Recession Fashionista: 9 Ways to Stay Stylish in a Recession

Updated August 28, 2020

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Worried about a recession, fashionista? Yeah, I don’t blame you, what with that global pandemic that seems to rage on and on unchecked. We had a good economic run between 2010 and 2019, but like all good things…

Anyhoo, you can still be stylish even in a recession and even if you don’t have a dime to spare on new clothes. Here are nine secrets to being a recession fashionista.

1. Develop a signature piece

Your signature piece is the garment you’re going to be known for, sort of like your calling card. It could be fabulous shoes, earrings, blazer, dresses, etc. — but when the budget is tight, choose an accessory. It could be the crazy necklace, bold earrings, or hair clips. Focus your shopping dollars on an assortment of your chosen signature piece. Shop thrift stores, Forever 21, and Walmart.

2. Shop by cost per wear

You know this is something I’ve been preaching for years. Value is the key when you want to be stylish on a budget. The Budget Fashionista cost per wear formula will help you get the most bang for your buck.

To recap, the cost per wear is the price of an item/divided by the number of times you’ll wear it. So if an item costs $100, and you wear it ten times, the cost per wear is $10. The more you wear an item, the cheaper it becomes. This tip is especially important as it forces you to focus on the utility of an item rather than just the price. As an example, I have a $3 dress I’ve never worn. That’s $3 wasted.

3. Break up with your dry cleaner

I’ve not been to the dry cleaner in ages — maybe since before the last recession! You can lean on your dry cleaner for quick nips and tucks to extend the life of your clothes, but you don’t need to get your suits cleaned every week. Try two to three times a year and even less for coats. In between cleans, spritz clothes with a fabric freshener like Febreze.

4. Learn to sew

You don’t need to learn how to create your own fashions from scratch like a Project Runway contestant. But learn how to hem pants, fix torn seams, and make other minor alterations. Those skills open up a whole new world of thrift shopping — you can add darts to that blouse that doesn’t quite fit for example — and also helps you extend the life of the clothes you already own.

5. Follow the 70/30 rule

Seventy percent of the stuff in your closet should be classics that never go out of style. Think white button-downs, straight-cut jeans, blazers, neutral cardigans, and v-neck t-shirts. Use the other 30% to dabble in trends and focus on accessories, because they’re cheaper. Don’t spend a lot on stuff that’s not going to be wearable next season.

6. Create a shoppers savings account

Open a high-yield savings account and deposit your monthly clothing budget there. When buying clothes, only use funds that are in that account. You can buy down to a zero balance if you want, since that’s not the account from which you pay your bills. This comes with a caveat, though. Don’t try to get more out of your budget by using credit and thinking you can pay the bill from your monthly budget. That works initially, but eventually backfires as you start rolling over balances and incurring interest charges.

7. Swap before you buy

Get your friends together for swap parties. Bring your used, but still stylish items and swap them for your friends’ used, but still stylish pieces. Free and fun!

8. Use gift cards

I use this tip especially during the holiday season. I put my entire holiday budget on a VISA gift card from my bank. Once the money is gone, I’m finished shopping. This strategy also works well for back-to-school shopping.

9. Shop used

The experience recession fashionista knows that shopping secondhand clothes is good for your wallet and the planet. If you don’t have the patience for thrifting, try online vintage consignment stores. Shop by brand for clothes that are chicer, cheaper, higher quality than what you can brand-new in any store.

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By Catherine Brock

As a Southern California transplant now living in the Midwest, Catherine has turned layering into an art form and accepted that UGGs actually do have a place in the stylish lady's wardrobe. She's been featured in Woman's World Magazine,, Refinery29, and has made appearances on ABC7 Chicago, FOX2News St. Louis, KCAL9 Los Angeles, Fox19 Cincinnati, WGN TV Chicago and WCPO TV Cincinnati.

44 replies on “Recession Fashionista: 9 Ways to Stay Stylish in a Recession”

So exciting that we are going to see you on the Oprah show!  Your tips (& whole book!) have saved me much $$$ in my shopping adventures!  You really deserve a spot on her show and glad to see that moment is finally here!

Im seriously addicted to clothes and so to keep my shopping spending to a minimum I buy a few key pieces for each season- usually a bag or a great piece of jewelry. I used to go to a lot of sample sales (living in NYC has lots of perks!) But recently I discovered gilt groupe, which is an invitation only sample sale site. Its been awesome bc some of the things that they have currently at saks and bergdorfs are 70% off at gilt groupe. I got a vera wang dress that was $750 at saks for $148 at gilt groupe. I tried it on at the store and then bought it from gilt groupe instead. Its my one fancy dress purchase for the season.

Here is the invite if anyone needs it!

Also think vintage/used/handmedowns items…  Much better value – All my designer pieces are from thrift shops!

Just wanted to say, you are one savvy lady! Congratulations on your spot with Oprah!  Good luck to you and keep up the excellent work!

Love your tips. I am new to your site. I have 2 children and I budget shop all the time. I will have a few dollars and when I see something on sale I grab a few so when time rolls around I have what we need and don’t pay full price. This includes socks, pants, leggings, whatever. The local thrift store on Sundays has .25 clothing 5 for a dollar so I will also shop there. Thanks for the extra tips.

