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Having a hard time dressing without stressing about debt? Four inspired undergrads demo how it’s done.

Bianca-CooperBianca Cooper

Fourth-year undergraduate majoring in environmental biology at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland

“I love this outfit because I’ve put my twist on almost everything. I distressed the pants with a cheese grater and used a seam ripper to make the holes. The patterned tights are for the peekaboo effect. The tank top was originally a onesie; I cut off the snaps and sewed the hem. I took in the waist of the shirt and cut off the sleeves. I love feeling feminine while also being comfortable and realistic. I feel better about the day when I’m excited about my outfit. Shoes are the one thing I spend money on. I’ve had these for more than eight years.”

Collared shirt: $9, The Gap men’s sale rack
Sweater: $15, The Gap
Tank top: $10, Urban Outfitters, sale rack
Tights: $5, Marshalls
White pants: $20
Frye boots: $200

Clothes spending per semester: $50–75

Bianca's inspiration and affordable style tips

Style inspiration

Men’s sales racks “I’m 5’10” and I love looking different from everyone else. I have made men’s collared shirts into really cute dresses.”

Sewing machine, needle and thread, and scissors—and maybe a cheese grater “You can really reduce your carbon footprint by repurposing or fixing your clothing. You shouldn’t throw something out just because there’s a hole in it.”

Pinterest “It is a great source of ideas for clothing modifications.”

Affordable style tips

“Most girls on campus wear the typical North Face jacket with Ugg boots and yoga pants. Creating your own style opens up so many possibilities and you spend less money. I love when other students ask me where I bought something and I tell them I actually made it.”
  • Take an inventory of your clothes at the end of each school year: “If you haven’t worn something, brainstorm ways to make it cooler.”
  • Don’t be put off by sales items that are too small or too big: Think creatively about modifying them.
  • Modifying doesn’t have to involve sewing: Lots can be done with scissors, e.g., cut off sleeves or make a new neckline.
  • Invest in decent shoes: It’s worth it, since shoes get more wear and tear than clothes.

Jaysel ShahJaysel Shah

Fourth-year undergraduate majoring in biology at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“This is the first blazer I ever bought, and it was to wear on my 21st birthday. I had a good time that night because I knew I was stylish and felt good about myself. I was one of the best dressed people out that night, but I didn’t spend a fortune.”

Blazer: $9, Everbuying.net
Shirt: $5, Champs Sports
Jeans: $17, Walmart

Clothes spending per semester:  $250–300

Jaysel's inspiration and affordable style tips

Style inspiration

The classy, clean, sophisticated look “I stand out from the crowd. When I go out with my friends, I’m often the only one wearing a tie.”

Other people “I first saw this classy look on people I knew and realized they were grabbing more attention this way. This is why I decided to begin dressing like this.”

Others’ perceptions “I dress this way because I became more mature and realized that no one will ever take you seriously unless you dress to impress.”

Affordable style tips

“If my peers can’t buy something really nice and expensive, they won’t buy anything at all. They don’t seem to think outside the box.”
  • Earmark a set amount of money for clothes: Jaysel allocates 10 percent of his earnings.
  • Look online for deals: Shop at physical stores only when they have sales. Try Macy’s or JC Penney for quality items at lower prices.
  • Look for compatible accessories: If you’re buying a watch or necklace, be sure it works with your wardrobe so that you’ll wear it often.

Connie MorelandConnie Moreland

Fourth-year undergraduate majoring in economics at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond

“In Korea it’s trendy to wear any item of clothing with English written on it. The funny thing is that some of the English words and sentences don’t make any sense! I went from Korea to Chile, where I was honked and whistled at on the street for wearing this tunic. They’re not used to seeing women wear short dresses.”

Tunic: $30, Street shop in Seoul where she studied abroad
Shorts: $25, H&M
Tights: $5, WalMart

Clothes spending per semester: $300

Connie's inspiration and affordable style tips

Style inspiration

Korean fashion “Much of the fashion in Korea is short and meant to be worn with something underneath. I like to wear their tunics with shorts and tights.”

Neutral colors, especially black and white “They mix easily with other pieces.”

Sewing machine “I received a sewing machine for Christmas two years ago and taught myself how to sew. I love that there is a huge online sewing community. I modify online sewing patterns from indie designers to create my own unique clothing items.”

Affordable style strategies

“Many of the students at my school aren’t very fashion-forward. They tend to rely on the typical college student staples: a hoodie and leggings or yoga pants.”
  • Use an app: E.g., RetailMeNot finds coupons and discounts.
  • Leave your credit card at home: Go shopping with cash only, so you’re conscious of how much you’re spending.
  • Spend money on classics that will always be fashionable: e.g., handbags or a trench coat with clean lines. Don’t get caught up in seasonal trends.

Betty-YuBetty Yu

Third-year undergraduate majoring in biochemistry & molecular biology at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon

“I would never have gone into those thrift stores that hipsters always rave about. But I fell in love with a morbidly overpriced velvet skirt at Urban Outfitters and thought I might be able to find something similar. After visiting two thrift stores I found something just like what I’d seen, and bought several bags of other cool items for the same price I would have spent on one skirt.”

Shawl: $5, World Market
Velvet skirt: $8, Portland thrift store
Socks: $6, Sock Dreams
Shoes: $28, Target

Clothes spending per semester: $150

Betty's inspiration and affordable style tips

Style inspiration

The varied, low-budget, “shabby chic” fashion scene in Portland, Oregon (Betty’s hometown): “Now I realize that thrift stores are not overrated, and I’m always exploring other inexpensive fashion options.”

Instagram: “This is what got me into fashion. I starting following people, seeing what they were wearing, and replicating their styles in a way that fits with my student budget.”

Affordable style tips

“Students don’t look for clothes in the right places. They seem to go to the big-name stores and spend too much money.”
  • Buy basics in bulk to spend less in the long run: Betty buys out-of-season items like shorts, skirts, and tops for winter layering.
  • Do your research: A few extra minutes searching online could save you a lot of money.
  • Follow fashion on Instagram: The web is full of clothing ads that offer coupons.
  • Talk with other people and explore the local shops to find great alternatives to brand-name stores.

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Joanna Carmona is communications coordinator at the National Patient Safety Foundation. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Student Health 101. She has also edited collegiate textbooks for Cengage Learning and creating language learning materials for the US Department of Defense, libraries, and other educational institutions. Her BA in Spanish is from the University of New Hampshire.