Cheap Clothes Are Too Expensive: Buy Quality Instead

Cheap Clothes Are Too Expensive: Buy Quality Instead

Quality clothes last longer for the money you spend, they’re more comfortable and they make you look and feel pretty good while you wear them. Best of all, you can find quality anywhere. It comes down to buying less mediocre stuff and using that money on a few nice things that last forever. Illustration by Jim Cooke.

Apply the “Comfort Principle” to Your Clothing

The comfort principle is simple: spend your money where you spend most of your time. That’s why it’s a good idea to splurge on a nice mattress, comfortable desk chair, or a decent laptop computer, considering how many hours a day you sleep, work at your desk, or use that computer. Think about it, most of us wear our clothes all day long (and sometimes through the night). We wear them at work, at home, at the gym: every occasion calls for some type of clothing. It makes sense to buy clothes that earn you the most happiness out of your time and stand up to regular use. You want work clothes that look good in the office and are comfortable. You want gym clothes that fit well and stand up to your workouts. Because you wear your clothing every day, it can be considered an experiential purchase, which is one of the ways research suggests you can actually “buy” happiness.

Clothing isn’t an investment in the traditional sense (it never gains value, and you’ll never sell an item of clothing for more than it was purchased), but it’s good to think of it like a down payment on your daily comfort, your confidence in your appearance and the utility of your wardrobe. For example, having a couple pairs of really nice jeans that fit well, make you look good and last forever is better than having six pairs of jeans that look “OK”, are just kind of comfy and fall apart after a year. In the same vein, spending $100 on a single high-fashion t-shirt is a bit much, but there’s nothing wrong with spending $40 on a three-pack of nice t-shirts you know you’ll be excited to wear every day. You spend a lot of time in your clothes, so why not spring for nice items you know you’ll wear all the time?

Quality Clothing Makes You Look and Feel Good

People come in all shapes and sizes, yet a lot of cheap clothing is mass produced in a “one shape fits all” manner. Low-quality dress shirts, for example, look terrible on people not shaped a specific way. If a shirt is too loose or tight in the wrong places, you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable and it shows in your body language. If it fits you well and you’re comfortable, however, you can get a nice confidence boost. Using the same example, quality dress shirts will often come in a variety of cuts, so no matter what shape you are, you’re bound to find one that you feel good wearing. Even if you can’t, you can and should get it fitted to you (more on that later.)

Whether we like it or not, clothing is also a part of our identity. Your clothes can emphasise social status, as well as a certain level of professionalism. A few quality outfits can make you look like a go-getter that takes pride in your appearance. Spending money on quality clothes might seem frivolous if you’re a frugal person, but in some cases you can’t afford to not spend the money, especially if you’re trying to land a job or network with colleagues.

Do the Maths Before You Buy

Generally speaking, cheap, throwaway clothes aren’t cheap in the long run. Poorly made clothing with thin material wears out faster and requires you to spend time and money repairing or replacing it. The key isn’t to spend more on clothes across the board, it’s to spend a little more on a few nice items and not butt-loads of crappy items.

This can all be broken down into simple maths. Fashion blogger Legos In My Louis recommends you use the “cost per wear” equation. It works like this:

(price of garment + maintenance) divided by the number of times you’ll wear it

Say you bought a nice (but pricey) $100 pair of jeans that will last you five years before they get threadbare and wear out:

$100 + $10 (washing, detergent, stain remover, etc.) / 780 days (roughly three days a week for five years)

That ends up being around 14 cents per wear. Say, instead, you bought a $30 pair of jeans that will last about a year and a half before they fade and wear out:

$30 + $10 (washing, detergent, stain remover, etc.) / 234 days (roughly three days a week for a year and a half)

That ends up being around 17 cents per wear, and you have to go buy a new pair every year and a half. Plus, you’ll probably be more comfortable and look better in the nicer pair. Of course, this equation is only ideal for clothing that gets worn regularly. If you’re only going to wear a swimsuit 10 times in a year, for example, the “cost per wear” equation doesn’t really justify spending hundreds of dollars on it. In that case, a cheap swimsuit will probably last just as long, and save you money that you can spend on the things you wear all the time. Also, it’s hard to know how long clothing will hold up. That’s why it’s essential you do some research before you buy.

Do Your Homework and Avoid Impulse Buys

Cheap clothing also lends itself to constant impulse buying, which can be way more dangerous for your wallet than the occasional splurge on something nice, durable and well-made. Spending $20 here and there doesn’t feel like much when it happens, but it can add up fast. You could spend more in a year on clothing that way, and possibly end up with a bunch of stuff you’ll never actually wear.

