The Percentage Budget: How much should the single working woman spend on clothes?

There should be some criminal penalty for allowing me to enter a Nordstrom. The lighting, the quality-made clothing, the hip fashions that should be in my closet — not on the store rack — are too enticing. Luckily, I’m terrified of buying designer items that cost a small fortune, so I only buy items that cost a miniature fortune. Still, they add up, and I feel guilty for buying just about any item.

I wonder how these stores stay in business selling $300 shirts and $400 shoes, where a decent outfit complete with shoes and accessories costs $1000-$2000. While it doesn’t make sense for someone in a lower income bracket to shop at Nordstrom, I have to assume that this type of store and pricepoint would be targeted towards a mid-career professional earning over six figures. Not that I have to actually follow through with their marketing persona, but why can’t I enjoy the fruits of my labor in the form of a Joie blouse or Ted Baker suit?

My s/o, who I’m moving in with shortly, is the opposite of I am in terms of all things capitalistic. He wears the same jeans and shirt daily, as he owns multiple pairs of the same jeans and shirt. He enjoys dressing well but doesn’t see the point in fashion. He rolls his eyes at my obsession with clothing. I understand his sentiment to a point — it is a waste of money to buy clothes that, no matter how high-quality they are, will eventually either fall apart, fail to fit, or go out of fashion. They certainly aren’t an investment.

But how much should one spend on clothing? I sought out to solve this question that we were both debating. I figured that someone who had a reasonable updated wardrobe from a store like Nordstrom or Bloomingdales must spend $10k – $20k a year on clothing, and I’d admit that would be unreasonable on a salary of $125k. Yes, it’s quite possible to go into a store like that and buy one new outfit per year and that’s it, but I doubt those stores are in business on people who shop for one outfit per year. There are many other people out there who are buying these clothes. Who are they? Are they millionaires with a near-unlimited disposable income? Or are they director-level professionals who splurge on looking the part?

It hit me that just as I determined how much to pay for rent based on percentage of my salary, I should also look at my other expenditures in this light. It also has become clear that while I love pouring my bi-monthly paycheck straight into stocks, often these stocks go down right away and I lose a chunk of that money that could have been spent on a new pair of shoes or shirt. Clearly investing is important, but at some point spending a little each month balances out for the months the market goes down. As long as it’s within reason.

But what percentage of a budget beyond necessities should one spend on clothes? Elizabeth Warren’s book “All Your Worth” poses that 30% of your income should go towards “wants” while 20% should go towards saving for the future, and 50% towards necessities.

Of course, in my own math, this calculation is specifically for a single woman who is making six figures. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American family spent $1,700 on clothing in 2010. With the average after-tax income of $60,712, clothing expenses equaled 2.8 percent of average annual household income. That’s for an ENTIRE FAMILY. But they are clearly shopping the clearance racks at Marshalls or putting together a wardrobe at Walmart. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’m just trying to understand what single professional women spend on clothes. I do believe looking good = feeling food = being more productive and professional = making more money. So some investment in clothing is worthwhile. What do men my age spend? I’m sure less than women.

You know what sucks? Despite the fact that women still earn less than men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women spend almost twice as much money on clothes as men spend. Women should get paid more than men because it costs more to dress as a women. Not to mention that men don’t have to buy makeup to look professional and their haircuts are cheaper. And they don’t need to dye their hair to stay sharp in business. Women should get an automatic salary bump just to survive being female in the workplace.

Based on my research, it seems it would be reasonable to spend anywhere from 2% to 6% of annual salary on clothes, with 4% being the common amount for single working women who make enough to cover the rent and then some. (This article claims working women spend 1/5 of their salary on clothes and feel pressured to dress to get noticed!)

There are plenty of studies that prove looks matter when it comes to advancing in the workplace, especially for women. You don’t need to be a pageant queen, but the more you look like a leader (who is polished and has everything under control, including her waistline and coif fly aways) the more likely you are to get promoted to more senior leadership roles. The saying “dress for the job you want” holds true, and I think that’s still a lot easier for men with their typical slacks and button down shirt business casual look. Meanwhile, looks do matter at work. This Newsweek study confirms that how you look matters more than even your education.

Forget cost, what the fuck should I even buy to wear to the office?

“Whether or not there’s any validity to the woman’s case, women in the workplace are often faced with a double bind: they are expected to be sexy but can be punished for being too attractive. Sixty-one percent of the hiring managers we surveyed—60 percent of whom were men—said they believe a woman would benefit from wearing clothing that shows off her figure at work. Meanwhile, 47 percent of those same managers said they believe some women are penalized for being too good-looking in the office. As a whole, women are perceived to benefit more from their looks: 39 percent of managers believe that being “very good-looking” is more of an advantage for women than men, while only 16 percent believe the opposite—that it’s more beneficial to men than to women.”

When I shop for work clothes — which is basically all I buy because I work all the time and don’t really have much of a life outside of work — I am torn between buying stylish clothes and more typical professional items like suit jackets and slacks or nice skirts. I find that no matter how much I buy I end up wearing the same outfits that seem to fare well in the washing machine and dryer. I buy fashionable clothes, wear them once, and then wonder where they’ve disappeared to (or I’m just not feeling them most days and think I look silly in anything other than some basic Ralph Lauren dress.) I want to dress stylish and hip, but I’m anything but, so the next best is to just look expensive and polished. This is a huge challenge for me, but it’s necessary if I want to move up in my career!

