Business Fashion on a Budget

By Jessica Wright, NEFE media intern

As a child, I never imagined myself in an office job. My dream was to become famous for my unique style and personality. A lot of my fashion inspiration came from celebrities and people-watching. My style was eccentric, and business suits were the furthest thing from my mind.

My father dressed in business attire, but my mother worked in an eye doctor’s office and was required to wear purple scrubs. Even outside of work, my mom wasn’t the dressy type—she shopped for comfort and practicality.

Soon I will graduate with a master’s degree in public relations, so to fund my childhood aspirations, I am now in need of a business wardrobe. Buying business clothes for the first time can be intimidating. When I first started shopping for them, I found that quality dresses can start out at $50–$70 and blazers can go for $120 or higher. Although I’d love to be the fashion-forward businesswoman with designer suits and dresses, I don’t have that kind of money starting out.

Jessica’s Top 5 Must-Haves

  • White, button-down, collared shirt
  • Knee-length dress
  • Well-fitting blazer
  • Black skirt and/or slacks
  • Low, closed-toe heels

At some point I realized that I was shopping in the wrong places—everyone in corporate America can’t be breaking the bank to look the part. So, I took the initiative to become cost conscious with my search and found some great alternatives.

Instead of going straight to a high-end store, I reviewed the clothing I already had. I also sought out thrift stores and consignment shops for items usually priced at a higher cost. I found H&M to be very cost-efficient for my basic interchangeable pieces such as blazers, skirts, and undershirts.

Eventually, I had what I needed and I have discovered that equipping yourself with the essential business wardrobe pieces can give you that extra boost of confidence when you walk into the office. After all, when you look good, you feel good. Here are my tips for building your beginner’s business wardrobe. And keep in mind that you don’t have to buy it all at once. Switch up your pieces to create new wardrobe combinations.

[Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by the National Endowment for Financial Education.]

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Get the basics. Start with a white collared shirt; black slacks (or a black skirt); a well-fitted black blazer; low, closed-toe heels; and proper undershirts. Stick with solid, neutral colors in case you have to wear the same pieces more than once during the week.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Maximize what you have. Look through your closet. If you wear it to church or a nice family dinner, you may be able to wear it to the office, too. Just remember to keep it conservative and appropriate for the workplace.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Use your network. Use social media to advertise a closet sale for items you no longer need. Get together with your friends and sell or swap items you no longer find fashionable or that no longer fit. You might pick up some pieces that you won’t have to purchase at store value.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Shop at thrift and consignment shops. One person’s trash can be another’s treasure. Thrift and consignment shops are great places to find blazers at a low cost. The best time to secondhand shop is when the seasons are about to change. Otherwise, early Saturday morning is a good time to go and browse.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Not the right fit? Get it tailored. You will fall in love with things that don’t fit—especially at thrift stores. But you can alter the garment for $5–$10 and have a custom fit. Check with your local cleaners, which may offer tailoring services.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Develop a business wardrobe savings plan. If you know your career is headed down the corporate route, start putting aside money to invest in your wardrobe. Also, consider the longevity of your purchases. Will that shirt or pair of pants give you a return on your investment? Make sure you get the most bang for your buck.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Choose the right fabrics. Check the labels of clothes that make you feel comfortable and are durable. Even if you don’t plan to keep the piece forever, make sure the item will hold up and serve its purpose for as long as you need.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Learn basic sewing skills. Cut back on tailoring costs by teaching yourself the basic principles of using a needle and thread. Learn to reattach buttons, raise a hemline, and—if you aren’t that great with sewing—hem with fabric tape. Your first couple attempts will not be perfect, but the more you practice, the better you will get.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Handle with care. Take pride in your garments. Follow the cleaning instructions and don’t be afraid to use an iron. Be sure to hang up your clothes instead of leaving them balled up in a corner—these pieces have to last until you’re able to acquire your dream wardrobe.

10 Tips for Building a Business Wardrobe


Follow fashion bloggers. Seek out fashion bloggers on YouTube, Wordpress, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook; they often have tips for staying trendy on a thrifty budget. Also, use higher-end bloggers for wardrobe inspiration. Here are a few of my faves: