Ask the Edit: Wardrobe Budget Question

Jan 3, 2019

What do you spend on clothing?  What is the right amount?  Is there an amount that is too much?

Hi Abra:

This is sort of odd and embarrassing, so please keep me anonymous…

Regarding budget, what is appropriate to spend on your clothing, specifically work clothes? I understand there’s no real right answer, but it’s something I’m struggling with. I love MM Lafleur clothes, but I’m balking at spending over $200 on a dress! But I’m no longer just starting out in my career, making decent money and maybe it’s time to graduate from buying $50 Calvin Klein dresses at Marshalls.


Everyone assigns their wardrobe a budget based on their priorities, their available capital, and their comfort.  It varies from person to person.

For example, I won’t buy handbags from designer brands like Celine or Louis Vuitton.  They’re just not for me.  I understand they retain value.  I understand they’re well-made and last a long time if you care for them.  I understand they’re a status symbol.  But I would worry too much about damaging the bag, and I would end up regretting the purchase.

When it comes to spending a certain amount on a dress, the only thing I would suggest you consider is this:

Our salaries usually increase in relation to our responsibilities.  Our responsibilities usually increase as we climb the ladder.  And as we climb the ladder, projecting a certain image can make that climb smoother.  Because as much as we might like to be valued solely for our talents, what you project to the world with your appearance matters.

So if you’re feeling sheepish about spending $200 (that I assume you can comfortably afford w/o credit) on a dress for work, ask yourself why.  Is it because this isn’t a priority for you?  Is it because you have other reservations?  But would upgrading your wardrobe, within reason, improve how you feel about yourself or how others might view you in your profession?

These are just some questions to ask yourself.  There’s only the answer that works for you.

Ask the Edit, Style

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  1. Ruchita says:

    I work in a very casual (jeans & sneakers) work place so it doesn’t make sense for me to spend lots of money on dresses or suits that would never get worn. I will pay more for basics, like good bras. I’m petite and if I will buy an expensive pair of pants/jeans if they fit well because I know I will wear them all the time. Also shoes. I have a small collection of comfortable and durable shoes. I refuse to wear shoes that look cute but are painful no matter what the price point.

  2. WCEC says:

    I like Belle’s grounded and common sense approach. Implied in her “why” questions are: is some change in your work environment prompting you–how do other well-regarded people in your position dress? I’ve worked in both types of professional settings (legal industry) where $50 Marshalls dresses 4 days a week (ie, not just every once in awhile) would be seen as not polished enough for a midlevel to senior attorney, and others where no one would bat an eye.

    That said, though I LOVE Mmlafleur, I think for some of their pieces, some people might not distinguish between them and a discounted Marshalls dress. If not traditional suiting pieces (including suiting dresses), everything else is the same.

  3. Katel says:

    One other consideration for me is a cost of ownership calculation. I too struggled with psychology of an item’s price point but now I also consider is it hand or machine washable? I.e. am I saving dry cleaning bills? Will a pair of shoes be worth re-soling or re-heeling? Unabashed MM fan and the machine washable factor has saved me money in the long haul.

  4. Denise says:

    I’m approaching 2 decades in industry (damn, that makes me sound older than my 42 years) and 14 years in a ‘professional’ workplace (prior to that I worked as an engineer in a manufacturing plant and wore a fire retardant jumpsuit to work every day. #sexy). Some things I’ve been doing to up my work wardrobe game:
    (1) As a previous commenter said, I have NO TIME for uncomfortable shoes. I buy good quality footwear (flats, pumps and wedges) in neutral tones and have them resoled. A good pair of pumps pulls an outfit together every.single.time
    (2) With every promotion I buy one new handbag or laptop bag. I find that my needs change for these items every 2-3 years (e.g., I use a backpack for my laptop when I travel now, a crossbody vs. a shoulder bag, etc.) so the timing works out
    (3) I buy one new ‘staple dress’ per season – so that would be the equivalent to an MM LaFleur dress I suppose. My allowance is $200 – $300. I prefer dresses over slacks as I find them simply more versatile with weight fluctuations (did I mention i’m over 40? ha!). They are also easier to pack for travel, which is a big part of my work life.
    (4) I use ‘rent the runway’ for items that I need temporarily but won’t use all the time. Since I live in Houston but work frequently in Munich, this means long sleeve dresses, sweater dresses, and even heavy dress coats for when I’m in Europe in the winter. Its worth the $80/month expenditure
    (5) In sales we are taught a tactic called ‘mirroring’, where you’re supposed to dress similarly to your customer / client to build rapport and trust. I sort of feel the same way about office dressing – dress for the job you *want*, not the job you have.

