4 Priceless Tips That Help Me Always Look Professional On A Small Budget

If I could, I would live in my PJs all day. Getting a real job and transitioning into a professional environment as a young adult was painful in many ways, and one of them was the fact that I had to forgo my comfy clothes for a “real” wardrobe.

My workplaces thus far have adopted a formal dress code (with the slight exception of casual — but not by much — Fridays). Some people absolutely thrive when they get dressed up and/or possess an innate ability to look effortlessly amazing, but as someone who thrives in sweatpants and has been said to be fashion-challenged, I have had to get creative in how I maintain the balance between comfort and professionalism. (Some of my colleagues often marvel at how much I can get away with.)

The other downside to a professional wardrobe is that it can be expensive. Some of my friends also find it difficult not to succumb to the peer pressure when everyone else is clad in designer wear. There is nothing wrong with investing in a great quality wardrobe and buying designer things, but for me personally, my priorities are dead-set on minimizing the percentage of disposable income spent on clothing in order to put more money into savings. I work a high-stress, high-income job that I know is not sustainable for me in the long-term, so although it may be well within my budget now to splurge on an incredible wardrobe (complete with shoes, handbags and other accessories), I know that if and when I change jobs or career paths and my disposable income drops, this decision would haunt me. On that note, let’s get straight to the tips on how I manage to look professional on a small budget!

1. Outlets

Dress for the job you want! This always sounds a bit silly, but it’s actually true. And if you can’t dress to impress, you should at least strive to blend in. In professional environments, you don’t really want to stand out, especially if you are a junior employee. Take cues from colleagues and your boss. Even within the same company, the boundaries can be different. If your direct boss shows up in a full suit every day, you have to adjust to the expectations accordingly. As someone who looks quite young, it also becomes extra important for me to dress well so that I am taken seriously at client meetings.

Past a certain point, it is quite difficult to find inexpensive dupes for building-block pieces like blazers, work dresses and pencil skirts. The best shopping hack that I’ve had consistent success with is to shop at outlets. I can find Calvin Klein dresses for more than 70% off at outlets, but it would take a lot of luck and perseverance to find an equally well-made dress from a high street shop. I have found so many amazing things at outlets for a fraction of the price, and I get to have a “designer” wardrobe for less! ASOS is another amazing option to get designer clothes for less (there is a specific “Outlet” tab) and the free returns make it easy to avoid buyer’s regret. Shopping off-season also really helps and I find that, for work pieces, it is actually very easy to buy off-season, since most things I shop for are classic items that fit in year after year.

2. Know yourself

I don’t know if anyone remembers the time where capes were popular? Some women in my office pulled them off with panache and looked absolutely amazing. Ditto pantsuits. But as someone with a petite frame, both options are not the most flattering on me. It is important to know yourself and what you will actually wear. Even if I’m told that I can pull it off, it doesn’t really matter, since the reality is that I never reach for these things. It is okay to acknowledge personal preference. For instance, I’m constantly cold in the office, and while sleeveless blouses look chic, I find it a hassle to always have to wear some kind of outerwear over top. I’ve come to realize that my sweet spot lies in items with ¾ sleeve lengths (warm but not overly so).

I also used to buy item that just needed a bit of fixing and told myself that I would bring the item to a tailor and that the low price tag would justify the tailoring costs or the inconvenience of having to make it work (for instance, pairing it with another specific item or having to wear a belt with the item). Through a few painful mistakes, it was apparent that I was never going to bring these clothes to the tailor, and I was too lazy in the morning to try and make the piece work when I could just wear something else that would fit without a second thought. Since then, I have completely weaned myself off the temptation of buying clothing items that required just a little bit of “fixing,” no matter how much of a steal they were.

3. 60 : 40 ratio

For many years, whenever I went shopping, I would automatically gravitate towards fun summer dresses or my absolute blind spot, casual loungewear or “basic” T-shirts (there’s always room for another plain V-neck grey t-shirt am I right?). I’ve come to realize that this makes absolutely no sense when I spend at least five out of seven days in the office.

While it’s fun to shop for the holiday season, the reality is that I spend most of my time at work. When I first decided to overhaul my wardrobe, I strove for a ratio of 60:40 of professional work wear and casual clothes. Over time, I allowed more and more overlap between the two ratios as I got good at traversing boundaries. There are many items that can be finessed into something office-appropriate, or at least for casual Fridays. There is a lot that you can get away with by just simply throwing a blazer over top and putting on some heels.

4. Plan your weekly outfits

The best habit that I’ve incorporated into my routine is to plan my outfits on Sunday evenings. By planning my five outfits of the week in advance, I take out all the guesswork, and I get to be a little more creative in putting my looks together since I’m not in a rush. I’ve discovered many new combinations this way, and I really appreciate one less thing to think about when I’m trying to get ready in the morning. In addition, I always keep a spare outfit and black blazer in my office for emergency lunchtime spills, or when I have to attend a last-minute client meeting or conference.

Ally G. updates her beauty blog regularly with product reviews and recommendations. She spends an abnormal amount of time browsing cat memes on the internet and channels the rest of her creative energy in writing dystopian fiction available on Amazon.   

Image via Unsplash

  • Vivian

    Great tips! I used to judge outlets negatively, thinking they were only filled with cheap designs with a good name (brands who produce pieces specifically to be sent to outlets).

    • Rebecca Ann

      I’ve found that even the outlet-specific pieces are still pretty good.

      • Holly Trantham

        Agreed! I love J. Crew Factory 🙂

        • PalePinkBeauty

          Outlets are amazing! It helps to get yourself familiar with the collections and the types of pieces that the brand puts out year after year so you can look out for these classic styles

  • Kate

    I’ve also found some really amazing pieces at thrift stores! In this you also have to be careful since you can fall into similar pitfalls (i.e. thinking you’ll have something tailored…). You also have to pay a little more attention – always check for holes, stains, damage, torn liners, etc. But I personally love the hunt!

    • PalePinkBeauty

      The moment you find that gem in the haystack, it’s like the angels are singing 😉

  • lateshift

    “Past a certain point, it is quite difficult to find inexpensive dupes for building-block pieces like blazers, work dresses and pencil skirts.” What does this mean? (This is an honest question.) Past a certain price point? Past a certain point in your career? Past a certain age? What?

  • lateshift

    Also: no, outlets are NOT the answer…these days, they tend to stock special low-quality versions of the designer goods produced under the same brand (meaning: they were produced specifically for people who flock to outlet stores seeking the label experience for a low price. They get the label. They get a low-ish price. They do NOT get anywhere near the same quality, which totally defeats the purpose of outlet shopping to begin with…why not just shop at H&M? Roughly the same quality, and even cheaper.) You are likely to both pay much less AND get much, much, much higher quality if you shop the sales at regular old department stores. True story.