One morning in November 2016, shortly after I switched career paths from political organizing to teaching personal finance, I looked in my closet and realized I hated nearly everything inside. Looking through my clothing, I realized just how little I had chosen for myself intentionally, thanks to my punk-rock cheapskate habits.
Over the next year, I set myself a budget of $1,000 to completely redo my wardrobe. And as a devoted data geek, it was clear that the first step in loving my wardrobe was to make a spreadsheet.
A brief history of my grown-up wardrobe
I spent my first couple of years in the working world living at a forested hippie commune and working on an organic farm, and in an intentional community where we lived in voluntary poverty to serve those in need. I didn’t know anyone who spent money on their wardrobe, and I had nowhere I needed to dress up for. A new skirt was never a spending priority while living on a $100-a-month stipend. If I had some extra money, I’d stick it in savings or spend it on hot sauce. I’d never drop my hard-earned cash on new jeans when there was an abundance of discarded denim in the free box. I never thought about making a “clothing budget.”
Throughout my 20s, I started to develop a sense of “office style” and build up a wardrobe that wasn’t entirely stained overalls and public radio fund-drive T-shirts as a professional necessity. I interned at a Congress member’s office; I was appointed to city committees; I presented at fancy law firms. I needed presentable business clothing. But the anti-consumerist punk in me still hated to buy anything new or spend more than $10 on a single clothing item at the thrift shop. So over the past decade, I have acquired a wardrobe of random items with no strategy — valued at more than $3,000 altogether. What happened to the dirty hippie with only two pairs of pants from a decade ago?
My economics degree has trained me that any problem can be solved with the right data set. So as part of my great wardrobe redo, I spent 13 hours on a Saturday cataloging the entirety of my wardrobe in a massive spreadsheet. I logged a description of each item, its cost to me, where it was purchased, the year I acquired it, the condition, whether it was vintage (older than 1980), the fabric content and care, if it was new or used when I obtained it, the brand. Any items for which I couldn’t find my original purchase price (I keep good financial records, so mostly I was able to dig back to 2007) I marked “Price Unknown.”
By the end of the day, the spreadsheet had more than 4,000 cells and 28 tabs. Here’s what I found.
What does the data say about my clothing?
- Clothing that I buy for myself, intentionally, ends up being some of the best value in my wardrobe. Even though the price per wear of clothing I get from swaps is $0, a $30 dress I sought out on Poshmark ends up getting worn so often that the price per wear approaches $0, and I rank a higher happiness rating on days I wear an item I chose for myself intentionally. Fast-fashion clothing from clothing swaps that I pick up “because it is free and kind of fits” ends up being a drain on my storage and my spreadsheet.
- Brand names mean nothing to me personally, but the more mid-range (as opposed to fast fashion) brand names stay in my wardrobe longer despite higher use per item because their fabric content is generally higher quality. Noticing brand names that specialize in high-quality fabrics makes secondhand shopping easier. For example, I figured out that Eva Franco makes my dresses in my style in knit rayon; I now put alerts on eBay and Poshmark looking for size 4P Eva Franco.
- Procrastination is a big barrier to my clothing choices — 25 percent of my total wardrobe (47 items) is benched due to fixable issues (stains, needs dry cleaning or steam cleaning, mending). I barely graze 5 feet; nearly all my skirts and pants need to hemmed before wearing.
- I’m a personal finance educator, and in my niche, a common rule of thumb is that you should spend 5 percent of your take-home pay on clothing. I’m not really a fan of this rule, but let’s see how it pans out for my past five years of spending.
- While buying nicer dresses for big occasions (graduation, my 30th birthday party, a big fundraiser) feels fun, those dresses have some of the highest costs per wear. A $300 dress purchased for $60 is a steal — but if I only wear it once, it ends up being 50 times the cost per wear of my everyday clothing. Reselling those items immediately after to recoup the cost makes the most economic sense instead of “saving them for another special event.”
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend everyone catalog their entire wardrobe in a 4,730-cell spreadsheet, but the process was useful for examining where I get real value out of my wardrobe. I now know the cost per wear of everything in my closet and have a pretty good set of strategies for figuring out how to rebuild my closet again. If you want a slightly less obsessive way to catalog your wardrobe, there are many apps such as Stylebook and Smart Closet that help you create your own closet list, à la Cher from Clueless. Meanwhile, I’m off to list some low-ranking clothing on eBay.