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Building your Workwear Wardrobe on a Budget

Starting work, I realized there were a lot of pieces I couldn’t wear anymore.

I love clothes. I could shop endlessly and I never get tired of looking for new things to wear. It’s an issue I have recognized and am working to improve- but when I started work, I realized that getting a new wardrobe wasn’t something I really wanted to do… I had to do it. I can’t go into the office wearing leggings and a t-shirt.

Luckily, I had a few co-op terms while in university and had accumulated a few business-appropriate pieces. But I didn’t have nearly enough to keep me going for the rest of my life. So I set out to shop and dress like an adult. It was a task that I soon learned, could easily cost me an arm and a leg.

So from my experiences, I thought I’d put together a little list of some of the ways you can accumulate a stylish workwear wardrobe while on a budget.

1. Stick to cheaper staple pieces

There are just some items that everyone should have in their closet. This includes a few basic t-shirts, camis, basic button-down dress shirts and simple bodycon dresses. These pieces can be dressed up or down and often look great, regardless of whether you dropped an entire pay cheque on them or got them for a steal.

Because they’re so simple, there’s no harm in going for the cheaper option. As a young adult, I feel foolish getting a basic t-shirt for anything more than $20 and would much rather get these items at Forever21 than Aritzia. Maybe this will change with age and as my income grows, but for now, I’ll stick with the cheaper option.

Having a couple of these staples at the ready will make picking an outfit super easy, as you can just pair a cami with a pair of dress pants and a nice blazer on top. You look well put together, even though that cami cost you $7.50. It is not the focal point of the outfit, so why spend a fortune on it?

Picking up a few of these camisoles will do you a world of good and can be used for all kinds of layering- from blazers, to cardigans, to light sweaters. The same goes for simple t-shirts. I would recommend picking up a few in a bunch of basic colours.


You might also want to get yourself a few basic cardigans (like this) to layer on top of fancier dress-shirts and blouses. These are great for keeping you warm when the office turns into a freezer during the dead of winter and allows you to mix up your outfits a bit.

Simple bodycon dresses (like this one) can also be purchased at a lower price point. So long as you pair them with a nicer blazer and some professional heels, no one would know the difference. Just make sure to buy a dress that is an appropriate length and doesn’t show cleavage.

By purchasing staple pieces at a lower price, it allows you to buy a few more of them and mix and match them with your fewer expensive pieces. That way, you never feel like you’re repeating the same outfits and you have money left for rent.

2. Create a capsule wardrobe

It’s very easy to jump onto the latest trend. We all want the latest items and whatever if huge on Instagram for the season must get into our closets NOW.

But the problem with these trendy “street-style” pieces, is that within a few years, they look outdated. Capsule wardrobes are composed of items that will never age and will always be considered stylish. So you can feel good about wearing these pieces for years to come.

You never want to invest in something that is going to be deemed out-of-style within a few years. This will cause you to constantly have to revamp your entire wardrobe and is the biggest issue today with fast fashion. In the end, our landfills are filled with barely-used clothes and your bank account is at an all time low.

So do yourself a favour and stick with timeless basics. These items tend to never go out of trend and will look amazing for a long time, so long as you take care of them.

Here are some signs that an item is a trend and shouldn’t be included in your capsule wardrobe:

  • The style appeared on the runway recently, and now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon- Fashion Weeks are a major time for new styles and trends to appear and if everyone is suddenly deciding that chunky dad sneakers are in, they’ll probably be out again in a few years.
  • Fast fashion outlets have suddenly devoted an entire section of their store to this trend- If you walk in and see that a quarter of the store has moved to holographic unicorn prints, then stay far away, because these will look stupid in a few months (correction: even stupider than they do now).
  • Street-style bloggers and Instragramers all have it- You ever noticed how everyone is wearing fanny packs again? It won’t be considered cool for much longer, so don’t even bother.

3. Splurge on a few major pieces

There are a few items that you should never cheap out on. You’re just asking for these pieces to break and then you’ll just have to spend more money replacing them. Or if they’re fancier items, you risk purchasing a low-end item that just looks cheap. When it comes to workwear, you never want to look unprofessional and half put-together, so investing some money into the bigger ticket items will ensure you look amazing.

Here are a few things you should spend more money on:

  • Shoes- There is nothing worse than cheap shoes. They feel bad, they look bad and they will likely breakdown after one season. Investing in one good pair of black shoes will serve you for a long time and will ensure that you look professional. This applies not only to heels, but also to a nice pair of patent flats.
  • Blazers- I’m not saying you need a closet full of various expensive blazers, but at least pick up one decent blazer that is tailored to you and looks great. This is a huge staple piece and often becomes the focal point of your outfit, so investing more money into this item will benefit you in the long run.
  • Dress pants or dress skirts- Everyone needs at least one pair of dress pants and a sensible dress skirt for work. Having one of each will give you lots of options for both winter and summer. Not to mention, you’ll look far more put together at a meeting than if you show up in black jeans.

4. Hit up your parent’s or older siblings’ closet

When you’re just starting out, it can be daunting to go out and buy an entire workwear wardrobe. So don’t.

Talk to the people in your lives who have been there and already own these items. If your sibling is around the same size as you, you can always raid their closet and borrow a few pieces until you save up enough to get your own. Your parents can also provide you with a few staples to get you going before you have an idea of what you can afford for yourself. This might also be a good way to hint to those in your life that you’re in dire need of work clothes, and if Christmas is close, you’re in for a treat!

