How I maintained my fashion sense while paying down debt
Shopping for clothes used to get me into trouble.
As a single woman moving back to the city after living in sleepy, forgettable college towns with my ex-husband, I was eager to present myself to the world in new ways. I had watched “Sex in the City” too many times and wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw strolling down bustling streets lined with skyscrapers, a lady dashing off to different dates in cozy cocktail bars with romance just around the corner, always dressed in the perfect outfit. I thought I needed a whole new wardrobe to pull everything off, and this, coupled with the fact that I was sad about my divorce, translated into a little too much retail therapy and not enough budgeting.
My runaway-train shopping extravaganza took many forms.
I met a woman who worked at a local consignment shop who became my fashion fairy godmother. We bonded one day swapping dating stories about D.C. while I was browsing her store, and she took me under her stylish wing, calling me whenever something arrived at the store that she thought I’d like. She claimed to have a client with my same body type, hair and eye color, and the finds she saved for me were amazing. Thanks to her, I was the proud owner of beautiful black Chanel rainboots I purchased at 70 percent off that turned a dreary commute to work on a rainy morning into a show-stopping cat walk. She also made sure I got first dibs on a striking coral-colored dress from Banana Republic that fit me like a glove. People raved about it whenever I wore it, among many other items I bought from her. I adored her, and my adoration turned into reckless spending because I felt like her deals were too good to ignore.
Then I drifted into my discount retailer phase: Nordstrom Rack, Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, even Overstock.com. Somewhere along the way I had decided that the fate of my love life was intertwined with my clothing choices, and my imagination depended on fashionable details to boost my confidence. I’d find a Bohemian chic Lucky Brand top and justify buying it for my third date with some guy at a local brewery, where I envisioned myself smiling sweetly at him with my long tangled curls spilling over its neckline. Other times I’d come home from a long day at work and relax by getting lost in all the endless possibilities to purchase new clothes online, stocking up on cute but cheap dresses that didn’t hold up in the long term. Then I read about the environmental consequences of purchasing cheaply made fad fashion versus long-term investment quality pieces, and quit cold turkey out of guilt. As fun as it was, discount retail always seemed flash-in-the-pan fabulous at best.
Eventually my spending caught up with me. I had an outrageous credit card bill and a closet full of Big City experiences worthy of Carrie Bradshaw, but endless heartache, after embarking on too many ill-advised romantic adventures in all my outfits. I needed a clean break.
It was a gradual process.
At first, the best I could do was visit my favorite clothing retailers online and fill a cart with an outrageous number of items, pressing “Purchase” and awaiting the package with them all. But in the end, I’d try them all on, talk myself out of buying them and force myself to return them, aligning my future with financial security instead of fleeting fashion choices.
Then I began getting rid of clothing I no longer wore, donating most of it to the Goodwill. Going through my drawers and hangers and taking a second look at all the things I bought forced me to face all the frivolous choices I made. I realized I owned too many things I wore once and then never really liked enough to wear again. It was a good wake-up call. Consignment stores also helped me unload some of my items, though ultimately the time and effort I lost delivering everything to them priced out the modest checks they’d send me to add to my savings.
I even went shopping in my closet, like all the budget blogs suggested, unearthing old shirts and funky necklaces and combining them in new ways. I was never at a loss for pulling together something seemingly new with what I had. I knew what looked good on me, even when it felt like it was something I had owned for a million years. I also became an expert scavenger of used clothing online using companies like Thred Up. I enjoyed feeling thrifty while also searching for something special to remind myself I was still that expressive woman, finding her way back to a life she loved in the city. My sense of resourcefulness and creativity were returning, and with them, the stronger sense of self that was emerging after years of being married to the wrong person.
Today, I’m carefully putting away as much as I can into savings and knocking out a little extra each month on my loan payment I set up to get rid of my credit card debt. When it comes to men and my overall sense of autonomy, I’m taking a critical look at how much I put into my appearance and trying to give myself more credit — not just the financial kind, but the personal kind, too. I have so much more to offer than looking perfect for someone else. After all, if you’re always trying to impress people with how you look, you’re ignoring all the other parts of you they should have appreciated in the first place, if they’re truly worthy of your love and friendship.
I still embrace the idea of how every time you get dressed, it’s an opportunity to present a masterpiece of your own making to the world, to insert yourself into your own narrative. I still treat myself to the occasional new peplum top or pencil skirt to help me feel more stylish, or complement something else that I already own. Let’s face it, wearing new clothes can be just the thing to make your day so much better. But now I accumulate new clothes deliberately and with full knowledge of how I’ve already invested in my future. I no longer need clothing to cover up my past, but to enhance the personal growth I’m experiencing, every day. When I think about it, thanks to my money management mishaps with shopping, I finally taught myself my true worth. I’m a woman who has taken charge of her financial autonomy and can likely go after any goal she wants, with aplomb.