Saving on Clothes

Clothes are one of the necessities of life. Here’s a clip from my book about how to save money on getting dressed:

Planning your wardrobe

It’s possible to limit how many clothes you need to buy by choosing clothes in complementary hues that can be mixed and matched. A patterned top may go with several solid bottoms that pick up different colors in the top. Likewise patterned slacks can go with several solid tops. For casual wear, just about anything goes with jeans. Quite a lot of colors look well with white or with various neutral tans. Lately I’ve been seeing women wearing a simple T type shirt with a suit, and presumably also using the same simple shirt with slacks or jeans for casual wear.

Women’s professional suits can be less expensive if bought as separates. If you buy pieces that all go with each other, then one or two neutral blazers can make a few skirts or slacks and tops into multiple business suits. Dark and neutral colors call less attention to themselves so you can wear them more often without people noticing. Gray and dark blue go with a wide range of other colors. Add color and interest with less expensive items like blouses, scarves and costume jewelry.

A man I know had an office job that he expected to be short term. He bought one suit in a dark and unremarkable color and five dress shirts and ties that went with the suit and with each other. They were different enough from each other that to the casual observer it would seem that he was wearing entirely different clothes each day of the week.

I work at home so I don’t need professional clothing. I feel that if I can get dressed every day for 10 to 14 days without having to do laundry, I’ve got enough clothes. For this to work I try to keep a balance such that I don’t run out of one part before all the others, i.e. that I have about as many tops as slacks, etc.

Buying clothes

The end of the season is a good time to find clothes at good sale prices in retail stores. One year in September I got shorts for just $5 a pair at an end of season clearance in Walmart. I was still wearing them over a decade later. Sometimes the men’s version of something will cost less than the women’s version and be better made. Try the men’s department for jeans, socks, shoes and jackets. A small adult can find good bargains in the children’s section. If you do some clothes shopping during the back to school sales tax holiday, you’ll save the amount of the sales tax.

Sharp looking clothes for business wear can often be found at very good prices in consignment shops. Check out ones near prosperous neighborhoods. Specialty clothes such as for Christmas, Easter, weddings, prom or formal events can often be found in nearly new condition at resale shops or thrift stores. I’ve seen wedding dresses in resale shops too. Such stores usually have plenty of casual everyday clothes also. Check for stains and damage before you buy.

Making clothes

Not too many people sew anymore, not in the sense of cutting fabric to a pattern and sewing a garment from the ground up. Patterns and fabrics can cost more than mass-manufactured clothing at a discount store. They can cost a lot more than buying at yard sales or rummage sales. It seems to me the main attraction to sewing your own is to have it exactly the way you want it, and because you enjoy the process. I made a dress with my mother’s help when I was 12. I wore it proudly for as long as I possibly could, very pleased that I had made it myself. Sewing classes are often offered at stores that sell fabric, such as Jo-Ann Fabrics.

Patterns and fabrics can both be had for lower prices at garage sales and rummage sales. Even on eBay patterns are $6 and $8. They become cheaper per-use the more often you are likely to reuse the same pattern. Buttons can be so expensive at the fabric store. It can pay off to browse the garage sales with an eye to buying a garment just for the buttons. When I discard a garment that has buttons, I save them in my sewing box for future use. Ordinary white buttons from men’s dress shirts came in very handy. Cliff would lose one here or there, and they all look so similar I could replace them from my stash.

Make it last

 Altering clothes can save a lot of money when a person loses a lot of weight. Taking in shirts and slacks is relatively simple. Turn it wrong side out, pin the seam where you think it needs to be to fit and try it on. Watch out for the sharp ends of the pins. By the look in the mirror and the feel on your body you can tell whether you need to take it in more or less or the same as you’ve pinned it.

The garment may not have exactly the same shape and hang that it did. If you can stand that for a few weeks you can skip a couple of sizes before you have to buy new clothes. For expensive clothes or business suits, it may be worth it to pay a professional seamster for better results. This is a situation where a friendship group can be very handy. Perhaps you know someone who has recently outgrown – whether headed up or headed down – the size you are now going into.

