Best Work Clothes for Women – How to Build a Wardrobe on a Budget

Building a work wardrobe can be a daunting process – and it’s even more challenging if you’re working on a tight budget. With limited funds, it’s tempting to buy whatever is on sale and shop at stores with bargain prices. But while you might save money, you’re more likely to end up with a closet full of uncoordinated items that are difficult to wear.

To really save money on work clothing, it’s best to start out with the end in mind. Decide on a color palette for your wardrobe, invest in a small amount of neutral, timeless clothing staples, and always opt for quality over quantity.

Getting Started

Consider Your Work Dress Code

There’s nothing worse than buying a closet full of clothes only to find out it’s not appropriate for your workplace. Before you go on a shopping spree, consult your employee handbook to find out specifics on your company’s dress code policy. If you’re starting a new job, observe attire during your interview, or ask someone you know who works there what’s common and what’s not appropriate.

Most offices range somewhere between casual and business professional. You’re better off erring on the side of caution and dressing a bit nicer than necessary when first starting out. A good rule of thumb is that if you have to stop and ask yourself if an article of clothing is work-appropriate, it’s probably not a good idea to purchase it for the office.

Coordinate Your Closet

A fantastic way to keep your clothing costs low is to only buy pieces that coordinate. This lets you create what fashion bloggers have dubbed a “capsule wardrobe,” a wardrobe with a small number of pieces that you can combine to create lots of outfits.

To keep your work wardrobe lean, pick a few neutral base colors and add in other colors that complement your base. For example, if you prefer cool tones, you can focus on neutral blacks and grays with blues, teals, pinks, and greens. Ladies who like warmer tones may opt for black and tan neutrals and add in yellows, greens, golds, and reds.

Add in a few statement pieces to keep your wardrobe from being too ho-hum. Bold necklaces, handbags, and shoes in bright colors or with interesting designs are great ways to accessorize your outfit.

Determine How Much You Need

Ideally, it’s nice not to have to wear the same article of clothing twice in one week. You don’t necessarily need to launder an item after each wearing, but clothes do benefit from airing out between wearings. Also, you need to have alternative options if you accidentally stain your top or bottom before you get out the door.

Still, don’t be pressured to buy a month’s worth of outfits. If you have enough articles of clothing to create a distinct outfit for each day of the week, you’re in good shape. Minimalist wardrobe advocates insist that folks can get by with only 35 articles of clothing.

A sample work wardrobe could consist of the following:

  • Blouses. Unless your dress code is quite casual, stay away from cotton tees and sleeveless tops. Look for button-ups and shell blouses instead. Expect to spend between $15 and $40 for an affordable but quality top. (Purchase 3 to 4 blouses)
  • Skirts. A-line skirts and pencil skirts that are almost-knee length work well for the office. You can find office-appropriate skirts that cost anywhere from $30 to $90. (1 to 2)
  • Work Pants. Make these a mix of slacks and dark wash jeans, depending on your office dress code. You can expect to spend at least $30 for a nice pair of pants, although you may need to pay $40 or $50. (2 to 3)
  • Blazers or Cardigans. Purchase at least one black one – the rest can be complementary colors, and one can be a bold statement color. You can find cardigans in the $15 to $30 range, but you probably need to pay at least $30 or $40 for a nice blazer. (2 to 3)
  • Sweaters. Opt for sweaters made of a breathable fabric so you’re comfortable in the office. Expect to spend at least $20 for a basic sweater. For sweaters made of luxury fabrics, such as cashmere or wool, expect to spend at least $100. (2 to 3)
  • Dresses. Be sure to have a black cocktail dress in case you need to attend an evening work event. Basic sheath and A-line dresses usually start at around $30. (2 to 3)
  • Pairs of Shoes. You need one pair of nude or black heels, one pair of neutral flats, and one pair of statement shoes. Stick to straightforward, classic designs and you can find office-appropriate shoes for $30 to $50 per pair. (2 to 3)
  • Pieces of Jewelry. A string of pearls complements almost any outfit. Also pick up a few statement necklaces to pair with your neutral outfits. You can find a nice pearl necklace from a jewelry store for around $50. Statement necklaces, which don’t have real gems and aren’t made of precious metals, start at around $15. (4 to 5)
  • Handbags. Opt for solid-colored pieces that coordinate with your outfits. Expect to spend at least $30 or $40 for a nice-looking bag. (2 to 3)

Don’t get too worried about judgment at the office. Your coworkers are likely concerned with themselves and their work, not what you’re wearing. If you want to be able to repeat outfits, stick with classic staple pieces.

Loud, memorable clothes – such as a leopard-print top or brightly patterned skirt – can add style to an otherwise plain outfit, but you may not feel comfortable wearing them more than once every few weeks. On the other hand, you can wear neutral pieces, like dark skirts and trousers, over and over again and no one is likely to notice.

business woman working

Clothing Quality Concerns

Do your best to invest in quality clothing – you’re better off paying a few dollars more to obtain a better-made article of clothing. Well-made garments fit better, last longer, and often look better.