Take a note on the kinds of things they buy and tend to wear to work often. This will give you an idea of what you actually need to purchase, compared to what you think you might need to buy.

5. Get some ideas from people who have been in your shoes

I’m not saying discussing wardrobes is something you should do while networking, but asking your fellow colleagues or friends in co-op what they buy or wear to work can be very helpful.

Especially if you’re young, still in school or just about to graduate, contact some people you know who have recently entered the workforce or have had some co-op terms while in school. They can give you an idea of what people in your industry are likely to wear and how much this may cost you.

Not only should you ask them what they tend to wear and how much this ends up costing them, ask them where they get their clothes from. This might give you an idea of where you, as a young adult, can go shop for professional workwear that won’t make you look twice your age. The worst thing about work clothes is the potential of looking like an old person. You should still feel comfortable and stylish in what you wear to work everyday.

6. Second-hand is your friend

If your budget doesn’t allow for brand new clothes, then it might be time to look for more cost-effective avenues.

If the Value Village in your area tends to carry nicer brands and great quality items, than this would obviously be the best bang for your buck.

There is also Plato’s Closet, which is known for buying back used clothes, so long as it meets their strict criteria. That means what you’re purchasing is usually a decent brand and is in good quality.

The great thing about these buy-back clothing stores, is you can bring in the casual pieces you no longer can wear everyday, and use the money from these items to buy work-appropriate clothes.

If you live in a major metropolitan area, there are a lot of trendy and fun thrift stores to choose from. Buying from these stores will leave you feeling on-trend, while your bank account is still thriving.

7. Start early

The worst thing you can do is put off buying workwear to the last minute. This leaves you having to buy all of your clothes at once, or forces you to show up to work underdressed.

There is nothing worse than showing up on your first day of work, looking like you either don’t understand what a professional environment is, or you just don’t care about making a good first impression. Dressing for a success is a real thing- so start your new job prepared with the right clothing.

If you know you’re going to be entering the workforce after graduation, take the time to start shopping for a workwear wardrobe before you even graduate. Pick up a few pieces here and there when you find something you like or if you spot something on a great sale. Having all of this time allows you to find things you’ll actually wear in the long run and not have to settle for something overpriced.

By starting early, you take some of the stress out of starting a new job. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll still look like you do.

8. Spend slowly and take your time

Don’t feel like you need to buy a million varieties of dress shirts, pants and blazers on your first shopping trip. The last thing you want is to feel pressured to build an entire wardrobe in a single shopping trip. This will only encourage you to buy things that are a horrible price, or that you actually don’t like. In the end, you have a full closet of things that you hate to wear and give you buyer’s remorse. You’ll only end up spending more money in the long run as you slowly try to replace all of the horrible things you quickly bought in the first place.

When you first start out, only grab enough to keep you going for a few weeks and make a note to go back to the mall at a later time. Browse around online and look through the different styles available. Take your time trying things on and understand what looks good on you and makes you feel good.

This way, when you go back and shop for more stuff later, you won’t have to second-guess what kind of stuff you like.

Taking your time also allows you to price compare and figure out what stores carry the styles you like, for a reasonable price. Never jump on the first thing you see, as I can guarantee that you’ll find the same sort of item elsewhere and maybe for a better price.

Another great thing about not rushing this process, is you can get a second opinion from others. When you’re first trying to figure out what you need, it might be helpful to invite a parent or friend along with you. They can be a voice of reason and help decide what you need, what you just want and what’s going to be the most practical.

9. Watch for sales

This point goes with what I said above- taking your time allows you to capitalize on sales that pop up throughout the year. Especially around the holiday season, this can be a great time to stock up on workwear. You’d hate to purchase an expensive blazer in July, only to see it half price by November. Watch prices and make a note to go back later and see if it has gone on sale.

Use all of the price comparing/discount hunting tools that you can find to get the lowest price possible. Personally, I really love Honey, as I’m a huge online shopping fan, and this plug-in gives me the reassurance that I’m getting as many online discount codes as possible. There is no better feeling than getting $5 off an item, without even trying.

Price compare between online stores and what you can get in the malls. There are millions of stores to choose from online and sometimes you can find a wider variety of items for a lower price. Just remember to watch for shipping rates!

10. Dress up the casual pieces you already own

You do not have to throw away every single casual item you own. You’ll want something comfortable and relaxed for weekends or for going out and you need a variety of things to wear.

The great thing about these casual pieces, is you can dress them up with your fancier workwear. Layering a plain white t-shirt under a blazer can look well put together and appropriate. For days in the office when you’re not in a meeting, you can definitely pair some nicer shoes and a blouse with some plain black jeans.

Keeping these pieces around and being able to pair them tastefully with your workwear can expand your wardrobe immensely and save you a ton of money.

In conclusion…

You’re an adult now. Congrats… it can suck and be extremely expensive. However, you can still live a bit like a student and be a little frugal when it comes to building your workwear wardrobe. No one expects you to purchase brand name labels right off the bat or drop an entire pay cheque on work clothes. There are a million smart ways to purchase your workwear wardrobe while on a budget and still look like you’re CEO-material!

So get out there and make some fiscally responsible decisions. It is possible!

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