I thought it was time for a more light-hearted article. We’ve been covering a lot of investing topics lately so I felt like a change of pace.
This article highlights the difference between frugal and cheap with regards to clothes purchases. Many people mistakenly think frugal and cheap are the same thing but they are not. Cheap is looking for the lowest cost with little consideration for anything else. Frugal is concerned with getting the best value. In fact, many people, including myself broaden this even more and think of being frugal as trying to get the maximum happiness for our spending.
This difference between cheap and frugal leads to some interesting contrasts. One of the biggest is that frugal people often spend a lot of money on high quality items. So in this case, they have more in common with big spenders. But frugal people tend not to be big spenders. The way they do this is by buying much less. But what they do buy tends to be high quality.
In terms of buying material things, I’ve gone through a transition from cheap (by necessity early in life) to frugal over my life and found some surprising benefits to frugality as I partly explained in The happiest way to be materialistic, I now really enjoy the fact that I don’t buy much, but I also enjoy the things I have purchased because they are things I use a lot, and that I really enjoy.
I should mention that at this point I don’t try to be frugal with clothes out of financial necessity. So why do I do this?
It makes me happy.
I enjoy taking care of things (one of the thresholds for adding something to my life is whether I will really be happy maintaining it over time). I also don’t like to waste things. Many of the things I buy are from smaller specialty companies…..I like supporting these vs mass market companies that are usually optimizing for low price and big volume products. Interestingly the premium you pay, when you factor in the total cost of ownership, including the durability of the item, is often even negative (i.e. low-quality stuff actually costs you more even though the sticker price is much lower). Plus you get much less enjoyment out of a crappy product.
Important Point #1: To be fair, many people in the FIRE community don’t seem to care that much about clothes. If this is you, then great! My wife is the first to say that I focus too much on performance and less on looks when it comes to a lot of my clothing. Many don’t care too much about either performance or looks and are focused on simply minimizing spending, which is certainly the best attitude financially. If this is you, then this article may not be that useful.
You can find amazing deals on clothes that are in good condition at your local thrift store. This is a great option that will be a lower cost option than I describe because many of the items I highlight are fairly expensive. Even the improved durability of many items I highlight are not going to make up for the cost difference. But if you’re buying new clothes, even on sale, that are poor quality, you might find paying more for higher quality items is actually a better choice. And you’ll be much more likely to enjoy each item more. If you buy fewer total items over time, you can easily come out ahead financially and improve your happiness along the way.
Important Point #2: I have excluded clothes for work. While there are some frugal choices here, looks matter a lot more and high quality, nice looking clothes for a professional career cost a fair bit of money. I still look for durability and good construction (e.g. full grain leather, resoleable shoes, long-staple cotton shirts, etc) but it’s a stretch to say these are financially-advantaged purchases (unless you assume it really does help you get that promotion at work). For that reason, I’ve excluded work clothing from this article despite the fact that it makes up more of my spending on clothes. On the plus side, this expense ends with work 🙂
So with these caveats, if you find something useful here, then great! If you don’t, then stop reading whenever and go back to something more useful. Don’t worry, I won’t be hurt.
Price ≠ Quality (sometimes)
Clothes can be trickier than other areas because price is not as reliable a guide to quality. There are many high priced items based simply on branding or a specific fashion trend. So it’s necessary to look at the materials and construction method to gauge quality. In addition, remember that the details of the item need to matter to you personally. In some cases (for some people), an expensive high quality item is the best choice. For others, based on what they will appreciate in that item, a lower cost and lower quality item will be a better choice. And even in well-constructed items, price can vary a lot so you have to be careful. For example, you might get an equally high-quality item much cheaper at a place like llbean compared to a luxury retailer like Neiman Marcus.
