice for shopping on a budget, while still trying to make smart buys that’ll last you for a while. I’ll write about my essential pieces to “invest” in next…but for now, please share some of your best advice for maximizing your shopping budget. I would love to hear them!

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  • Anouka
    December 14, 2012 at 7:19 am

    Very good advice. I agree that it’s important to invest in good shoes. I’m already looking forward to your next post. xo


  • adele
    December 14, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Great shopping advice Katherine!
    Have a wonderful weekend Hun xoxo

  • Aesthetic Alterations
    December 14, 2012 at 7:56 am

    My budget trick is a two-step one:

    First, through much window shopping and trying things on, decide on a handful of labels that work for you due to quality and shape. These might have to be things a person “invests a little in” one or two times to make sure.

    Second, scour eBay and consignment shops ONLY for those pieces. Very, very little holds a high resale value, so second-hand is great (as few people in America really wear all their clothes and shoes).

    I have a small, but solid wardrobe after a couple of years acquiring pieces on these two principles.

    Third: I give a thumbs-up to spending money for shoes. I wince every time I made an investment pair, but I’m happy when I wear them.

    Fourth: I was happy to learn this year that Uniqlo makes better jeans for me—and for really cheap—than the designer jeans I was getting. Uniqlo is a fantastic source for the budget shopper.

    • Katherine
      December 14, 2012 at 12:05 pm

      You make a very good point about resale value. I would buy all my clothing second hand if I could but I rarely buy very pricey labels so am lazy and just buy in shop. I think if you are going to keep it forever it is OK to buy retail but when you are still forming your style it’s better to experiment and not pay full price..

  • Diva In Me
    December 14, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Good post! I like all your tips and I totally emphasize on the shoes before bag. I also think it is very important to get a comfortable pair of shoe.

  • NewPetite
    December 14, 2012 at 9:36 am

    That’s a very informative post! Very true about the shoes part. I once bought a cheap pair just coz it looked good and it fit and totally forgot to even consider the comfort factor. The one and only time I wore it, it almost sucked the life out of me ! That is when I learnt my lesson!

    • Katherine
      December 14, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      I’ve had that happen to me too 🙂

  • Dovey
    December 14, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Hi Katherine,

    I loved this post and thought you detailed everything so nicely! I need to revamp my wardrobe and it’s nice to have concrete rules to wrap my head around. It’s great that a lot of the brands you mentioned are well-loved and accessible ones too.

  • Ammu
    December 14, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Great post!
    My advice would to be to buy cheap when you are experimenting in yout teens and twenties and upgrade to better, reliable labels once you have a sense of the silhouettes that work for you. Vince makes great basics and wool dresses, DVF is good for dresses too. Brooks Brothers shirts last for ages. Levi’s is still my favourite jeans label. Chloe and Marc by Marc Jacobs go great shoes. And to begin with, stick to neutral colours (gray, black, navy, olive, brown). For bags, Michael Michael Kors and Clare Vivier offer great value for money.

    • Katherine
      December 14, 2012 at 12:02 pm

      Oh I love Levi’s for jeans too (though they don’t fit me correctly ) – I buy them for my husband. Another big fan of Vince here!

  • KarenP
    December 14, 2012 at 10:27 am

    My advice is that you need much less than you think. Most people don’t wear what they have and keep buying. Look critically at your lifestyle and the climate you live in and buy for that ! There is no need to have a huge wardrobe at your disposal. Once you have decided what you need buy the best quality you can and look after it. A couple of pairs of wonderful shoes are better than 10 cheap pairs. Likewise a quality coat or jacket (bought in a sale preferably) should last a long time.

    • Katherine
      December 14, 2012 at 4:11 pm

      That is a great point and I myself have been trying to buy less lately. I have a rough draft post written about it but need to finish it..sounds like you’ve accomplished a balanced and minimalist wardrobe Karen!

