Back To School Shopping: Ten Tricks For A Killer Wardrobe On A Tight Budget

This fall is the first fall in nearly a decade where not a single soul in our household is going back to school. And hallelujah!

For the last five years my husband has been in grad school, and before that I was finishing my own degree, ergo, for the last eight years, we’ve been super broke. And as is always the case, rudely, the world didn’t stop turning, fashions didn’t stop evolving, and I was never able to get over my desire for an updated wardrobe each season. And why should I have to?

So, while my husband was busy slaving away at his textbooks, learning Constitutional Law and Transfer Pricing Something Something, I was busy learning how to put together a killer wardrobe on the cheap (and also working full-time, but that is neither here nor there).

After the jump, I’m sharing my ten best tricks for staying ahead of the fall fashion curve without busting your wallet.

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  • SHOP THE KID’S SECTION 1 of 10
    SHOP THE KID'S SECTION
    If you're short enough/petite enough, you can shop the little girls section right out, but here is the good news: you don't have to be kid-sized to shop the kid's section, if you know what you're looking for. Waist-cinching belts? Fun colored tights? Even certain outerwear items, sweaters, tops, and skirts can work too, if you're willing to think outside the box and experiment with fits. The kids sections these days are just as fashionable and of-the-moment as the adult sections (and sometimes even moreso) and they are always, always cheaper. And anyway, no designer can beat the perfect fit of a shrunken navy blazer hand-picked from the little boy's section.

    I recommend Zara Kids, Crew Cuts, and the boys department at Nordstrom.
  • FOREVER 21 FOREVER 2 of 10
    FOREVER 21 FOREVER
    Of the fast-fashion buffet, I much prefer the bounty of the local Forever 21. Sure you have to gird up your loins a bit before you go in, and sure the lines for the dressing rooms are always obscene, but even more obscene are the prices. Ten dollars for a pair of skinny jeans?

    It is highly possible to procure for yourself a wardrobe that is not only trendy, but of lasting quality at the Forever 21, but only if you know how to properly shop the Forever 21. Some helpful hints: Know what you're looking for ahead of time. Have a basic understanding of the bigger fashion trends happening on the runways so you can spot a well-done imitation in-store. Bring a cold beverage, and some Advil. Dress in peelable layers so you can try things on in the middle of the store, because those dressing rooms are chaos. Browse the website ahead of time to get an idea of whether what's in stock is to your liking. Breeze through often, their inventory changes quickly and the good items sell out fast. Know their return policy: you have 21 days to return for store credit only, and tags must be attached.
  • THRIFT! 3 of 10
    THRIFT!
    Thrifting can be really hit and miss, and especially frustrating when you walk away empty handed. But when you happen to find six pristine-condition skirts from the 1940s for $4 a piece, you'll gain a testimony of thrifting, I promise.

    Here are my best thrifting secrets: Find out when they get their deliveries and when their shelves are replenished, and plan to show up ten minutes before. The good stuff goes fast, and what's picked over is picked over for a reason. Go often. Twice a week is NOT too often. When checking out a new thrift store, take the time to really dig. When looking through clothes, think way outside the box and focus on prints, patterns, colors, fabrics, and cuts. Ignore size labels outright--keep in mind it's been washed, worn, shrunk and stretched, and those numbers mean absolutely nothing. And who cares if it's in the mens section? Make friends with the employees--maybe if they spot something you'll love they'll set it aside for you till you make it in! Lastly, pick your thrift shops like a curator. If you know of an affluent area of town and are hoping for some second hand designer duds, go to those thrift stores near the big houses. If you're in the market for some rugged outdoorsy wear, maybe don't shop the thrift store in the middle of the city. Be prepared to travel to find what you're looking for. And when you get home, wash your treasures and administer any tailoring required first thing.
  • CONSIDER PART TIME IN RETAIL 4 of 10
    CONSIDER PART TIME IN RETAIL
    Nothing is better for a shopper than a part-time job in retail. And certain retailers are better than others. A good shopper knows, for instance, that Jcrew owns Madewell, and a job at either store yields discounts at both. Same goes for Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. Banana Republic, The Gap, and Old Navy. What about Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret? Or Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister? Many retail jobs will only schedule you for a shift or two a week, giving you plenty of time to enjoy that discount (usually anywhere from 20-50% off full-priced items).
  • BE A VORACIOUS SHOPPER 5 of 10
    BE A VORACIOUS SHOPPER
    In order to score a deal, you have to be able to spot a deal when you see it. This can be trickier than you'd think! If you don't know what the real thing looks like, how can you know when you've found a modestly-priced, well-done version? Once a week I check my favorite online retailers to see what's new. I fill my online carts, plan outfits in my head, consider what I already have and what I need to flesh it out, and then run over to Forever 21, or H&M, or the secondhand store to see what I can find. Sometimes I'm lucky, sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I realize it's a piece worth investing in, and I do. But rarely. I can almost always find a better deal.
  • ONLINE COUPON CODES 6 of 10
    ONLINE COUPON CODES
    Have you heard of Retail Me Not? It's a website that collects online shopping codes and puts them all in one place. It's amazing. I never buy anything online without checking here first. Just last week I bought a winter coat from Macys.com, and was able to choose between 15% off or $20 off my purchase of over $100. I did the math and picked the best deal, and bam! $25 off my order (plus free shipping!).
  • THROW A REFASHION PARTY 7 of 10
    THROW A REFASHION PARTY
    You have great taste, and so do your friends, and sometimes you just get tired of the same old things. Throw a refashion party! Have your friends bring their freshly cleaned clothes to a central location, hang everything up nicely and by size, provide treats and a chick flick, and shop each other's closets. Guaranteed to beat the closet doldrums.

    Image via crochet.craftparty.com
  • SAVE EVERYTHING 8 of 10
    SAVE EVERYTHING
    Just yesterday I was walking down the street, happened to spot an inspiring outfit in a shop window, realized I had a coat just like that, and then realized I'd donated it to Goodwill two years ago. Bummer! I'm all for a good closet purge to keep things under control, but I also know that fashion, like all things in life, is cyclical, and what you tire of one day you'll wish you had later. Consider lending items you're bored with or never wear to friends, or boxing them up and keeping them in the back of your closet. And then . . .
  • SHOP YOUR CLOSET! 9 of 10
    SHOP YOUR CLOSET!
    Half the time when I think I need to reinvent my wardrobe to suit a new trend, I'll take a look in my closet and realize I already have most of what I need, or that I can rework an item or two to suit the look I'm going for. When I'm out, before I buy anything new, I run through my closet mentally to make sure there's nothing that could potentially fill the purpose of the new item. And then, if I do bring something home, I keep it wrapped and in tags and search one last time. I'm constantly finding things I forgot I had.
  • MIX HIGH WITH LOW 10 of 10
    MIX HIGH WITH LOW
    The sad fact is, a cheap wardrobe is a cheap wardrobe. It will fall apart easily and before you know it you'll feel dissatisfied and like you need to shop more. The trick is knowing what to save on and what to splurge on. My rule of thumb is this: invest in basic shoes, basic denim, leather handbags, outerwear, and a nice watch. Skimp on tops, trendy accessories, party clothes, secondary handbags, and shoes with silly heel heights. A good anchor of high quality basics will rub off on your fun, cheap thrills, making everything look uniformly nice and sophisticated. Your budget wardrobe will be your little secret.

What are your best tricks for staying stylish on a budget?

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