Going Business Casual on a Budget: How to Cheaply Make a Big Wardrobe Change

A woman shopping in a clothing store.

This post was originally written in April 2015, as an entry on my old blog Suburban Style Challenge. It has been slightly modified since posting, to better fit this space and align with what’s available now.

Recently, a friend of mine told me that her workplace changed their dress code overnight. Literally overnight. Everyone got into work one morning to find a memo stating that the dress code would be strict business casual effective the following day. Just like that, no more jeans, yoga pants, sneakers, or even leggings. The list of what employees are permitted to wear isn’t short, but when you work at a place for years (there are some people going on 5, even 7 years there), an instant change like this is jarring… not to mention expensive!

There was chaos, from what she tells me. Numerous employees were upset about the lack of warning and the instant need for a completely new wardrobe. Some people were stressing about the financial burden a new wardrobe puts on them. And that’s all totally understandable! She and I talked about how it should have been a gradual change, or there should have been an “effective on [future date]” warning so that people could make sure they had appropriate clothing, but alas, upper management doesn’t always think of these things.

So how do you make such a drastic change without breaking the bank?

Is it possible to take your closet from “wear whatever you want, as long as it’s not shorts or flip flops” casual to “you must wear dress slacks and nice shoes at all times” business casual without going broke? Well, it’s not easy, and you might not end up with real high-quality, long-lasting pieces at first. However, low-cost options are out there, and building a basic, business casual wardrobe on a budget is possible. And if you take care of the pieces you buy, even if they’re cheaper, they’ll stay nicer and last a little longer.

I was in this boat when I started my first job out of college, and a couple times throughout my career. While I did my fair share of interning at places that were business casual, it was easy to rotate a few pieces for a month or two over the summer, or wear the same ones every other day during a part-time gig between classes. But having a selection of pieces that you can wear five days a week–pieces that will last through multiple washings and constant daily wear–is tough. But, it’s doable! Admittedly, it will be boring at first. But you’ll be able to inject your own style into your new wardrobe eventually, don’t worry!

Start by evaluating your closet.

Before you start building a new wardrobe, you’ve got to see what you already have that’s work-appropriate. This will not only help you figure out just how much (and what types of pieces) you’ll need to buy, but by looking at what you already have, you’ll be better equipped to find pieces that coordinate with what you have. This will make remixing all that much easier. So dive into your closet and take a look at what you already have that’s new-dress-code-friendly (most likely tops) and put them all together in one area of your closet. Don’t forget to look at your jackets, cardigans and light sweaters, suits, and skirts.

And don’t just assume things fit, especially if you haven’t worn them in years. Now is the time to do a quick fashion show for a friend or family member (or the dog… whatever works) and make sure what you have fits you right. If it doesn’t, get rid of it!

At this point, it might help to snap a quick photo on your phone so you know what colors and patterns you already own. Of course, when starting to build a new wardrobe from scratch, I do recommend sticking with basics first. Solid, neutral colors are much easier to remix and won’t get a second glance if you re-wear them during the same week. Crazy patterns and bright colors are often harder to work with in that respect.

Once you’ve evaluated your closet and figured out what you already own, it’s time to set your budget and start shopping. $150 is generally a reasonable wardrobe reinvention budget. It’s a fairly easy amount to save up quickly, and while it’s an amount that’s also easy to spend quickly, you’ll find that it can be stretched pretty thin if you’re smart about shopping. But really, the amount you budget is ultimately up to you.

A couple quick notes about shopping, before we get started…

I’m a huge fan of thrifting, but I realize that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m always happy to take locals on thrifting trips to show you just how great thrifting can be, especially when it comes to stretching your dollar and getting some great stuff. However, since thrifting isn’t for everyone, this guide will be using some examples in larger, chain stores. The beauty of it is, this is a guide, and with enough patience, the items I’ll be showing here can also be found in thrift stores (sometimes, even with the original tags still attached). So if you’re open to thrifting, instead of buying new, chances are you’ll have an easier time saving money. The downside is, you might struggle to find what you’re looking for, since thrift stores can be so hit or miss.

Another thing to note in terms of shopping is that stores that have more variety, like Target and Kohl’s, are going to make shopping quickly easier. While you can technically one-stop-shop at the mall, hitting up a place that has everything you need is going to be less frustrating than having to trek store-to-store to find things that fit your budget and your body.

Try avoid stores targeted towards teens or “juniors” and those types of sections of the larger stores. For dress pants, the cuts and fabrics that are often found in junior’s sections just aren’t all that great, the cuts are often more “teen” focused, and sizing can be extremely frustrating. Fabrics are often a little cheaper-looking as well. Bottom line is, you want to dress like a professional, not like a college kid trying to fit in at an internship. Avoiding the junior’s sections and teen-focused stores will help you achieve that easier.

And finally, to help with shopping I’ve created a printable checklist. This will help keep you on track and on budget while shopping, with places to note what kinds of items you already own and in what colors, as well as some things to remember when shopping. You’ll find that at the end of the post.

Getting down to business, starting with shoes.

