How I’m Changing My Style On A Budget
A new board has recently sprouted on my long-neglected Pinterest account, simply titled “nm.” It’s filled with pictures of pink buzzcuts and colorblocked outfits, street photography of people in large coats, line art and lettering that move me, instructions for style DIYs I’ve already bungled but want to try again. Colors, patterns, and textures are layered in ways I’ve never even dreamed of.
It’s a preppy-harajuku-oversized-street style-gamergirl aesthetic fever dream, with plenty of crochet added in for good measure. This “nm” board is my latest project; I’m changing my style to create a “new me.” Experimenting with my personal style has always been my way of embodiment—a way to express on the outside the complexities of everything I feel and understand on the inside. And I think it’s time to make some big changes, without a big impact on my wallet (or the environment).
Most of my life, I’ve navigated the opposing desires of wearing outrageous garments—and still being palatable to the world around me. But I’m tired of balancing that in ways that don’t work for me anymore—all the years of style confusion led me to lower self-esteem, and ultimately devaluing myself as a whole.
So consider this post my makeover-on-a-budget montage, where I’m sharing my tips for affordable updates, but also real-life examples of how I’ve been evolving and documenting my style.
**Cue Mustang Sally**
I’m starting with what I have…
I found the oldest piece in my wardrobe, a secondhand short sleeve button down covered in license plates, around 15 years ago. It’s still in my weekly rotation, and serves as a testament that sometimes we just get it right. So more than anything, I’m starting with what I have—no need to replace all my fast fashion pieces with sustainable ones, or toss out items I love but am too afraid to wear.
In fact, those pieces we love are the best place to start. They’re like a guiding star—mine inform me that I am drawn to pieces that fit well, offer a bit of volume, and have absurd touches like patterns or sequins. (I am very much a maximalist, after all!) My rule is, if it makes me laugh, I want to wear it. So anything I have that meets that criteria has now been placed at the front of my closet and all my drawers. Practicing the reverse of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Pictured: A thrifted blue shirt in 2018 with sustainable fashion pieces (left), the same shirt paired with all thrifted pieces in 2022 (right).
…and getting rid of the rest.
Next, I’m realizing how much visual clutter is in my way each time I go to select an outfit. If I have tons of pieces I don’t like, or that don’t fit, I’m going to feel that way about my whole closet. They’ve got to go!
It is important to me that my clothing moves on from my home responsibly. The most budget friendly option would be to sell what I can to local thrift stores or online, but I don’t have the energy for that right now. Instead, I’m donating nicer items to women’s centers, and eyeing the For Days recycling program for the rest. (Heck, I could get store credit for that, and the brand has affordable basics!)
The only garments I still have from these outfits are the denim jacket, white loafers, and the teddy bear coat. I also still have the excellent skill of taking photos in poor lighting.
Pictured: A shirt that made me look like a priest (2016), a dress that made me look like a child (2017), a shirt that made me look like a dentist (2018), a dress the color of my skin (2018).
Then, I’m getting crafty.
I’m trying to see the possibility in everything right now, because I want my style to reflect who I am—a crafty, slightly odd, and thrown-together person. But I do want to slow myself down, since items made or altered in haste usually end up in the bin faster than a Shein tank top. So, focusing on what DIYs are appropriate for my skill level is essential right now.
I made myself a sweater several years back that I bring with me every time I travel, and keep a crocheted beanie on hand for chilly LA mornings. Next on my project list is to hand-hem some denim that’s unwearably-long, and to re-create one of those dreamy granny square sweaters with the yarn I’ve collected first and second-hand throughout the years.
Pictured: A pink dress made from discount polyester fabric that I could hardly slip on and off my body (2007), a handmade crochet sweater (2021), a red and white crochet infinity scarf (2012), a crochet bucket hat made from leftover sweater yarn (2022).
Note to self: accessorizing is a budget’s bff.
Since accessories can be reworn without needing to be washed, I invest the most here. My favorite upgrade-on-a-budget is finding jewelry on shopgoodwill, where you can find some strange and unique vintage pieces. I aim to purchase slowly, at most 4 pieces a year, and never go over $50.
I’m also scoping out sites like eBay and Etsy for leather goods—my dream is to find a high-quality, soft-steampunk corset that I can slip on over streetwear or wear under blazers. I’ve never owned one, and know it’ll take lots of extra bravery to wear, but I’d like to try.
When I’m considering an accessory, I want to make sure it’s not a passing whim (like those chunky necklaces I wore because I felt like I had to). I ask myself if the piece is unique enough that I’ll love it for years, and if it’s still wearable enough to keep on my body every day. These standards have helped me create a small jewelry box of delightful pieces. For example, I thrifted a couple pairs of signature hoop earrings that I haven’t taken out of my ears in over two years—that’s my kind of budget buy. (I used to be a huge fan of extremely cheap costume jewelry).
Pictured: A moody accessorized shot (2007), a more minimalist thrifted approach to accessorizing (2022), more homemade crochet accessories and a striped dress I had for ten years (2013), another thrifted approach to accessorizing plus a Target hat (2022)
I’m exposing myself (to new things).
Follow me as I now enter the more ephemeral area of my wardrobe: the influences that have inspired me to create it in the first place. Everything around us has the capacity to inspire how we combine our wardrobes in new ways.
