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How to Build a Professional Wardrobe on an Entry-Level Salary

Three tips to get you noticed without busting your budget.

Happy woman stands in front of mirror in business clothes, happy she saved money on her wardrobe.
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Once you’re done with your formal education—whether that’s with a high school diploma or a college or graduate degree, the workforce awaits. Classroom attire doesn’t cut it for many entry-level jobs. As a result, you’ll likely need to buy a more professional wardrobe. Similar to cover letters, resumes and interviewing skills, your physical appearance needs to make the best first impression, so you can’t wait for you first few paychecks to upgrade your clothing.

Follow these three tips to build a post-school work wardrobe that gets you noticed for all the right reasons without busting your budget before your adult life really begins.

1. Determine your employer’s dress code.

Today’s modern workplace drastically differs from a past in which the majority of men wore suits to the office and women donned the female equivalent. On the whole, this century’s work wardrobe standards tend to be less formal than the previous one and have gotten even more casual with the rise of fully remote and hybrid work environments. However, there are still some professions, companies and jobs that require full business attire or business casual all or part of the time.

You should get an initial sense of an employer’s dress code during the interview process by seeing what the interviewers and others onsite are wearing. Once you’re offered a job, ask the hiring manager or an HR representative about the organization’s dress code and the particular requirements for your job title, team and location.

2. Make a wardrobe plan.

Instead of buying an extensive work wardrobe right away, take a more intentional approach to ensure you make good use of your limited pre-employment funds.

Follow the minimalist trend and begin with a capsule wardrobe. InStyle describes this as “a concise, curated selection of timeless clothes,” and the dictionary defines it as “a small collection of clothes that can be put together in different ways and includes everything you would normally need to wear.” In other words, buy a limited number of high-quality basics in neutral colors that won’t go out of style or wear out any time soon.

For jobs that require full business attire, men could start with two suits (navy and grey), a sport coat and two pairs of dress trousers. For women, the basics could include a blazer-pants-skirt suit combo, along with another skirt, dress and pair of pants that can be mixed and matched with each other and the individual suit components.

Those entering business casual environments can focus on less dressy wardrobe building blocks, such as one nice sport coat or blazer for important meetings, several pairs of nice pants and, for women, possibly a skirt or two and maybe a versatile dress.

Once you’ve invested in the highest quality basics you can afford, add in a week’s worth of matchable shirts or blouses, shoes and accessories to create multiple outfits. Because these other items take more wear and tear and can be more subject to fashion trends than your mainstay pieces, you can spend less of your wardrobe budget on them.

3. Get the most bang for your clothing buck.

A classic suit can run several hundred dollars. A timeless sport coat or seasonless work dress can cost a few more c-notes. Even a good pair of men’s khakis typically costs at least $50, and often more than that.

Here are six ways to avoid paying full-price for your initial work wardrobe without sacrificing quality.

  • Sign up to save: Many department stores and specialty shops offer coupons for registering for promotional emails or signing up for their rewards programs. Collect as many as you can to use for your wardrobe basics.
  • Shop store sales: Retailers also run sales every week. When you’re building your wardrobe, check store websites for sales on the items you need before you start shopping.
  • Go to discount retailers: Stores like Marshalls, Ross and TJ Maxx fill their racks with last season’s clothes at a discount, and so do department store outlets, such as Nordstrom Rack and Saks Off Fifth. These can be great places to buy your tops, shoes and accessories, and with a bit of hunting, you might even find the perfect suit, blazer or dress with an attractive price tag.
  • Visit consignment stores: Consigning has become very popular with people trading in used clothes for cash. Brick and mortar consignment stores and online social marketplaces, such as Poshmark, The RealReal, thredUP and Tradesy, accept gently used name-brand and designer clothing, giving you another budget friendly way to start a decent work wardrobe. While you’re at it, consign some of your school clothes to offset the cost of what you’re buying for work.
  • Use graduation cash: If family and friends gave you cash for graduation, you can put some of it toward your wardrobe rather than charging more to your credit card than you can afford.

With your new wardrobe in place, you’ll feel confident and comfortable joining the so-called “real world” and thriving in it. And once you’ve been on the job for several months, you can add to your wardrobe where needed.

Editor’s note: Quorum is not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this article and derives no benefit from these businesses for placement in this article.

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CUNA 2023 diamond award trophy icon

CUNA 2023 Diamond Award Winner

Financial Education

Quorum derives no benefit from businesses in return for placement in this blog.

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