Showstopping Style on a Pauper’s Budget

Style on a budget

I’ve received about 16 hillion jillion requests for ways to look awesome on a tight budget, and I hear ya, friends. I mean times are tight, for one thing … but shopping smart is a best practice no matter what the economy is up to. So here are a few guidelines that can help you keep your look fresh, fun, and affordable even if you’re hurting for cash.


Buy Muted Colors: Blaring brights are super fun but muted tones look more expensive. When you’re trolling Target for tees, pick out raspberry red instead of fire engine red, steel blue instead of superman blue … anything with a little less saturation. You’ll be amazed how much classier those tones will play when paired with your neutrals.

Buy Brushed Metals: I love the shiny. LOVE the sparkly. But when I want to give off a chic, cultured-lady vibe, I reach for my brushed, matte jewelry every time. None of it was particularly costly, but it all looks sleek and mod and … well, spendy.

Buy Gray Instead of Black: Black is ubiquitous and it fades after a few washes. Gray is less common, gives off an upper-crust vibe, and is more fade-proof. Even if you’re not ready to delve into alternate neutrals, go for some gray to instantly up your chic quotient.


Buy Trendy Accessories, Not Clothes: Even if you can’t afford to buy this season’s hottest leather bomber or fabulous frilly frock at full price, you can probably find a way to work an of-the-moment accessory. Whether it’s a particular handbag shape, style of necklace, or type of shoe, chances are you can snap it up at a mall or thrift store for pennies on the dollar. Trendy clothes may be easy to procure, but they’re often shoddily made … and they show it. Trendy accessories are easy to get for cheap and generally don’t APPEAR to be cheap unless inspected closely.

Make a Trend Wishlist, and Thrift it: The three ladies pictured above are wearing plaid, harem pants, and florals. ALL thrifted. Nothing is new, my dears. Thrift for trends.

Check Your Closet for “In” Colors: Unless you live in a black and white world, you likely have some lurking items that qualify as super-stylin’ merely due to their hue. For fall? Amethyst purple, teal, and magenta. Got anything in those tones? Does your roomie/sister/boyfriend/girlfriend/mom?


Learn to Sew/Alter: Yeah, it’s a bit of an undertaking. But how fab would it be to do your own hemming? Add trim to boring old blouses and dresses? Even cook up your very own designs from re-purposed duds?

Polish Your Shoes: Artfully destroyed or worn-in shoes may look chic and rocker-ish, but scuffed and faded shoes just look dreadful. Colored shoe polish works wonders if you can match tone, and an oil sponge is positively miraculous on tanned leathers.

Dye Stained Garments: Waste not, want not! Want a fuchsia dress, and hate your old, pit-stained gray one? Pick up a pack of RIT and go to. A few words of warning, though: Only dye something you’re totally willing to throw away if the dye job gets botched, and don’t expect it to actually BE the color on the box.

Images courtesy (from left to right) caroline, zombielace, chickendinnercandybar, all via Missa‘s 100% Thrifted Flickr group.

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details. Sustainable options are either used, handmade, made in the U.S., artisan made in non-sweatshop conditions, or made using sustainable/fair trade practices.

Originally posted 2009-08-24 05:58:00.

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33 Responses to “Showstopping Style on a Pauper’s Budget”

  1. Whitney

    Good tips! I really liked the part about buying colors that aren't so in your face. I'm curious about the black/gray thing before. Gray is very much "in" right now, even in interior design. I tend to go for black because I think it's more upper-crust.

    Like this coat, for example, that I want to buy:

    It comes in black and gray. Does the black make it look more expensive or does the gray?

    Great post!

  2. Sal

    Whitney: Hmmm, that's a toughie. I'd go for the gray personally because it's more versatile in MY wardrobe … but that particular shade of gray is a little muddy. It's cooler grays, and lighter ones, that strike me as more expensive looking. So in this case, you could prolly go either way. If you tend toward black, go black.

    Additionally, WHAT A CUTE COAT! I might have to snap one up for myself.

  3. ranksubjugation

    Love it! This is the story of my life, here!

    I buy an average of 4-8 pieces every Saturday… and after Ebaying things that are old or don't work out, I only spend about $200-$300 a year! Yes, sometimes I splurge, but not every year, and not very much (no $1000 handbags, etc.)I also work in a ritzy part of town, and no one knows the difference.

    I apply Sal's rules when shopping at:
    – SWAP MEETS (Dunno if they are the same everywhere, but the ones near me sell gently used mall-quality clothes for $1/piece).

    – Goodwill Marketplace/Goodwill Clearance centers (clothes by the pound – got my bf a cashmere sweater for $3 the other day)

    – TJ Maxx (my go-to for a hot handbag. I find you can get great quality in a lesser-known brand, making it look like you spent much more).

  4. K.Line

    The grey=chichi argument is very sound, IMO. Great post, as always.

  5. Sharon Rose

    Hi there-a lovely post and yes, I do thrift for my wishlist. I agree about accessories too, they can really add dimension to existing clothes.

  6. madam0wl, a.k.a Sandra

    Fun tips. I agree to all this and practice many myself. I've been "thrifting" a lot more basic pieces also, i.e. plain jersey knit dresses in fun colors that I can wear as underlayers in mixes.

