Reader Request: Keeping Inexpensive Shoes in Shape

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Reader Maegan e-mailed me this question:

My budget is pretty tight, so I get a lot of my basic footwear (flats, pumps, boots and sandals) from Target, Payless, and Famous Footwear. I usually wear my shoes until I wear them out and they’re practically rags, ESPECIALLY my flats. Any hints on how best to maintain my cute but not quite high quality shoes so I can keep them looking fabulous longer?

This is a GREAT question, albeit a bit of a tough one. In my experience, two main causes of damage in inexpensive shoes are water and overuse. So for starters:

Consider a pair of wellies

Your rain boots or shoes can be as cheap as you’d like since they won’t get loads of wear but will instead be transitional shoes. Don’t wear your dressy shoes when it’s raining. Slip on your wellies until you’re inside for the day, then swap in flats, pumps, or boots.

Rotate frequently

This could be a great style challenge, too! If you’ve got pairs that feel like favorites, try to wear them in rotation with your other pairs. Even if you’ve only got three pairs of shoes appropriate to the season, making sure that each pair gets some wear each week will keep them ALL from getting worn out as quickly.

You could also try:

Adding stick-on soles

Inexpensive shoes often show wear on their soles, so adding non-skid pads might help. It might not if your shoes wear somewhere other than the ball-of-foot area … but it’s worth a try! Reinforcing thin soles in any way might help with longevity. Try these or anything similar.

Sharpie repairs

Since these shoes can also get nicked and scraped, it can help to have a few colored Sharpie permanent markers on-hand for repairs. A nicked red shoe with a long white scratch will look better if you can dab some matching red ink into the damaged area. Emphasis on “better,” as this is far from foolproof! But it can work in a pinch. Since the majority of inexpensive shoes are not made from real leather, ink may actually work better than shoe polish.

And, of course, do your best to keep your shoes clean and dry. If they get mucked up, wipe them down at the end of the day before stashing them in the closet. This includes the soles – get rid of any grass, mud, or grit that’s stuck to your shoe bottoms. If the rainboots thing won’t work and your dressier shoes get soggy, make sure to dry them out thoroughly before wearing again.

What else would you suggest for Maegan? How do you keep your inexpensive shoes in good shape? Other tips to share?

Image courtesy Target.

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Originally posted 2013-08-20 06:46:08.

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30 Responses to “Reader Request: Keeping Inexpensive Shoes in Shape”

  1. Jennifer

    I love the Sharpie idea. I had a (not cheap) pair of purple flats that got scratched up last year, and then I didn’t wear them for the rest of the season. This year I decided they were still too cute to stay home, so I colored in the scratches with a not-perfectly-matching purple Sharpie, and it worked great! If you look closely, you can see the marker, but not even *I* get that close to my shoes!

    • Jen

      I have used a Sharpie, but now I’m wondering if nail polish would work. Anyone tried that?

      As a preschool teacher, I wear flats five days a week, and yep, they are cheap. I do rotate about every day or every other day. I’ve also used patterned duct tape on canvas type shoes to hold them up a little more. It’s def a casual look, but not many people can tell it’s tape.

      I haven’t tried it, but I’ve heard you can get a cobbler to replace shoe caps. Don’t know the expense, but it’s worth an ask. I have had my cobbler sew straps back on using a sewing machine for both cloth and faux leather straps. It cost me about $3 a pair.

      • Cindy M

        I have used nail polish! It worked well on some patent leather shoes (less expensive ones that I was willing to experiment) because it dries shiny and is more durable than Sharpie ink – though I have done that, too!

        • Jen

          Yeah, that’s what I was thinking–on patent shoes it would look better. That’s good to know!

  2. Shelley

    If Maegan drives, she might consider designating an old pair of shoes her driving shoes, as something about the use of feet in the process of driving can be hard on shoes, particularly the heels.

    If Maegan walks a lot, say to the bus or metro, a pair of walking shoes is also a possible means of reducing wear and tear on her ‘good’ shoes.

    • Eleanorjane

      Yes, I wear driving shoes now, having had scuffs on the back of one heel on several pairs of expensive leather shoes. I also find it causes less tension in my calves than driving in heels.

      I haven’t found a good way of stopping flats sagging and getting scuffed around the heels, but luckily I can afford to replace cheap flats when they get too ratty.

  3. Anneesha

    Great idea for a post – and these same ideas work for “not so cheap” shoes. My biggest problem is getting cuts on heels – where the covering bunches up and shows the plastic or whatever is underneath. Avoiding stepping on floor vents or grates is one, and filling in with Sharpee helps, too.

    Once I did a cool fix on a pair of silvery leather wedding-type shoes … scuffed them up then daubed on two shades of wax polish (cordovan/purple and brown) and let it dry, then buffed off so they had a purposely distressed look. Someone fashionable asked if they were Dolce & Gabbana!?