Sometime people use dress shields to protect the underarm of a dress or shirt from perspiration stains. A less costly form of these is to use the type of very thin panty liners that have adhesive over the whole backing, not just a thin strip.

Fix it up

The clothes you have can be made to last longer by mending them when they get damaged. The sooner you fix a problem the easier it is. “A stitch in time saves nine” is an age-old truth about mending. Mending is usually pretty easy, because you are restoring the garment to how it already was. You can see what needs to be done just by looking at it. When a seam has a gap in it, you can follow the existing stitching and fill in the missing part. When a button is gone, you can usually see either bits of thread or holes where the thread was to show you where to put the button. If not, button it up, lay it flat with the buttonhole over the place where the button ought to be. Mark the spot with a pencil or chalk through the buttonhole, and sew the button back on at the marked spot. I bought one of those mending sets that have two dozen tiny spools of thread in a wide range of colors. I’ve always been able to find a color that was a close enough match. The set costs $1 at the dollar store and $2.99 at the grocery store.

I had heard of “turning a collar” but I didn’t know how that would work. Think about a dress shirt with a collar on it. After a lot of wearing the top edge where it touches your neck at the hairline can get frayed. Look at the back side, the underneath. The same line on the back of the fold isn’t worn at all. To “turn a collar” you pick out the stitches where the collar is attached to the shirt and remove it. Turn it end to end and sew it back on. Now the fresh side is up and the worn side doesn’t show.

Restoring a hem can be a bit trickier. For hemming I like a magical invention called fusible bonding web. It’s sold under brand names like Stitch Witchery. You damp iron it in between the layers of the garment and it stays quite well. When Cliff moved to Florida he cut the sleeves of all his long sleeved shirts down to short sleeves and hemmed them with fusible web.

Recently I’ve salvaged a pair of slacks and a pack of underwear by sewing. The slacks had lost elasticity in the waist. I had another pair that had split up the back, not on the seam. So I cut the waistband off the pair that split and sewed it on to the pair that had lost elasticity. They don’t match at all, so I wear them with a long shirt, not tucked in.

For the undies, my skin was reacting to the elastic in the waistband. It wasn’t a good time to spend money buying the comfort waistband style that has the elastic covered with cloth. So I turned the elastic down, outward, and sewed it down. Trial and error showed that when sewing elastic onto cloth you must stretch the elastic all the way out as you sew it. Otherwise the sewing will come undone the first time you wear them. I spent the time instead of spending money because time is what I have more of right now.

I don’t have the skills to set up as a seamstress or to do complex alterations. But I can certainly mend things and make curtains, pillow covers and simple things like that. My sewing machine is a lightweight portable one, but strong enough for the kind of sewing I do. It cost about $70 at Sears.

Missing color in fabric, such as a small bleach accident, can sometimes be touched up with a sharpie or magic marker. I’ve done that with black and with brown. I’ve used markers on chipped ceramics and scratched wood as well to conceal the damage. Crayons work on wood scratches too. A zipper that sticks will run more smoothly if you rub wax or soap on it.

An otherwise nice sweater that has pilled can be refreshed by removing the pills. You can do that by shaving with a safety razor. Or you can rub it lightly with fine sandpaper, moving it in only one direction. A lint brush will make your clothes look sharper. If you don’t have a lint brush you can use wide tape made into a loop that will fit around your fingers with the sticky side out. Pat the garment all over, collecting the lint. Using vinegar in the rinse cycle of the laundry will prevent lint from settling on the clothes.

Any task you wonder about is worth looking up on YouTube. Nearly anything that’s easier to understand by seeing it done is shown there. I’ve seen videos on how to change the faucet on a sink, how to sew on a button, how to cook various dishes, and more. Be sure to scroll down below the video and read the comments people have left. Sometimes they correct some error in the video or add something that will make your task even easier.

You can prevent slacks from getting that wrinkly crease where they are hung over the bottom bar of a hanger. Take the empty cardboard roll from paper towels, slit it up one side the long way and slip it over the hanger bar to make a larger, smoother support for the slacks. If you don’t use paper towels, take three toilet paper rolls and do the same with them. When I did this I found that I needed to put a short piece of tape across the split in the cardboard roll. Otherwise putting the slacks on the hanger knocked the roll off.

