Shopping guide for the cash-strapped student

hermes boxes
Any idea who the photographer is? I’ve had no luck finding the source.

Since I started sharing style photos online, I’m constantly asked, “how do you afford all of your clothes on a student budget?” The question has always been hard for me to answer, partly because there were so many different reasons. For one thing, I actually have a surprisingly small wardrobe. “All of my clothes” fit on a single rack in my closet and a small rack in my room. I’ve never been on a shopping haul or a shopping spree; while in college, I bought a new article of clothing maybe once every two months. You just can’t drop a lot of money on clothes if you don’t have a lot of money to begin with. Nonetheless, you can build a nice wardrobe on small funds – it just takes a little bit of work and a lot of patience.

Over the years, several readers have asked me to put together a list of tips for spending and saving for high-quality clothing, and the only thing that’s kept me from writing it is not knowing where to start. This list is by no means prescriptive; your lifestyle, priorities, and personal situation should be the primary dictate of how you spend your money. I’m merely hoping that a little insight into my method might help someone else out! (And please feel free to ask questions!)

Use Excel (or some type of spreadsheet) to track your spending habits so you can start planning your purchases.

I keep monthly spending reports that outline my monthly expenses, such as rent and electricity, and detail every single thing I’ve bought, like donuts, eyeliner, gas, gifts, and alcohol. I record the date, location of purchase, and price. By keeping a detailed (obsessive) report, I’m able to see what things I tend to spend the most on (food) and what my weaknesses are (cocktails). It helps me figure out which areas need improvement and how much disposable income I have to allocate to certain activities. Drinking and eating out are the worst money drains for me, so I cook almost all of my meals and make my coffee at home.

I also use Excel to build a master wishlist of clothing items and their cost. It’s an easy way to see how much in total I need to save, and it also helps me eliminate items from my wishlist to narrow it down to a reasonably-achievable state. It helps me stay focused on what I want, especially because I may often save months for an item.

Shop the men’s and little boy’s department.

Men’s clothing often has a lower pricepoint than women’s clothing, due mostly to marketing and supply/demand rather than quality, fit, or comfort. I love shopping the men’s department, especially for soft, chunky, no-fuss sweaters. Some of my favorite men’s departments are:

  • J.Crew
  • H&M (best tees ever)
  • And department stores

If you can fit into kid’s clothes, I recommend shopping the kid’s department too, especially for tees, sweaters, sweatshirts, and outerwear.

Buy fewer clothes that are higher-quality.

One of my favorite labels is Everlane – they have a lot of classic, modern-fit basics made out of great materials for a relatively good price.

There isn’t a checklist of things to determine good quality of clothing, but the more high-quality clothing you buy, the better you’ll get at determining what will last and what won’t. Having some sewing experience definitely helps. Some things to look out for are materials, what kinds of seams are used, if there’s a hem, and if there’s a lining. Country of origin can also be an indicator, although not always.

Shop denim secondhand.

Before I ever buy a new pair of jeans, I always make sure to check Buffalo Exchange first. It’s amazing what kinds of jeans people throw out; I frequently find designer jeans – tags still attached – for a fifth of the retail price. This does require some diligence, because as with any thrift shopping, you can’t go into the store looking for anything too specific. I try to keep a mental list of jeans that I’m looking for (e.g., black low-rise skinny, grey skinny) and check as often as possible.

Never shop online without a coupon code.

Join e-mail lists or search “site name coupon code” to find discounts. Even if you just save $6 on shipping, that’s still $6 you don’t have to spend.

Buy out-of-season or vintage designer clothing. On a related note, Vestiaire Collective is better than eBay.

I like buying out-of-season or vintage designer clothing for two reasons:

  1. It’s cheaper.
  2. If I still want something a few seasons later, it’s likely not just an impulse buy or a trend, so it’s probable I’ll love it for a long time.

My favorite used online clothing store is Vestiaire Collective. Although the shipping expenses are high, a team of experts curates the selection of clothing on the site and checks each order to ensure that the clothing is authentic and in good condition. Since it’s not an auction or flash sale site like eBay or Gilt, it doesn’t induce the nerve-wracking pressure of bidding or making impulse buying decisions, and you can make offers to sellers for lower prices. Furthermore, the selection on Vestiaire is much better: whereas shopping on eBay is like walking through a used car lot, Vestiaire is like finding a chest of clothing hidden away in your grandmother’s attic. (Yoox is another favorite.)

Be selective, or know what you like.

I don’t believe in the universal Classic Wardrobe – I believe in being in touch with your own sensibilities when it comes to style. The most timeless fashion publication I own is FRUiTS, the epitome of personal, unique fashion. Don’t listen to fashion magazines or blogs about what’s in, what’s trendy, or what’s outdated. Instead, consider which of your clothes you wear the most. Consider what your lifestyle is like. And most importantly, consider what makes you feel confident. (Chances are that all of these factors are related.)

  • If you have the space, hang up all of your clothes rather than folding them in a drawer. This will help you see what you own, what you wear, and what you don’t wear on a daily basis.
  • Throw out the things you don’t like. Don’t buy them again.
  • Don’t look for inspiration in fashion spaces (magazines, storefronts, tabloids); instead, look for it in your hobbies, favorite films, and favorite music.