Examine Clothing

Examine how a piece of clothing is constructed before you buy it. Good-quality pieces feature thicker fabric and don’t become transparent in strong light.

Here are some things to look for:

  • Jackets, Coats, and Skirts With Linings. These drape better on your body.
  • Clothing That’s Made of Mostly Natural Fibers. Materials such as cotton, wool, silk, angora, satin, and leather are more likely to maintain their shape over time. Some synthetic material isn’t a problem, but try to find pieces that are made of at least 80% natural fibers.
  • Quality Zippers and Pockets. Zippers should lie flat and pockets should be made of a sturdy material so you don’t get holes.
  • Nice Hems and Seams. Look for clothing where the patterns match up at the seams (it looks more professional) and items that have sufficient hems.
  • Professional Stitching. The less dense the stitches are, the more likely it is that the thread can unravel and the fabric may fray.

Where to Buy

Brick-and-Mortar Clothing Stores

There is no shortage of brick-and-mortar stores in shopping malls and strip malls that sell work-appropriate clothing. Even if you like to shop online, it’s helpful to visit the physical store at least once to get a sense of clothing quality and to determine your size.

Department Stores and Women’s Clothing Stores

Classic department stores like Nordstrom, Saks, and Bloomingdale’s all stock wonderful items. Unfortunately, prices can be quite high. J.Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, ASOS, Ann Taylor, Loft, Express, Target, Zara, and Macy’s are other places to find professional pieces that won’t necessarily break the bank.

Before you buy, investigate discounts, as sales and coupons can net you significant savings. For example, Express offers coupons of $15 off purchases of $30 or more on a regular basis and hosts 50%-off sales periodically throughout the year. Target, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to offer aggressive discounts, but clothing prices are more reasonable year-round.

Discount Stores

Luckily, you don’t always have to pay top-dollar to get quality clothing. Discount stores buy the same brands you’d find at department stores and sell them at a substantial price reduction.

Be sure to check out the following:

  • T.J. Maxx. The store offers a large variety of work-appropriate clothes and shoes.
  • Marshalls. Marshalls and T.J. Maxx are owned by the same parent company so you may find some identical items at both stores.
  • Ross. Prices at Ross tend to be a little lower than what you may find at T.J. Maxx and Marshalls.

Outlet Stores

You can sometimes find better prices at the store’s outlet, such as Gap Factory outlet store or Nordstrom Rack. Be careful, though – many outlet stores specifically stock lower-quality merchandise. That means you may not be getting the same quality of clothing even though the label is the same.

Bargain Stores

Feel free to check out bargain stores like Forever 21 and Walmart. Just be aware that these stores have a reputation for selling clothes that don’t stand the test of time, so be picky about what you buy. You’re better off picking up your fun statement necklaces here than your suit separates.

Cheaper Department Stores

Not all department stores are priced like Nordstrom and Saks. Mid-level department stores like JCPenney and Sears offer large selections of work clothes at lower prices. Wait for a sale and you may be able to get items for 50% to 60% off the retail price.

Second-Hand Stores

Lastly, don’t be afraid to venture into second-hand stores. Depending on the store’s inventory, you can find expensive labels at Goodwill or Buffalo Exchange for a fraction of the original cost.

Buying Online

Shopping at brick-and-mortar stores can be time-consuming and exhausting. If you’ve had some experience with a particular store brand – for instance you know your size and are happy with materials and fit – it can be more efficient to buy online. Many stores have generous policies that allow you to mail back unwanted pieces for no extra charge, which makes returns a breeze.

Even if you don’t make your purchase online, you may want to peruse the Internet on your smartphone before you buy something at a brick-and-mortar store. You may be able to find the exact same piece from another retailer (or on eBay) for a lower price. Always consider the cost of shipping though, especially on a site like eBay, to determine whether buying online is truly a better deal.

Find Your Style and Stock Up

It can be hard to find pieces that are good quality, low-cost, and flattering. If you find something you really like that wears well, buy multiples in the same or a different color.

There’s nothing wrong with having similar pieces in your wardrobe. Art director Matilda Kahl made headlines when she decided to buy 15 of the same tops and a few pants as part of a self-imposed “work uniform.” She notes that, even though she spent a lot at once, she’s saved quite a bit of money in the long-run by doing so.

You don’t have to go as far as Kahl did, but there is sound logic to the concept. It’s better to stock up on a known quantity than to waste time and gas shopping for new pieces that may or may not work for you. Plus, retailers switch manufacturers on a regular basis, so that exact same piece may not be around when you want a new one next year.

woman clothes shopping

Final Word

Building a great wardrobe on a budget requires a lot of patience and self-restraint. Resist the temptation to load up on cheap items that don’t quite fit right and focus on quality instead. Before you buy something for your work wardrobe, ask yourself, “What outfit does this complete?” or “How versatile is this item?” It’s not always easy to find those perfect, timeless pieces, but it’s worth it when you have a closet full of work clothes that you can easily mix and match.

What tips or tricks helped you build your wardrobe on a strict budget?