When buying high-quality (and sometimes more expensive) clothes, however, you know you’ll be spending a little more, so you’re more inclined to research before you open your wallet. It’s better to have a wardrobe with a few versatile, durable things you love to wear than a wardrobe stuffed with crap. Marc Bain at The Atlantic explains that buying expensive, high-quality clothing forces him to truly consider each one of his purchases:

The point is to make you pause and ask yourself, “How much do I really want this?” …it’s enough that it causes me to seriously hesitate, which is the real point. It forces me to think about just how much I want that item of clothing, how much I’ll wear it, and whether I think the value it offers is worth a significant cost… I can’t make these purchases all the time, at least not without sacrificing elsewhere or going broke. It’s an investment, rather than the cheap buzz of getting something new.

It’s always good to have a personal “should I buy this?” test for everything you purchase, but it’s especially important when it’s something you spend so much time with, whether it’s expensive or not. As Heather Levin at Money Crashers explains, having quality clothing in your wardrobe is valuable because you spent more money on it, but also because it means something to you. You devoted real thought and consideration to your purchase, and didn’t just buy because they looked cool on the mannequin when you walked by.

How to Make Sure You Buy Quality Clothing

The most important trademark of quality clothing is its construction. An expensive dress that is made of thin material and poorly sewn isn’t a quality item — it’s just an expensive dress. An expensive dress that fits nicely, is durable and put together well, however, can definitely be worth the purchase if you like it enough and know you’ll wear it a lot.

If you’re not sure what high-quality looks like, Antonio Centeno from the Real Men Real Style YouTube channel suggests you start by getting a good point of reference. Go to a store you know sells high-quality clothing (even if it’s out of your price range), and look at the details of each garment. Notice how many stitches there are per centimetre (more is better), what the clothes are made of and how the fabric feels (comfortable but durable) and how well buttons are secured to the garment (a loose button will pop right off). And just because Centeno is talking about dress shirts in the video above doesn’t mean the same tips aren’t helpful for women’s clothing. No matter what types of garments you’re inspecting, it won’t take long for you to see what high-quality garments look and feel like.

Now you can head to a store closer to your usual price range and compare. If you’re looking for a super-quick way to check durability, Levin recommends you go right for the seams. Grip the fabric on both sides and gently pull them away to see if the thread is holding the fabric together tightly. If it gaps or starts to pull apart, it was stitched poorly. Once you know what quality clothing construction looks like, there are a few other simple rules you want to consider while you shop:

  • Don’t get blinded by brand names. Even brands that usually have high-quality clothing can try to sell you poorly-made stuff (especially at outlet stores). Make sure you know which brands fit you best too since some run big or small.
  • Always try clothing on before you buy it. Make sure it’s comfortable and that you like the way you look in it (even if you’re shopping online).
  • Spend more on timeless pieces. Garments you’ll always need like nice skirts or pants, dress shirts and even a versatile dress or suit are worth paying for quality.
  • Spend less on rarely worn items like swimsuits and other seasonal stuff. If it’s only cold for about a month out of the year where you live, you probably don’t need a pricey North Face jacket.
  • Don’t buy designer clothing at the end of the year. Legos In my Louis explains that designers usually release one collection in the spring and the fall. By year’s end, manufacturers will cut their costs and produce the trendiest styles with cheaper fabrics and less stitching.
  • Get things tailored. The better something fits you, the more likely you’re going to want to wear it.
  • Aim to maximise your total number of possible outfits. Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar suggests you look for shirts that can go with multiple pairs of pants, find a suit that can go with a wide variety of shirts and ties, etc. The more you can mix and match, the fewer garments you actually need to maintain outfit variety.
  • Learn how to repair your own clothes so you can turn a middling purchase into a quality one. If an overall nice dress is severely discounted because a seam is ripped, a few basic hand stitches can save the day (and some dough).

As you shop, always remember that expensive doesn’t mean quality, and that you’re not spending more, you’re just buying less. At his financial advice blog, Peter Dunn recommends you create a yearly clothing budget of 5 per cent of your net income (including repairs and tailoring) and stick to it. It’s just enough to add some nice items to your wardrobe, but not so much you’ll break the bank.


  • Lots of good advice again, LifeHacker.
    Don’t skimp on shoes more than any clothing. Your feet will suffer more that anything else.
    Don’t be afraid to buy second hand if you know full price. Some secondhand stores sell Kmart and Big W brands above retail.
    Most brands are over priced. A good example was runners (I think it was life hacker – cost was no reflection of quality on all top brands). Jag was one of the few brilliant labels in its early days, but jumped the shark long ago. Country Road, Calvin Klein, etc were never consistent or worth the money. I’ve had rivers and Harris Scarfe jeans for 10 years (and I paid nowhere near $100). They outlasted my jag and boss jeans for equivalent wear.

