How to Get a Fall Wardrobe When You’re Broke

After months of sticky humidity, the coziness of fall clothing is a welcome reprieve. But what isn’t so warm and fuzzy is its price tag. Even if you’re frugal, cold-weather attire simply costs more: It’s usually made of more expensive materials, we require more of it, and we often layer multiple pieces at once.

But there are ways to maximize your existing wardrobe and make smarter buys as you prepare to bundle up. Here’s a five-step strategy for looking your best while preserving your money when the temperatures drop.

Cold Costs More

Cold Costs More

After months of sticky humidity, the coziness of fall clothing is a welcome reprieve. But what isn’t so warm and fuzzy is its price tag. Even if you’re frugal, cold-weather attire simply costs more: It’s usually made of more expensive materials, we require more of it, and we often layer multiple pieces at once.

But there are ways to maximize your existing wardrobe and make smarter buys as you prepare to bundle up. Here’s a five-step strategy for looking your best while preserving your money when the temperatures drop.

Step 1: Repurpose Spring and Summer Items

Step 1: Repurpose Spring and Summer Items

Begin your fall transition by shopping your own closet: Commit to an afternoon in your wardrobe with the goal of doubling the size of your fall and winter selections by reimagining your spring and summer pieces. If you’ve been thinking only in terms of outfits, shift into assessing each individual piece, which opens up more possibilities.

With the exception of some white linen and frilly sundresses, nearly everything can live to see another day after Labor Day. Adding darker colors can bring a fall influence to otherwise summery pieces. Layering further extends the life of your warm-weather clothes. Long dresses and skirts become winter essentials when paired with leggings and tights, T-shirts are a welcome underlayer when you peel away a thick sweater after a trek across town, and silk blouses peek out elegantly beneath fall blazers. Experiment with drapes and lengths to find the right layering technique to flatter your body.

Step 2: Prioritize Your Purchases

Step 2: Prioritize Your Purchases

If you invest in just two pieces, make them a winter coat and a pair of boots. You’ll likely wear them regularly, if not constantly, for several months — and they’re the first (and possibly only) things people will see. Make them count.

If you’re debating whether to spend your dollars on a wool/cashmere everyday coat versus a big parka, go for the former. The wool coat is likely to be your go-to and transitions nicely between work and play, while the parka will get the most wear when you’re so cold you’re just focused on finding the nearest heat source. Same goes for boots. Everyday boots like riding boots or simple black booties are a wise investment, whereas stylish furry winter boots that come out only when the skies dump snow are a less essential purchase — unless you live in a true winter wonderland.

Step 3: Become a Smart Shopper

Step 3: Become a Smart Shopper

It’s easy to fall into the local brick-and-mortar shopping trap — stores are convenient and more immediate, and you can try on multiple items at once. But limiting yourself to in-store selections does a disservice to both your style and your bank account, as you tend to stray from your original goals in favor of what’s in front of you. Arm yourself with a wish list for specific pieces and do some targeted searches online.

Have a particular brand and size in mind? Ebay and resale sites like Thredup, Threadflip, and The RealReal are your most efficient destinations.

Quality cashmere and wool staples are pricey, but many of the pieces on resale sites are new or like new — and sell for a fraction of the retail price. Know which brands and sizes work best for you and pay attention to return policies. Before committing to the purchase, ask for additional measurements and photos if you have any lingering questions.

And whether you shop in person or online, timing can make a huge financial difference. January and February are the cheapest times to stock up on cold-weather items, so parse out what you need to get you through the fall and put the rest on your post-holiday wish list. Finally, take advantage of tax-free days in your area, which are helpful when stocking up on items that can’t wait until sale season.

 

Step 4: Focus on Quality

Step 4: Focus on Quality

Investing in quality over quantity should drive your style strategy every season, but particularly in the colder months. Replenishing your wardrobe with fast fashion items every year may seem like a frugal fix, but it adds up in the long run.

Winter coats, trench coats, leather jackets, and blazers should last for years if properly constructed, as should boots and scarves. As long as you’re fine with leather, make it a priority over fake alternatives — it wears longer and gets better-looking with age. You can find some thin knits for bargain prices at stores like Zara and Uniqlo, but big, chunky sweaters should be quality investments, as they can pill and show wear easily. (Tip: Save money on dry cleaning by machine washing wool and cashmere sweaters. Put them in mesh bags to avoid tangling and use gentle detergent, and then lay flat to dry. Never put them in the dryer.)

Quality doesn’t have to mean designer labels, so avoid the overpriced luxury branding trap and instead seek out unembellished options with neutral branding — they’re more versatile and elegant. Many small designers can be as good or better than the big luxury brands when it comes to quality.

And remember: Time is money. The average woman spends almost 400 hours per year shopping — so investing in pieces that are built to last can cut the hours you spend in consumer mode and shift your focus to more fulfilling habits.

Step 5: Keep It Simple and Accessorize Cheaply

Step 5: Keep It Simple and Accessorize Cheaply

Building your wardrobe around a uniform is more economical in fall and winter, since each piece often costs more than spring and summer apparel. When it comes to foundational pieces, keep colors relatively neutral or muted and patterns small to make it easier to wear things on repeat.

Keep embellishments at bay — too many zippers or ruffles will quickly exhaust a look and leave you struggling with that nothing-to-wear feeling. Opt instead for crisp lines and a clean fit for most of your staple pieces. And do all you can to ignore trends: A suede, fringed, ’70s-inspired jacket may seem like a great idea on the runway, but it will likely fade into the dark corners of your closet in a year. Instead, play with trends via accessories.

Accessories are versatile money savers in fall and winter perhaps more than any other time, and they’re the key to elevating your simple foundation. Change things up with scarves and jewelry: Scarves in particular can be worn multiple ways, over and under jackets, and are a key way to introduce color and texture. And don’t forget about tights — they’re affordable, fun, and can completely transform any cold-weather outfit.

Anna Akbari, Ph.D., is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the “thinking person’s stylist.” She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services. Find out more and follow her on Twitter.

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