Needless to say, even if you’re buying higher cost items, don’t make impulse purchases. Make sure it’s something you really would like to add to your life and then watch for sales. In most cases, at a minimum you should be able to get 20% off retail price. Even for brands that rarely go on sale there are retailers like REI who periodically provide coupons for 20% off of a regular priced item. And buying things at the end of a season is a great way to save money. If you’re buying something for the next decade or longer, you should be able to wait until the item you want goes on sale as seasons change. A side benefit of this is that you’ll have some delayed gratification, which studies show actually makes you happy as you anticipate getting what you want. And in some cases, as you wait, you decide you don’t want that item after all, saving you a purchase.
Let’s go though some examples by category.
Darn Tough. For me this one is simple. I’m now a huge fan of Darn Tough socks (the wool ones). They are pricey but have a no-questions-asked lifetime guarantee. They are a wool/nylon blend with really good construction. I have yet to wear a hole on any of my Darn Tough socks. Being wool, they also don’t smell like other socks. They have a range of heights and cushion level for various activities. Nothing more to say. Everyone raves about them.
I’m also a fan of ExOfficio give-n-go boxers. Comfy, durable plus fast drying and antimicrobial for travel or activities. Made from nylon and spandex for stretch. Again, they are expensive, especially for underwear, but I think they are worth it. They are the gold standard for minimalist travel underwear but I also use them for daily wear. You’re starting to see a theme on nylon. I like nylon for it’s durability and the fast drying. It’s the most durable standard fiber you can find in clothing.
Of course I have nylon pants as well. Some favorites are from a company called Prana. They make a few types of stretch nylon pants like their Zion pants or the 5 pocket jeans style Brion pants (Halle version for women). Super durable and very comfortable. They make great travel pants and I also use them for climbing, hiking and normal wear. I bought my wife a pair as a present (she usually doesn’t buy pricey clothes) and she raves about them. They are her go-to pants for long flights and miles of walking.
I also have a pair of Rail Riders nylon pants. They aren’t as comfortable but they are very durable. I often wear them at home with the kids since we are always on the floor playing. I would have worn out the knees on several pairs of jeans by now but these pants don’t look worn at all after many years.
I have three pairs of jeans. My favorite is from a UK company called Swrve who makes specialized jeans for cycling. They have some stretch, gusseted crotch (very nice for us guys) and also have polyester and Cordura™ nylon blended in for much improved durability. The fit is a little tighter at the bottom of the legs than I would prefer but overall I like them a lot. They also seem to be holding color very well whereas my regular jeans, bought later, are already fading at the knees.
I’ve also heard rave reviews about Outliers™ slim dungarees, despite the steep price. I ordered a pair once but they didn’t fit. Apparently they are for guys with small thighs. Darn city folks. The material seemed quite nice though.
For low-cost but still very tough jeans, I really like Wrangler. I have one pair of these for outdoor work.
Shorts are similar. Shorts get less wear than pants so durability and quality isn’t such a big deal but I still like stretchy nylon for the comfort and fast dry features.
There is a similar theme here with some nylon or nylon blend button-downs, but also regular cotton shirts. I also have a number of polyester workout shirts. Shirts are an area where I have many more cheap items since it’s mostly synthetic shirts for exercise or comfy cotton t-shirts for home. All of these are pretty low-cost items and they last a long time.
This is an area I am not a very good minimalist. I happen to really like boots in particular. Footwear is one of the best areas to pay for quality.
Mostly I buy long-lasting boots and shoes. Jacob over at Early Retirement Extreme has a great article (link below) on pair of boots that I have, the Hanwag Grunten.
His post is a great analysis in the theme of this article since he spends around $7,000 per year and thought these were very worthwhile even though they are expensive (e.g. Nordstrom is a retailer for these). They are made old-school with a Norwegian-welt, stitched sole construction, which means they can be resoled.
I also have durable hiking and mountain climbing boots that last a very long time despite the abuse they experience.
Similarly, I look for durability in shoes and sandals. For example, I have Chaco flip-flops and sandals. The sandals I’ve had for almost 10 years and have used them a lot, including backpacking. They look almost new still. They are incredibly durable.
