Looking Good on a Tight Budget

Not long ago, in a drive-by shopping incident, I found a nearly new Burberry all-weather coat, olive green, removable collar and lining, unisex (buttons both ways), full length, and just beautiful.  For $30.  This coat, I happen to know, is so classic that it is still on the rack at the Burberry store, and retails for over $1200.   But I was at the local Salvation Army store, searching for just this kind of bargain. 

On another occasion, I came away from the local Goodwill store with an Austin Reed navy wool suit from a few seasons ago, barely worn, and needing alterations: $4.00. And my list goes on, because I am sold on the value of recycling clothing.  I enjoy checking out secondhand quality brand items in thrift stores before those items fall into the nimble and experienced hands of the more expensive consignment stores, who mark them up, display them at a better address, and promote them as “consigned.”

You can do this too.  If you are in need of clothes for network-building events, interviews, job fairs, meetings, or just because you feel better when you have clothing choices, the local thrift stores are reasonable shopping destinations for you.  Don’t be afraid; if you hate it you don’t have to go back.

Manage your expectations, of course, and allow enough time and patience for such a venture.  Prepare by making a list of what you might like to find (this one is suitable for a professional looking for career-building choices):

  1. Dark suit, navy, black, grey, or pinstripe.
  2. Dress, blouse, shell in cream, beige, grey, or a pop of color, long or short sleeves, or sleeveless.  White or blue oxford shirt if you are a guy. (Or, if you are a woman, this is a choice for you also).
  3. Plain dark shoes in good condition (These are hard to find, and some folks don’t buy shoes in thrift stores.)
  4. Dark blazer (again, the usual color choices, or even a bright).
  5. Ties, if you are a guy.  I just don’t recommend these for women (although I purchase and restyle them into collars for myself, but that is another blog).
  6. Accessories, like a folio, briefcase, or simple tote.

Think about your preferences before you go in.  If you don’t like things that wrinkle, stay far away from cotton, linen, and rayon, as you would in any other store.  Read the label.  If you know brand names, look for them if you want to.  While you may not find the most current season, you will find items with the tags still on them.  If you carry a smartphone, you can look up unfamiliar brand names and figure out where things might have originated.  But it doesn’t really matter, if the price is right and you like what you see.

Merchandising in thrifts is hit or miss—items are not sized, tops and bottoms may be in separate sections (or not), and you should try to look through all the possibilities.  You have to look for stains, rips, or other permanent damage, and you should not assume that detergent or cleaning fluid is all that is needed—that may be why the item is where it is; someone already tried.

I recommend that you try your choices on, and you should dress to try things on easily (wear a camisole, tee shirt, leotard).  Bring a friend to watch the cart while you are in the dressing room; things disappear from carts in thrifts, just like they do in TJ MAXX and other popular stores.  I don’t know why that happens, but it hasn’t happened to me since I started making thrifting more of a group activity.

You will need a cleaning plan for whatever you liberate.  Wash the washables in Woolite or your preferred equivalent, and you can dry clean the dry cleanables either in your dryer using a home dry cleaning product like Dryel, or send them to your local cleaner.  I’ve done both; and I’ve even taken a vintage garment to a professional for special hand-cleaning treatment.  Even if your purchase was in Macys yesterday and still has tags on it, it will have been treated (hopefully!) with a fogger (anti-everything-you-can-imagine) before finding its way onto the selling floor; you must clean it.

Alterations are worth the price when you pay $4 to $20 for something.  When you start to get into the range of $30, you need to think about what alterations cost.  Hems might be $10, nips and tucks, more than that.  If you plan ahead, you can check with a tailor, or your local dry cleaner may do mending and alterations.  Ask before you head for the thrift store, so that you know what to add to the price if a garment requires alteration.

Resist the urge to fill the cart unless you can afford the splurge.  If you are on a budget, you are on a budget.   Stay away from colors you don’t like or that don’t like you.  For interviewing, brown and green are not universally appealing and may not serve you as well as black, navy, or grey.   Plaids are risky, and you want to always make sure they match at the seams, if you decide to take the risk on a conservative plaid.

If you buy a light color anything, hold it up in the light near the door or window and make sure the color is not dingy, and that it is not stained.  Whatever you buy, it should be in decent condition.

You do not need a different outfit or suit for every interview or event; you do need a range of clean, professional, well-fitting garments and a few good accessories to rely on to help you get the opportunities you want.  If you can afford a few new items, you can still intersperse those choices with alternatives or back-ups. 

Things to bring on a thrifting adventure: 

  1. A friend to watch the cart while you try on garments in the dressing room.
  2. Anti-bacterial wipes for your hands, and tissues for your nose; thrifts are dusty.
  3. A list.
  4. Magnifying glass to look at tiny stains or rips.
  5. Smart phone to look up labels.
  6. Your best manners, at all times. 
  7. Your gentle appreciation for what the staff and other customers do every day to improve your world.

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