College Fashion on a Budget

Dressing fashionably on a college budget – impossible? Not anymore. You just have to ‘shop with purpose’. This week I was a panelist at Boston University for the 85 Broads Spring Conference, a network of over 20,000 trailblazing women across the world. These women aspire to use their talent and expertise to affect professional, educational, economic, and cultural change for all women globally. My break out session on ‘fashion’ was very well attended and lead to lively discussions covering the broad spectrum the history of style, the business of style and the pursuit of style as it applies to self image. One question floated to the top several times, “How can we afford to be stylish on a college budget.”

I promised to post some answers to this question in the words of a college sophomore who had interviewed me earlier in the year on just that subject.

Read on for valuable tips that you can put into place starting right now!

How to Stay High Fashion without High Costs                                             Elizabeth Venere  Emerson College

Meaghan O’Brien, a sophomore at Emerson College in Boston, recently spent a weekend relaxing with friends from home. They amused themselves by scrolling through, an online store specializing in vintage and retro clothing. The $100 or more price tags on the dresses Modcloth stocks, however, were out of O’Brien’s price range.  “I can’t bear to part with that much money for one item,” she says.

Ruby Honerkamp, a junior at Emerson, faced a similar dilemma her freshman year when she decided she wanted a leather jacket. She thought about the hypothetical purchase and all the outfits she could create with it. When she finally went to the store to try one on, however, she began to doubt whether she really needed it because of the expense.

College students have to budget for groceries, toiletries, and other essentials in addition to nights out with friends and shopping for the latest trends. With these new demands, they struggle to rationalize fashion with their necessities. “The cutest stuff is always the most expensive stuff,” O’Brien says, adding, “I’m constantly going to CVS and Shaw’s. It’s easy to reason myself out of buying something.”

Despite these strains, college students can dress stylishly and on a budget. Marisa Meloski, a stylist at Stilista, a Boston styling company, says the glossy pages of fashion magazines show of-the-moment designs that are far out of any budget. “I think people feel it’s out of reach,” says Meloski, “but it’s not.”

Budget, Budget, Budget

Doreen Dove, owner and stylist at Doreen Dove Image Consulting, a wardrobe stylist in Winchester, Massachusetts, says the key is budget. “Most college students don’t grasp the concept of budget,” she says. “Very few are thinking of next semester’s or next year’s budget. If they grasped the concept of budget as it applies to saving and then applied it to their wardrobe, they would soon find that: a) they have more money for clothing than they think, and b) they can spend less and get more planning their purchases along with planning their budgets.”

Students say they don’t have a specific budget designated for shopping. Many make two or three big shopping trips each year for seasonal items. O’Brien, though, tries to spend a maximum of $30 per item.

Heather Melhem, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, suggests setting aside a specific amount for shopping.  When the seasonal shopping trip rolls around, you’ll have a pre-determined budget. If it’s something she loves, however, sacrifices are made. “If it’s something I have to have, I’ll eat something smaller.”

Finding Your Purpose

Devise a clear shopping purpose that fits your budget and needs. “My big mantra is shopping with purpose,” says Dove.

Meloski agrees. She suggests narrowing your focus beforehand and considering each piece’s function in your wardrobe. “You’re going to get more bang for your buck if you pick two trends,” or items, she says.

Heather Melhem can attest to this. “Sometimes you want to go shopping just because you want to go. But having a game plan helps,” she says. “Once you’re satisfied [with what you’ve found] you won’t be aimlessly wandering around the store.”

Establish What You Need

Create a wardrobe essentials list as the next part of your shopping strategy to determine what you specifically need. Through Doreen Dove’s services, she and her clients analyze their closets, determine what they need and don’t need, discover how they can make outfits with existing items, and find what key items are missing.

Online research helps, allowing you to find affordable versions of the styles and essentials you love at pricier retailers. “The good thing [about these expensive stores] is that you can get ideas,” she says.  Stores use the same keywords to describe merchandise. By looking at their stock and searching online for the same keyword, you can find cheaper counterparts.

Ruby Honerkamp takes strategizing to heart when she ventures out to the stores. “I go in with the mentality of what I’m looking for,” she says. “I’m thinking of how much I’m willing to spend. If you plan, you get more out of what you’re looking for.”

