Stretch Your Back-to-School Wardrobe Budget

An expert stylist shares her smart shopping tips to spruce up what you already own so you can get back to school for less.

Woman with hands on hips staring into her closet

by NEA Member Benefits


Wondering how you can go back to school in style without spending too much? Clothing costs can be a concern, but these wardrobe tips from DC Style Factory founder and chief stylist Rosana Vollmerhausen can help you get more mileage out of the clothing you already have and spend less—and buy smarter—if you need new pieces.

First, decide how much you want to spend. Then, after you’ve set your wardrobe budget, survey your closet to see what you really need.

Build a foundation

You need a solid foundation of staple pieces. Vollmerhausen calls them the “building blocks” of your personal style. “These are the wardrobe workhorses that make creating outfits easy and possible,” she says.

You might have a closet full of clothes you love, but still not have a solid foundation, she explains. As a personal stylist, she sees many clients whose closets contain many “special pieces” without enough essentials to anchor them.

When she speaks of staples, she’s talking about “the black pants, those perfect dark jeans, the easy-to-layer cream sleeveless blouse, the black blazer.” These basic pieces may not have many bells and whistles compared to those special pieces you love, “but you need them for a versatile and functional wardrobe,” Vollmerhausen explains. With a solid foundation of basics to build on, “you don’t have to have a ton of clothing to have many options.”

Your base wardrobe should include:

  • One weeks’ worth of bottoms: seven trousers, jeans, skirts or a mix of these pieces
  • Two weeks’ worth of tops: 14 blouses and T-shirts (because tops usually need more laundering than bottoms)
  • Five layering pieces such as cardigans, blazers and jackets
  • Five pairs of shoes including two pairs of flats, one pair of comfortable pumps, one pair of flat ankle boots and one pair of nonathletic sneakers.

Basic pieces should be transitional or “seasonless,” meaning clothing you can wear throughout the year. After you have your foundation, then you can supplement with seasonal clothes such as thicker pullover sweaters and coats.

Get more life out of the wardrobe you already have

Whatever your style, Vollmerhausen says your look will fall apart if your clothes appear worn or don’t fit properly. If a garment worth keeping doesn’t fit as well as it should, have it altered. “It’s worth the investment,” she states.

Extend the useful life of your clothes by taking good care of them, even if they didn’t cost much. Treat budget clothing as well as you would treat pricier garments. “That means delicate cycle washing, hanging or laying flat to dry” and using a warm iron if pressing is needed, Vollmerhausen explains. “All these steps will help preserve the quality and integrity of your clothing” no matter what it cost.

Bonus: Making your clothes last longer means you won’t need to replace pieces as often so your budget will last longer.

Revitalize wardrobe items you want to keep

Extend the useful life of wardrobe items that are still wearable but may not be in style or look new.

For example, if you have an older blazer that just feels outdated, take it to a tailor to see if the sleeve length is where it should be, if the waist is nipped in enough and if the sleeve can be narrowed, Vollmerhausen suggests. Alterations like these “will automatically make for an updated style of blazer and typically cost $20 to $50.”

If trousers need a new look, consider narrowing the leg into a “cigarette pant” silhouette that will upgrade and update your style. Think Audrey Hepburn, Vollmerhausen suggests.

Shoes gain a new life when you take them to your local cobbler, Vollmerhausen adds. “You would not believe what a simple heel repair, buffing and shining will do to bring your shoes back to life.”

Give your jewelry a modernizing makeover. Try layering a few delicate pieces to create one larger necklace that makes a bolder statement. Combine pearls and chains and don’t be afraid to mix gold and silver.

Every item you can successfully update is an item you won’t have to spend money to replace.

Shop for deals, but be careful with sales

Before you shop, know which items are worth spending more money on and which can cost less. Vollmerhausen encourages her clients to invest in shoes, blazers and purses and save on blouses and trousers. “Our philosophy is quality over quantity—spend more and buy less.”

Audit your closet first and create a list of essentials before you shop. “List the items you truly need and do a line-item budget so you know how much you can spend on each piece,” Vollmerhausen says.

“Shop exclusively for deals,” Vollmerhausen says, and “stick to your list.” Don’t let a “too good to pass up” deal or sale sway you into an unplanned splurge. “If something you really need is on sale and fits great, then yes, buy it,” she says, but remember “shopping sale racks exclusively leads to unnecessary purchases.”

There’s a difference between shopping deals and shopping sales, Vollmerhausen explains. She doesn’t encourage exclusive sale shopping because “sales are always happening” and it’s easy to go overboard or buy things you don’t really need.

The trick is to keep your budgeted and prioritized shopping list ready to go so when you find things that are on your list, you can try them on and “earmark the items you like and that work for you,” Vollmerhausen explains. That doesn’t necessarily mean buy them. If the price is higher than you’ve budgeted for, “you can always wait for those particular items to go on sale.”

See Rosana Vollmerhausen’s Fashion Tips for Educators for more ideas on practical and economical ways to be comfortable and look professional on a budget.

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