When I dropped out of university due to health issues and went on welfare six years ago, my sense of style quickly went out the window. But before this — and after a long period of awkwardness in elementary and junior high where 1.) I wore glasses and braces and had an oily complexion 2.) my mother, who was older than most other moms, insisted on approving my clothing 3.) I was regularly bullied by my peers, who called me “ugly” and 4.) I had zero female guidance other than the school counsellor telling me that if I put my hair in a ponytail the girls would take notice and play with me — I somehow found my style in high school when I started working at the mall.
When I wasn't skipping class to smoke weed and self-medicate my mental illness and family issues, I was consumed by fashion — mostly because the only place my work would put me was the fitting room, and I had nothing else to do but figure out what my style was. I spent each work break trying on clothes and the end of each shift spending a chunk of my pay cheque on new outfits. To humble brag, I was repeatedly told that I “looked like the popular girls.” I wore a full face of makeup every day, backcombed the shit out of my hair (this was 2007) and regularly longed for new outfits that would make me just as happy as the last before the feeling faded.
Looking back now, I know that I was desperately trying to cover up my low self-esteem by caking on the wrong shade of makeup and clipping in as many extensions as I could fit under my hair. I tried to emulate the blonde woman in the media that I saw over and over: She had clear skin, luscious hair, and legs for days, when I had none of those. I used my student loan as an investment in Proactiv, hair extensions, and high heels, thinking that if only I could look as beautiful as her, I would be loved like my school counsellor had suggested. But after university and during a slow mental health breakdown in my early 20s, I had to learn to love myself — without having the funds to cover up my insecurities. Since I couldn't eat my clothes, I wore the same leggings and T-shirts for years. I stopped wearing makeup, switched to my natural hair, and opted for running shoes.
Now that I'm 26 and on disability, I've come to terms with trying to look stylish on a welfare budget. For one, I never spend my money on anything I won't use regularly, whether it's a T-shirt or a ring or a pair of boots. This may sound easy to some, but learning this skill took a lot of internal work, just like I had to stop self-medicating with alcohol or sex. If I was in a mall, I had a hard time not wanting to buy the newest, shiniest thing even when I couldn't afford it — and I still admittedly try to avoid malls for this reason. I had to realize that happiness wasn't going to come from the dress I looked killer in but was only going to wear a handful of times; it would come from having enough money to feed myself healthy meals, comfortable clothes I could wear daily, and little things I could splurge on to make me feel pretty — like a new nail polish shade or a thrift store piece of jewelry that would be a staple in my wardrobe. Because when you're on welfare, sacrificing enough for a new lipstick is $10 less you have for food, so you'd better wear it often.
While I'm certainly not the most stylish person, I've come to a place in my life where I'm happy with how I look and no longer feel the need to emulate the stereotypical blonde woman promoted in the media. If you're in a similar situation – whether you're on welfare or just broke – here are some style tips I've learned over the years that might help you feel more confident in your own skin.
1. Beauty starts in your body
When I cut out sugar, gluten, alcohol, processed foods — and, most importantly, dairy — my oily complexion and acne disappeared. And I'm not talking a pimple here or there. I used to have large, painful bumps under my skin that wouldn't go away no matter what drugstore or prescription product I tried.
When I took control of my health and stopped filling my body with junk, it rewarded me with giving me glowing, clear skin. I mean, I never thought I could live without sugar — I would spend my last dime on a piece of chocolate and had to learn alternatives that were better for my health and my skin such as dates. I've also come to swear by inexpensive, healthy snacks like apples, sweet potatoes, and air popped popcorn.
I'm not saying that doing these things will cure your acne, but taking care of your health will make you look your best physically, and people will notice regardless of what you're wearing. Obviously when you're on a welfare budget you won't have a lot of money to go toward juice cleanses or organic groceries, and that's not what I'm suggesting, but if you do your best to cook healthy meals, drink water, and exercise daily, your body will thank you.
2. Find where you can cut costs
If you're trying to save money for an updated wardrobe that's not falling apart or a piece that's a present to yourself, you're going to need to understand what you have to work with. If you don't already have a strict budget, learn how to make a personal budget, whether you choose to write down how much you have left over after bills, food, and rent or use an envelope system where you keep cash individually for laundry, entertainment, and savings.
Once you know how much you have left, you'll see how much you have monthly to contribute to your style fund — maybe it's saving for one big item or buying one inexpensive item every month. Now see where you can cut costs and save more, such as not buying junk food when you're PMSing, making products last longer, like using eye drops with contacts (check with your doctor to make sure you're maximizing the length of use without compromising your eye health); and hanging your laundry out to dry.
3. Decide what you're willing to invest in
As I've expressed above, having new things doesn't always lead to feeling more confident and can actually just temporarily cover up insecurities, but if you discover what actually makes you feel good about yourself long-term, find it in your budget to invest in it.
For example, I decided to invest in an inexpensive juicer one time, an eyelash lift every six weeks, and a large jar of coconut oil every six months. I realized that it doesn't matter if I wear the same clothing every day, but I feel most confident when my skin is clear and glowing and my long but straight eyelashes are lifted to look long and feminine. I love waking up already feeling glamorous, and if I have the money in my budget for these things and won't go starving because of them, then using the money I have left over after everything else is worth it for me.
4. Take advantage of your resources
When you have a limited budget, shopping in a thrift store or the sale section is of course a great place to start (I found a dress for a wedding that was $15). But sometimes you're going to have to get creative when you're trying to look great on the cheap, such as getting your hair cut at a beauty school for much less than you'd pay at a regular salon or holding a clothing swap at your home with friends. You can find a large selection of inexpensive clothing at Value Village, or take home rad items from the donations at youth shelters.
I like to take a cue from my grandmother and utilize my resources by trying on a shade of lipstick (get the person at the makeup counter to sterilize it for you first) at a drugstore or asking for a perfume sample at a boutique. I once asked a makeup artist to help me find the right shade of red and show me how to apply it — and even though I didn't have the money to buy it, I'll forever have those skills and the code number.