Just because you don't actually have a million bucks, that doesn't have to prevent you from looking like a million bucks.
When we’re living on a budget, we sometimes have to prioritize the things we need over the things we want. We sub Disney World vacations for close-to-home staycations and pass up dining out for cooking at home.
But what about your wardrobe? Clothing is a necessity, right? It not only protects you from the elements, but studies show that your clothing can actually affect your performance and that “dressing for success” can improve your confidence!
With the right technique and the right pieces, you can build a luxe, high-quality wardrobe that fits your lifestyle and makes you feel great without breaking the bank. All it takes is a tiny reset of expectations—like realizing that brand new isn’t always best—and a little patience.
In this post, we explore combining two popular trends in fashion—the capsule wardrobe and thrifting—to help you build a closet that helps you get where you want to go and look good doing it.
What is a capsule wardrobe?
A capsule wardrobe is the first step in building a closet on a budget. There are many different types of capsule wardrobes, according to Lauren Tingley, creator of the minimalist motherhood site Simply Well Balanced, but the basic idea is that they are “carefully selected collections of clothing items that are easy to coordinate.”
When you limit the number of pieces you own to essentials that never go out of style, they can be easily mixed and matched to create unique outfits for every occasion.
“Because a capsule wardrobe is created with the specific goal of being able to mix and match a limited number of pieces, you end up having fewer items in your closet,” says Tingley.
Of course, fewer items mean less money, and if you are careful where you source your essentials, you may even have money left for other expenses—or to invest in one or two new, high-quality seasonal pieces that will last many years, if not a lifetime.
What’s wrong with “fast-fashion?”
With the rise of fast fashion, clothing prices have plummeted, but so has quality. Although fast fashion styles look good at first, they are so poorly made that they end up falling apart quickly. This means that those old clothes end up in the landfill—the average American throws away 81 pounds of clothing a year—which can had adverse effects on both the environment and, over time, your wallet.
Think about it. Say you spend $30 on a pair of jeans that last a year, tops, before they need replacing. If you buy a high-quality pair from a reputable slow-fashion retailer for $100, you start “saving” money by year four. Even better? By a second-hand pair of high-quality jeans for savings from the start and zero additional environmental impact.
What you need to get started.
The first step is taking a look at your closet. “Start your capsule wardrobe by going through the items you own in order to create a framework for your wardrobe,” says Tingley. “It’s always easiest to start with the basics and build from there. You will most likely be surprised to see you already have most of the items.”
There are many different formulas online for what qualifies for basics, but here are some items that generally make the cut:
- dark denim
- basic tops, including long- and short-sleeve T-shirts
- knits, including sweaters and cardigans
- classic jackets and coats, such as trenches and jean jackets
- white button-down shirt
- black dress
Remember, though, you’ll only want to keep items that are of a high enough quality that you won’t need to buy another one soon. And you’ll only want to keep clothing that you love to wear! If you haven’t worn something in several months (or a year!), put it aside for selling, donation, or recycling.
Tingley also recommends that you stick to neutral colors—black, white, grey, navy, and tan—because they can be mixed and matched easily. Then you can add a couple accent colors—like purple, red, or green—to spice things up.
Un-Fancy, a popular minimalist blog, recommends a total of 37 pieces per three-month season: nine pairs of shoes, nine bottoms, 15 tops, two dresses, and two jackets/coats. Many of your basics, like T-shirts and jeans, may be included in each season’s wardrobe, but if you live in a place with summer and winter, you’ll want to swap out cooler-weather clothing for warmer-weather clothing as needed.
However, you’ll have to see what works for your lifestyle. The point is this: You can get by on many fewer individual articles of clothing—certainly less than the 80 billion new items we collectively purchase each year!
Once you know what you have and know what you need for the upcoming season, it’s time to shop. But before heading to your favorite retailer, check out your local thrift store instead.
Getting thrifty with it.
Morgan Krehbiel, owner of Morgan Krehbiel Creative, started thrifting regularly in 2017 after making a commitment to herself to “stop buying fast fashion for both budgetary reasons and environmental reasons,” noting that the clothing industry is one of our biggest polluters. “I needed a way to reconcile those concerns with my love for clothing and fashion, and the thrift store ticks all of those boxes for me.”
Thrift stores can be goldmines for the type of basics you need to fill out your capsule wardrobe without compromising on style, quality, or ethics. They are often full of older clothing, which frequently means better, longer-lasting garments. To Krehbiel, that means three things: high-quality material, sturdy construction/condition, and good fit. “I generally do not buy a garment unless it meets all three of those standards,” she says.
Before you make any purchases, consider the following:
- Materials. “I always look for natural fibers like cotton, linen, silk, and wool,” says Krehbiel. “Almost all garments, even old ones, will have a tag indicating the material composition—this tag is always the first thing I look for.” She notes that, in her experience, natural fibers are the most comfortable to wear and hold up better than synthetics over time. “There’s a reason why the thrift store is full of garments made 10, 20, 30 years ago from these materials that are still in great condition,” says Krehbiel.
