Life Audit

High Fashion, Low Costs

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Every morning when Donna Beasley is ready to get dressed for work, she faces that age-old paradox: A closet full of clothes and simply nothing to wear. Sure, there’s that yellow suit she loves, but it gets her way too much flak in court. And then there’s that skirt that would look cute if she just had the right pair of shoes to go with it. And those dresses that just hang in the back of the closet. Perhaps a few new classic suits from Talbots or some snappy separates from Ann Taylor would make things fall into place.

But that’s not Beasley’s reality. This is: She’s a new law­yer at a Seattle-area firm, with three kids and a mountain of law school debt.

In other words, money for a professional wardrobe is scarce. So Beasley has fallen into the classic shopping trap of buying whatever catches her eye when she sees a good sale or a piece with promise on the clearance rack. As a consequence, she has a closet full of mismatched, ill-fitting impulse buys. “I feel like I have a lot of clothes, but I wear the same things over and over,” she says.

Beasley knows she needs to build a professional ward­robe for her new life as a lawyer. What she doesn’t know is how she can afford to do it.

A good place to start, according to Life Audit professional attire expert Lisa Scherrer Dugan, is with Beasley’s bad shopping habits–most notably impulse buying and spending on ill-fitting, off-color or poor-quality clothes.

“Donna has to stop doing those things,” says Dugan. “Because she is on a limited budget, she will end up spending more money on things that are just not appropriate for an up-and-coming attorney, and will just hang in her closet.”

To jump-start the transformation from former legal sec­retary into new lawyer, Dugan would like to see Beasley stock up on staples like pants, skirts and jackets in colors like black, dark blue or red. “She should only buy classics because they are better for her career, for the image she wants to project and for the longevity of her closet,” advises Dugan.

Because Beasley complains of having a different-sized top and bottom, Dugan wants her to buy separates, not suits, so she will get the best fit. More important, Dugan says Beasley should buy these items at the same time and from the same maker so that the pieces look like suits.

By adding a few stylish tops or accessories to these timeless classics, Beasley also can quell her fears of looking frumpy or dated.

While Dugan is mindful of Beasley’s bud­getary constraints, she also encourages her to buy high-quality clothes. Pure wools or wool-blend fabrics look and fit better, last longer and are easier to maintain. And cloth­ing made of high-­quality fabrics need only be dry-cleaned once a season, Dugan says, easing the drain on Beas­ley’s budget.

If Beasley buys high-quality clothing, she then can limit her expenditures on things like shoes, belts and purses. One pair each of brown and black pumps will suffice, as will a single, good-quality, versatile purse.

Getting More from Stores

But what to buy is only half the equation: How to swing it is the other. And that is where Beasley’s thrifty shopping habits can come into play. In today’s retail market, there is no reason to buy full price, Dugan says. Clothing gets marked down quickly; the trick is knowing when to buy to get the best selection and the lowest prices.

Dugan says the best sales start in the fall and culminate in January. This is the time when fall clothing–what Dugan says is usually the best quality–goes on sale.

While Beasley has little spare time to watch for sales, Dugan suggests enlisting the free services of a personal shopper or salesperson at a local department store to alert her to sales and to gather the kind of clothes she needs. Plus, the salesperson can help her buy clothes that fit. “All of this running around is just eating up time and money and also is putting her in the position of making rushed choices. That is the habit we are trying to break,” says Dugan.

If Beasley still feels the pull of a discount retail chain like Ross or TJ Maxx, that’s fine as long as she knows what’s OK to buy there. Dugan tells her not to just grab the first thing that catches her eye. Instead, she needs to think about whether each piece fits her wardrobe. Dugan advises that the best items to buy at discount stores and outlets are tops and accessories.

As long as Beasley can view clothing purchases as an in­vestment for her future, Dugan is confident she will make a beautiful appearance in court. “It’s asking her to take a long-term look at her wardrobe,” says Dugan. “If in the course of a year she buys three sets of the items I’ve men­tioned, she will be dressed appropriately and will get more mileage out of anything else in her closet.”

Our Expert

Lisa Scherrer Dugan

Lisa Scherrer Dugan is the executive vice president of The Profes­sional Image Inc., an Atlanta-based corporate communications firm that specializes in image consulting, team building and personal coaching. She has worked with executives from Ford Motor Co., Avon Products Inc. and Merck & Co. Inc. Dugan is the co-author of Take Action! 18 Proven Strategies for Advancing in Today’s Changing Business World and of 5 Steps to Professional Presence: How to Project Confidence, Competence and Credibility at Work.

Vital Statistics

Donna Beasley

POSITION Associate, Amini Law Firm in Bellevue, Wash., practicing personal injury and criminal defense work.

AGE 34

GOAL To build a professional wardrobe on a tight budget.

Life Audit HOT TIP: Outlets May Not Be Bargains

Does the lure of finding a bargain make you lose all fiscal sense? Most shoppers believe some of the best bargains are to be found at outlet stores. But when you compare price tags with a department store, you may be in for sticker shock. Outlet stores often are not discounted, says Dugan. “I find that outlet store prices often are as much as department stores. Department stores often have better sales. So if you buy at an outlet, make sure the prices really are better.”


Impulse buying.

Following the latest trend.

Skimping on fit.

Buying poor- quality clothes.


No matter how cheap it is, an item of clothing is no bargain if you don’t wear it.

If you can’t resist a sale, make sure what you are buying is classic, fits and can be incorporated into your wardrobe.

Stick to classics while building a wardrobe. If you must buy a trend, limit the purchase to a blouse or sweater.

Fit is everything. Make sure to try clothing on before purchasing it and spend the money on the necessary tailoring to ensure a professional look.

Clothing made from high-quality fabric like wool and wool blends looks and fits better, lasts longer and requires less maintenance.

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