I am seriously frugal.
In fact, many a true fashionista would call me downright cheap.
They say that we all get stuck in the perceptions of our early adulthood. So, for me, that means thinking that no individual item of clothing should cost more than $45. And many items – shirts, for example – should linger in the $15-$20 range.
Unfortunately, in my deluded little brain, this $45 limit includes trousers, jackets, and shoes. Shoes! You see my problem?
Now, of course, that doesn’t mean that I never pay more than $45 for anything. I do. When it comes to shoes, I am paying up to double this price. But you would be amazed at how many of my go-to fashion staples were acquired through sheer dumb luck below the $45 mark.
More importantly, this $45 line in the sand, arbitrary as it is, affects my whole approach to shopping. When I visit nicer stores, I am in a constant state of sticker shock. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to physically stop myself from running to the front of the store like a crazy woman, wagging my price tag at the sales clerks, shrieking, “Really??!!! This is a joke, right?”
There are entire stores into which I will not walk. There are items that I never even try, but should try, because they would broaden my horizons.
This is why I was so excited when I stumbled upon the idea of the “cost-per-wear” formula. I can’t remember if I originally got this idea from Kathryn Finney (“The Budget Fashionista”) or from fashion writer Brenda Kinsel, but do a Google search on the term, and you will see that it is everywhere. The idea is simply this: it makes sense to pay more for an item that will be worn many, many times. So your fashion staples – your go-to, perfect items – will cost you less in the long run.
I love this concept. It gives me permission to jump off the ledge and pay a little more, without being plagued with the guilt messages. If you are cheap like me, you know the ones I’m talking about: I shouldn’t do this, I don’t deserve this, I’m vain and foolish, I should refinance the house and put this money toward my mortgage instead, this would feed a family of 6 in a poor country, what the hell is wrong with me, etc.
The cost-per-wear formula could free me from all of this because it’s so darn practical. Sensible. Efficient. And not wasteful! However, there is only one problem, and it’s a big one: I never, ever know, at the moment of purchase, how my clothes are going to work out over the long term. The only way I know that I’ve found a go-to, classic, perfect item is when I get it home and find myself reaching for it constantly. And I’m very often surprised by the items that fit into this category.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are some actual examples from my actual closet.
The cost-per-wear winners
The denim pencil skirt: Made by the Gap, hits just below the knee, beautifully tapered, clings to all the right places. Makes me feel and look – if I do say so myself – pretty damn fabulous. I purchased this for approximately $25 at a consignment store. When I bought it, I had no idea if I would be able to wear it anywhere. I wasn’t looking for it; I was looking for a shorter, more casual denim skirt to wear instead of shorts in the summer. This skirt was longer, tighter, a little too hot in the summer weather. But it looked so good I had to have it. And now, I wear this skirt all year round. It’s a dark, stretch denim, so it can be dressed up or down and doesn’t look like a “jeans skirt.” It looks great with knee high boots, Mary-Jane-style pumps, or sandals. It looks great with long sleeved tunics, fitted tees, and pretty sleeveless tops. Jacket or no jacket. I have worn this skirt at least once a week, and often more, for the past three years. So $25 for at least 150 wearings….approximately 17 cents per wearing.
The brown striped trousers: I don’t remember exactly when I got these or what I paid, but my best guess is that I’ve had them for six years now, and that I paid $36. They were made by i.e: the store brand for the now (tragically) defunct Filene’s Department Store. (Don’t get me started on this, and don’t try to tell me that the Macy’s store brand, Style & Company, can compare. It can’t. Period). These trousers are made from a comfy synthetic fabric that doesn’t wrinkle, doesn’t bunch or cling, holds it shape beautifully, and has a slight sheen (but not a tacky, shiny, cheap-looking polyester sheen. It looks almost like a natural fiber). They hang perfectly away from the body without looking too loose. They are perfect for my body type (big waist, no hips or butt – many things tend to sag on me). The stripes are slimming. I can wear these trousers 2 or even 3 days a week at work, and they will look great without being too memorable, if you know what I mean, so I can actually get away with wearing them that often.
So let’s say, conservatively, that I’ve worn them twice a week, nine months out of the year, for six years. We’re talking well over 400 wearings, at $36. That’s less than a dime per wearing! The only problem I’ve ever had with these slacks is that they show panty lines like nobody’s business, so I’ve had to try lots of different kinds of underwear with them. But even if you factor in the underwear costs, we’re still talking about a major bargain here.
