The outfit you choose can help you land a job, a promotion and keep you on your A-game in the corporate world. But if you’re just a newly-minted graduate starting on the bottom rung in your career, maintaining and selecting a professional wardrobe might not be feasible on a meager salary. Especially if you’re juggling student loan debts and other bills and expenses.
However, even if you have a minimal monthly budget designated for clothing and accessories, you can still maintain a professional appearance and look chic. Yes, it’s possible to look fabulous on a budget, but you have to be creative and you cannot be opposed to bargain hunting. Of course, more clothes don’t equate to a better wardrobe; your closet doesn’t need to be stuffed to be stylish. A few key classic pieces can be mixed and matched to create many different looks, outfits and styles.
Ultimately, when it comes to style and your wardrobe, it’s all about what you wear and how you wear it. If you’re trying to put together your work style on a budget, here is a list of must-have pieces to help you create a classic, chic and professional wardrobe that looks expensive but doesn’t ruin your finances. Here’s a quick guide on how to dress for success.
Shop for the Basics
Every woman and man needs a few basic work items in his/her closet. These items can be paired up with other basics to create new looks and styles and help expand your wardrobe without spending too much. Classic pieces never go out of style, and if the pieces you choose are well made, you can wear them for years. So what are these high-mileage must haves?
Blazers (Black & Blue)
Men and women should have two blazers: one in black and one in blue. A blazer can be paired with jeans, a skirt, khakis, dress pants or over a dress. These are pieces that look professional and are always acceptable in the office.
For winter, choose blazers in a wool blend. Or if you want a budget-friendly option, then choose a poly-blend. Thrift stores often have a wide selection of blazers, but you’ll have to sort through styles that are dated—think 80’s shoulder pads. However, big box budget stores like Target offer chic blazers for cheap! What about blazers for the warmer months? You can find lightweight fabrics like linen and cotton.
Most blazers will require dry-cleaning. But you don’t have to dry-clean your item every time you wear it; take it in if you’ve spilled something, have been sweating or after the third wear.
For women—and maybe men, too—a cardigan is a classic must-have. You can find cotton, wool, poly-blend or even styles in luxe fabrics and in different weights for the changing seasons. Winter cardigans should be heavier will long sleeves but choose lightweight cotton cardigans with three-quarter sleeves for spring and summer. So what colors should you choose? Opt for black, navy, white (or cream). These are classic colors that can be paired with different dresses, skirts and pants. Plus, cardigans are the quick throw on when you get chilly in the office.
Looking for cheap and chic cardigans? Pick up bargains at Walmart, Target, H&M and Old Navy.
However, if you’re looking for an investment piece to wear for years, then upgrade to styles offered by higher-end retailers like Banana Republic, Talbot’s, Ann Taylor or J-Crew. Spending more on a quality piece will ensure that you can wear it for years; however, budget styles might pill or fade quickly and need to be replaced sooner. If you can’t afford to drop $100 on an investment piece, though, that’s ok. Budget items still look great; just be sure to always follow the care instructions. And to avoid any shrinkage concerns, line dry those sweaters!
A Black Sheath
A black sheath isn’t the same as the sexy little black dress (LBD). The sheath is an office staple, and it can be dressed up or down and paired with almost anything. You can find a simple sheath dress at almost any fashion retailer and at nearly any price point. Opt for a classic poly blend and look for styles that are machine washable so you can keep your dry cleaning bill to a minimum.
So how can you style this dress? Any way you want, really. A sheath is typically sleeveless—and this is the best and most versatile style. You can layer a sheath over a turtleneck or a crisp fitted button down for a jumper inspired look. Top the dress with a blazer, a cardigan or even a denim jacket. Want to jazz that simple dress up a bit? Add a chain belt or another statement belt.
The Wrap Dress
Like the sheath, a wrap dress is a must-have and it’s considered a universally flattering style. Unlike the sheath, though, you can’t really layer other blouses under this dress. Instead, pair the classic wrap dress with a cardigan or blazer.