  4. teressimo

    I find it better to buy a pair of good quality leather shoes (ie one pair of black leather ballet flats) instead of inexpensive man made material shoes. It may cost more initially, but considering they last longer and look better, it ends up costing you less in the long run.

  5. melanie

    I would get to know a good shoe repair guy/lady: it costs less to repair a shoe than to replace it most of the time, even if you’re talking about really inexpensive shoes. Insoles, too, will help your shoes last longer — and save your feet.

  6. Lucy

    I second buying better quality shoes – even if you wait for the sales or get them from ebay or amazon. Leather shoes don’t have to be expensive. I have a pair of leopard print ballet flats I’ve been wearing about 4 times a week for 18 months and they’re still like new but they did cost me £50 (about 80 dollars). Still “cheaper” than buying 3 plastic pairs for £20 that die after 6 months and they don’t rub or make my feet sweat!

  7. Brigitte

    I treat my cheap shoes like expensive shoes: spray them with protector (especially good if its cheap suede or even fake suede), take them to a cobbler to resole them when needed.
    Still, it’s possible to get much higher quality shoes on sale if you look around at the end of seasons: those are usually easier to keep nice with polishes and cobblers, and so are a much better investment for the price of a pair of shoes at PayLess (<$30)

  8. Amy

    Thought I was the only one who used a Sharpie to fix my shoes! I love that idea on the sole protectors, especially if you might return shoes after the first wear or if you want to consign them later.

  9. Kara

    Spray protector, for sure! I use Kiwi protect-all on every pair of shoes I own. It says it’s good for leather and fabric… I spray the man made ones too and it seems to help them as well. I started doing a thorough cleaning, spraying, and assessment of all my shoes a few weeks before their season starts… just put the fall shoes on my calendar for next week.

    I always do rain/snow boots in inclement weather too. I’m starting to look into insoles in the hopes of giving heels a second chance – I teach music in an elementary school and gave up on them for several years. I’ve never done sharpie yet but I’ve heard of it before and several teacher friends swear by it.

  10. Stephanie

    At least for Target I would add make sure you are getting the right size. I am between a 10 and 11 lots of places but at target I’m always an 11. I have several pairs of their flats that have been around for a while and I think part of what has helped both with comfort and with wear is not having them be just a smidge too tight.

  11. Sewing Faille

    I feel like cheap shoes are a false economy. You may not have to invest much money up-front, but cheap shoes fall apart quickly, and once they do, you can’t repair them– you have to invest in entirely new shoes.

    Instead, I would buy one or two pairs of versatile shoes which are known for their durability, and then invest in shoe polish, leather balm, and re-soling as needed.

    For sandals, I’ve owned my Birkenstocks for at least five years. You can have the soles and footbeds replaced for a fraction of the original cost, and the shoe repair folks will often clean and renew the leather uppers at no extra charge. I also have two pairs of Mary Janes from Birkenstock, which I use as dress shoes.

    I also own several pairs of cowboy boots (YMMV, but I’m from Texas, so cowboy boots can work as replacements for basically anything– sandals, sneakers, and dress shoes.) I bought all of my boots used, and I keep them in good shape with leather balm and shoe polish. Several pairs go back at least to the 1980’s, and I’m sure I’ll get several more decades of wear out of them.

  12. Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    I have a ton of cheap shoes & they last me forever. I think one reason is that I almost always wear tights or socks with shoes. It’s not just water from the outside that destroys shoes — moisture from the inside causes shoes (esp. inexpensive ones) to break down faster. If that doesn’t suit your style, at least make sure to thoroughly air out your shoes after each wearing. Don’t stuff them in a box or cubbyhole, place them where they’ll bet good air circulation for a few hours or overnight.

  13. Sarah

    Eh, I really don’t think spending more on shoes necessarily = better quality. I have worn a pair of $100 leather flats into the ground in less time than a $20 pair of Payless shoes. In fact, it has happened so often that I am not willing to waste money anymore on “nice” shoes.

    Also, the person who asked the question probably knows she can spend more on shoes, but for various reasons, that is not an option for her. She knows her budget, so let’s trust her that she can’t spend more than $20-$30 on a pair of shoes. As a formerly broke person, it really stuck in my craw when I asked for fashion help or guidance and people told me to spend more money. Back then I had to save up for a pair of PAYLESS shoes, so telling me to save up for a pair of $100 shoes just made me want to cry. Let’s respect Maegan’s wishes – she wants to make cheap shoes last longer.

    My own take on it is to buy super-strong odor eater foot inserts. The kind that are black on the bottom where you put your foot, not white. They prevent A LOT of wear and tear in addition to preventing swamp shoe odor. Maybe it’s just me, but I have the most issues with the insole on cheap shoes shredding or falling out, as well as odor problems that lead me to just toss them. The insoles help so much and prevent the insole from disintegrating. You can get them for about $4 at Wal-mart or Target. I replace mine every 2-3 months and have $20 Target flats that have lasted for 2+ years.

