How To Shop Like A Stylist At Any Budget

When it comes to making a budget, one of the first items to get crossed off the spending list is definitely “unnecessary clothes.” In running my site, The Financial Diet, I’ve learned that the most common waste of money — after happy hour alcohol, of course — is clothing we buy on a whim and never end up wearing. It’s hard to pick things that are both affordable and versatile, or to know exactly what's worth the investment. And when creating a professional wardrobe for the first time — as many of us find ourselves doing in our 20s — it can be nearly impossible to figure out where to splurge and where to skimp.

With fall just around the corner, along with the inevitable hankering to add new pieces to our closet, we talked to three New York-based stylists about the tricks (and truths) for creating a solid wardrobe at any budget. Rosie Philidor, Alex Sweterlitsch, and Molly Kennedy dished on the ultimate secrets to building a versatile, long-lasting collection of clothing, without spending yourself into debt (or buying into impossible-to-follow seasonal trends). And while creating the closet of your dreams (especially without going broke) isn’t something that happens overnight, it's definitely something you can make a concerted effort toward building over time. Knowing where to invest your money — and where it's wise to save a little — is the first step toward doing it all on a budget.
Designed by Anna Sudit.
What are your biggest tips and tricks for someone on a budget who wants to shop like a stylist?

Alex Sweterlitsch:
"I actually love shopping on a budget because it fosters creativity, which brings about originality. Great style is always about originality. Going vintage is a great, affordable way to find pieces that no one else will have. I’ve scoured vintage stores and designer archives from New York to Los Angeles, Paris, and even Texas. While the designer items will have a higher ticket, boutique owners do a really good job of curating no-name items that are the same price range as what you’d find at fast-fashion retailers. Plus, the story behind the find is 10 times better than the old, 'I got it at H&M.'

"As for custom items, oftentimes I’ll buy a simple shirt or jacket and then add patches, a monogram, or a cool trim, pin, or embellishment. The basic materials are just as easy to find in New York’s Garment District as they are to find at a Jo-Ann Fabrics in the Midwest. If you aren’t crafty, even something as simple as changing the buttons on a coat (which your dry cleaner can easily do) can make all the difference. Also, I love to utilize specialty e-commerce tools, like NIKEiD or Ray-Ban REMIX, to make something that's one of a kind."

Rosie Philidor:
"My biggest tip is to be a 'fashion swinger,' meaning mixing and mingling high-end designer brands with bargain buys. For example, I splurge on accessories, like bags, shoes, and jewelry, and will swing into Zara, H&M, or J.Crew for my outfit. My clothes all look like luxury thanks to my statement accessories!"
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What affordable stores do you absolutely love in New York City, and for what?

Molly Kennedy:
"Cos feels modern and refreshing, and I love Uniqlo for its quality and simplicity —plus, it's great for men and women."

A.S.:
"I also love Uniqlo for tailored basics, like work shirts, trench coats, and trousers — and their sweaters are amazing. They have really high production standards and great fabric quality. And J.Crew is great for more designed items, like peplum tops, cool skirts, and embellished jackets. They have a great brand ethos and offer good design and quality at a reasonable price."

Tell us the types of things you skimp and splurge on.

A.S.:
"I try to always buy good quality pieces that will last longer, so I wouldn’t say I 'skimp' on much. I use cost-per-wear to rationalize buying fewer pieces for my closet at a higher quality and price. You should always splurge on good coats and outwear (fake wool is a lint magnet and pills after one wear), as well as shoes and bags."

M.K.:
"I tend to spend less on clothing. I find a lot in vintage stores, and I am obsessed with The RealReal. I tend to spend more on bags and shoes, since you'll have them for much longer."
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How can you make an outfit look expensive, even when it's not?

M.K.:
"Taking good care of your clothes goes a long way. Don't skimp on dry cleaning, and invest in a hand steamer. Sticking to simple shapes and neutrals is also a good idea."

A.S.:
"Fit is most important. In fact, improper fit can make even the most expensive clothes look very cheap. The most valuable thing you can invest in is a good tailor. Unless you're a couture customer (congrats if you are), the reality is that clothes are never going to fit 100% correctly. My tailor has seen garment tags from Topshop to Balenciaga. I even once tailored Adidas track pants so that they had a similar fit to my favorite trousers.

"After that, good fabrics are important. At a lower price point, stick to natural materials that are primarily cotton. Anything synthetic only gets worse with more wear, and generally uses harsh chemical dyes."

Are investment pieces the same for everyone, or are there different ones for different styles and body types?

R.P.:
"Some investment pieces depend on the individual (and their lifestyle or job), but many are universal. Good outerwear, handbags, and little black dresses are something that everyone can feel confident investing in."

M.K.:
"If you are spending a lot of money, be sure to go for something that you will have for years, like a beautiful, classic bag, or a special piece of jewelry; I think women should buy themselves jewelry much more often! Also, a good pair of leather pants is a no-brainer."
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What would you recommend for a woman building a professional wardrobe for the first time on a budget?

R.P.:
"I would recommend a classic designer bag, because it always makes a statement. Also, investing in staple pieces, such as a great LBD (or LCD, little colored dress), great jacket or coat, a nude pump that can go with everything, and a nice watch (this is a must, because it shows that you are mature and respect people’s time!)."

A.S.:
"I recommend this for anyone building a wardrobe — define your uniform. For work, if you’re a girl that likes dresses, buy a wardrobe of neutral dresses and a few printed ones (if you like prints) and mix up the accessories, throw a jacket over them one day, or layer a turtleneck under them in the winter. If you feel most confident or powerful in big meetings wearing a really kick-ass blazer, then have a wardrobe of amazing blazers that you can wear just as easily with simple skirts as with jeans on casual Friday.

"Your budget should go to the things that you can keep and wear for a long time. The remaining can go to those basics or accessories that can be swapped out more regularly. Also, always own one pair of nice quality shoes and take them to be cleaned/repaired regularly — I trust someone’s business standards more if they refuse to torture their own feet."