White or off white clothes that are sound but have become too dingy can be dyed. I tried dying a white cotton shirt with Kool-aid as described in The Complete Tightwad Gazette. In a large pot combine 2–3 packs of Kool-aid, room temperature water and the garment to be dyed, already clean and wet. Bring it to a simmer slowly, allow it to simmer for 10 minutes and then allow it to cool off. Rinse in room temperature water. A pack of lemon and one of orange yielded a pale peach color. More than half of the color came out when I rinsed it, and the rest came out when I washed it. I probably needed to use a larger pot so that it could simmer more briskly without boiling over. Washing soda helps set colors; maybe I should have added some of that. RIT clothing dye is easy to find. I followed the directions and the color set in strongly. I used yellow. The shade was a little greenish and too harsh for my taste. Dye is also great for restoring the color to black clothes or blue jeans.

Change it up

If a pullover sweater becomes too tight or gets a stain or hole in the middle of the front you can make it a no-button cardigan. Stitch two parallel rows close together down the middle so it won’t unravel when you cut it. Then cut in between the stitching down the middle and finish the edges with sewing tape or ribbon. You can do this with any shirt. It’s a little hard to describe in words. You can see it by searching on for “turn sweater into a cardigan”.

When I was a kid the elbows on my favorite blouse wore through. I cut the sleeves off just above the holes and rolled them up and went on wearing it. This will also work if the sleeves have become too short. Sometimes you might be able to take the sleeves off and make it a sleeveless shirt. You can do something similar with slacks. If the knees are worn through you can cut them off to make shorts. Then you can roll them up, hem them or fray the edges. A shirt dress that’s too short can be cut off and hemmed to make an actual shirt. A dress whose top part has become unusable can be made into a skirt. Trouser socks are far stronger than knee high stockings and last much longer. Trouser socks also make a good inner layer to keep warmer in cold weather.

Use it up

Clothes that can no longer be fixed or altered can still be useful. Absorbent items such as T-shirts, towels and socks can enjoy a second life as cleaning cloths or shop rags. You can make a dusting mitt from the sleeve of a sweatshirt. The fuzzy inside will be the outside of the duster. Allow enough length so that when you reach your hand into the sleeve from the end, the cuff of the sleeve is around your wrist and there’s enough material beyond the tips of the fingers of your outstretched hand to allow you to hem it closed. A sock rubber-banded to the handle of a broom will let you reach dust and cobwebs in high places. The leg of a pair of slacks can become a cylindrical pillow for your neck. Stuff it and either tie or sew it shut on each end.

A pocket can become an inner pocket for your purse or tote bag. Cut it out, leaving an inch of material all the way around. Turn all the edges under ¼ inch and then another ¼ inch and sew it into your purse or tote. If an adult garment has large sections of sound cloth, the good areas can be used as fabric to make clothes for babies or dolls.

Socks with worn out feet? Cut off the tops and sew a top on to a mid-calf sock to make it into a knee high sock. Or sew two tops together to make a leg warmer. Sock tops can also make mittens longer so they go up into your sleeve instead of leaving a gap between mitten and jacket. If you have long hair you can use a sock to make a large bun. It’s too hard to explain here, but go to and search on “sock bun” to see it.

If it would work for you, buying a large quantity of socks in the same color and style can save money and effort in the long run. You will never have an unmatched sock. If one wears out or gets lost, the other still matches all the other socks. I have a dozen tan socks that I wear with nearly everything. A man could do this with black dress socks, an athlete with white tube socks. If you get a run in one leg of a pair of pantyhose, you can cut that leg off and wear it with another one-legged pair. If they are both the same leg, turn one of them inside out. If you catch a run when it’s just starting, it can be stopped by painting both ends of the run with clear nail polish.

The sound part of worn out denim clothes can be used for many things. Make children’s jeans last longer by sewing a large piece of denim inside each knee area in advance. Denim is also handy for making potholders and purses. It makes a relatively masculine quilt or couch throw. For directions, use any internet search engine to search on “make a denim purse” (or potholders or whatever).


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