Transitioning from college to a career after graduating brings a lot of firsts. Your first job out of college is a major deal and can mean that you’ll need to invest in business-appropriate wardrobe.
“The key to dressing professionally and feeling that your wardrobe actually enhances your career is clothes that make you feel confident, professional, and competent,” said Susan Heathfield, a human resources expert and contributor for The Balance Careers.
Unfortunately, the cost of business attire doesn’t always jive with your fresh-out-of-college budget. Here’s how to plan and build your work wardrobe without breaking the bank.
1. Know the dress code
The most important thing to consider before you start building a work wardrobe is the dress code of your industry and new employer.
“For example, the dress code for most positions in a technology company is business casual to casual,” Heathfield said. “If you’re looking for a position in industries where you need to look very formally professional because people are judging your competence by your appearance, then it’s a very different approach to building a wardrobe.”
Generally, you’ll need one or two outfits to attend interviews, and it’s smart to ask questions ahead of the interview about dress expectations. Most recruiters and managers would prefer a candidate who asks about the dress code and shows up in appropriate attire to one that’s underdressed or overdressed.
Wait until you have a job offer in hand to expand your office wear beyond that. Request a copy of the company dress code from your new employer so you can be sure that anything you purchase will be in line with its standards.
2. Start with what’s already in your closet
Before setting foot in a store, take a second look at what you already own. Casual dress codes are becoming more commonplace, Heathfield said, which could make it easier to transition college classroom styles to the workplace.
“Most people have a couple of basic pieces in their wardrobe that would properly transfer to a workplace environment,” Heathfield said. A nice cardigan, sweater, button-up, or blouse can all become office-ready with the right slacks, for instance.
“I think if you look at the individual pieces of clothing that you have and dress them up one notch, they’re going to work well,” she added.
3. Set your office wardrobe budget
As you get a better idea of what clothes you have to work with, you might start seeing gaps in your wardrobe that need to be filled.
Make a list of the items you need to purchase, along with a few that would be nice to have. Decide how much is reasonable to spend on each item. Then, tally up what you can expect to spend overall and compare that to the cash you have on hand.
If your funds fall short, go back to the drawing board and decide on which items you’ll buy first. You could also review your budget to see where you could cut back for a week or a month to free up funds for your new office duds. Make sure that any money you plan to spend on office clothes won’t leave you short on bills, student loan payments, or other expenses.
4. Purchase high-quality, versatile classics
Budget for high-quality, classic styles that can act as the core of your office wardrobe.
“If you are building a basic wardrobe, you want to start with the best pieces you can afford,” Heathfield said. These would be basic-yet-classic pieces such as a suit, blazer, dress slacks, or office shoes.
For these items, aim for high quality. You don’t have to upgrade to designer-label work wear, but you should end up with clothes that can last you for a while.
Be sure to choose builder pieces that are classic, neutral, and versatile, too. “The more ways a piece of clothing will look good on you, the more ways you will use it,” Heathfield said.
5. Never pay full price for work wear
Just because you’re aiming for quality doesn’t mean you have to pay a premium to get it. Here are some tips to spend less when shopping for your work wardrobe:
Shop at outlets for quality at a discount. TJ Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, J. Crew Factory, and other stores offer name brands at big discounts.
Hit the clearance rack. Before wandering around a store, check out the clearance rack. And look for advertisements on sales, especially those that offer an additional percentage off clearance items.
Sell old clothes to pay for your new attire. If you have outdated pieces in your closet, you can sell your clothes for cash or store credit. That could make buying more appropriate attire affordable.
Take advantage of coupons and codes. Check coupon code sites if you’re shopping online. Consider signing up for a store’s email list to get coupons sent to your inbox. You can even install shopping browser extensions that’ll alert you to deals for the site you’re on.
Shop through cash-back sites. Visit Ebates, Swagbucks, and others to find deals and earn rewards for shopping.
How you pay for your work wardrobe matters, too. Any credit card balance you carry will incur steep interest charges that’ll add to the costs of completing your wardrobe. Consider paying with debit or cash. If you pay with credit, only charge what you can pay off in full each month — that way, you’ll avoid credit card interest.
Making the switch from college student to career builder isn’t always easy or smooth. These steps can help you build your office wardrobe while sticking to your budget. That could set you up to succeed financially — and in the workplace.
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