How to Buy an Office Wardrobe on a Budget

If you just landed an office job and you already have an appropriate wardrobe (or an extra $2500 lying around to buy all new clothes) you're all set. On the other hand, if you look into your closet and only see jeans, t-shirts, and the suit you borrowed from your roommate to wear to the job interview, you have a problem. Luckily, you can quickly assemble a basic office wardrobe that won't break your bank, just by using some simple fashion tips and by shopping smart. The key is to assemble a wardrobe that you can wear every week without it being obvious that you only have one week's worth of clothes.


  1. Image titled Buy an Office Wardrobe on a Budget Step 1
    Get larger pieces (pants, skirts, and jackets) in neutral colors that mix and match. Neutral colors -- black, navy blue, gray, tan (or taupe or camel), cream, white -- work best, as they not only mix with each other, they don't stand out so you can wear them repeatedly and not make it obvious that you're wearing the same thing. (Navy blue isn't technically a "neutral" according to color theory, but it blends so well it's effectively one when it comes to fashion.) Remember that five well-chosen shirts combined with two pairs of pants will give you ten combinations, but two outfits that don't go with anything else will only give you two combinations. Here are some suggestions you can aim for:
    • Men: 3-4 jackets, 3-4 pair pants, 5 button-front shirts, 5 pair dress socks, 3-4 ties, 2 pair of shoes.
    • Women: 2-4 jackets, 3-4 skirts, 5 tops (button-front shirts or solid-color knit tops), 2 twin sets (matching tank and cardigan), 5 pairs dress socks and/or pantyhose, 2 pair of shoes (low heels, or flats if you can't wear heels at all).
    • Consider suits. People often assume suits will be more expensive than buying separates, but you often get a jacket and skirt for less money than if you bought them separately. Suits in solid colors or with subtle patterns are best for splitting up and using each half separately.
    • Shoes should be comfortable and well-fitting, preferably leather. Even if you buy your shoes in a thrift shop, look for pairs that appear to be hardly worn, as shoes do mold themselves to the wearer's feet and your foot is different! Don't try to squeeze into a pair that doesn't fit. Better sources for shoes would be the larger discount shoe stores or outlet malls. Also look for sales circulars from the department stores in your area -- often bargains can be had. If you know you consistently can find shoes in your size that are comfortable, online retailers or auction sites can be a good resource -- but make note of their return policies and the hassle involved if you need to do that.

