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Cost Per Wear: How to Maximize Your Clothing Budget

My dad buys humongous cans of olives at Costco. It takes him a while to work through those olives, but he feels that Costco’s price per olive is too good of a deal to pass up. Maybe so. But in my house, I have limited pantry space and I hate dropping $200 at Costco or Sam’s to come home with only five (gigantic) things.

We all have our own ways of assessing value. Of course we consider what we get back for the spend, but sometimes we might focus on the overall price tag and, other times, we’re tuned in to the price per olive — err, I mean, unit.

And then there are the clothing purchases when we totally misjudge value, unintentionally of course. Those striped, wide-legged culottes that I had to have. Or that tee at TJMaxx for $8 — such a bargain! I loved those purchases, right up until I realized neither piece works well with anything in my closet. Ughh.

How to Make Value-Oriented Clothing Purchases

Not all bargains are created equal. Some are really spending traps in disguise. There is an answer though. Some simple math can help you estimate the cost per wear of an item, which gives you a good sense of its overall value.

End of season sale ad

Cost Per Wear Ratio

Total cost of the item / estimated times you’ll wear that item = the cost per wear

For example, if you spend $500 on a great winter coat, wear it for about 100-150 days per year over the next five years, it’ll cost you about $.67 to a $1.00 every time you wear the coat. The more you wear the coat, the lower the cost per wear.

On the other hand, the trendy top you bought for $20 at your local Old Navy, that you wear only three times before throwing it out, costs you around $6.50 every time you wear it, making it almost six times as expensive as the coat.

Cost/Wear Pitfalls

Shopping can be an emotional thing — which means it’s easy to trick ourselves into purchases that are not value-oriented. Like those fuzzy earmuffs I bought last winter for $10 on sale. I never wore them. Not even once. Certainly the world didn’t end because I made a bad purchase decision, but if you’re watching your pennies closely, it helps to limit these missteps. Knowing the common pitfalls of cost per wear shopping can help.

Do think about the coordinating pieces you already own. Will you have to buy a pair of shoes or other accessory to make full use of the new garment?

Do add in the cost of any tailoring. The all-in cost of an item includes shipping, taxes, tailoring, etc.

Do consider the seasons. Have a system for resurfacing off-season clothes when the weather changes, particularly if you shop end-of-season sales. After a long, hot summer, it’s super easy to forget about the fab coat you bought just as winter was ending.

Do keep your closet organized. Sorry for sounding all lecture-y on this one. It’s only from personal experience. When my pieces are organized, I am far less likely to have those “nothing to wear” moments. The more I rely on what’s already in my closet, the lower my cost per wear overall.

Do focus on the classics. Ultra trendy pieces can have a short lifespan. Classics like pencil skirts and blazers and tailored jeans will be options for the long haul.

So what’s the moral of this shopping trick? Value, not low prices should be your focus when budget shopping. A bargain is only a bargain if you actually wear it.

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Courtney Bowman

Sunday 27th of November 2011

A great principle, thanks for posting!


Friday 20th of August 2010

so nice


Friday 20th of August 2010

Please forgive all my mispellings-AGAIN. I paid attention to the details of the spelling in my post as much as Target does to the quality/details in their clothes. I hope that does not make me a hypocrit. Is that how you spell hypocrit?


Saturday 21st of August 2010

@Sarah don't worry about the misspellings :) We're just happy to have your opinion!


Friday 20th of August 2010

I agree with Courtney's comment that it may not be prectical in this economy to pay big money up front for basics. I also agree with Kathleen that sometimes when you buy a low price new item it can be more expensive because it may be made with cheap quality. I personally hate if something from Target last a few washings. I also hate fabric that is not made from natural fibers. I prefer cotton clothes with loads of detialing in things like dresses, ie no empire waist, yes to darts, lining, a fitted bodice, matching belt and sleeves since I am always cold. Now why do these dresses cost over $100 bucks at Anthro when I used to get them 15 years ago at the Salvation Army for like $2? A cotton dress is a day dress. Not a work dress. Not an evening dress. Etc. Quality seems so outragiously pricey when the item is new. Good luck finding something not made in China by slave labor. Not even at Fred Segal's. So it is really tricky to shop carefully now a days to get a good price per wear.


Saturday 21st of August 2010

Thanks Sarah-

Kathryn is saying that you should spend more money- just to look at what your buying- whether it is expensive or inexpensive- from a different perspective.


Friday 20th of August 2010

You don't always have to pay more for an item to get the most use out of it, either. For instance one of my favorite items is a White/House Black market blazer I got at a thrift store the cpw is now less than a penny and I have only had it a few months. I think it is not always practical in this economy to say you have to pay big money up front for your basics.

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