Business casual shoes can be one of the toughest wardrobe changes to make for women, especially if you’ve spent numerous years heading to the office in sneakers every day. The change in footwear, both from a style aspect and a comfort one, can be a big shock, and shoes can often be the most expensive part of your wardrobe. Cheap shoes not only wear faster, which means they need replacing more often, but they’re also more likely to fit poorly and cause blisters and other foot pain. I can attest that even if you sit at a desk all day, painful shoes and sore feet do not make for a good day. So while I’m normally all about getting the best deal by buying shoes online, in this case, make sure you shop for your new business casual shoes in brick-and-mortar stores where you can try them on, walk around, and make sure they’re comfortable. And if they’re not comfortable in the store, that won’t change once you get them home, so do not buy them!

That said, with such a small budget, cheap is going to be the way to go for shoes at first. Why start with shoes, then? Well, without knowing what kind of shoes you’ll be wearing most of the time, it’s hard to shop for pants because you’re not sure what length you’ll need. Sure, you can get pants tailored, but that costs money and time, and in this scenario, you don’t have much of either. So go for budget shoes first and save up for better shoes after you make the initial change.

Now, most people don’t have as extensive of a shoe collection as I do, and that’s, uh, probably normal. And if you’re accustomed to wearing sneakers every day, chances are you don’t have very many other options at home that aren’t super-fancy “dress up” shoes. Now, you can make those shoes work, but I totally understand reserving dress shoes for dressy occasions and not everyday wear. Plus, let’s face it, a lot of “sometimes” shoes are terribly uncomfortable, because we plan to just wear them for a short amount of time, as opposed to 8-10 hours a day. If you want to work with dress shoes you already have, awesome–you’ve just saved yourself some time and money, and you can skip to the next section! But if not, read on.

Your best bet is to invest in a basic pair of loafer- or oxford-style shoes, ballet flats, ankle boots, or lower-heeled pumps. They can be easily remixed with skirts and pants, and even worn with jeans on casual Fridays. Keep your shoe choice simple and neutral, and avoid crazy patterns or bright colors. Generally, black, brown, or nude is best the way to go in terms of color, with black or brown being far more versatile. Your best bet is to choose something that will go best with the things you already have.

When shopping for flats, don’t be tricked by sneakers disguised as ballet flats or loafers. Avoid slip-on shoes like Toms or Sperry Top Siders, as some offices may not view them as business casual, and then you’re stuck having spent the money on something else you can’t wear to work. And definitely avoid anything with an athletic-inspired, rubber sole, even if it’s the same color as the shoe itself.

Also avoid buying shoes that can’t be worn year-round (for those with seasons where temps dip below the 40’s and snow happens, that is). Sure, sure, you can wear your winter boots into the office and change into other shoes, and sometimes, that’s the way to go, but why not spend the money right now on a pair of shoes that can last you into the next season, instead of having to go spend more when the weather changes?

So, where to shop? Personally, when I’m on the hunt for something quick and cheap, I start at Kohl’s. They often have a good variety, and their sale prices often can’t be beat (especially when combined with the deals you can get if you have a Kohl’s charge card).Target, Old Navy, and even “fast fashion” stores like Forever 21 or H&M are good options as well. You can also check DSW, but they also often have higher prices, though you might luck out in the sale section. That said, always start in the sale section, regardless of where you shop.

I wouldn’t spend more than $30 on a pair of shoes, initially. There are tons of basic flats in that price range, and you’ll likely want to spend more money on bottoms, since you’ll be wearing those 4 to 5 days a week (depending on whether or not your company allows jeans on Fridays). And really, if you shop super smart, you might even be able to pick up two pairs of shoes for around $30. But keep your shoe budget to around $30 to start if you can.

Ok, shoes are done… let’s look at pants.

When I made the shift from a casual office to one that wasn’t as jeans-friendly, pants were the hardest transition for me. I owned just a couple pairs of dress pants, and it turned out, they didn’t even fit any longer because they’d sat in my closet for so long. So I had to begin the tedious hunt for dress pants in order to make my wardrobe work for my new gig.

Pants can be one of the most frustrating articles of clothing to shop for. The fit always seems to be the biggest issue, and unfortunately, this is likely going to be the biggest challenge of your casual-to-business-casual journey. Some people are huge advocates of buying something and then having them tailored for the best fit, but on a $150 budget, for an entire basic wardrobe, that’s just not going to happen! So, what to do?

Well, for starters, try to find a pair of pants that comes in multiple colors. That way, if one fits, you can snag the same pair in different colors, and things will be so much easier. But make sure the pants fit before you spend the money. There are some great tips herehere and here on proper dress pant fit, but to summarize:

  • Avoid pleats, and look for flat-front pants. They’re more universally flattering.
  • When it doubt, go for a looser fit instead of a tighter one. Dress pants aren’t meant to be skin-tight, and unlike how jeans fit, dress pants should be more drapey and forgiving.
  • Remember to move around in them before you buy. Especially make sure you can sit comfortably (and without showing butt cleavage) in them.
  • If you can, bring the shoes you plan on wearing with them to try them on. It might help you avoid buying pants too short or too long, and while you can always have pants hemmed, you’re not going to want to spend the money on that right now, and may not have the time.

