Business Clothes on a Budget

Choosing the best attire for work or a professional event can be a challenge, but there are ways to be both appropriate and unique without blowing your budget.
businesswoman in formal clothing
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Dressing professionally seems simple: jacket, shirt, slacks, skirt, dress. Then you try it and suddenly you’re faced with all kinds of quandaries: Are these pants dressy enough? Can I wear my favorite funky earrings? How can I afford a new suit? And what is “business casual” anyway?

Dressing for the workplace or professional events isn’t always easy. The choices you make have to take into account not only the image you want to project, but also the type of work environment you’re in, dress code policies, your personal style, and the business situation at hand.

Choosing the right attire for work can be a hassle, but there are ways to be appropriate and unique without blowing your budget.

What’s appropriate?

Most professional situations will call for either “business attire” or “business casual”. In general, formal activities, such as interviews, presentations, or power meetings with people two or three levels above you, call for business attire. That’s the full suit, business shirt or blouse, closed-toe dress shoes—the whole nine yards.

For professional activities in which you are just one of the crowd, such as a regular day in the office, a training course, or professional conferences (when you are not presenting), business casual is usually appropriate. Business casual is less formal than business attire. You can remove the tie and replace the jacket with a vest, sweater, or cardigan. But you still need to look put together so that you’re taken seriously as a professional.

If you’re not sure about what the expectations are or how traditional the dress code is, ask the human resources department, your boss, or colleagues.

When in doubt, dress up and dress conservatively. It is easier to turn a business outfit into something more casual on the fly (just take off the jacket) than it is to make a casual outfit dressier. Similarly, you can add flair to a navy suit with a fun tie or colorful jewelry, but you can’t tone down prints and patterns as easily.

business attire: full suit with jacket, necktie or simple jewelry, closed-toe shoes
Business casual: less formal but still professional, sweater in lieu of jacket, funkier accessories if desired, long skirt or dark jeans

How on earth can I afford this?

If you’ve been a student your whole life, chances are you’ll have to build a work wardrobe from scratch, without a lot of funding. Here are some tips for getting started without breaking the bank.

With limited funds, the most budget-friendly places to shop for good-quality work clothes are discount department stores like Marshalls, T.J. Maxx, and Nordstrom Rack, or outlet malls. You can also try searching the clearance racks at major department stores or visiting thrift stores and consignment shops.

If you’re not sure about the look or fit you want, you can visit a store that specializes in customer service and tailored business clothing to get ideas for the types of pieces that suit you best. Then go to stores that are more affordable to purchase what you like.

You do want to invest in one or two good-quality business suits and have basic items that can easily pair with other pieces of clothing. A dark suit, a versatile pair of pants, and a plain business shirt or blouse are good foundation pieces that you can rely on for any situation for years to come.

And remember: you do not need to build a whole wardrobe at once. Build slowly as your budget allows, and eventually you’ll have what you need to get from week to week in the office.

These clothes aren’t me!

Unless you’ve been wearing ties, dresses, and suits your entire life, there is a good chance that you will feel stiff and awkward the first time you wear professional clothes. There is a lot you can do to add your own personal style to your work wardrobe without sacrificing professionalism.

Start by making sure the pieces fit properly. Some stores (especially those that specialize in men’s suits) actually sell unfinished clothes and tailor them to fit you. Otherwise, most dry cleaners will do affordable alterations.

It’s OK to add touches of your personality into your wardrobe, but your style should not conflict with the dress code of the office or laboratory. If you like bright, bold colors, wear them with simpler pieces that tip your ensemble closer to the conservative side. 

If you have brightly colored hair, make sure it is styled neatly so that it is not a distraction. If you have visible piercings, be sure to wear smaller jewelry.

If you’re into fashion trends, stick to one or two trendy but work-appropriate items paired with more conservative basics. This is a less expensive approach that ensures your look does not overshadow the good impression you display in your work. You want people to notice you, not your clothes, hair, or accessories. 

Starting with a few pieces and a little creativity, you can make your work wardrobe work for you. 

Lab notes

If you will be entering a laboratory at any time, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires you to tie back long hair and wear long sleeves or a lab coat, long pants, and low-heeled (less than 1.5 inches) leather shoes that completely cover your foot. Industry takes these regulations very seriously, so plan your wardrobe accordingly.