The question mark
The brown suede jacket: also manufactured by i.e. (sob!) This one was a splurge for me at the time, but I honestly can’t remember if it was $40 or $60. I’m thinking maybe $40. So for a suede blazer, if I considered $40 to be a splurge – well, this gives you an idea of just how pathetically cheap I really am. I bought it because it fits beautifully, looks fabulous, and is the kind of item that can dress up any outfit. I had almost no buyer’s remorse, for all of these reasons. However, I’ve had a hard time getting as many wearings as I would like. Suede is hot, people! The jacket almost always has to come off the minute I come inside. And if I’m only going to wear it outside, what’s the point? It’s not styled like a jacket for outside; it’s styled like a jacket/blazer for inside. The jacket just doesn’t quite fit anywhere. But it looks so great that I can’t give up on it. I bought it four or five years ago, and as of right now, I’ve probably worn it less than 20 times. So we’re talking a couple of dollars per wearing, at best.
Of course, I now realize why I really like the cost-per-wear formula. Even the mistakes don’t sound so costly if you manage to wear them a few times! What’s $2, after all?
Unfortunately, that brings us to:
The cost-per-wear loser
The silver Ann Taylor jacket: Elegant. Lovely. Nicely fitting. On SALE for $40. The kind of jacket that could make almost any outfit look better……. or not. The problems are, a) silver is not a good color for me, with my reddish hair and pale skin, and b) this jacket seems too dressy for some places and not dressy enough for others, if you know what I mean. I just haven’t been able to make it work yet. This is yet another example of how we can be blinded by sale prices. I should have realized that the color wouldn’t work – unfortunately, I had a bit of a tan when I tried it on, and I was wearing that gosh-darned fabulous denim pencil skirt, with which everything looks better than it should!
I haven’t given up on it yet, though. I often hold onto my “mistakes” for at least 2 years, because sometimes I discover that they aren’t mistakes when I find what they work with. (Ask me sometime about the tan striped wool blazer, $60, that I finally started wearing after 6 months hanging in the closet. The cost-per-wear is gradually ratcheting downward as we speak!) But Poor Silver Blazer has never been worn, so even at $40, the cost-per-wear is…… what, infinity?
Clearly, my math still needs a little work.
So: what lessons can we take away from all of this? For me, it all comes down to a few rules, none of which is completely foolproof.
Rule #1: If you’re going to splurge on an item, it should be something practical and versatile, so that you’ll wear it often. This rule led me to the brown striped trousers, and would have put them in my closet at an even higher price. However, the denim pencil skirt did not seem practical or versatile until I actually owned it. Therefore:
Rule 2: Be willing to splurge on pieces that make you look and feel fabulous. The denim pencil skirt has taught me that, if something makes you feel great, you will wear it more often. Furthermore, it may be more practical than you at first think. If that skirt had been full price, I never would have considered it if I were following Rule #1, alone. In fact, I only stumbled upon it because it was cheap. So I now realize that I need to follow the Corollary to Rule #2: Try on as many different things as possible, even if you think they are out of your price range. You just never know.
Of course, Rule #2 is also limited, because it led me to both the suede jacket and the unworn silver jacket. But at least these items still might be salvageable. Meanwhile, there are many, many discarded items from years past that are not. This brings us to:
Rule 3: Don’t buy anything that doesn’t make you feel fabulous, no matter how practical it is, or how much you think you need it.
This rule prevents the mistakes that can occur when blindly following Rule #1 — the source of most of my fashion mistakes over the years. I can’t tell you how many ugly black slacks, ill-fitting jeans, and frumpy brown skirts I’ve bought because I thought they were basics that would go with everything. Unfortunately, in my zeal for practicality, I often failed to notice when these items suffered from poor fit, unflattering cut, or lack of style (sometimes all three!). There is nothing practical (or frugal) about getting rid of clothes because they are just too dreary and depressing to wear. If you don’t love it, you won’t wear it. Lesson learned!
Rule #4: Never stop trying and learning. Figure out what styles and colors work (or don’t work) on you. Goodbye, unworn silver jacket! Hello, denim pencil skirt!
Rule #5: Understand that all of these rules are limited. Some purchases will work; some won’t. Try new things, make mistakes, live and learn, and don’t worry so much.
Now that sounds like my kind of rule!