A pair of Scarpa Mojito shoes (made in Europe out of leather with Vibram soles) I bought last year to replace yet another pair of tennis shoes that fell apart, also look like they are going to last a very long time. I don’t think I’ll be needing new shoes anytime soon.
I also have a number of wool shirts and sweaters. I’m not sure I’d put these in the frugal category though. I like wool a lot so I get some personal value of it but the durability is lower than many other fabrics and the cost is higher. I have some shirts for multi-day trips where the low odor feature is definitely worth it. The sweaters I think look nicer and since they don’t need to be washed much, they should last a very long time. But I’m skipping examples in this article because of the relatively high cost of nice wool like merino and the relatively lower durability.
How to Take Care of Your Stuff
Purchasing the right types of items that will last a long time is step 1. Even more important is step 2; properly caring for what you buy. This makes a big difference in how long things last.
Washing and Drying Clothes
How you wash and dry your clothes has a big effect on their lifetime. Washing is a bit less important. The harsher your washing settings, the more wear and tear on your clothes. For example, hotter water will damage and shrink clothing fibers more. And the agitator in older top-loading washers causes more wear on clothes versus newer top and front loading washers. However, if you look into the scientific analysis of this (yes, I’m a nerd), you find that the settings and specific machine you use to wash your clothes doesn’t really make that much of a difference.
Personally I find that the delicate/handwash setting on a cool setting gets clothes plenty clean. As a side benefit it’s a faster cycle. For bad stains, I use a pretreatment on that particular spot as well.
But the big win here is to avoid the dryer, particularly on high heat settings. This actually damages clothing fibers quite a lot. All that lint you collect in the dryer? That’s your clothes disintegrating every time you dry them. On top of that, a dryer uses a lot of electricity.
Chemistry nerd aside: water is a unique molecule with very strong hydrogen bonds between molecules. This leads to a high heat capacity of 4.184 Joules of heat energy to raise 1 gram of water one degree Celcius. For comparison, to raise a gram of copper one degree takes less than 1/10th this amount. This hydrogen bonding also leads to a high enthalpy of vaporization, which is the energy it takes to convert water from liquid to gas. So heating and evaporating the water from your clothes takes a large amount of heat and/or time, boosting your utility bills a fair amount.
If you still want to use your dryer, try to use a fast spin cycle in the washer to get as much water out as you can before putting the clothes in the dryer. We use the dryer for the kids clothes since they will outgrow them usually before they wear out (or the knees wear through long before anything else fails) and there are so many little items of clothing that hang drying is a bit of a pain. We also use the dryer for sheets since they are more of a pain to hang dry.
For my own clothes, I skip the dryer and hang dry everything. This has several benefits. Certainly less wear and tear on my clothes. Plus less wrinkling for my work shirts. If I hang something damp, the wrinkles smooth out as it dries. I also happen to enjoy the process. It’s become a zen-like, mindfulness time. It’s a nice break from thinking and running around. Of course not everyone enjoys this and that’s certainly fine but if you’ve never done it, you might find it’s more enjoyable than you expect.
You can find a few different styles of drying racks for pretty cheap. The two main ones are accordion style and gull-wing style. I mainly use a larger gull-wing style but have a few of the accordion styles for extra drying space if I happen to do a few loads of laundry in the same day.
It’s a bit of extra time but not really that much.
Deodorant – Stop Yellow Stains
I used to regularly throw out t-shirts and undershirts due to staining at the underarms every few years. I found this frustrating when the shirt was still in good shape otherwise. I tried many cleaning methods but nothing really works. Did you know that your deodorant is the cause of the yellow pit stains in your shirts? It’s the aluminum in the anti-perspirant portion (not the deodorant component). This reacts with the protein in your sweat, making a yellow-colored complex that binds to your clothing fabric strongly, especially cotton. There is also some concern over negative health issues with the aluminum salts in deodorants but I have not researched this so I don’t know if there is any real science behind the concerns.
