One of the biggest hidden (or not-hidden) cost of professional employment is the work wardrobe required. Professions like law, finance, or big firm accounting/consulting gigs often have the most expensive work wardrobe. Its interesting to think about how much I’ve spent over the course of a fifteen plus year career, especially as I carefully manage my remaining wardrobe down and attempting not to buy anything new for my remaining months on the job.
Lifetime Costs of the Work Wardrobe
Below is an analysis of my lifetime costs on clothing with some notes and experiences that I’ve learned over time. The most overarching advice I can give on a men (or women’s) wardrobe is quickly figure out what the minimum acceptable level of dress is, and do it. I believe professional appearance is a binary test, did you meet the acceptable level or not? Missing the mark on personal appearance will hurt your ability to grow your income.
The most painful part of the work wardrobe is early in the professional career. Salaries are low, but expectations are not. My starting salary was under $40,000 per year, but I knew I needed to meet a minimum professional standard. I still cringe thinking about how much those initial expenses hurt when I was spending 3-5%+ of my annual income building the professional wardrobe.
Outside of shoes, there’s been more cost deflation in men’s dress clothes thanks to Costco and the likes of Nordstrom’s Rack. Experience has helped in spotting acceptable or not acceptable costs, much to the dissapointment of the “personal clothiers” that try to connect with me on LinkedIn to sell me $1000+ suits.
I’ve always had to wear suits for my job, at least from Monday through Thursday. Fridays are known as “casual Fridays”, which still means sport coat and slacks at my position. I quickly realized the goal was to meet the minimum acceptable level, which at my company was mid-tier brands off the rack. Some of my peers will go with custom suits that cost twice what I’ve paid, while others can get away with saving just a little bit of money buying suit separates off the rack with minimal alterations. So what did my cost add up to?
Average cost of $350/each. Off-the rack purchases from mid-tier providers, including tax and alterations. Average number of uses: 175
Dry Cleaning, once every 10 uses: $6
Total Professional Wears: 3,000 (4 days a week, 16 years, less vacation)
17 Suits, $5,140 in Total Cost
Cleaning: $1,800 in Total Cost
Dress shirts used to be one of my most frustrating purchases. No two dress shirts were created equally, but I knew I could get decent shirts for $25 or less. It used to involved scouring TJ Maxx for a couple of premium brands on clearance or finding that one time a year a Brooks Brothers outlet had a sale for under $30/shirt. The quality dress shirts could get 40-50 wears while the cheap shirts struggled. All that changed once Costco began carrying shirts in 2010 and now has a number of different styles. In the beginning, Costco only carried button down shirts, which have slowly gone out of style, especially then the blue button down comically got dubbed the “Bernie Shirt” in finance circles during the 2016 campaign.
Average Cost: $22
Average Wears: 50
Total Wears: 3,750 (5 days a week, 16 years):
Total Cost: $1,650
This is going to expose my least frugal purchase: Dress Shoes. Quality leather dress shoes with thick leather soles provide more comfort and carry a reasonable cost-per wear, even if the initial cost of the shoes are high. Additionally, I started struggling with plantar fasciitis in my late 20s and carry an odder size, so my options for dress shoes were limited to Allen Edmonds or Johnston Murphy. I found Allen Edmonds quality to be superior and a co-worker turned me on to their factory seconds, so I stuck with the brand. These shoes can retail for $300 to $400, but I was able to consistently pickup sales at the factory second stores and get them for around $200. The brand also has an option to refurbish the shoes for around $130 to extend the life. The number of wears is debatable, but for this analysis I will use 400.
Total Wears: 3,750
Cost per use: $0.50 (400 wears for $200)
Total Cost: $1,875
- Note – Waxing/polishing your own shoes 3-4x per year, using cedar shoe trees, plus having a good rotation will extend the life of your shoes.
I’ve always been a black shoes, black socks, black belt guy for my suits. I have some color blindness, so increasing the number of matching options is not for me. Professional belts used to cost me $25 – $40 and be a challenge to look for, but once again thanks to Costco that expense has been reduced to $18, provided you buy the belts when they have them in (think Christmas and Father’s Day). I think these have a useful life of 100 uses, unless you’re fortunate enough to fluctuate weight and use different notches (notice, that’ll increase your suit expenses with alterations).
Average Cost: $20
Total Wears: 100
Total Cost: $750
Professional looking ties are the last staple of the wardrobe. Its surprising to me how non-durable ties are, they are usually made of silk and can easily stain or get caught on something, causing ugly looking picks. You’re also taking nicely woven silk and twisting that nice piece of fabric four different ways to tie a knot then holding it tied up for 8-12 hours at at time, so these things wear out quick! Purchasing ties was a struggle for the first ten years of my career, usually trying to pay under $30 when some of the quality ties were selling for closer to $40. The last five years have been much better between Costco occasionally carrying them plus finding Nordstrom Rack. I’ve also stopped trying to be creative in my ties, generally solid yellow, red, and blue have become the staple tie to pass the binary test.
Average Cost: $20
Total Uses/Tie: 25
Total Uses: 3,000
Total Cost: $2,400
So what does this all add up to? Over the course of a fifteen year career, my after-tax expenses were at least $13,615 on the work specific wardrobe. This means I had to earn almost $20,000 in pre-tax money to fund the ability to work as a professional, or $1,250 each year I was working. This comes out to over $5.20 per day! (some of my colleagues also use professional cleaners for their shirts, pushing this cost over $7/day). These costs get front-loaded as you build a wardrobe and discover the balance between comfort and professionalism.
What lessons can be learned my work wardrobe and professional experience?
- Your goal is to pass the binary test, not make a fashion statement. Do you look the part? You aren’t going to get a promotion for being the best dressed person in the office, however not dressing appropriately for the role can be a career limiting move. You have multiple opportunities to ask for the office dress code, but ask early.
- True factory second stores are your friends. The Allen Edmonds outlet saved me over a thousand dollars in my working career, specifically when I got on the manager’s email list from a specific outlet store and could spot clearance sales. I only returned one out of ten shoes because the factory’s flaw was too noticeable for me.
- Stick with 1-3 color combinations. Suits should be charcoal, navy, and/or grey. Shirts should be white and blue with limited patterns. Ties should be yellow, blue, and red. This gives enough variety without spending on items that won’t be worn for their lifetime
- The Nordstrom Rack stores are excellent places for basic accessories, especially men’s ties.
- Watch the warehouse stores (Costco) for shirts, but more importantly care for your own shirts. Wash and iron them yourself, you will be more careful than the person at the cleaners and save money twice, one by not paying them to clean it and secondly by extending the life of the shirt.
Always remember to meet the minimum acceptable threshold. Ask about expected attire during your on-boarding process, observe what attire leadership wears, and observe what your peers wear. When in doubt, be professional. Your clothing expenses will be front loaded, but you can make smart purchases, focus on cost per wear, and extend the useful life of each item with proper care. Be diligent with expenses, but remember that short changing yourself on the work wardrobe could impact your earnings well beyond any up-front cost savings.
Now for me to figure out what to do with the work wardrobe once I announce I’m done…