How to Save Money on Clothes in NYC

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

New York City is one of the world's fashion capitals, so it's only natural you'd think you need to start dishing out a ton of cash on updating your wardrobe. After all, you're proud of where you came from, but you want to blend in with all the other New Yorkers. How can you do just that without breaking the bank–or worse, going into the kind of debt you can't pull yourself out from?

For starters, rest easy. Not everyone walking around in Manhattan is a fashion plate. Sure, we have Macy's, Bergdorf's, Barneys, Lord & Taylor, and Henri Bendel, but while these stores smell magical and can be delightful to browse, they're not realistic in price for the majority of us (I don't know about you, but I sure can't snag that $500 of shoes and still make rent).

In fact, more people in New York City dress for comfort and to ‘blend in' more than anything else. Nobody's dressing to impress unless they're on a date or a job interview–it's the truth! We're all paying attention to our own lives (or our smartphones), and nobody's making eye contact here. Wear what you want.

Don't believe us? Take for example the women of Manhattan. Grown women (and some smart younger women) all over the city can be seen wearing dresses or skirts and gorgeous, classic tailored coats…and donning a pair of sneakers at the same time. In a place where you're walking everywhere, dashing in and out of subway cars, or running to grab that actually-available cab, heels won't serve you well.

When in doubt, carry a hooded jacket or coat in the non-summer months, wear something black (it shows less dirt), and put on a pair of comfy shoes. Don't go into debt over it; follow these instead.

Avoid high-tag boutiques

This should be a given, but Manhattan is one of the world's fashion capitals. If you're into fashion, that can make it extremely tempting to not cave in to the visual marketing/merchandising and being located in the heart of it all. Resist the temptation! Your wallet will thank you later.

Take advantage of plentiful thrift or discount shops

It only makes sense that one of the world's fashion capitals would have some of the best thrift stores! Now, before you plan a day traveling from Goodwills to Salvation Army stores and heading down into the East Village, make sure you know whether the shop is a true thrift store versus being a vintage shop. A good rule of thumb: vintage equals rare and pricey, thrifted just means gently used and sold for a discount.

If bouncing from shop to shop doesn't sound like a day of fun for you, no worries–you can score similar steals on discounted clothing sites online. Shop sites like ThredUp and Poshmark for vintage and trendy clothes alike that someone else may have worn just once or twice (or never–look for NWT, or ‘new with tags,' items).

If you don't jive with gently-used, at least look into a discount store. Places like Lot Less, T.J. Maxx, and Burlington Coat Factory will pretty much have everything you could ever want or need clothing-wise and then some, all for a fraction of what you'd pay elsewhere.

Consign your gently used clothes

The dream for any deal lover is to sell what they don't love or wear anymore–think coats, boots, belts, what have you–and use that cash to upgrade those wardrobe items. In an ideal world the income would cancel the expenditure, essentially making the new items ‘free.'

Ok, well, it doesn't always work that way, but you can bring your used items to a consignment shop to see how much you can get. Each store has its own policy; some allow you to sell upfront while others let you wait to see if the item sells. You might be able to get straight cash for your goods, or you can find out if you can apply the earnings to store credit instead. Either way you'll earn some kind of income to apply towards other expenses (like more clothes).

Vow to never pay full price

This is just plain good financial advice whether you live in New York City or Lebanon, Kansas. You know as well as we do that if you sign up for a first-time discount on a website like Old, J.Crew, Ann Taylor–any major retailer, really–that your inbox will soon be inundated with daily or weekly discount announcements. If you can bear to have your inbox clogged up with these deals, go for it (connect four!), and use this knowledge to your advantage when it comes time to update your wardrobe. Better yet, create a separate email account for all these coupons and advertisements so they're all in one place when you need them–and not distracting you when you don't.

Also, vow to never buy new dry clean only items. You don't want to be saddled with paying NYC dry cleaning prices, too!

Use discount-finding tools when shopping.

Every day of the year can feel like Black Friday when you bring along your smartphone and a few apps. Sites like Retailmenot, Coupon Closet, Coupon Sherpa, and Shooger can help you locate discounts when you're out shopping. Google Shopper, Price Grabber, and other similar apps all work to help you find the best prices and spend the least amount of money, too.

Even if you're not the kind of person to get app-happy, bring your smartphone along when shopping so you can at least let the cashier scan whatever coupons came into your inbox! Thanks to technology we can leave the paper coupons at home (but if you have them it won't hurt to bring them with you!).

Consider a capsule wardrobe

Simply stated, a capsule wardrobe is a small wardrobe that contains a few essential items of clothing that don't really go out of style. For men, this would include khaki pants, button-up shirts (that fit well), cable-knit sweaters, a good pair of jeans, collared shirts, and smart shoes. For women, cardigans, dark dressy jeans, dress pants, skirts and dresses in classic silhouettes, and proper pairs of pumps and flats fit the bill. Keep it all to the same color palette (one that flatters you, not necessarily one that's trendy), and make sure everything fits well.

The benefits of having a smaller wardrobe are endless! In addition to saving time choosing what to wear in the morning, you'll save space in your dresser and closet–and come on, if you live in New York City, you really understand just how precious storage space is.

Make a list

Do you go grocery shopping without a list? Actually, don't answer that–you should always bring a list of necessary items with you to the grocery store (so you don't forget the peanut butter and so you don't buy three different kinds of hummus for fun). Similarly, bring a list with you when you're out shopping for clothes. This will help you maintain your focus. If you need something you can wear to meet a potential employer then you shouldn't be looking for what to wear for New Year's Eve. Bringing a list will also help you stick to what it is you're looking for (e.g. white button-up shirt that has darting and is all cotton) so you don't wind up with something you didn't really want before you set out on your trip.

Sign up for cards cautiously

While you may be tempted to save 25% on that sweater and pair of trousers you have you in your hand, whatever you do, don't sign up for the store-issued credit card. These "deals" are notorious for high APRs, high late fees, and luring you in to "spend more-get more" kinds of programs. Just say a polite "no, thanks" when the clerk asks you to sign up for the credit card, and stick to it.

A rewards card, on the other hand, is a different story. These are simply cards that keep track of how much you've spent in the store, and once you've spent enough (or earned enough points, as it were), you'll get a few dollars off your next purchase or some coupons in the mail. This is a much better way to go since it doesn't impact your credit whatsoever to get a free rewards card.

And if you're going to sign up for any kind of credit card, look into the kinds of cards that reward you with cash back on any purchases. This way, you can get your bodega coffee, occasional Saturday morning brunch, and new pair of shoes all with the same card–and earn cash back for all of those purchases.