In marketing, this is even more important because you are public facing, and when people meet you, you’re also representing the brand. A VP of marketing for a brand must look extremely polished and if the brand is remotely hip than she too must look hip. Someone who manages to look glamorous will move up in her career, while someone who looks a bit absent-minded-professor chic will, alas, be stuck doing their grunt work.

I really feel uncomfortable thinking of myself as attractive or trying to be. It’s a big problem. I don’t feel comfortable in work outfits unless they are suits with pants because if I’m wearing a dress that shows my knees I feel like I’m getting too much attention. Even a friend of mine called a sweater I own slutty because it had an elegant cutout in it by the neckline… I didn’t think it was slutty because of the cutout but because it was rather tight, though covered most of my flesh. I either feel like I’m dressing like a grandmother or too skanky in any outfit I might try on. Working in an office that’s 90% male and where I’m by far the youngest woman certainly doesn’t make matters any easier — I want to dress nice but I don’t want to get too much attention.

And I’m a curvy woman, sometimes clothes that would look appropriate on someone else look terribly inappropriate on me. I don’t know what to do about it, but I end up with a closet full of clothes that I feel like I can’t actually wear to work because they’re too short or too tight or show just a bit too much cleavage. I’d prefer to go to work in a potato sack but that wouldn’t help my case either.

According to Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas in Austin, attractive people are likely to earn an average of 3% to 4% more than a person with below-average looks. That adds up to $230,000 more(!!!) over a lifetime for the typical good-looking person, Dr. Hamermesh estimates. Even an average-looking worker is likely to make $140,000 more over a lifetime than an ugly worker.

So if I need to invest in looking attractive in order to get ahead, I assume this means buying clothes that fit well, that aren’t falling apart, that manage to make me look decently shaped and not lumpy despite being a bit of an Apple-Pear. If I were a twig perhaps I could get away in the latest Tar-ge’, but not with this, uh, supple body of mine.

I’m not clear if the 4% of annual salary numbers are supposed to be before or after tax, but say that’s pre-tax, then I’d have $5000 per year to spend on clothes (post tax around $3500 – which seems to be what this post recommends.) So much for $10k – $20k a year! According to Mint.com, I’ve already spent $2124 on shopping this year, most of which is on clothes. Yikes. I’m well on my way to over budget given it’s only 1/3 way through the year, if my budget is $3500. And what did I even buy? Eh, who knows.

The thing is, shopping is my entertainment budget as well. I spend way too much on food – a number that will be dramatically reduced in a week once I move in with my boyfriend and we have our own kitchen and fridge – but the clothing number seems reasonable in light of how much I’m able to save. I’m still focused on saving $50k per year, if not more, and that’s with my crazy shopping habits. My boyfriend may judge me for how many clothes I buy, but I have over $250k in savings even with these “bad” habits. I wish I could get to the point where I could buy the brands I like without feeling incredibly guilty. Or maybe I never should, because it’s just silly to spend $300 on one shirt that I’ll have to dry clean after every wear. What do you think?

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8 comments

  1. John Lease says:

    This is such an ignorant and sexist article. Women should get paid more then men just because they know how to spend more money and waist then men? That doesn’t make sense. The reason why men get paid more then women is because they have the reason and responsibility to earn it.

  2. Kevin ucan says:

    Don’t spend too much on clothes. Once you wear them they get old (at least we feel that way), fashion changes and later on they are just sitting in our closet for nothing.

  3. Kevin says:

    Ladies are becoming to attracted and addicted when it;s comes to about clothes shopping so I think a working woman spend 800$ per month on their clothes.

  4. Louise says:

    Thanks for this post. The amount of money that I spend on work suits can get up there. This posts only proved a point I often make to my friends, women have to spend so much more to dress.

  5. A says:

    I find that I spent more on clothes soon after I graduated. Yearly, the expenses dropped after that. But, I am male and you can only have so many shorts, athletic shorts, jeans, dress pants, t shirts, polos, and dress shirts. I would suggest the male clothing is less expensive unless you get into suits.

    One thing I do, is I buy something, I don’t take the tags off, then I see if I even want to ever wear it over the next few weeks. If not, I return it. This lets you at least have the fun of shopping 🙂 Another approach is to not buy it that day, and then if you really wanted it, you would go back and get it.

    Taking girls on dates is definitely expensive other than coffee…

  6. Anonymous says:

    Since you seem to agonize over money, maybe a good rule of thumb is to wait few days or even a week before actually purchasing any clothes to see if you’ll still want it versus just an impulse to buy. Also as you mentioned, women do pay more for clothes, makeup, hairstylists, etc, but since guys typically still pay for most dates it sort of all evens out, at least when both gender are single.

    1. hereverycentcounts ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      That’s a good point – I should wait before making a purchase. I also wish I took more advantage of being a woman because I’ve never had men pay for my dates, and I still splurge on clothes and makeup.

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