Take fabric into consideration as well while you’re shopping. If you have pets, certain brushed cotton type fabrics may be more apt to attracting pet hair. Avoid fabrics that easily wrinkle, like linen, and stick with poly blends that are easy to maintain. Avoid denim at all costs, even if it’s colored denim and the pants don’t look like standard five-pocket jeans. Some companies might be willing to look the other way, but not all will, so just avoid it altogether… it’s not worth the potential write-up.

In terms of cut, a simple straight leg pant is what you’re going to want to start with. Skinny cuts can work, but aren’t flattering for everyone, and may drive you to buy dress pants that are too tight. Remember, dress pants are meant to be a little looser-fitting, so aim for that when trying stuff on.

So where to shop for pants? Again, for this kind of thing, Kohl’s would be a great place to start. You’ll find a variety of cuts, sizes, and styles there, and for reasonable prices. Old Navy has a surprisingly extensive and affordable selection of dress pants, and often has great sales. Same with Target. Express has long had great dress pants, but they’re on the pricier side usually, unless you can snag them on sale. Banana Republic, J. Crew, and Ann Taylor (as well as The Loft) are also great for dress clothes, but again, might be on the pricy side. And there’s always other larger department stores, all of which, much like Kohl’s, carry a variety of sizes and styles, and might have great deals in the sale section.

Pants are tough in terms of money, because obviously, the more expensive they are, generally the higher quality they are. I’d call $75 a decent amount to budget for pants, and figure that you can get at least three pairs for that amount. If you shop super smart, you could probably even get a week’s worth of dress pants for $75.

That leaves us with $105 spent on shoes and dress pants… so now what?

At this point, it largely depends on what’s already in your closet and your own personal tastes. If you have a decent selection of work-friendly tops and dresses, investing in another pair of pants or a second pair of shoes to remix might be a good idea. If you’d rather find a classic pencil skirt, or a great A-line skirt to go with what you have, that’s up to you.

If you need tops, definitely invest in some basic tops. What you end up buying will ultimately be up to you and based on what fits you best, but I suggest a couple of simple short- or long-sleeved tops, a cardigan, and a blazer if you have the budget for it (well-fitting blazers can often be pretty expensive). Again, keep things simple and avoid crazy patterns. Also avoid sleeveless tops on your first go-round… sure they’re nice and summer and can make layering rather easy, but some offices don’t allow sleeveless tops, so it’s just best to avoid them until you’re more comfortable with the new dress code. Avoid crop tops at all costs.

Dresses are a great addition to your closet as well. There’s very little thought that goes into tossing a dress on in the morning, though often dresses can be harder to wear multiple times in one week. They’re relatively easy to wear year-round by adding tights, sweaters, and boots for cooler weather. Places like Kohl’s, H&M, Old Navy, and Target are great places to find decently-priced, work-friendly dresses. Shirt dresses, sheath dresses, and wrap dresses are, I find, the easiest to throw-on-and-go. Avoid dresses that are too tight, too short, and too revealing. If it’s something you’d have worn to the bars in your 20’s, don’t wear it to work.

Some overall shopping tips.

It’s all pretty over-whelming, thinking about shopping for an entirely new wardrobe with just $150 in hand. But it’s definitely doable if you shop smart and keep some key things in mind while you’re shopping. In addition to some of the ideas above, here are some basic shopping tips that will help keep you on budget and meet your business casual wardrobe goals:

  • Shop with cash in hand. Leave your credit/debit cards at home. It will help you stick to your budget and not impulse buy.
  • The simpler the better. Remixing is key, and it’s easier to remix simple, more basic pieces than heavily embellished or pattered ones.
  • Stay away from trends. They can be fun, and might look great on you now, but your basic pieces need to be classic building blocks, not trendy, fast-fashion pieces.
  • Avoid items that are too seasonally focused. If you live in a place like Chicago, where the seasons reign, keep your wardrobe basics as seasonless as possible so you can wear them year-round. Then you won’t be forced to shop again as the seasons change.
  • Focus on fit. Well-fitting basics, even if they’re cheaper, are the key. Make sure you can comfortably walk, bend, and sit in whatever you’re trying on. If you can’t, move on and find something you’re comfortable in that fits you right.
  • Be thrifty and shop smart! Start in the sale section, use coupons whenever possible, and if you really want to stretch your dollar, don’t be above thrifting.
  • Don’t forget to take tax into account when shopping (and shipping if you’re shopping online).
  • Bring a friend if you’re worried you won’t make smart decisions (in terms of both fit and budget). Explain your budget, your needs, and task them with keeping you on track.

The printable cheat-sheet.

I’ve created a great one-page cheat sheet. It starts with a quick look at what you already have. Then gives you a place to write down you overall budget, plus your budget for shoes, tops, and bottoms. Finally, it outlines some of the tips above in a quick and easy format you can bring shopping with you.

Download the PDF here.

Featured image by Cam Morin on Unsplash

Theme: Overlay by Kaira 
That's All