    • Belle says:

      I also have no time for uncomfortable shoes. I’m too old.

      Thank you for sharing the mirroring information. I never knew what to call it.

    • M says:

      Minus the fire retardant jumpsuit, I relate to everything Denise said! I find MM LaFleur sells well made, well fitting staple items that never go out of style. So I find the price point worth it. Fit is key for me since the last thing I want to worry about at work, once there, is my outfit. I have an unlimited monthly RTR subscription to add everything else – the more, trendy items that add some personality to my standard business casual attire because I am mirroring (without ever knowing the term, thanks Denise!). Many of the senior women in my office wear jackets, not just classic blazers, and those get pricy! So I rent them.

  5. Cheri Hauer says:

    The only thing I might add is that if you love MM LaFleur, and you know what styles you like and what sizes fit you, keep an eye on Poshmark and Ebay. Tons of deals for 50% off, even brand new with tags. I’ve picked up a couple of MM LaFleur tops and pants that way.

    • Hannah says:

      I second shopping secondhand! I love DvF wrap dresses, but think $400-500 is too much to spend on a dress (even tho the quality is great). All my DvF dresses came from consignment or secondhand stores like Goodwill or eBay for 20% or less of the original cost.

  6. Rachel says:

    Such a great and honest answer, Abra! While i have the income to spend $200 on a dress, I prefer to use that money for traveling with my husband. That’s being said, I do believe in investing in some core pieces. So mixed in with my Loft and Banana sale dresses, I may buy the expensive dress if it’s the absolute perfect price and I can wear it for years. I also tend to spend the bulk of my wardrobe budget on shoes because I think you can more easily make inexpensive dresses look nice, but cheap shoes tend to always look cheap.

  7. Jessica says:

    I realize you have to walk a fine line between the blog and your full-time job (bathroom selfies aren’t exactly professional), but is there any chance you’d occasionally post your outfits? Most the time I don’t really like those kinds of posts, but I’ve been reading your blog so long I’m actually really interested in what you wear on a daily basis.

  8. J says:

    As I get older, I have less and less patience for stuff and clutter. I’ve reached a point where I’d rather have 4 or 5 well-fitting, classic dresses than 15 from Banana Republic Factory, Calvin Klein from Marshall’s, etc. So I’m really focusing on buying fewer pieces but probably spending the same.

  9. Crsytal says:

    Another important consideration is cost per wear — The machine washable MM LaFleur dress might be worth it if you’re going to wear it upwards of 25 times in the first year alone. Contrast that with a cheaper item that you don’t love that is going to hang unloved in your closet most weeks.

    • Kelly says:

      I used my Christmas money at MM.Lafleur a few years ago and proceeded to wear the pieces weekly. It made dressing for a business formal office SO much easier. I’m taking full advantage of not having nylons in the dress code and wearing jeans and hoodies to work but still pull out and mix in the nicer pieces. They’re too good to let sit in my closet.

  10. MLKSAH says:

    Great tailoring can make a $50 dress look expensive. For inexpensive dresses or blazers with buttons, I replace the cheap-looking buttons with better ones. I splurge on winter coats and blazers. If you wear belts often, consider buying a high-quality leather version. Buff/polish even cheap leather shoes.

    The most I have ever spent on a work dress is around $500 (my average is $250, and I’m buying pricier dresses secondhand on The Real Real or on sale versus $200 J.Crew). My splurge dress doubles for work receptions/date nights/cocktail parties. It is made of quality wool, lined, is in a gorgeous color and a classic shape, and looks smashing on me without shapewear. I love wearing it! I bought it on vacation, so the dress is a fun reminder of a great trip too. In short, it is the best clothing purchase I’ve ever made. I set a yearly clothing budget, so I didn’t feel guilty about splurging.

  11. Grace says:

    I have always been conservative with what I purchase, and thought I had to make more money before I could afford wardrobe investments. Once I stumbled on the budget suggestion of spending 5-8% of your monthly income on clothing, I realized I can afford much more than I thought!

    Now I just have to start doing it — prioritizing a nice-quality piece over multiple cheaper pieces.