  • Irina
    December 14, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Good morning! I agree with everything except J.Crew sweaters. Even on sale, the quality on everything (even tshirts ) went down so badly that it’s not worth it anymore. I love Wendy B. cashmere sweaters that are (at least WERE since i bought last ones probably 3 or 4 years ago and they still look almost new) very affordable, and of great quality. And for affordable shoes I go to Franco Sarto ( leather ones are made in Brazil) – cute styles, super comfortable for me, and again, very affordable. I do splurge on silk camisoles and underwear when i come across good ones:)

    • Katherine
      December 14, 2012 at 11:59 am

      Oh I’ve had some mixed experiences with J.Crew sweaters too – I will share in a later post 🙂 Franco Sarto is a great suggestion! I’ve had great experiences with their shoes. Thank you Irina – I will add to the post 🙂

      • Irina
        May 6, 2013 at 12:56 pm

        Ok, i just found the greatest shoes ever, and I must share – I might be the last one who never heard of them before but in any case – Miz Mooz:) Leather in and out, extremely comfy and great styles ( think Dita goes to the beach:)) Love them!

        • Katherine
          May 6, 2013 at 3:13 pm

          Hi Irina, I looked up Miz Mooz and they have some great designs and awesome price points too! Love that they are lined with leather…I will have to go check out their shoes more in depth later 🙂

          • Irina
            May 6, 2013 at 8:34 pm

            I already have 2 pairs and ppl at work keep asking me what they are:) They’re so very comfortable! I’m glad I might be useful too:)

  • Jessy
    December 14, 2012 at 10:56 am

    GREAT advice, Katherine. I agree with all of your points and always tell my friends they should invest more in their shoes. As much as I’d like to follow your last piece of advice, I always seem to get sucked into the dirt cheap deals online. I’d like to think that I’ve been getting better lately…selecting only “classic”, quality pieces that I know will get lots of wear throughout the years.

    • Katherine
      December 14, 2012 at 11:58 am

      Thanks Jessy! Nothing wrong with a dirt cheap deal 🙂

  • Lindsay
    December 14, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Thank you for this post! As someone on a budget, it’s a lifesaver. It’s interesting you say shoes over bags though. I guess I’m too much of a bag snob to take a hit in that department. I would also love if you have any recommendations on pointy toe flats. I just can’t do the typical ballet flat. Any suggestions would be super, super helpful!

  • DSK Steph
    December 14, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    You give some of the most awesome fashion advice ever!! I love your blog Feather Factor so much because you don’t make talking about Chanel and Hermes seem “snobby.” 🙂 Your blog gives women an amazing place to appreciate fashion together!

    • Katherine
      December 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      Oh thank you Steph you are too kind..thank you for your sweet comments and for being one of those amazing women who appreciates fashion!

  • Ella Pretty Blog
    December 14, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    Loved reading this post – especially your advice to not spend as much on evening wear…it reminds me of the advice to buy for your real life not your imaginary life (where we attend formal parties every evening LOL!)

    When it comes to my wardrobe spending, I only splurge on bags. For everything else – I focus on fit rather than what type of store it is. For example – my favorite jeans and sweaters come from an American Eagle-type Canadian store. I don’t buy their trendy/teen clothes – but their classic jeans and plain sweaters are SUCH amazing staples. For some reason, the fit of that store is made for my body type.

    For shoes – I only go for comfort…I don’t like spending too much on shoes as I don’t want to worry about getting them damaged or dirty. But if I find a comfortable designer shoes at a discount (like at Winners/Marshalls) then I buy without guilt.

    I spend money on items that get used a lot (outerwear, bags, wallets/keyholders) but only if I’m sure I’ll use the item rather than keep it in storage and worry about it getting spoiled.