In researching for ways to clean or prevent staining a few years ago, I ran across an alternative option to conventional deodorant. It’s a Thai mineral crystal “stone” deodorant made of alum, which is different than aluminum so it doesn’t cause the yellow staining. I’ve found that it’s still an effective deodorant. Think of this as creating a salty environment where the bacteria that cause odor by metabolizing the protein in your sweat can’t survive. It’s non-irritating and odorless.
The only downside is that it’s only a deodorant, not an anti-perspirant. From what I’ve found online, anti-perspirants are only up to 20% effective at reducing sweat anyway so I didn’t find this was a big deal, especially if a wicking synthetic shirt/undershirt is used. After switching to this, I now don’t have any yellow stains on my clothes anymore. Even the lightest colors and whitest whites stay that way over time.
As a final benefit, it’s much cheaper too. This isn’t the main reason I like it but it’s a nice side benefit. I’ve been using a single stone I bought for about $9 two years ago and it looks like it will last at least another year. I would have gone through about a dozen $4 standard deodorant sticks in that timeframe.
For completeness, there are supposedly some deodorants that have lower levels of aluminum that might work well. I have not tried these so I can’t say but I’m happy enough with the performance of the aluminum-free Thai crystal that I don’t see any need to try anything else.
Minor clothing repairs
I simply do a bit of hand sewing when it comes to minor repairs. I started doing this a long time ago with my outdoor gear. It’s not uncommon to catch a crampon (spiky things on your boots for ice climbing) on the inside of your expensive climbing pants and you don’t want to buy a new pair every season. So I just repair the tear and keep going. For other clothes, it’s the same concept (with a bit more care so the repair looks nicer).
I don’t need to do this much since I buy well-made stuff, but sometimes the stitching on a seam will unravel or a button will need repairing. I have a small box with different color threads that cost very little and covers my wardrobe. It’s become fun to find something that needs a repair – I embrace the silliness since enjoying the little things in life can help you be happy.
Footwear also requires some care, although not that much. I keep leather shoes and boots conditioned so the leather doesn’t dry out and crack. Work shoes get regular polishing. My boots get regular waterproofing and periodic conditioning with a high quality waterproofing agent like Nikwax. I clean off salt, mud and other stuff to keep leather and fabric from unnecessary damage. But I don’t go easy on my stuff. Everything gets used hard, especially my outdoor boots. Even so, they last a very long time. Several of my shoes and boots also have stitched soles so new soles can easily be put on if they get worn down. This is a nice option for footwear that you put a lot of miles on.
I’ve ended up writing more than expected on this topic so I’ll wrap up. Things like clothes are a very individual choice. There is no right or wrong answer but for those that appreciate well-made things, there is a benefit to investigating higher quality clothing, particularly with timeless styles. You can build a relatively minimal wardrobe with items you really like to wear that will last an incredibly long time. For those that aren’t interested in low-quality, fast-fashion items, hopefully there are some tips and perspective here that are useful.
Lastly, I’m including links to some of the specific items I’ve used and liked that are mentioned here and/or links to the manufacturers of those items. Everyone has different preferences so the example clothes here are just the ones I like. For those that like “performance” features and high quality, these might be useful. For those that are more concerned with fashion as well as higher quality, these may not be great choices……feel free to look for items you like better that also have good quality if you’re tired of buying clothes that don’t last. There are also several websites and a reddit area on “buy it for life” product recommendations that I’ve found useful before.
Disclaimer: for the ones below that are amazon links I will received a small financial benefit if you purchase through the links, at no cost to you. Again, I’m only listing products I’ve bought with my own money and find value in. I also like amazon because of the extensive reviews, which I personally find very useful when researching purchases.
If you’ve got any tips on clothes you really like that are high-quality and last a long time, please feel free to add them in the comments.
Now I’m off to hang some laundry!