Keep in Touch

Email communications are the next crucial step. Registering for email lists will provide you with savings for what you absolutely need. Dove says to pick your top stores and sign up for their emails, which will tell you what the fair price is (to compare with other stores) as well as send you coupons. “By subscribing, you’ll know what to expect when you go into the store,” she says. “What’s better than a) getting what you want, and b) at your price.”

Another added bonus: free shipping codes will often lead to promo codes. “You have to work at it, but the work in advance is so profitable,” Dove says. “Online is your friend to find good deals.”

Where to Find Affordable Fashion

After you create your budget, find what you need, and do your online research, it’s time to shop. There are many places to find style and deals.

Forever 21, H&M, and Zara: Many students frequent these “fast fashion” stores to fill their wardrobes. “Fast fashion” stores offer today’s trends but at a cheaper price because the quality is mediocre.

The Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor Loft: Doreen Dove recommends these stores because many have fair prices. If they are over your budget, however, try their outlet branches. Dove says J. Crew’s outlet offers affordable, quality basics. Or shop their sales racks, as Meaghan O’Brien does to find her pieces.

TJ Maxx and Marshalls: Marisa Meloski recommends these stores because they stock designer brands at a fraction of the cost. However, you must be willing to search through the multitudes of racks to find what you want.

Consignment and vintage shops: Like TJ Maxx and Marshalls, consignment and vintage will allow you access to designer merchandise at a reduced rate. Again, you’ll have to search to find the pieces you specifically need. “I think that’s one of the best ways to get what you want,” Meloski says. “If you’re willing to put in the time [to search for what you want], it can work.”

Your closet: Update your wardrobe from what you already own. Dove says by laying out all of your clothing and organizing it by type of article, what you need becomes “readily apparent.” “By looking at what you’ve got, things start to jump out,” she says.

When shopping, Doreen says to keep “cost per wear” in mind. While an item may be pricier, the quality and use will create an overall lower cost.

What Not to Wear

Meloski advises against buying clothing simply because it’s cheap, which is hard when stores offer $20, cheaply made tops. “You can’t get swept away by the money. You’re still spending,” she says. “You want to keep a level head.”

Although students frequent Forever 21 to stay stylish, Dove warns shoppers about purchasing from there and Old Navy. While their low prices seem great, the quality is terrible. “Forever 21 is a disastrous pit,” says Dove. “You could walk out of there with 10 items for $100.” However, these garments will fall apart after several washes. “That’s a waste.”

Lastly, it’s essential to avoid impulse buys. “I’m really impulsive and [am] buying things I don’t really [need],” says Meaghan O’Brien. “So having a friend that can reason you out of things is a good thing to have.”

Sidebar: What Essentials are Essential?

Besides today’s prized jeans and tops, what items are must-haves for your wardrobe? Experts and students outlined what pieces you should always own.

Doreen Dove: Blouse, fitted jacket, and skirt. “A-line [skirts] are good for anybody.”

Marisa Meloski: Designer dark-wash jeans, black pumps, and a black blazer. “A great black blazer can go a long way.”

Ruby Honerkamp: Leggings. “I always wear them.”

Meaghan O’Brien: Long and short black cardigan, versatile skirt, good winter boots, and scarves. “Any outfit can be changed or spruced up with a scarf.”

Heather Melhem: Black flats and black blazer. “It looks so different every time I wear [the blazer].”

Sidebar: When Fashion Crosses the Line

One of the biggest issues in regards to fashion may not be the clothes themselves, according to Doreen Dove.

“One [thing to avoid] is peer pressure,” she says. Many girls purchase items because others are wearing them, not because they love them or because the pieces work for their needs. She stresses proportion when shopping and resisting purchases that only reflect popularity.

“And also, very important, is body image,” she says. “I think it’s time for girls to realize there’s nothing wrong with their bodies, there’s something wrong with their clothing. Dress for yourself. And second guess your clothes before you second guess your body.”

When Ruby Honerkamp shops, she asks herself two questions: Am I comfortable, and will I wear this again. “If I’m comfortable, I’m confident,” she says.

Meaghan O’Brien has a similar philosophy. She believes that style is a personal choice not dictated by fashion magazines. “It’s about looking good and feeling good and being happy whether you’re wearing something fashionable or not,” she says.

Heather Melhem echoes these thoughts. She states that fashion is expressing what you feel on the inside and putting it on the outside. “I think fashion is what you want it to be.”

Thanks to Elizabeth for this great article!


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