    • Interestingly I’ve found most of the stuff I’ve gotten from River’s tends to crap out on me relatively quickly (for example, a pair of hiking pants that already has a hole in the pocket from its first use, and don’t get me started on their leather shoes). I suspect it may just be more due to changes in their production in the last decade or so because I also still have the same set of shirts worn every week that’s still holding up quite well

    • Personally, while their sizing is absolutely bananas, I find Country Road and Trenery a great deal mainly because they have such good sales frequently.

  • There are some problems with this conclusion that should be noted.

    Thanks to the effects of both food and fashion, 5 years for a pair of jeans simply isn’t the norm. There are dusty wardrobes full of bootcut jeans and jeggings, all because trends moved on. Betting that whatever you’re buying in 2016 will still be in fashion in 2021 is a risk that should be reflected in the value per wear formula.

    Similarly, the longer you have the jeans, the greater the odds you’ll need to have them taken in, or up, or out. Buying a pair of jeans you’ll only wear once means the chance is zero; a pair you’ll hypothetically wear for the rest of your life has a nearly 100% chance of requiring a least one alteration.

    The other problem with this calculation is behavioral. Economists apply a “time value” to money to reflect this simple premise: if you’re asked whether you’d prefer $10 today, or $10 next year, nearly everybody will choose today. We value money today more than money in the future – inversely, we value savings today more than we value savings in five years. The equation treats the cost per wear as equal regardless of which year in which it occurs. This serves to overemphasize the benefit to consumers occurring down the track, way out in the years ahead.

    There’s a strange assumption that the more expensive an item of clothing, the longer it will last. Why would this be the case? Do expensive socks last longer than cheap ones? Do expensive ties last longer? Anybody who’s ever bought a tux for a wedding will tell you, no matter how much you spend, a lack of use will ensure it’s going to last forever.

    The only reason I can see for this is borne not of craftsmanship but of anxiety. If we’re requiring five years to recover the cost of an expensive item of clothing, we’re inclined to adjust our behavior to protect that item. That means reducing out exposure to risk, by doing things like changing out of your jeans when doing housework, or not wearing your “good jeans” when you’re getting your drink on in town. That anxiety is a cost, not a benefit, and it’s one exclusive to your fancy duds.

    Bottom line: buy expensive jeans if it makes you feel good. Just don’t buy expensive jeans because they’re cheap.

    • Or buy clothes you like, rather than following fashion trends.
      I frigging love bootcut jeans and I have no idea if they were ever in or out of fashion.

      i.e. be old.

    • There’s a strange assumption that the more expensive an item of clothing, the longer it will last. Why would this be the case? Do expensive socks last longer than cheap ones?
      Expensive/good socks last way, way longer than cheap ones, and are far more comfortable during the journey to their ultimate destruction. Same for boxers. Same for business shirts.
      Not just last longer but look better during their use.

      I guess the assumption isn’t all that strange, craftsmanship, good design and quality fabrics are definitely going to cost more than cheap fabrics and a ‘quick’ design process. Designing shirts that fit the human body well is tricky and precise, even when designing ‘off the rack’ items.

      That isn’t to say that some shitty company can’t come along and just charge $150 for a t-shirt that is no better than a $30 t-shirt, but generally pricier clothing is going to have better design principles (i.e. fit and drape and look better) utilise better fabrics (higher threadcounts, better grade cotton etc.) and better manufacturing/stitching.

  • I’ve always found a mix to be good. Have some good clothes for going out occasions, and some cheap, comfy stuff for home use.

    The $10 tracky dacks from Kmart have thus far lasted me 10 years of casual use at home.

  • Some clothing? Sure. However buy expensive? Why buy that $2000 suit in a classic style when you can buy it for $800 or less on clearance? Especially given everything except swimwear in Australia is “last season” and on clearance in the northern hemisphere.

    On the other hand, why would I buy a $90 basic t-shirt I’ll probably stretch or ruin in some way living life before it dies, when I can buy tshirts for $10 from Cotton On. Sure, it will wear out quicker, but I can buy NINE of them before I’m up to the same cost.

  • there is a nice middle ground for cloths.
    pay too little and you get crap quality
    pay too much and you are just paying for the brand… and often the quality dips as well

    while in a store look for the second cheapest type of cloths
    like at Target and Kmart they have like $15-10 jeans… they are utter junk, the fabric is thin, yet does not breath and the wash is ugly.

    But there $30-40 range are quite good, good thickness fabric comfortable and the wash is better.

    What you want is Value for money not Cheapness.

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