How to stop buying clothes you never wear

A couple of years ago, I had a Great Closet Clean-Out. My clothing racks and drawers were overflowing at the time, and some of it still had price tags. Hoping to accomplish that European knack for owning less and looking better, I donated, consigned, and gave away about 75 percent of my wardrobe. Today it's 100 times more functional.

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.

These are the best tips I picked up while going through the process, gleaned from fashion gurus, designers, and style bloggers. These tips are applicable to women and men, whether you're a high-power attorney or a stay-at-home parent.

1. Make Four Piles

The Great Closet Clean-Out is your first step. Tim “Make It Work” Gunn, fashion guru and author of A Guide to Quality, Taste and Style, advises you to divide your clothes into four piles: throw out, give away, repair, and soul-stirring. Get rid of clothes in the first two piles and take the clothing in the repair pile to a tailor.

It would be great if you could do it all at once, but letting go of the goofy tie you wore to graduation or the bubble-gum pink prom dress that you'll never wear again takes time. Try to let go of personal attachments.

2. Think “Meat and Potatoes”

70 percent of the clothes you own should be meat and potatoes. 30 percent should be icing and fluff — that's colour, pattern, shine, accessories. Too many women get the proportions the other way round, then can't figure out why they can't get dressed. — Michael Kors, Times Online

Take a look at what you have left after purging. Make a list of any gaps in your wardrobe to keep you on track when you're shopping. Jessica Schroeder, the fashion blogger behind What I Wore, says:

I like to take stock of what I have in my closet and think of pieces that can extend the lives of those clothes already hanging out in my wardrobe. Maybe its a new belt or scarf or tie — think of small ways to get maximum use out of what you already have.

If you don't know how to identify gaps, look to wardrobe essential lists and see what you might be missing. I'm not usually impressed with most “must-have” lists, but Allie at Wardrobe Oxygen has great advice for both women and men.

3. 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.

4. Identify Your Dominant Season

You Look Fab also gets the credit for this tip, which has helped this Texan curb her winter coat habit. Blog author and style consultant Angie writes, “It's important for the largest part of your wardrobe and seasonal fashion budget to reflect the dominant seasons where you live.”

In other words, if you live in Iowa, you won't get much wear from a collection of flip-flops. Some people live in places with four seasons, and in that case, it's best to buy equally for the seasons.

Angie notes one exception. If you routinely travel to a climate different from your hometown, you'll need to consider that when allocating your clothing budget.

5. Consider Your Lifestyle

Your lifestyle dictates your clothing needs. Maybe you are a busy mom, are pregnant, or work from home. Age makes a difference, too. Someone in their 30s has different needs than someone in their 50s. If you buy the majority of your clothes for a fantasy version of your life, instead of the reality, you'll end up with a lot of clothes to store and nothing to wear.

Jessica says, “When shopping, I'm always thinking, ‘Would I wear this today? Does it work with the pieces already in my closet?' If I can immediately scream ‘yes!' to both questions, it's a go.”

Also, reconsider items that only work for very specific occasions. The more pieces you own that can be dressed up and down, the more wear they'll get.

6. Identify Your Personal Style

If you like soft fabrics and loose cuts, don't get suckered by a shiny J. Crew display of wool turtleneck sweaters that would itch and bind. Instead, ask yourself if it fits your personality. Know what styles make you feel good. Look to your soul-stirring pile from tip #1 to identify the shapes and colors you gravitate to the most.

Remember that price doesn't dictate style. If the perfect pants in the perfect color are $30, they are a better buy than the trendy, designer pants that cost $200 and work with nothing else in your closet. The bracelet I get complimented on the most was a trinket my mom bought me from Target. Jessica mixes thrifted clothes with vintage with self-sewn with Payless — and it works.

On the other hand, don't be swayed by low prices. A piece that sort of fits but is on the clearance rack is not a deal, no matter what the price tag says.

Finally, if you buy an item and decide you don't like it once you're home and standing in front of your own mirror, return it as soon as possible.

7. 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.

8. Repeat After Me: Fit and Fabric

Before my Great Closet Clean-Out, I owned 15 pairs of jeans. I wore three pairs. Those three were high-quality denim and fit fantastically. The others were made of stiff fabric and didn't do my figure any favors. Avoid buying 12 pairs of blah jeans by keeping in mind fit and fabric:

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?

Most alterations are fairly reasonable in price, or maybe you're lucky enough to have a friend or family member who sews. (Hi, Mom!)

9. Don't Buy Something Only Because It Fits.

What the —? Didn't I just say it's all about fit? Well, yes. But just because something fits doesn't mean you should buy it. Only buy items that make you feel like a million bucks. That's the best way to ensure you'll actually wear what is in your closet.

If it doesn't make your heart sing, it'll probably never see the light of day. Even a white t-shirt has the potential to make you feel good when you put it on. It's much better to wear something more often and look and feel great than to own a ton of so-so clothes that you only sort of like.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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!

What about you? Do you have clothes you never wear? Or, if your wardrobe is streamlined, are there other tips you've used? How do you pursue fashion on a budget? Do you have any tips for how to only buy stuff you'll really wear?

J.D.'s note: I'm not exactly a fashion maven, but I've always had a terrible habit of buying clothes I never wear. When we moved from our old house in 2004, I had stacks of shirts I had purchased but never taken from the packaging. I thought they were Good Deals. My current year-long clothing purge is helping me to see that what I need is not new clothes, but far fewer clothes; I wear only a small fraction of my wardrobe…and keep more of my money in my high interest savings account. Photo by Jessica Schroeder of What I Wore.

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