Thankfully, you've already got the skills to make it work. Just like how you've never shied away from going that extra mile when it comes to your career, why would you expect your outfits to just fall into your lap, perfectly packaged? It takes a little ingenuity to leave the mall with the perfect professional outfit and stay under budget, but with some creative layering, strategic timing, and smart accessorizing, an affordable office getup is not only easy to put together but also fun to shop for. Ahead, we tasked five of our editors to spend $100 each at five ubiquitous retailers and come up with a head-to-toe, HR-approved outfit they'd actually wear to clock in. Weigh in below — which one of our editors won the challenge?
And — because we're awesome like this — enter for a chance to win a $250 gift certificate to put toward your next favorite for-the-office accessory below!
Marissa Rosenblum, market director
"Full disclosure: I was the slowest to respond to the Cheap Challenge email chain, therefore I got the last pick of the stores, which meant all of the obvious go-to affordable options were taken. Excited by a very real challenge of finding a smart work outfit at a store not known for being, well, cheap, I was almost a little disappointed to find the whole place overtaken by the most insane January sale.
Okay, so feigned upset aside, I dove into the sales racks and came up with my weight in garments. There really was so much to choose from. While I have to give the silver medal to this tulip-print top, which in person could easily be mistaken for a Marni print, I ended up choosing a pair of jacquard pants that came in petite (saving me a $15 trip to the tailor!) and two shirts. The blue-lace shirt was on super sale for less than $10, and I layered a second chambray shirt underneath instead of opting for a camisole, which would be too skin-baring for some offices. Lastly, just for kicks, I found a damaged beaded tassel keychain, haggled my way into getting an additional 10% off the already half-off price, and created this nifty little blouse adornment. Sorry, but I didn't get the shoes, my friends. That's one thing I can't do on the cheap. Spend on the shoes, save on the clothes — always. A full work look minus shoes for $79? Not too bad."
NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES. THE "R29 CHEAP CHALLENGE" SWEEPSTAKES IS OPEN TO LEGAL RESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES AND THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, AGE 18 OR OLDER AT THE TIME OF ENTRY. ONE (1) WINNER WILL BE CHOSEN ON 2/25/2014, THE WINNER WILL RECEIVE $250 IN THE SPONSOR'S PREFERRED METHOD. SWEEPSTAKES BEGINS AT 9:00AM EST ON 1/23/14 AND ENDS AT 11:59PM EST ON 2/23/14. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED. SPONSOR: REFINERY29, INC. 225 BROADWAY, NEW YORK, NY 10007.
Connie Wang, style director
"Out of all the stores on our list, New York & Co. is probably the one that's most known for 'affordable workwear.' But, from my memories as an adolescent hanging outside of the one in my mall (What? The Orange Julius was there.), it's not exactly known for 'attractive workwear.' From what I remembered, there were a lot of flimsy cable knits, stretch-fit work trousers with too-wide waistbands, and button-downs that inexplicably stopped buttoning at the chest and also featured gratuitous waist-ruching. I was keen to see if the store had made any strides since then.
The truth? Not really. Those ruched, half-buttoned shirts were still there, as were the trousers and the knits. But, there were also lots of basic pieces at price points that were astonishingly low (thank you, 80% off sales!). Also, scouring the clearance racks led me to dig up a gem of a colorblocked dress that I'd wear with striped shirts, costume jewels, athletic socks, and loafers in my regular life for a Prada spring '14 spin. I was also pleasantly surprised by the fits of the Eva Mendes collaboration. Though nothing quite suited my particular style, the swingy, knee-length, tweed dresses and pale-pink, fuzzy coats were totally Prada fall '13 and deliciously flattering. No pancake butts in those pieces! Alas, the store doesn't stock shoes, so I 'splurged' on a gold cuff and a chic, simple, structured tote that I plan on using to carry my laptop and papers to work and back. The total? Somehow, magically, everything totaled $100 on the dot. If that doesn't make me the winner, I don't know what else would."
Annie Georgia Greenberg, style editor
"Shopping at Express was easy because of a massive sale going on and the store's wide range of clothing. I went for something that focused on shape rather than print, which works for the office. I found the button-down in the men's section (also on sale!) and paired it with a boxy sweater and a slimmer skirt. The boots were kind of a dare for myself since I don't usually go for animal print. I have to say, I absolutely love them. The pony hair makes the shoes look high-end (hello, Aquazzura!), and they are impressively comfortable and padded on the inside. Sure, they might be a little left-field for a traditional 9-to-5, but coupled with the conservative outfit, I figured I could get away with them.
Next time I go into Express, I'm definitely stocking up on the wide selection of work-appropriate pieces that would have priced me over the $100 base line. This time around, though, winning the Cheap Challenge was more important than adding to my personal wardrobe. Sacrifices."
Gina Marinelli, associate fashion features editor
"I was psyched to take on the $100 Cheap Challenge at H&M; I'm constantly finding affordable gems there. But, truthfully, putting together one complete, head-to-toe look takes a bit more finesse. Thankfully, with so many pieces priced under $30 (and a huge sale going on — score!), I was able to shop this challenge as I normally would: going for items that catch my eye first and then building a look around them.
I was instantly drawn to the colorful tweed skirt and happened to find a perfectly complementary blazer to make it totally office-ready. The black top was a sale find, and the jewel embellishments were the perfect, not-too-over-the-top touch. Finally, I grabbed a pair of ballet flats. I would have preferred a chunky heel, but hey, I had a budget to stick to. The final look is definitely more for a creative, not corporate, office, but I love how it turned out. And, I had $7 to spare. That's breakfast!"
Leeann Duggan, style features editor
"I am literally obsessed with Target. My entire apartment is Target meets thrift store, which means that whether you compliment a lamp, curtain, or rug, I will immediately rattle off the stunningly low price I paid for it. This was the first time I'd shopped for clothes at Target in years, but I think I put together a cute look that — though maybe slightly younger than I'd usually dress for work — was fun and totally office-appropriate. And, luckily, my old Target-shopping tricks still applied.
First, seek out dresses: When you're on a budget, an all-in-one outfit stretches your bucks that much further. Second, don't fear the juniors' section. Price points are lower, and you'll still look your age if you avoid anything crazy-bright or short. Third, use the in-store price scanners to check for secret sales. On the price tags, my outfit was slightly over budget, but when I got to the register, my dress rang up at 10 bucks off. Totally unannounced 30% off sales, people. Target, this is why I'll never quit you."