      • Shoes for women: If you can only start with one pair of shoes to go with everything, choose black. For your second pair, choose a color that will go with more of your wardrobe. If you have a good deal of blacks, whites, greys, blues, pinks, and reds, navy shoes would be a good choice. If you tend to have more earth colors, such as beige, brown, tan, yellow, green, and orange, look for tan or dark brown shoes. Do not dismiss the importance of avoiding very high heels in the office -- remember, you will be wearing them for at least seven hours or more, and may have a job which entails getting up from your desk and walking to many locations in the office. Shoes with heels over 2 inches (5.1 cm) high will likely feel very uncomfortable at day's end. Neutral beige hose works best with all color shoes - avoid white, dark "suntan," very shiny hose, and tights.
      • Shoes for men: As for men, black is the color to choose if you can only start with one pair of shoes. For your second pair, dark brown or oxblood (a dark burgundy or maroon) is recommended. Navy is usually not an option for men. Dress shoes for men should be simple, with 4 or 5 holes for laces and no design or contrasting trim that stands out. Dress loafers or dress boots can also work if very plain leather. Socks should be black or dark brown (small patterns are acceptable). Don't wear work boots, hiking shoes, or white athletic socks to the office.
  2. Image titled Buy an Office Wardrobe on a Budget Step 2
    Get accent pieces in coordinating colors. If you stick with neutrals for the big stuff, you'll have a wide range of coordinating colors to choose from for shirts and ties. Know which colors complement your skin tone. Avoid having too many neutrals, and stock up on solid colors, as distinct patterns are more likely to stand out (thus allowing people to notice that you're wearing the same thing again) and they're more difficult to mix and match. If you do prefer patterns, look for understated or muted colors, and smaller scale patterns that will not be bold and as memorable, but will coordinate with many of the other items in your closet (example: the black and white skirt shown in the introduction can work well with black, white, grays and many other colors).
  3. Image titled Buy an Office Wardrobe on a Budget Step 3
    Look hard in your closet for anything you might turn into office material. Maybe you have a nice white button-front that just needs ironing, or a pair of shoes that would look like new with a coat of polish.
  4. Image titled Buy an Office Wardrobe on a Budget Step 4
    Ask friends and family if they have office wear they're not using that they can give you, or at least lend you until your next paycheck. There are some charities in big cities that help lower-income folks dress for success. To find them, search online or if you're in college, ask your career counselor or maybe even someone in the business school.
  5. Image titled Buy an Office Wardrobe on a Budget Step 5
    Make a list of what you need before you go shopping. You probably have a limited amount of time to shop as well as a limited budget, so start with the lowest-price stores first, but focus only on what you're likely to find at that kind of store. If a particular kind of store listed below isn't in your area, skip it rather than taking a long trip (both gas and your time are expensive!) Stick to your shopping list, and be ruthless about quality and usability. If it's a beautiful jacket that doesn't go with anything else, it's not a bargain.
    • Thrift stores (e.g. Goodwill, The Salvation Army): Go to the ones in nicer neighborhoods, as rich people throw away better stuff. Look for jackets, pants, skirts, and button-fronts, as these are more likely to show up at the thrift store still in good shape. Be aware of what's repairable and what's not. (See Tip on repairs). Avoid buying used shoes.
    • Consignment shops: These usually have nicer stuff and more helpful staff than thrift stores. Look for the same sorts of things as you did in thrift stores. Call before you go there to find out if they have a good selection of office wear -- some shops specialize in it and others avoid it altogether.
    • Discount retailers (Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target) and Mid-level department stores (Sears, JC Penney): Buy your dress socks and/or pantyhose, possibly your shoes and tie here. Take a look at the shirts; look for machine-washable natural-fiber shirts and tops. The jackets/pants/skirts at the discounters may look nice but they are not usually made to last. The mid-level stores usually have big clearance racks where you can find good-quality stuff, but skip the overpriced stuff in the front of the store.
    • Off-price retailers (TJ Maxx, Filene's Basement, Marshall's): This is where you find the designer stuff that department stores couldn't sell. Luckily, last year's classic suit looks pretty much like this year's classic suit. This isn't cheap (expect to spend $150 to $250 for a suit) but if you've been unlucky at the consignment stores and clearance racks, it's still cheaper than paying full price at a department store.
    • Budget Online Marketplaces (, Fashion Circus): These online fashion sites have great fashionable items from people who are looking to recycle their closet. Let their outcasts be your treasures! These sites are better than consignment shops because you're being eco-friendly in shopping online AND you're helping out the sellers in that they don't have to split their profits with consignors.
  6. Image titled Buy an Office Wardrobe on a Budget Step 6
    Know that you are done shopping! While you may have spent what seems like a lot of money, you will have picked up a wardrobe that will last, and that you can expand on easily by buying additional pieces when you have a little extra cash. Care for your clothes well, and they'll turn out to be a great investment in your career.