Maybe you people watch in large city centers for inspiration on streetwear or techwear. Or, perhaps, you wander the hallways of a library and absorb the quiet, the colorful spines, the smell of loved books for your dark academia look.
When I look back at photos, I can pinpoint exactly which media I was focused on at the time; there was a preppy Pinterest phase, a Zooey Deschanel style crush, a hyper-minimalist moment, and a rather long stretch of Instagram influencer aspirations. Now, I find much of my inspiration from video games that allow me to customize my character and her outfits. (See below for the day I realized I dressed just like my Fallout 76 character…and then when I got the same haircut). I’ve gotta tell you—I’ve never felt more confident than I have in this current phase, because it’s entirely directed by my own interests, not the trends I see from others.
I’ve also turned to new music and movies, found inspiration in tasting foods I’ve never had, and absorbed the energy of how I decorate my home.
Pictured: A non-ironic outfit of the day (2021), my Fallout character (2021), my Fallout character after I gave her a haircut (2021), me after giving myself the same haircut (2022)
And experimenting like I’m a style scientist.
I’ve long been a style experimenter, which means I have a long, long, long line of fashion failures. I stopped experimenting somewhere around my mid-20s, sticking to the cheapest fits I could find that wouldn’t embarrass me, but I’m ready to open myself back up again. Every period of “trying new things” has always been fruitful for me, because while I’m making a fool of myself, I always find a new texture, color, or brand I love.
I look to people like Iris Apfel, who’s experimented her own way into becoming a style legend. While I’m not so sure she’s had as many cringy style moments as I have, I admire her intuitive and playful way of approaching fashion. It’s less about getting it right and more about playing around with an idea, testing the waters of something new.
That’s because perfect style, the way I’ve always imagined it, doesn’t actually exist. Being stylish actually means being fully ourselves, unencumbered by the weight of others’ expectations.
And that, my friend, takes a lot of mad-scientist worthy experiments. My current experiments include chaining together my hoop earrings and accent rings to create long asymmetrical dangly earrings and wrapping purse chains around my waist and calling them belts. I’m also borrowing pieces from my husband’s closet, and integrating pieces we’ve accumulated as props for his comedy shows.
Pictured: Various fashion experiments of mine, from odd to egregious, from sequin pants to full jedi mode. (In order: 2001, 2010, 2018, 2022.)
Can’t forget the intangibles!
The best thing I’ve ever done for my personal style is dye my hair pink. The second best thing I’ve done was take a pink eyeliner pencil and fill in my barely-there blonde eyebrows. This entire piece could be about those two things alone, because of how much they’ve driven my style direction and bolstered my sense of self-esteem. Sometimes it’s not a dress that will make us new, but a trim of our bangs, a daring shade of nailpolish, or learning how to apply the harder-than-it-seems smokey eye look.
To reduce my spend right now, I’m maintaining my hair and eyebrows, and watching makeup tutorials that look fun and energizing. In the future, I’d like to save up for investments (yes, investments) like tattoos and piercings. It all circles back to finding high personal impact with a low per-wear cost, and what could be lower cost-per-wear than something permanent?
Pictured: Me in a dress my cousin gifted me (2018), me in the same dress with much less hair (2022)
Then, and only then, I shop.
There’s a real reason why I’ve kept this step second-to-last, because style isn’t just about what you wear, it’s the spirit that goes into the dressing. For as many times as I’ve filled up shopping carts on thredUP with a whole “new me” wardrobe, I’ve also let those carts expire and those clothes find their ways into other people’s homes. Generally, I do one big thredUP “haul” a year, sometimes every other year, and cap myself around $200.
Right now, I will actually have to shop—my body has changed a few sizes across every measurement, so what used to fit me loosely is now gut-suckingly tight. It’s testing me to let go of things outside of my control—and let go of replaceable pieces that really won’t work for me anymore. (I did purchase some shapewear in an attempt to preserve a portion of my closet—0/10, would not recommend wearing for more than a short special event).
Pictured: A blazer, cream denim, and oompa-loompa sunglasses (all thrifted) have been my favorite purchases of the last three years. (2021)
And remember to give myself time.
Finally, as much as I really want to wake up tomorrow with the closet of a goddess, changing my style has never been a quick process. All these snapshots of who I’ve been and how I’ve expressed myself throughout the years are a testament to that. If I had all the clothing in the world at my disposal, my style would still be maturing all the time, as I learn more about how to communicate myself to the world around me. So, I’m giving myself the budget of time—even moreso than money—to settle into a rhythm that works for me.
Style is about carrying yourself with a swagger that no clothing can ever offer, it’s a living, breathing element of who we are. That’s why a person can wear the same clothing for decades, like Bill Cunningham, and still have an aura of confidence and completeness. While I historically have the swagger of a baby giraffe, I’m finally starting to embrace my awkwardness and constantly evolving self.
To change—and maintain—a wardrobe on a budget requires much more than just pulling half-damaged pieces off the Target clearance racks to score a deal. If you buy because a garment is cheap, and not because you love it, you’ll find it’s more expensive than not buying at all.
Pictured: The progress of someone settling into her style. (2016 and 2022).
Emily Torres is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. Born and raised in Indiana, she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her in her colorful Los Angeles apartment journaling, caring for her rabbits, or gaming.