So what colors should you choose for a wrap dress? For the ultimate in versatility, try colors that can pair with all your cardigan hues. Dresses in gemstone hues like deep amethyst, ruby red or emerald green would all look amazing when topped with a cream, black or navy cardigan. If you choose these hues, you can easily create multiple looks. If you top this dress with a blazer, leave the button undone for a more relaxed style.
The Classic Oxford Shirt
Call it a button down, a button up or an oxford. This is the must-have office shirt, though. Men should have the Oxford in white and a few classic stripe patterns. Make sure the choices are conservatively patterned so they may be paired with a tie for meetings.
Women should own oxfords in white and basic blue. Both hues pair well with khakis, and black or navy slacks. If the budget allows, women may also want to invest in a few conservatively patterned oxfords.
Don’t Slack on Slacks
For men and women, slacks are the go-to for winter or fall chilly weather. Opt for classic colors like black and khaki. Navy for men also is a great choice. Men can pair slacks with classic button-down shirts and blazers. Or opt for a sweater if the office is casual.
Women have a bit more depth for outfits. Pair slacks with blouses, button-down oxfords, or cozy fitted sweaters (if the office allows for a casual dress code).
So where to buy on a budget? You can thrift slacks, but this can be tricky. Many slacks may have worn knees which makes them look inappropriate and unpolished at the office. But if the fabric is in good condition, you could still score a bargain at secondhand stores—basically, you’ll need to hunt.
Since slacks are must-have basics, though, every major retailer sells them. Yes, you can even find slacks at Walmart.
A Black Pencil Skirt
Flare and a-line skirts come and go but a classic pencil skirt is timeless. Own one in basic black, because you can pair this staple with anything and everything. Feminine blouses, oxfords, cardigans, sweaters, blazers…they all style well with a pencil skirt.
And, yes, major retailers like Target, H&M and Old Navy all offer budget-friendly pencil skirts. So what length should you choose? Make sure the skirt hits you at the knees. Anything below the knee could make you look stumpy, but above the knee might venture into mini territory. And mini is not always a professional choice…unless you work in a creative field and the dress code allows for a shorter style.
You also can hunt down pencil skirts at the thrift stores for the ultimate budget-friendly steal. Since pencil skirts are such a classic style, you won’t run into an issue of the item looking too dated. Just be sure to look for great fabrics and check the care tag. If you don’t want to pay for dry-cleaning, then hunt for styles in the thrift store that are washer friendly.
The Shoe Game
Your shoes pull together an outfit and should be clean and polished for the ultimate professional finishing touch. You don’t have to invest in expensive leather, however. Pleather or vegan leather often looks identical to the real thing, but it’s much cheaper. Men should have a pair of nice loafers in black and brown.
Women should own a black and brown pair of low comfortable heels or dress flats—whichever style you prefer. Of course, you will probably own many pairs of shoes, and that adds to your options. However, if you need to budget, then just go for basic black and brown.
While you can find nice shoes at the thrift store, this is really buyer beware. You never know whose feet were in those shoes or what bacteria is lingering in the insoles. Also, while shoes may look like they are in good condition, the sole glue could be old and worn. So those like-new shoes could end up falling apart quicker than you think. If your budget is tight, then just shop at budget retailers to find basic and inexpensive work shoes. Walmart and Target both have a great selection of work shoes; Old Navy also offers budget-friendly options.
Dress for success—and a successful career—and create a posh and professional wardrobe that will help you look and feel professional. However, a great wardrobe doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and you also don’t have to stuff your closet to ensure limitless looks. Instead, curate key classic pieces that you can mix and match to create endless styles and amazing outfits. These must-have essentials can be found at almost any discount fashion retailer to help you maintain a professional image without busting your budget. While investing in higher-end pieces may allow those pieces to handle more wears, even inexpensive styles can keep you looking on-trend. Just be sure to follow care instructions so those budget items stay in shape and don’t need to be replaced.
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