- Construction/Condition. “I inspect seams, hems, zippers, and other closures to make sure nothing is falling apart,” says Krehbiel, “or, if a seam is starting to come apart but the garment is in otherwise good condition, whether it is something that can be mended.” She also recommends checking to see whether prints line up at the seams, as this is another good indicator of high-quality construction. “It seems counterintuitive, but I have found that the older a garment is, the more likely it is to be in great shape when I find it at the thrift store,” Krehbiel adds. Lastly, inspect the garment closely for stains, yellowing, snags, and tears. For tops, Krehbiel advises to always look at the armpits and neckline for yellowing and makeup stains, and for pants, to always check the bottom hems, crotch, and thighs for thinning and disintegration.
- Fit. Krehbiel warns that this is often the trickiest standard to meet, since many thrift stores do not have changing rooms, but it’s important that you look and feel good in the clothes you buy. There is no need to compromise here! Krehbiel recommends wearing “leggings and a tank when you go thrifting, in case you want to slip things on without the privacy of a dressing room.” You can also bring a piece of well-fitting clothing from home for a comparison. Krehbiel promises that your judgment of fit will likely sharpen the more you thrift!
Krehbiel recommends avoiding the thrift store if you are in a rush or during peak hours. It often takes time to search through the racks of clothes, so you want to set yourself up for success. You’ll also want to become familiar with your store’s sale schedule, as many often even steeper discounts on certain days of the week.
Lastly, don’t limit yourself to one store. If you have the option, check out several. You’ll get a sense of the type of clothing each store carries and which one best suits your needs and tastes.
The cost of a second-hand capsule wardrobe.
So how much can you actually find at the thrift store? “After a few years of serious thrifting and no new fast-fashion purchases, my wardrobe is now around 50 percent thrifted and maybe 75% secondhand,” says Krehbiel.
To give you a better sense of potential savings, Krehbiel has provided sample wardrobes and pricing from her own closet:
- five wool or cashmere sweaters: $4 each
- two warm sleeveless shells for layering: $2 each
- four long-sleeve shirts: $2-4 each
- one midi skirt: $4
- one cardigan/jacket: $4
- one blazer: $4
- one wool coat: $6-10
- one scarf: $2
- five short sleeve or sleeveless tops: $4 each
- two dresses: $4-8 each
- one pair denim shorts: $4
- one springy skirt: $4
- one lightweight cardigan or button-down: $4
- one lightweight jacket: $6
“Depending on the size of your store and how frequently they turn over their inventory, building a capsule of this scale should be doable in two to three visits,” says Krehbiel.
She advises that if you have something very specific in mind, it may take several visits before it turns up. “The great thing about thrifting is that you can always buy an almost-perfect piece to tide you over without breaking the bank,” says Krehbiel, “and then when a perfect one finally comes along, you can grab it and donate the stand-in piece back to the store—or try to sell it at a resale shop and recoup your costs.”
Both Krehbiel and Tingley recommend trying second-hand shops, either brick-and-mortar shops or online ones like Poshmark, to find specific items you can’t find at the thrift store. For example, Krehbiel has a hard time finding thrifted jeans that fit, so she tends to hit up second-hand shops that are more likely to carry brands that fit correctly.
The benefits of a second-hand capsule wardrobe.
The benefits of second-hand shopping are many. First, it’s a very ethical thing to do. We’ve already discussed some of the environmental benefits of second-hand shopping—helping to reduce the literal tons of clothing that end up in the landfill and not contributing to new garment-driven pollution—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Fast fashion also tends to exploit low-wage garment workers who frequently work in unsafe conditions, most of whom are women. By buying less and buying second-hand, you avoid participating in any of that.
A capsule wardrobe can also help simplify your life. Tingley started experimenting with a minimalist lifestyle when she was pregnant with her second child. “As a busy working mom, I was desperate to try anything to make my life easier and decided to declutter my clothes in an effort to create a ‘weekly wardrobe,’” she says.
“My closet is neat and tidy, so I can easily find what I am looking for. It makes getting dressed in the mornings quick and easy and doesn’t require much thought.”
When you think about these benefits, saving money seems like an added bonus as opposed to the primary goal. But you will save money. And what will you do with your savings? One good plan is saving it for an emergency fund.
Morgan Krehbiel is a designer and art director based in Chicago, IL. She has a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and has been working in newspaper, journal, and book design since 2010. She is passionate about sustainable consumption, particularly in the fashion industry, and is an advocate for more mindful practices at every level, from individuals to corporations and industries.
Lauren Tingley is a formerly stressed out, working teacher-mom of two who tried to “do it all” and ended up losing herself in the process. Determined to find joy in modern motherhood and family life she discovered simplifying was the answer. Now she shares her tips and tricks for moms looking to make life easier on her site Simply Well Balanced (@simplywellbalanced) where you can find ideas for easy family activities, minimalist homemaking, and simple parenting advice.
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