After A Lifetime Of Bargain-Hunting, I've Finally Come Around To Spending More Money For Higher Quality Clothes

I've been dumpster-diving and thrifting clothes my whole life. I've never had much money, so clothing has always been stressful balance of finding something that will actually fit on my body, at the lowest price point I can afford.
Publish date:
September 29, 2014
bargains, thrifting, quality

Last week, I bought some $90 clogs. My first instinct is to feel foolish for spending so much money on shoes, ones made simply of wood and leather. I could have just MADE these, I think, turning the clunky birch soles in my hands.

Except I’m a busy person, and also, not a cobbler. I know this from my numerous attempts at making shoes -- from the 7” wooden and jute ‘platforms’ I made in shop class, to the tiny, poorly designed skin-sewn slippers I insist on making/forcing Pancake to wear.

No, I could not have made those clogs -- they were handmade by masters in Sweden, by Lotta of Stockholm, expertly crafted to fit perfectly, with supple leather that snugs up on your foot without chafing. These were made, and sent to me, for $90, and if I take care of them, I’ll still have them in 10 years. That’s $9 a year for dope clogs. How’s that for cheap?

I have a lot of experience wasting time and money on garbage clothes -- I've been dumpster-diving and thrifting clothes my whole life. I've never had much money, so clothing has always been stressful balance of finding something that will actually fit on my body, at the lowest price point I can afford. I’ve always felt like if you aren’t too picky, scouring thrift racks, and sorting through the dump all the time for clothing is just easier, and definitely cheaper.

Except it isn't, not really.

The amount of time I spend looking and the money spent replacing worn-out or cheap items -- it's obscene. The habit of chasing the lowest price-tag has hidden costs too; I’ve spent literally years messing around with cheap and ill-fitting clogs, buying $10 pairs at the thrift store, convincing myself that a size 8 from the 1960s is totally the same. No, those women had tiny, narrow little bird feet to my canoe paddles.

For someone who doesn’t care that much about how I look, it’s ironic how much time and money I spend to get that way. Also dumb.

No more. I turned 30 this summer, and I'm while I’m not ready to give up dressing like Garth Algar, I'm certainly going to spend less time and money doing so by swearing off cheap crap, investing in better, higher-quality stuff, and being more choosy at the thrift store.

Invest In ACTUAL Basics

If you wear it all the time, it needs to fit you well and be made of decent material. When people say ‘basics’ in terms of clothing, I tend to imagine white tees, ballet flats and smart, well-fitting black trousers. Not a new concept, but it’s often applied like we’re all very chic, classic women with professional jobs.

I’m not, so I focus on basics that actually meet my needs. Ponying up the money for a quality pair of work bibs is an investment that will pay for itself; instead of trashing jeans every month with my Charlie Work, a nice pair of Carhartts will last a few years at least.

Whatever YOU wear all the damn time, a cornerstone of your wardrobe should be what you spend the most on. Most people get this backwards, and are wearing threadbare leggings or ill-fitting ass-less jeans everyday, then dropping a week’s salary on ‘statement shoes’ that won’t last a season.

That’s totally cool if you have the dosh, but spending money on sturdy, well-made basics will save money in the long run. Take leggings; I can get a pair for $4 at any fast-fashion site online, and they’ll last maybe two months before they have thin spots and holes. Alternatively, I can spend a whole $30 on a pair that I can wear for at least a year before I look like I’m giving up on life.

The Confusing World of 'Fast Fashion'

People are more than ready to condemn Forever 21 and other brands that offer dirt-cheap clothing for their exploitation for foreign workers. But just because they have a different business model than say, Free People, Calvin Klein, Zara, Target or The North Face, doesn’t mean they are the only company that uses cheap labour, questionable environmental practices, and low-grade materials to boost profits.

Spending more money doesn’t guarantee either quality or ethics -- in fact, most clothing companies right now are using the ‘fast fashion’ model: nearly disposable clothes made out of plastic. While the real cost of a $3 tank top might be hazy, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s crappy, and you don’t need it. It may be tempting, because $3 is less than a sandwich, but it’s probably made of elastane, polyester and cheap cotton, and it’ll hold stains like crazy, the stitching will fall out, and it’ll pill up faster than me when I have a head cold.

While it’s getting harder and harder to untangle which brands are ethical and which aren’t, it’s easy to just buy better quality things, less often. Vote with your wallet, and don’t buy disposable garbage clothes, no matter the brand.

Learn To Spot Quality, New Or In Second-Hand Shops

I use to pride myself in my ability to sniff out (literally) mid-century denim; there’s this certain smell, a combination of dirty cotton and tarnished copper zippers that is so distinct, it can only belong to some Levi’s from the ’60s.

Can you imagine your pants, the current ones on your ass, lasting 30 years? No, neither can I -- because they won’t; most jeans these days are made from thin spandex and polyester blends, are serged instead of top-stitched, and have either plastic or teeny metal alloy zippers. I feel lucky if my junk jeans make it an entire summer without the crotch ripping out, I can’t fathom them lasting years. But a good pair will -- with thick cotton, double-stitched inseam, and have rivets at stress points.

Acrylic or polyester knits are always tempting because they offer trendy styles for the low-low cost of washing it once and then wishing you hadn’t. Pass on 100% acrylic items -- they just don’t last. Most synth fibers are very thin and flexible, meaning that garments made with them don’t hold their shape and pill quickly. Instead, go for wool, cotton or even blends of acrylic (up to 50%) and treat them with care.

If You Don’t Love It, Do Not Buy It -- Period

Whether you’re in a boutique, a mall store or a thrift store, if you don’t love something, don’t buy it. If it doesn't fit you, don’t buy it because just because it’s cheap, or the colour is perfect, or details are precious, or because you’ll totally wear it when you overhaul your life and lose 20 pounds, or it totally fits, I just can't move my arms. No one needs another pair of pants that need to be hitched up constantly, or an embellished top that utilizes glue, not thread, to attach beading.

I used to always think “Oh, I can let this seam out/dye this a better colour/patch that hole” -- be honest with yourself: do you have the time/resources/skills to do that? Is this piece of clothing even worth it?

When you invest in higher-quality items, scuffs and nicks actually add character, instead of take it away. A cheap linoleum floor with gouges and tears looks like it belongs in the bathroom of a laundromat, but a solid hardwood floor with the same blemishes looks worn but enduring and classy.

I’ve got flooring on the mind. What do you look for as markers of quality?

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