Great post! Congrats on the whole Oprah thing. Sorry to hear about peeps ripping you off, def not cool. What they should do is give you some cred ie- refer ppl to your blog. I def will be sharing this space with others!

Congratulations on all your success! You are such an amazing woman. Ever since you donated all those amazing items and books (accessories and scarves etc.) to our organization six years ago I started following your blog. I’ve been a faithful reader ever since. We love you Budget Fashionista. Keep rocking it!

I’m a home state fan of yours, and have been reading your blog for a few years. I enjoy it very much! Thanks a bunch for your tips and information. Lest I forget, a big congratulations on all of your achievements. 🙂

Your site is fabulous! I quoted one of your tips (from a previous post about using a prepaid gift card) in the local news letter I write for, along with a link to your website.

Congratulations on all of your success!

I love these tips! The only thing I don’t care for is the Febreeze because of all the chemicals in it (yup, not only am I vegan but I’m also as natural as I can be). One thing that can be done is hanging it up in the bathroom when you shower (kind of like steaming out the wrinkles, the steam helps air it out faster), hanging it out to dry in the fresh air (though I know not all can do this), or using an all natural/more planet friendly version of Febreeze (there are many out there, and they don’t cause the allergy aggravation that strong scents and the Febreeze can cause in those of us with sensitivities). Sometimes I will spray some vinegar water (something I have handy in a spray bottle for cleaning) on the clothing, and yes the vinegar smell evaporates & can take the nasty smells with it. My best tip, though, is to avoid buying anything that is dry-clean only as much as possible (dry-cleaning is super bad for the planet), but actually some of those items can be HAND washed (tags might say it, but sometimes you can tell by the material).
Maybe this is what my next blog needs to be about, what to do instead of dry cleaning… once I get off my lazy bum & post one…lol.

Your tips are copyrighted? Really?

Your *writing* is copyrighted, yes. But these are all ideas I’ve read before – most of them dozens of times. There’s nothing new here.

I imagine you’ll censor this comment. That’s fine. At least you’ll have to read it.

Emma- of course you’ve read them because they’ve been copied by other people. My first book came out in 2006 and NO ONE and this is verified by independent sources (like WWD and NYTimes) were using these tips. TBF has close to 600K people reading it each month AND we come up first when you are searching for budget tips. It doesn’t take much to copy from other people.

Also, why are reading a blog you have so much contempt for?? I mean, just don’t read us, if you don’t like us. If you just wanted some attention, you could have said something positive…. But you’re voice was heard and I hope that makes you feel better.

TBF, how do you feel about Dryel? (re: dry cleaning being a money-zapper). I imagine it’s a good investment and produces more freshness than Febreze…

Great advice! Your 70/30% rule is right on the money. Most well-dressed people have a closet full of beautiful classic clothes with amazing accessories and pops of color that they use to infuse their own personal style into their daily looks.

The 70/30 rule is key. But no one sells the 70% classics any more! Or at least you have to pick through trendo garbage to find them — most stores are 10% classics and those classics may not be the classics that work for me, or you. Even Land’s End, Talbots etc. have shirts and sweaters with weird details that might work for someone sometime but not me now.

So (1) WTF are they thinking? This is a recession — is this really the best way for stores to make money?
(2) meantime, where do I get my basics?
(3) Can we start a protest?!?!?!

It is hard to fine the basics (for a reason… you have to buy new trendy pieces each year). My advice is to stick with brands that are a bit more basic (Gap/BN for casual, Tahari/Ann Taylor for work). And of course, shop online

One other tip I have is to take care of the clothes you do have. Wash them in cold water and dry them on medium to low heat in the dryer or hang the nice work clothes to dry on your shower rack. Being gentler on your items in the wash helps them last a lot longer and look better longer. This saves a lot of money on basics like T shirts, undies and workout clothes that get washed a ton especially. Also wash your things inside out and to set color and prevent shrinking the first time you wash something you can throw a cup of white vinegar in the wash with it. This tip really works well with dark wash jeans and reds.

Great tips!! Just rad across your site this morning. However, I must admit that I have been using the “Cost Per Wearing” tip for over 25 years. I came across this tip in a Beauty Basics book and it has helped me to make “WISER” decisions, pass up some fads, and save tons of money. I will definitely give you mad props and refer others to your site.

I absolutely love these tips, especially number 6. I’m surprised that you didn’t include thrift store shopping (consignment and vintage stores are not for frugal people). Last but not least, hand me downs. Yes, I shop my Mom’s closet.

Wow, these were some really great tips, will certainly make me rethink and reevaluate what I have been doing for way too long!!!!!!!!! I appreciate your work…………………….

Great tips! I love the Cost Per Wear concept. I do this all the time with my groceries and other items but I never thought to do it with my clothes! That makes some of the items in my closet pretty expensive by themselves…

It does totally change the way you look at your closet. Items that seemed “cheap” actually become quite expensive because you never wear them.

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