Nut's Clothes Shopping Theory: Cut Out the Middle

My best friend, the Practical Cranberry Nut Roll (hence Nut), has devised a new system for clothes shopping, and as soon as she explained it, I was on board, too. Her goal: to prevent herself from frittering away her clothing budget on thing that are just okay, while retaining the ability to make major improvements in her wardrobe, invest in quality pieces, and also enjoy a little light shopping as a pastime.

Suppose you have a clothing budget of $200 a month. For that you might buy:

  1. 1-2 new pieces in the $100-$200 range at more upscale places: Nordstrom, J. Crew, Ecco. At this price point, you are reasonably likely to be able to zero in on exactly what you want and get a high-quality, long-lasting wardrobe pillar.
  2. 3-5 new pieces in the $40-$60 range at what I'll call medium-priced places: Gap, Loft, DSW. These items are typically perfectly serviceable, but they're unlikely to be stellar, life-changing, buy-it-for-life items.
  3. Approximately 30-50 secondhand items at Goodwill. I don't want to add 30-50 new items to my wardrobe each month, so there's essentially no upper limit to how many items I can get at Goodwill--not for money reasons, anyway. The upper limit is the number of things I can find that I actually want and that work for me.

(It's worth nothing that when I presented this example to my wife, she was shocked that I (a) considered $200 a month a reasonable clothing budget, and (b) considered a $50 item to be medium-priced. "It better be stellar if you're spending fifty dollars!" she exclaimed. So, granted, everyone has a different scale and a different threshold for what they consider expensive. But I think using actual dollar amounts makes my point here, so I'm presenting them even if they may seem distractingly high or low to you.)

Nut's observation is that she is far too likely to go with the middle option, 3-5 "medium" pieces. I've found exactly the same thing. It seems safer, somehow, to buy several $40 shirts than one $100 one, even though, if that $100 shirt is really perfect, I know that I'd rather have that than several "just okay" ones! But after frittering away ours clothes budgets on middle options, we rarely have the money to spring for those high-quality Option 1 pieces. 
I think part of the problem is that we don't want our shopping possibilities to be over early in the month, just like that, with only one item (albeit a great one). But buying a handful of medium pieces doesn't allow us the freedom to shop with abandon that we crave, either. I frequently end the month with not even enough left in my clothes budget to go to Goodwill! In terms of utility and happiness, option 2 is the worst of both worlds!

So Nut's new plan is to cut out spending on medium pieces altogether. Rather than using middle-priced retailers, a more effective way to split the difference between quality and quantity (she argues) is to literally split the clothing budget. With a $200 clothing budget, you'd designate $100 (more or less) toward high-quality pieces, or one high-quality piece per month. You'd then reserve the $100 or $80 or $50 or however much is left over for what is still essentially infinite Goodwill shopping.

One of the things that's fun about this is the sense that we're budgeting items more than money (at least where high quality items are concerned). We each plan to add one carefully-researched, thoughtfully-considered, high-quality item to our wardrobe each month. Nut made a doc for us to plan our purchases for future months. Here's mine for the next few months:

March - Navy blue pinstripe work pants. This is already done.
April - Flats. I have two pairs of flats which I bought new last year, at about $30 each. I just got them out of summer storage, and I'm not super happy with either one. They're not particularly comfortable, and are already looking fairly shabby. I want two go from two "meh" pairs of flats to one pair that's great: looks good for work, feels comfy on my feet, and lasts more than one season!

May - A lightweight summer blazer. I have a wool blazer that I love, but I'm going to look for something in a lighter-weight fabric for warm weather, maybe linen, cotton, or hemp. Navy blue would be nice, but not seersucker (I hate those tiny stripes).

That's as far as I've gotten. I'm sure I'll think of more things for June and beyond.

It occurs to me that what we're basically doing here is a more focused, clothing-oriented version of the Buy With Intention list, but the "rule" of only adding one piece per month is helpful in providing what feels like a reasonable and useful limit on how quickly I can buy things, as well as giving me "permission" to spend on quality. After all, if I've identified a particular item as my "big spend" of the month, I might as well get exactly what I want instead of watering down my desires so that I still have money to buy other watered down items in the same month.

I'm also really pleased not to be limiting my Goodwill spending. You know how big of a fan I am of buying secondhand (although, as you can probably tell, my resolution to only buy secondhand didn't last long!) Occasionally I've actually found things at Goodwill that I would have been happy to use up a "big spend" on, but I didn't have to! Even when things I buy at Goodwill are just okay, I don't regret taking a chance, since the price is so low (including the ethical/environmental cost). Ruling in Goodwill shopping is a big part of why I feel like this new shopping regimen is sustainable: it lets me release my "shopping valve" and experiment with new styles, but in a controlled, inexpensive way.

While I don't curate any other "collections" as I do clothes, I'm curious if the "cut out the middle" theory of shopping will work for other areas of my life as well. I think it makes sense for all sorts of things. If you care about a particular item, then it pays to go for quality, get exactly what you want, pay the premium to get high-quality materials, maybe patronize a local or independent merchant, etc. For things you don't care so much about, it makes sense to not sweat it, and just keep an eye out for whatever opportunities may come across your path to pick up secondhand items for next to nothing (Goodwill, swaps from friends, curb alerts, etc.) The middle ground feels convenient and not too expensive, but it adds up quickly, and you don't end up with much to show for it.


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