  • Jackets and blazers will be more costly than other items in your wardrobe. A black blazer is an essential part of any career woman's wardrobe. Look for an all season fabric.
  • Gauge how formal your new office is before you buy clothes. Some offices have adopted a "business casual" standard of dress or at least casual Fridays. Look at what others are wearing. It's possible that your work wardrobe can be a dress shirt and khakis or a skirt without a tie or jacket. If this is the case, have a couple of jackets and ties that you can use to dress up your basics and save yourself the full cost of obtaining or maintaining a professional wardrobe. As you get to know the job, you'll also get to know how it's appropriate to express your personality in your wardrobe, and how it's not.
  • When trying on career clothing, be especially sure that it fits you when you are seated. There is a good chance you will be spending much of your time at a desk, and you should spend that time comfortable, not fighting with trousers that pinch when you sit a certain way.
  • Ladies can still achieve a suited look by adding a tailored looking cardigan or sweater jacket to a top. This is a way to add more layering pieces without the expense of an extra blazer. Don't go for the cropped style or anything too large. A tailored look is best.
  • If you live in an area where your work wardrobe must span more than one season, you may need to double the amount of jackets to buy - perhaps two in a lightweight fabric and two in heavier weight. Or look for versatile "summer weight" wool which can work year-round. The same goes for slacks or skirts - it would look odd to wear a wool jacket in winter with a summery cotton skirt. Start by buying for the season you need right now as you start the job, and after a few paychecks you can begin to accumulate what you need for the coming season. Think about year-round wear when you purchase tops to wear underneath jackets or sweaters.
  • Don't assume that casual Friday attire is the same in every office. Ask your boss for specific attire examples before you dress down for your casual Friday. You may be better off maintaining your usual professional dress code on Fridays for several weeks. Not only will you appear more professional and tailored but it will give you a chance to see the casual Friday wardrobe on your co-workers and get a better idea for what is and isn't appropriate.
  • Invest in a good neutral shoe polish and buffing cloth or brush, or an all-in-one shoe shine kit with buffing sponge. There are inexpensive ones out there. Employers and managers do notice if your shoes are scuffed or worn. Taking care of your wardrobe is a way of telling them how much you care about your job as well. Polishing your shoes each day before you leave for work should become part of your regular routine (women often overlook this, but shouldn't).
  • Tailoring is one of the least expensive personal services on the market today. For men especially, having a thrift store suit altered to your size at a local dry cleaner makes great sense. For example, this author had a $600 Brooks Brothers suit purchased for $12 altered for $60. A $72 suit is still pretty close to paying retail, but the custom tailoring makes the suit extra fine.
  • Keep one or two professional outfits on hand for formal occasions (interviews, gatherings, meetings with customers, appearing in court or city hall) even if your office is casual or you don't currently work in a setting that requires them. Store them in a breathable garment bag so that they don't gather dust. Those same couple of outfits could keep you going for a few days if you do get an office job.
  • While you should carefully inspect second-hand garments (those from thrift stores, garage sales, and the like) for stains and damage, remember that plenty of people discard professional wardrobes for good reasons, too. They may have retired, moved to a more casual job, gained or lost weight, or simply decided that an item wasn't their style or pace.
  • If you carry a purse, choose one that is professional. Basic black, gray, or tan can be made to go with just about anything. Steer clear of loud colors, busy prints, and dangling decorations like tassels and sequins. Remember, it doesn't need to be expensive to look good.
  • If you'll be carrying items back and forth to work, carry a briefcase. They're a much more professional accessory than a purse or gym bag, even if you carry the same things.
  • Scarves in accent colors and fun patterns can spiff up a mostly solid colored wardrobe, and can be found at very reasonable prices.
  • If you notice something wrong with a garment at a higher-priced retailer, ask if they'd consider giving you any kind of discount for it. What harm can a little bit of haggling do?
  • Keep track of what outfits you wear and who you see in each outfit. This will help you to extend your wardrobe. A great online tool is My Clothing Calendar (
  • For women, twin sets (sleeveless shell and matching cardigan) are quite acceptable in most office situations, instead of a blouse and jacket. The shell from the twin set can be worn under a jacket as well. Avoid one that has spaghetti straps - your bra straps should not be hanging out at the office. Look for twin sets that can mix and match with your wardrobe. Two twin sets can go far - find one in a neutral and the other in a brighter accent color. Solids work best but a subtle stripe or trim on a twin set can dress up the look. To save money, try to find twin sets that you can launder by hand rather than dry clean.
  • 3 skirts
  • Always think about items you have on hand that can be combined with your new wardrobe pieces to extend your work wardrobe options. That cute top may not be appropriate for the office but may look nice under a black blazer with a set of pearls.
  • 2 blouses
  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 1 coat
  • 2 jackets
  • Don't forget about eBay. You can get a lot of great professional clothes here, plus you don't have to run around nearly as much--your purchases come to you. Decide beforehand exactly what you want to spend, though, and factor in postage, or it can get expensive quickly.
  • 1 T-shirt
  • Scour the deep discount and clearance racks in your local department stores. You may be able to find suit separates that will work with your neutral wardrobe pieces. The clearance rack is also an excellent place to find costume jewelry pieces to pull a neutral wardrobe together. Also look for early bird sales and extra percentage off signs for even more savings.
  • 2 tops
  • A bit of well-chosen jewelry can accent a professional wardrobe. It does NOT need to be expensive. This necklace was found at a thrift store for $6 and the shiny stone is probably a piece of abalone shell. Still, it adds a nice bit of sparkle and elegance. Don't overdo it on jewelry and accessories for the office.
  • Some items that have enduring power include: Long sleeved long sweaters that are thick that you can wear a few times without washing; stockings you can hand wash; boots that are high quality; a few washable coats for winter.


Here's a case study of a woman's wardrobe that was purchased for $1,000 in Oakland, CA (including alterations, but not including sales tax):[1]

  • 4 shoes
  • 1 pair of pants
  • Repairs: When buying used clothes, assume a small rip or tear can be repaired, either by you or cheaply at a tailor (look for a dry-cleaner that does alterations). A frayed collar or cuff is not cheaply repairable. You can un-pill knit fabrics or ties with a razor, but the pills will show up again. Stains on thrift-store clothes are usually permanent -- the original owner couldn't get the stain out so they threw it away. If you have a nice pair of shoes that looks fine but the sole is worn out, bring it to a shoe repair - it is often less expensive to replace a sole than to buy a new pair of shoes. Regularly replacing the heel and toe savers on bottom will help keep them from wearing out.
  • 3 belts
  • You'll probably have to get dry-clean-only jackets, as the good, durable ones are usually wool or polyester. Same deal for pants and skirts, though there are also nice ones in heavy cotton. Buy machine-washable shirts and tops as a) you can iron them to crispness, which makes them look more expensive, and b) to cut down on your dry-cleaning bill. You can also save money by using home dry-cleaning systems.

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles | Budget Fashion | Creating Fashion Wardrobes