How to dress for work when you’re broke

Not only are you broke, but if you’re a Reluctant Matron of one or several toddlers you also have to navigate a maze of yogurt-covered hands, spilled orange juice, and mysterious brown stains every morning when you get ready for work.

That’s right, I said “work”. I started working again almost a month ago, and two things occurred to me straight away.  First, unlike my previous experience reentering the workplace, this time I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from me. I practically skip off to work in the morning and reluctantly drag myself home in the afternoons. I love talking to people every day. Big, adult people with large vocabularies who are completely uninterested in potty training techniques.  Second, as I mentioned in a previous post, my entire wardrobe (the stuff that isn’t tattered yoga pants) is ill fitting and out of date. Having my own personal little money vacuum (baby) and my big money black hole (weird old house) means skipping off to the mall or spending hours online shopping with a glass of wine is no longer as gratifying as it used to be.  Here are some essentials for Matrons who head back to work on a skimpy budget.

Assess the situation

Ok, you still haven’t lost that last 7 pounds, and the last time you shopped for business clothes Barak Obama was in his first term…or perhaps Dubya was in his second term. It doesn’t matter – the point is, you just noticed that your closet is mostly full of grass-stained jeans and maternity clothes with a spattering of very dated trousers and sweater sets. Take a deep breath, put the kids in bed, pour a glass of wine and empty your entire closet. Pull out all of your jewelry and your shoes. Sort through the items that absolutely will never fit again or those that are extremely outdated. Set aside things that you cannot wear to work (tattered yoga pants). Now start trying on combinations of your clothing and rediscover what you own. Put together at least 3 outfits if you can. Don’t get rid of things that are slightly outdated – the key is to disguise them into you daily outfit for a while until you can afford to replace them one at a time.

The foundation



Your foundation pieces need to be classic and solid colored. Yes, this means boring old black slacks, skirt, dress, and shoes. Choose items that fit and flatter you. If you have to spend a little more on these pieces in order to get a really good fit, then splurge. I have one pair of black trousers, a black pencil skirt, and a black button-down shirt dress, and black patent leather pumps and I have owned all of them for at least 7 years. Now that I can fit into them all again they hold up to the test of time. I also invested in a black blazer, which is perfect for disguising slightly out of date shirts underneath.

Add (cheap) accessories



My favorite place to buy costume jewelry: World Market. I can find unique statement pieces in that store that add personality to an otherwise uninteresting outfit. I rarely pay more than $10 for any one piece of jewelry at WM.  Some other good places for accessories are thrift stores (you can find unique items that no one else will own), garage sales, your mother’s attic, or discount department stores (T.J Maxx, Marshalls, Winners, or if you’re feeling like a big spender, Nordstrom’s Rack). Experiment with scarves – tie them around you head, around your waist, around your neck.  My lovely friend Xiaoqi taught me to tie a little silk scarf onto my purse so I can coordinate my purse with my outfit, and have an emergency accessory if I need it. With the right accessories you can re-wear your classic items several times without drawing too much notice (actually, no one notices but you).

Trendy items


Personally, I am not a trendy dresser. I like classic cuts and materials, and the only print I wear is stripes. Call me boring if you want, but I prefer to be called “cheap” because when I buy something classic I can wear it for a decade.  However, if you like to be wearing the latest trends, this is the time to swallow your pride and head to what my mom would call a “teeny-bob shop” like Forever 21 or the Jr.s department at Target. Pay as little as possible for these items because trust me, you’ll only wear that neon pink and gray-printed blouse with the sheer cutouts for two years at the most before you realize that fashion has moved on.

Listen to your body and your bank account

At the end of the day, we are all shaped differently, and the best thing we can do is find fit, colors, and pattern that work the best for our own unique body type and complexion. If an item really, truly fits you well but is a few years out of date chances are it still looks fantastic on you. This is something that gets lost in our fast-pasted and consumer-oriented culture. Wear what looks nice on your and wear what you like. If you accessorize with self-confidence you will always look fashionable. Your bank account agrees with me.


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