  12. Jules says:

    I know second-hand isn’t for everyone, but I started using Poshmark, and have been able to significantly upgrade my wardrobe on the cheap.
    I went from Banana Republic/Ann Taylor range to Diane von Furstenberg, Rebecca Taylor, etc range, and most of the pieces have only been $20-$70.
    (still love BR and AT, not trying to imply they are inferior or anything).

    This lets me feel really good about my wardrobe and budget. I make OK money too, but my priorities are vacations, experiences, food, etc so I don’t really get enjoyment out of spending money on clothes. But I want a certain look at work (Plus mid-30s now) so second-hand has been something that works for me.

    • Belle says:

      I bought larger sizes in a few of my favorite dresses. I got really lucky and found most of them. I find that most items on Poshmark are so gently worn it hardly matters.

    • Monica T. says:

      Seconding secondhand! I love ThredUp and buy a lot of jeans and button-ups I couldn’t afford to tailor otherwise. It gives me an eclectic, unique style and I can get a lot higher quality for 80-90% off retail. This savings allows me to splurge when I need to buy something retail, since u want high-quality, durable and classic goods that will be am investment.

  13. Lydia says:

    This is such an intriguing topic for me, and your approach is very honest and refreshing, as are the various viewpoints in the comments.

    I keep track of each purchase I make by drawing the item I purchased in a notebook, and writing the month and cost of the purchase— this May sound compulsive, but I love drawing, and I’ve even created tiny ink drawings of my skirts, dresses, and so on. It gives me time to reflect at the end of each year how much I spent, and since I started the process about nine years ago, I can see which purchases were the most worthwhile. I tallied the cost of all my purchases— from tights, to bras, to sweater, shoes…etc.., and I spent a total of 1800 dollars this year give or take a bit. I can afford to purchase more than this if I want, and that is comforting to know, but this year we decided to travel for a month In Europe.I did not see any wow for me items this year, it if I had, I’m sure I would have spent more,
    What I’ve learned from tracking my spending on clothing for several years is that shoes and bras are the most worthwhile for me, and sweaters, even better quality and durable merino wool, do not last regardless of quality or price point(well, maybe they last slightly longer, but need to be replaced the most often)
    I agree that comfortable shoes, and warm boots— looking at you la canadienne and blondo boots…are essential. I live in the city and walk, and stand on my feet all day so I have to have comfy feet.

    • Clara says:

      I love the notebook idea!

      • Lydia says:

        Thank you! If you’re still checking back, I draw my clothes with a fine ink pen, but recently made a colour page breaking down my most owned colours in a small pie drawing:) My neutrals are black and dark blue, with yellow, pink, pale mushroom, orange,cobalt and floral prints. I learned lots this year about the colours I gravitate towards, and the colours I want more of.

  14. MelanIe says:

    I love Abra’s frame for valuing purchases. I work “on the Hill” and decided in 2017 to establish a uniform. I wear a black dress or black pants/top/jacket everyday. In doing so, I have focused more on fit, fabric and details. It also highlighted what I was missing and has allowed me to invest there (hello TSE cashmere dress for winter and lovely MMLaFleur silk shift for the hottest DC summer days.) It has stopped impulse purchases on “deals” at Marshall’s and other sales but also narrowed my shopping when things are on deep discount. But best of all I always feel pulled together and polished even when running through the halls in heels.

  15. Susan says:

    Great discussion! I just want to add that with the declining quality of previously reliable stalwarts of work wear (looking at you, j crew, loft, ann Taylor, banana republic!) what used to look classic and quality is now often cheap, boxy, casual and fast fashion(without the true fast fashion price. Pick a lane retailers!! Sorry, rant over). Because of these shifts I’ve had to re-evaluate where and how I spend my money. Ten years ago, a suit or dress at one of the aforementioned retailers would be a great investment. I’ve started to embrace places I never thought were “me,” and so far they’re making me happy: Boden, Talbots, brooks brothers (esp red fleece). Give them a shot…Talbots is now designed by the Ann Taylor folks of the aughts and I’m seeing a really good pattern in style without losing quality!

  16. Michelle says:

    At my workplace Banana Republic, Ann Taylor etc works perfectly. My uniform is a sweater, blouse, or shell/cardigan with a black or navy pencil skirts. I let my jewelry be the bolder piece of my outfit.

    So I’ve been able to spend money building up a wonderful winter Cashmere wardrobe of cardigans, dresses, tunics and sweaters. I buy one piece a year to avoid having too many more sweaters than I need.

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