This article is by staff writer April Dykman.
More than four years ago, I wrote a post for Get Rich Slowly about how to stop buying clothes you never wear. I wasn’t sure how it would go over, to be honest. We don’t discuss fashion much in our little corner of the Internet, and I also worried about being judged for my sordid, non-frugal past.
But it was a problem I’d had struggled with, and it was a problem that cost me a lot of money over the years. And in the 100+ comments on the original post, many of you said that you’ve struggled with the same problem.
So here we are four years later, and I’m happy to report that my wardrobe is even smaller and more functional today. And since I’ve picked up new tips these last few years, I thought it’d be helpful to update my original post.
But before we talk about the state of my closet today, here’s an idea of where I started…
Three closets, no space
When I graduated from college, my first apartment came with three closets — two in the master bath, and one in the hallway. I easily filled them all.
Part the problem was that I held onto things I didn’t wear or like all that much — you know, just in case. Another part of the problem was that I would buy new clothes without much consideration. For instance, I owned five winter coats, and I live in Texas.
So, far too often, things were worn once, then eventually made their way to the no man’s land that was the back of my closet. Or worse, I never wore them at all. The price tags were still attached, making it even harder for me to part with them because there was a reminder of how much money I wasted hanging from the label.
The crazy thing is that, even though I owned plenty of clothes, I somehow lacked the basic foundation for a work wardrobe.
The closet clean-out
The wasted money and the jammed closets finally got to be too much. Maybe it was the fact that I was learning about personal finance or the fact that I was reading about minimalism and the ease of a small wardrobe, but I’d had enough.
I decided to do a total closet cleanout. I donated, consigned, and gave away about 75 percent of my wardrobe.
It wasn’t easy. I felt a lot of guilt for wasting that money in the first place. But by the time I was done, it was like a weight had been lifted. There was space in my closet, room to breathe. I also could see what I really needed in my wardrobe, and as I started to fill those holes, it became easier to get dressed in the morning. And I was able to shop with a list, knowing that what was on that list would get a lot of use.
One small closet, plenty of space
That’s the Cliff’s Notes version of the story, but the change wasn’t as instantaneous as it may seem.
Even after cleaning out my closet, I’d still buy things that weren’t really my style. Or I’d buy things that fit well enough, then never wear them. Sometimes I’d return those purchases, other times I fell into old habits and kept them around. After doing a few more minor closet cleanouts, though, there was less and less waste.
Then my husband and I bought a house. The master bedroom has two small closets — a his and a hers. My brother-in-law jokingly asked if my husband would really get his own closet or if I would claim some of his space, and I just smiled. I was actually excited about the size of my closet — it was the perfect size for my small, well-curated wardrobe.
How to only buy clothes you’ll really wear
In my original post, I talked about how to clean out your closet. So if your closet door is bursting at the hinges or if you just have a lot of stuff you don’t wear, head over there for tips on how to get rid of it.
When you’re done cleaning out your closet, you’re probably going to feel a lot like this guy. But resist the urge to go clothes shopping right away. Here’s what to do instead:
1. Think “meat and potatoes.”
One of my favorite bits of advice came from designer Michael Kors: “70 percent of the clothes you own should be meat and potatoes. 30 percent should be icing and fluff — that’s color, pattern, shine, accessories. Too many women get the proportions the other way round, then can’t figure out why they can’t get dressed.”
Take a look at your closet, and figure out if you have enough meat and potatoes. Do you have enough basic black pants for work? Or a pair of nice dress shoes that will go with virtually everything?
If you don’t know how to identify gaps, look at a list of wardrobe essentials and see what you’re missing. (Some must-have lists aren’t very realistic, but I think Alison Gary at Wardrobe Oxygen has great advice for both women and men.)
2. Dress for the life you live right now
The life you live right now includes factors like lifestyle and even the climate where you live.
For instance, an attorney in her 20s has very different clothing needs than a 35-year-old stay-at-home dad. Also, “it’s important for the largest part of your wardrobe and seasonal fashion budget to reflect the dominant seasons where you live,” writes style consultant Angie Cox of You Look Fab.
If you buy the majority of your clothes for a fantasy version of your life instead of the reality, you’ll end up owning a lot of clothes and having nothing to wear.
3. Figure out your “uniform”
This is a new tip I’ve picked up — the idea of a personal uniform.
“If your wardrobe contains sequins, camouflage canvas, distressed denim, glazed leather, monkey fur, plaid kilts, and gold lamé cocktail dresses it may be fun to look at, but it’s not as fun to dress for the every day,” says Gary. “Having a signature style is easier on the wallet, easier on the soul when getting dressed each day, and better for your personal style.”
That doesn’t mean that you have to wear the same thing every day. It just means figuring out what looks good on you and what you like to wear — the items that are always in the wash or at the dry cleaner’s are a good place to start.
Since I work from home now, my uniform has become straight leg jeans, a nice, drapey tee with a scoop neck, a long necklace, and flats or sandals. When I buy those things, I know they won’t sit in my closet unworn.
4. Consider fit and fabric
I used to own 15 pairs of jeans, but I only wore three pairs. The ones I didn’t wear were made of stiff fabric and looked okay on me but not great. The three I did wear were made from high-quality denim and made me feel like this.
My take on this is still the same. For fit, clothes should never gape, pull, or fit the person you want to be 10 pounds from now. Either don’t buy those things or, if a tailor or seamstress can solve the problem, have them altered.
As for fabric, you really don’t have to be an expert. Does it feel good and drape nicely, or does it feel cheap, like the sort of thing that will fall apart in the washing machine after one wear?
5. Watch out for high prices (and low ones, too!)
Sometimes it makes sense to pay more for quality. However, if you find a great pair of pants for $30, they are a better buy than the designer pants that cost $200 and fit you kinda funny. So as long as something is within your budget, price should be a secondary concern.
Also, beware of the clearance rack. I’ve taken many things home with me because they were a good deal, and then I barely wore them. Today, I ignore the discount and only buy something if I absolutely love it the minute I put it on. It has to feel great and look great and work in my existing wardrobe, or else it doesn’t come home with me.
6. You can always return it
If you get home and decide you don’t like something after all, return it as soon as possible. I like to shop online, so I’ve become very disciplined about returning items I don’t want within a week, long before the return policy expires.
And you have to do what works for you, but I don’t buy anything on final sale anymore. That bit me in the bank account twice, and after that I decided that if there’s not a return policy, I’m not buying it.
7. Be a little ruthless
Another source of extra stuff in my closet used to be gifts, like a sweater given to me by a loved one.
This situation is hard because I feel like a jerk for getting rid of their gift. On the other hand, I don’t want to hang onto something that I know I’ll never wear.
So, I donate it. I still feel a little bit bad about it, and I worry about some scenario where they’ll ask me about it later, like, “Oh, show so-and-so that necklace I bought you last Christmas!”
But, I’ve had to learn to be a little ruthless. And besides, the gift always goes to a good cause, and hopefully to a closet where it’ll actually get worn!
Those are my tips, but I’d love to hear from you! Have you struggled with buying clothes you don’t wear? Do you have any tips for how to only buy stuff you’ll really wear?