How to Build a Wardrobe for $10 (or less!) per Item in Washington

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Anyone familiar with my fashion philosophy knows that I advocate frugality. Whether you’re buying a coat, sandals, or jeans, there’s no reason why you should ever have to spend more than $10 per article of clothing (with three exceptions to this basic rule: 1) you are investing in a rare or very high quality fashion find, 2) you have medical needs that require you to wear special attire, like therapeutic shoes, or 3) you feel like splurging on something because you absolutely love it and have been dying to own it. Even with those exceptions, the majority of your wardrobe can be thriftily obtained and still look absolutely gorgeous. Go ahead and bemoan the cost of living in D.C. When you’re done, I’m ready to share a few secrets.

You might not believe that such a lean budget could possibly buy you anything of any aesthetic worth, let alone a real eye-whopper. But what if I told you that nothing I’m currently wearing cost more than $8 with tax? And what if I told you that everything I currently have on is cute, comfortable, and flattering? Now any of you chronic mallrats and hardcore fashionistas are probably scoffing or rolling your eyes right now. But if you’re willing to give it a go, here are my tips for building a stylish Washingtonian wardrobe at $10 (or less!) per item:

*Go to discount stores/outlets: Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl’s, and Old Navy are obvious bargain joints but Wet Seal, Forever 21, H&M, Gadzooks, JC Penney also offer low prices. Outlets are often rather promising, too. Washington offers several options in that realm: Potomac Mills (www.potomacmills.com), Arundel Mills (www.arundelmillsmall.com), Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets (http://www.premiumoutlets.com/outlets/outlet.asp?id=14), Prime Outlets at Hagerstown (http://www.primeoutlets.com/locations/hagerstown.aspx), and Queenstown Outlets (http://www.primeoutlets.com/locations/queenstown.aspx). I’m very partial to Potomac Mills (Woodbrige, VA, about 30-45 minutes from D.C.), which boasts over 255 retailers, making it the second largest mall in Virginia, only behind McLean’s Tysons Corner Center.

*Wait for mark-downs: If you don’t like the selection at discount stores, hit more expensive ones but limit yourself to sales/clearance clothes or accessories. You’d be surprised by how much even the priciest stores mark down their goods at the end of the season. For example, I’ve bought several items at the Urban Outfitters in Chinatown and Tysons Corner that each cost under $10. Sometimes marked-down items are hidden at the back of stores or in remote corners near the dressing rooms. If you can’t find the sales rack, don’t be afraid to ask an associate where the marked down duds are. Also know that on Tuesdays, many of the cutesy boutiques in Adams Morgan offer 10-30% off their inventory (for a list of participating stores, go to http://www.ammainstreet.org/).

*Visit thrift shops: There is no shame in buying secondhand clothes. There are also no health risks so long as you wash the clothes before wearing them. Be sure to always try the clothes on before you buy them; thrift shops have a wide variety of new and old brands that you’re probably unfamiliar with so you don’t want to risk buying something only to later discover that it doesn’t fit you. Many hospitals and churches run thrift shops as side projects so buying from them is essentially the same as sending them a charity paycheck around the holidays. Consider it an act of kindness that also allows you to walk home with some new-to-you treasures! My favorite local thrift shop in the area is the Columbia Pike Thrift Shop (http://www.trinitychurcharlington.org/Thriftshop3.htm), where I have bought new clothes for only $0.50 a piece!

*Haggle at flea markets: With a mixture of new and old, rare and run-of-the-mill, classy and trashy, flea markets are exciting places to shop in general. Flea markets, like thrift shops, often carry a plethora of interesting clothes but, unlike thrift shops, you have no place to try the duds on. As a result, you should be especially careful about what you buy and just how much you pay for it, unless you’re confident that it will fit. Always ask for a lower price if possible, too! Washington’s regular flea markets include Eastern Market (http://www.easternmarket.net/), Georgetown (http://www.georgetownfleamarket.com/), Clarendon (http://www.arlingtoncountywebsite.com/cgi-bin/cal/plans.cgi?view_event=1&evt_id=310), and Chantilly (http://www.vacationsmadeeasy.com/GreaterWashingtonDCAreaDC/eventCalendar/DCBigFleaMarketattheDullesExpoCenterinChantillyVA.cfm). My favorite local flea market, however, is the D.C. Really Really Free Market in Dupont Circle, where everything is literally…free (you are welcome to bring your own cast-offs, as well!) Check out their Facebook group (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=17512605917) for more information.

*Throw clothes swaps: If you can’t afford to spend any money on clothes and you have friends who wear your size, throwing clothes swaps is a great idea. Simply find a time and place to hold the event and call/email your friends to bring several pieces of clothes they no longer want. The more people who attend and the more each individual person brings, the greater your chances are of finding items you can adopt into your wardrobe. You can even host a clothes swap at your church, dorm hall, or community center for a bigger turnout and wider selection. Be sure to post it on the D.C. Craigslist (http://washingtondc.craigslist.org/)!

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