I recently did a presentation for the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade’s “Leaders of Tomorrow” program and, as always, offered an opportunity for the first six students who emailed me to get thirty minutes of my time, on me. Aside from the questions on how to network effectively and how to get ahead faster (the answer to both of those questions is “be patient”, by the way), I got several inquiries on how to look one’s best on a budget. When you’re starting out, it can be tough to figure it out, so here for you, if you’re a new job seeker or a student coming out of fourth year or both, are my best tips on dressing on a dime:

1. Buy Quality

Educate yourself on quality by spending some time looking in expensive shops and examining the merchandise. Look for strong, even stitching, quality fabric, no threads hanging, buttons firmly attached and zippers that zip smoothly without sticking.  Be aware that a high price tag doesn’t necessarily denote quality. Once you have educated yourself on the difference between high and low quality garments, you will be able to find amazing deals in store sales, thrift stores and consignment shops. Buy the highest quality garments you can afford. They will last longer, hang better on your body and give you a more polished look.

2. Buy Fewer Things

Shop only for what you need.  To figure this out, use simple wardrobe module math – if you’re working 40 hours a week, you’ll need at least two jackets, six shirts and four bottoms that can all mix and match to create outfits, plus shoes, a topcoat and a good bag. If you’ve already got some good ones, look only for the pieces you need to complete your work wardrobe that go with what you already have. Some items can be found in lower end stores and be combined with your quality pieces to save you money. For higher end items, visit the local consignment and thrift store shops. Invest in pieces you will wear for a longer time, such as suits, suit jackets, skirts, pants and shoes. You can save money on other items such as shirts, accessories, underwear and more casual professional clothing later on.

3. Know Your Budget

Determine your budget before you leave on your shopping trip.  Aside from the cost of the garment itself, you’ll need to factor in cleaning costs and alterations. If you purchase a lovely garment that needs to be dry-cleaned after each wearing, you’re not going to get the same mileage out of it as if it could be hand washed or simply aired between wearings. You’ll also need to take your purchases to the cleaners or wash them prior to wearing so also include this cost in your budget.  Alterations to the hem length, side seams and arm length are fairly simple and cost effective if the garment is of good quality and worth purchasing.  If something needs to be taken up at the shoulder or taken in all over, it is best left on the shelf.

4. Have a Plan for Shopping

Have a plan for shopping.  Decide which stores you will visit and map them out in a roughly circular pattern from your home. You will spend more time browsing in certain stores because of the layout – some are better than others at merchandising and visual display. Certain stores have higher end items for a fair price; most consignment stores require that the items they consign have been purchased within the last year so you can count on your item being current. Unless you are a die-hard shopper, visit no more than three stores in one day, especially if they are in different locations and you need to travel some distance between them.

Dress appropriately for shopping in comfortable clothing and accessories that can be easily removed. Bring snacks and water, or plan to stop every two hours for a break. Bring your own bags. When you enter a store, keep your list of items firmly in hand. Go directly to the area of the store where those items are displayed, search only for the particular item and move on.  When trying items on, be sure to check the tags to find out what material the garment is made of and to look for washing instructions. Natural, breathable fabrics in a quality weave tend to wear better than synthetics. Don’t forget to look for the quality indicators that were mentioned earlier in the article.

5. Take Care of What You Have

Finally, hang your garments up after each wearing and air them overnight before storing them back in the closet. If you perspire heavily, invest in some underarm shields for your shirts and suits to protect the fabric. Hand wash your garments wherever possible to save on dry-cleaning costs, or use a dryer sheet product such as Dryel to launder your dry-clean only garments between trips to the cleaners.  If you have followed the first tip and bought high quality garments, you should not have to clean them as frequently as a good airing will be sufficient to get them ready for another day.

Remember these simple steps and you’ll be on your way to budget dressing like a pro: buy quality, buy fewer items and save your money!