Further reading

  • Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline is a quick and incredibly informative read about the myths and sustainability of the fast fashion industry. As a fashion outsider, Cline approaches fast fashion from a perspective that’s skeptical of both designer and fast fashion culture, with consideration for environmentalism and working conditions of factory workers (both international and in the US)
  • How to spot quality clothing Good pointers (though by no means absolutes) on how to recognize clothing that’s well-made

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  1. Christine
    February 19, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    Wonderful guide. I tried tracking my expenses on a spreadsheet in the past, but only since the beginning of this year did I really, really insist on doing it. It’s really helping me see where my money goes and where I should hold back. Going out to restaurants also eats up (hah!) most of my money.

    Thank you for the link to Vestiaire Collective! I’m slowly starting to lose patience with eBay so I think I’ll have a lot of fun browsing that website.


    • Catherine
      February 20, 2014 at 10:03 am

      It is, at the very least, fun to browse, even if some of the items are still out of my budget! Vestiaire has a wonderful selection of vintage and designer… one can dream!

      My diligence about tracking my expenses in Excel definitely fluctuates; lately I’ve been much worse than usual. I’m trying to get back on top of it!


  2. Giovanna
    February 19, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    Great list! Definitely always try to buy online with a coupon code!



  3. Meagan
    February 19, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Great post! I never would have thought to shop the boys section!


  4. Crystal
    February 20, 2014 at 10:19 am

    All very good tips. I totally agree with buying denim secondhand. My favorite pair of J Brand jeans came from Plato’s Closet.


  5. alisha
    February 20, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    This is fantastic, Catherine!


  6. Caley
    February 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    Great post! I find it slightly frustrating when people ask me how I can afford the clothes that I have (especially when these same people spend a lot of money on poor-quality clothes at random). Perhaps now I will refer some of them to this blog post…


  7. J.
    February 24, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    It would be really useful if you could show how you organise your spreadsheet. If you do one separate one for each month, separate things into categories and so on.


  8. Grace
    March 1, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Thank you! So helpful. I’ve faced the problem you describe for most of my life since I am still a college student. I can’t wait to try it out! I also keep a record of my spendings, so I can vouch for you on the helpfulness of this.


  9. polly
    March 8, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    I think these are some very good recommendations, especially the point about buying higher quality clothing which can last for years. Classics never go out of style!


  10. Sara
    March 14, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    amazing guide. this is great for non students who are cash-strapped as well, ie. myself haha. so many tips that while they are so sensible and straightforward are easy to forget.


  11. Chelsea
    March 23, 2014 at 1:14 am

    Love this! I need to stop buying really cheap shoes haha, I have lots but I can’t wear most of them for more than 10 minutes so maybe a better quality pair will be better!


  12. Michelle
    March 25, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Please do another post when you have the time… your blog is one of the only fashion blogs I’ve found that is realistic but so cute. You’re probs really busy but I miss seeing your pretty outfits.


  13. Lily
    April 15, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Amazing article! The picture is an Hermes add. You can tell from the signature orange packing boxes ;)


  14. Kathleen Joy
    April 29, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Hey! Firstly, love the post. Tips that are actually useful – rare. I hadn’t heard of Everlane, but after seeing your photo of their piece in another blog post I’m definitely an instant fan. Love the brand name too. Just sounds luxe.

    Secondly, re: the Hermès photo, I think I know this one — I saw it credited as a Terry Richardson photo (yeah) a few years ago on a blog. Not exactly conclusive evidence but hey!

    I too would love to read more about how you track your spending. It’s such an essential thing to do. I know what my weaknesses are (also food and cocktails) and I need a more sophisticated way to decide whether or not each purchase has value.


  15. Rosie
    July 9, 2014 at 9:53 pm


    Great, informative post! I, too, have been asked how I’m able to afford dressing well, eating well and living well on a nonprofit budget. Your points are very well in my book for being able to enjoy the things I love while working in an industry that I love. :)


  16. Vee
    July 16, 2014 at 11:47 am

    I love this post!

    For me, I find that the physical act of writing down what and where I had spent my money hits me a lot harder than typing it on the computer/phone. But I guess that’s just me.

    Also, mens department tend to have the best bags too. Of course, if you like un-fussy bags…

    Just wondering, what’s your take on Zara? Do you think their clothes are worth purchasing?


  17. Em
    October 15, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Hi Catherine,

    I recently made my first purchase from Agent Provocateur and wanted to ask for your advice on this, given your experience with the brand.

    I purchased the Love strapless bra which was on sale for $40.00 recently from the Agent Provocateur website. Having heard tons of rave reviews about the quality and feel of the lingerie, I was excited when I received my package from Agent Provocateur today.

    However, as I opened it, I realized that there was a lot of piling on the bra, like it had been rubbed together. Perhaps someone had tried it on and ruined it. Now I realize that this product was on sale… however, I did not wish to purchase second hand. Unfortunately, this is a sale item and I cannot return it. The shipping cost was the same price as the bra itself so I just feel like I flushed away $80.00 for nothing.


  18. Trustion62
    January 29, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    like you blog!