    P.S. I love Missa's 100% Thrifted picks of the week, but Joules on flickr started the group. Just sayin' 🙂

  7. Erin

    I wasn't sure if that was just my own perception on the muted colors look more expensive thing. Glad to hear someone else thinks that way too!
    I actually just exercised that tip last weekend. I've been loving a dooney and bourke red patent leather tote (not happening at the moment) saw a similar red patent leather ninewest tote, but it was either cherry red (ala dooney and bourke)or a more wine red. Since it was faux leather, I bought the wine red one because it looked more expensive and didn't seem as plasticy.
    I love my new bag, but I still wish I could afford that Dooney and Bourke tote though 🙂

  8. Alianna

    Awesome tips!
    The only thing I'd add is that in addition to accessories, shoes are a great way to make an outfit trendy. You could go with basic black, but something interesting, with a variety of colours or unique styling will make your outfit look expensive. Often you can get these unique shoes for cheap or you could DIY!

  9. ambika

    The other thing about embellishing clothes is that with careful hand stitching, you don't even need to be an experienced seamstress to do it right. Buttons, ribbon, rickrack and all the Antrho-esque doodads can very easily be added to things without a lot of expertise as long as you take your time and make tiny stitches.

  10. WendyB

    Hmmm…I don't think I've really had a problem with black fading. Of course, I don't put anything in the dryer.

  11. futurelint

    Knowing how to sew saves SO much money! I've known how my whole life and SO many people don't and ask me to fix things for them. It's such a useful skill to have! It's amazing how much good stuff at thrift stores can be tailored to fit perfectly!

  12. Veronica, aka "Suzy Tofu"

    Wonderful advice! I want to print this out & stick it on my fridge 🙂

  13. La Belette Rouge

    Woolworth Black is great for helping my blacks last longer. When I buy black I want to do everything I can to make it stay true as long as possible. That said, I am adding some grey to my palette this season. The more timeless classics the better:-)

  14. Make Do Style

    Spend the money you have on an good belt to wear over dresses etc, a good necklace and pair of shoes. Keep the rest simple white shirts are great and can be worked so many ways.

  15. The Budget Babe

    Oooh I love these tips! esp. the burnished metal, my bf is always saying that about stuff for the home, too (he prefers brushed chrome over shiny silver).

    Definitely adding this to my weekly link round-up. And thanks for the link love, too 🙂

  16. Maegan

    such great tips! …I love getting creative weather I can afford something or not …it's just so much more fun!

  17. Maegan

    weather? really maegan? lol…

    of course I meant: whether

  18. Nadine

    Sales! I (mostly) don't buy anything if it isn't on sale. You need to know what suits you, so if something is "you" it doesn't matter if is on-trend or vintage or whatever. The other day I got 3 dresses for $54 (which averages $18 each) and originally they were all $90-$100. I'd had my eye on them all season, I just had to wait until they got down into my price range.

  19. Lesa

    I love your ideas, and will incorporate many of them into my wardrobe.

  20. Clare

    Great tips!!! Surefire ways to make it through the fashion season on a less-than-fashionable budget.

  21. lisa

    Regardless of whether I'm spending $10 or $100 on a piece of clothing, I check the fabrication and stitching. You can find some inexpensive things that look like they cost a lot more when you do that.

  22. fleur_delicious

    research! (says the historian)

    I google the next season's trends, read the NYTimes/Elle/Vogue/etc. round-ups at the end of fashion weeks, and look at Pantone's colour forecasts. This way, I figure I have some idea of the pieces/themes/colours/looks that will be everywhere and probably be influencing my tastes in upcoming months. I note the elements that appeal to me and keep those things in mind when I'm shopping (for clothes or for fabric) and try to kill a couple birds with a single stone.

  23. hollarback

    Agree with everything but the buy gray thing. While I love it on others, if it is bad color for you, you will look like death.

    Charcoal gray is a cool modern, very chic color…just not on me. I can only get away with grey pants.

  24. Miss Peregrin

    Great tips! Thrifting really is one of the best ways to find trendy stuff – I've gotten designer pieces for under $5 before.

  25. Spandexpony

    I'd say never buy secondhand anything from H&M, Target, F21, etc. Invest in good jeans. If you're gonna be poor you might as well be fabulous, so eschew boring "basics" from the thrift store. They usually look homeless. Also, be intrepid when it comes to colors and combining them. What your clothes lack in newness or expensiveness is made up for by people admiring your ingenuity with color schemes and their resulting eyepleasingness.

  26. Patty Ann

    These are really great tips! I'm all into buying trendy jewelry over the clothes when I'm trying to cut back on shopping! I really like it because you can dress up any outfit, even the most boring one, with accessories! Great post! xx

  27. Casey

    Fantastic tips! I love the idea about not buying super bright colors, though I admit I still tend towards them as opposed to something less saturated. 😉 lol.

    I definitely do a lot of sewing/refashioning to boost my wardrobe. I don't have much of a clothing budget, so this is the way I can add "new" (whether they're truly newly made, or just refashions of something I've had for years) pieces into the mix. Even tshirts are not sacred! 😉

    Thrifting is also my best friend, and I've found some amazing bargains that way. Even for "basics" in the neutrals I like in my wardrobe (mostly black, though I discovered last year that charcoal grey looks decent too!). It's the most economical way for me to pick up the majority of my clothes.

    I know this season my biggest change to how I shop is to start shopping with more of a formal plan. In year's past, it's been more along the lines of "whatever you like, buy!", but since my storage space is that much less and I'm trying not to spend as freely (even with thrifting), outlining what I truly need is going to help me loads to build up my wardrobe on a budget.

  28. Lorena

    Great TIPS!
    In addition an addition to the shoe maintenance…
    I clean my patent shoes with nail polish, all the scuff marks disappear and the shine stays!

  29. Cynthia

    Along with teal, amethyst, and magenta – papaya! A truly luscious shade of orange.

    I'm determined to own this color – I've always shied away from it; it's definitely outside my comfort zone.

  30. Kristen

    Yay for sewing! I recently raised the hems on two unflattering skirts and now they look amazing. Don't know why I didn't do it years ago.