  • Prêt à Porter P
    December 14, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    I agree acrylic is to be avoided. I have polyester sweater from F21 that pilled immediately, but for some reason the pills add “charm.” And usu this thing would bother me…who knows…
    I second AA but looking at preferred brands on the secondhand market, and Ammu about going cheap when experimenting. Also Loehmann’s is good for getting brands like Theory on discount. Also I’ve been surprised by what I’ve seen @ TJ Maxx (Bottega Venetta, YSL, Fendi, Tods, Chloe…)

    Shoes: Michael Kors lines, Kenneth Cole New York/Collection, Boutique 9, J. Crew.
    Bags: Furla, Kenneth Cole New York, Michael Kors lines, Banana Republic.
    Sweaters: Gap, Uniqlo, Club Monaco, All Saints, Brooks Brothers (try their outlets too) I live in my BB sweaters for work
    Shirts: Brooks Brothers (outlets carry the same non-irons for significantly less and they always have really good sales)
    Tees: Gap or Target
    Pants/Tailored Clothing: Zara, Mango
    Jeans: I’m not particularly brand loyal to anyone. Loehmann’s, Nordstrom’s Rack are good for J.Brand, 7FAMK, and on the 2ndhand market: Plato’s Closet always have a lot of jeans.

    • Katherine
      December 16, 2012 at 9:33 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I’ve heard great things about Boutique 9 and have been thinking about trying them out – do you have their classic pumps?

      • Prêt à Porter P
        December 17, 2012 at 4:31 am

        no, just their combat boots. One in black, the other in cream.

  • audrinajulia
    December 16, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Hi Katherine! Thanks for all the tips as usual and I’m also thanking your email sender for this informative post. ( always! )

    I was intrigued by the word you’ve use that shoes first before bags, and delighted about your explanation in the long run. Love the first photo, so elegant.


  • Marlene @ chocolatecookiesandcandies
    December 17, 2012 at 3:11 am

    Katherine, I love this post! I honestly couldn’t agree more with your comments. The first thing I check when it comes to sweaters would be the fabric content. I was lucky to find a few from Asos and Mango which are made of 100% cotton for less than £25. Like you’ve said, friends thought they came from high end designer brands.

    I have a very low pain threshold for shoes. I’ve worn a pair of Jimmy Choo strappy heels and by the end of the night, I was ready to cry. It doesn’t matter how much they cost, shoes have to be comfortable. I’ve been lucky enough to nab designer brands for no more than the price of Asos clothes. I guess it’s a matter of choosing carefully.

  • latkesanddimsum
    December 17, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    Totally agree with you re: acrylic (and other synthetics) in sweaters. ICK!

  • Chic 'n Cheap Living
    December 18, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Uniqlo is a favorite, affordable retailer that produces quality clothing. They now offer online retail in dozens more colors than they do in stores so one can be very tempted to buy a cashmere sweater or two.

    I like to compare online and offline sales. Sometimes one can get better prices online because of the cashback through sites like Mr. Rebates or Ebates. It is also great to be able to return things easily too. Try them out at home and return if it doesn’t fit well. I just posted about Lyst today which is great for tracking price drops as well.

    The resale market (TPF marketplace, Ebay, consignment stores) offer a treasure trove of classics. My rule is to buy pieces that are classic but fit with my personality. I have a few more tips, but those are the big ones!

    Chic ‘n Cheap Living

    • Katherine
      December 18, 2012 at 10:35 am

      Uniqlo is a great tip, they just opened up online shopping in the US too 🙂

  • Grace
    December 18, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Thank you so much for this post Katherine. I haven’t been shopping since I moved to Paris and since January sale is about to come on soon, I’d really like to build my basic wardrobe. I just knew I had to go through your posts to get the right advise! And Barbara is so right, I love your blog because you are so down to earth. xoxoxo

    • Katherine
      December 18, 2012 at 10:35 am

      Oh thank you Grace 🙂 And I’m so jealous that you are shopping the Paris sales!

  • susie
    December 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    It’s funny that I’m wearing a mint green Gap sweater today and got several compliments on it too! They come in great colors!

  • Rola
    December 29, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    I haven’t tried Corso Como shoes, the pumps are so cute. Great tips! I agree with your sweater tips.

  • Youssy
    September 15, 2013 at 8:12 am

    Hi! love all your advices and totally agree with everything. Time to go shopping!