    I also second swapping out your shoes. This is hard when you don’t have a lot of money to spend and can only afford one new pair per season. If you can swing two pairs and switch them out daily, they will definitely last longer, but if you can’t afford two pairs at once, the insoles will help!

    • Lynn

      I second the idea of shoe inserts. I use these on as many shoes as I can (only exception is sandals where they would show). They keep the insides of the shoes clean and odor free and can be replaced easily. This is especially good if you live in a hot, humid climate as I do.

      Regular polish and cleaning also extends the life of the shoe and can cover scuffs and worn places. I’ve used leather dye to make a pair of scuffed shoes darker so that nothing shows.

  14. Emily

    Recently I bought some Naturalizer heels–they weren’t SUPER cheap–around $65. They got a really bad scrape the first time I wore them, so I took a silver Sharpie and drew stripes on both shoes. It actually looks intentional! (They’re the most comfortable heels I’ve ever worn, so even though they’re crap quality, I wanted to extend their life.)

    I try to thrift higher-quality shoes, but it’s very hard to find secondhand shoes in larger sizes…most of them seem to be 6-7.

  15. Lisa

    Buying better quality shoes is definitely a money saver in the long run. They tend to last longer, are more breathable if they’re made with real leather or canvas, and feel better.

    A tip if you’ve scuffed shoes made of a very soft leather and the leather has been scraped off and is hanging like a flap: Smooth a little bit of Krazy Glue on the leather-less spot, and use a toothpick to push the scraped-off leather back into place. I’ve done this many a time when I’ve nicked covered heels or stubbed the toe of my shoes on the sidewalk.

  16. Monica H

    I have found that the type of material of inexpensive shoes makes a difference in how long they last. I’ve found that fabric shoes and faux suede seem to wear better than faux leather. Faux patent seems to be pretty decent too. Metallic finishes have not seemed to last as long for me, and they’re harder to touch up with a sharpie. 🙂

    I’ve also found that just cleaning them with a damp cloth every so often makes them look a lot better, especially black faux suede.

  17. GingerR

    Save your cute cheap shoes for indoor wearing and wear something that has a sturdy sole and can survive wet conditions when you’re outside.
    Your outside shoes don’t need to be expensive, Payless has all kinds of rubber-soled shoes that will work. They just need to be constructed out of materials that can take harder wear.

    It is a good idea to be careful with protective sprays and polish on colored leather shoes. You never know when the dye will discolor or darken. Always test an area out before you spray!

  18. Jen Morris

    I recommend buying a stain and water protector spray. They last forever and are great for adding a Teflon-type coating. The shoes need to be sprayed about every third time you wear them, as it can wear off. They don’t make shoes waterproof but do protect against stains and dirt and a light sprinkling of water, like if you’re dashing into the house and it’s drizzling. I spray my satin, fabric and suede shoes; you can also spray handbags or wallets.

  19. Anamarie

    I haven’t seen anyone else suggest this, so here goes. I use unscented spray deodorant on my feet every day (Sure brand, but use whatever if you are OK with scented products). I spray it on top and bottom, then wear slippers until my feet are dry. Result is that my shoes don’t stink, even after a couple of seasons’ hard wear. If you don’t let your feet dry, you will end up with white residue in your shoes. This definitely prolongs my ability to wear certain shoes longer, and I don’t have to worry that my shoes reek when I take them off at someone’s house. Ahhh Minnesotans! Hate taking off my shoes.

  20. Sabine

    Shoe trees! They keep shoes in good shape. I feel that non-leather tends to wrinkle more. Alternatively, stuff shoes with crumpled newspaper to keep toecase in shape.

  21. Kaxena

    I use shoe trees in all my shoes, even the cheap ones. They really make a difference because they help the shoe keep its shape, and dry out. They also make it easier to clean the shoe off. These are the ones I use (no affiliation), and they are kind of expensive upfront. But they at least double or triple the length of time a pair lasts.

  22. KayBug

    Protector spray is the best! I use Camp Dry instead of ScotchGuard. I have sprayed all of my fabric, suede and fake suede and it really works. Two coats, allowing the first one to dry fully, will make even the furriest softest suede capable of hiking through a rain-filled parking lot. (true story!)

    Instead of shoe trees (which can be expensive), if your shoes or boots came with plastic or paper inserts, keep them and reuse them when storing. I also use folded magazines inside of my tall boots.

    I find that spending more money for leather vs. fakes is very much about the material and cut. I have had expensive leather shoes that got damaged right away, hurt my feet in an odd way and or didn’t go with any of my outfits; I have had cheap fakes (or even cheap real) that I have worn for years and years with little to no special care. (brown suede Target round-toe wedges, hello! Love you!) You can get great looking shoes at any price point if you know how to shop for them.

  23. Chloe

    Not sure if anyone had mentioned it yet but I’ve had super good luck getting cute shoes at consignment stores for a target budget. Otherwise I like getting canvas ones and putting them in a bag in the washing machine. Super clean!