Shopping on A Budget: A Basic Men’s Style Starter Kit Under (About) $250

Editor’s note: For an updated, four-part fall 2014 edition featuring a higher budget & more apparel categories, click here.

The world of men’s fashion and style can be a bit deceiving some times. Top-tier looks pop up in the pages of GQ and Esquire on the regular, yet those looks aren’t exactly attainable for common folk in either price or, sometimes, in styling. So, what’s someone on a budget to do? There are plenty of easy, relatively quick ways to build outfits from the ground up under a decent price point. Keep in mind that these are only suggestions to be followed — there are cheaper combinations out there, for sure, because (about) $250 is still a nice chunk of change. There are more expensive combinations, too. But if you had to start from square one and completely re-do your closet, some of these suggestions should point you in the right direction. More importantly, the great thing about shopping on a budget is versatility; some wacky-print pants might stand out on the runway, but they’re not exactly cost-effective when it comes to heading to class or shopping for groceries. Buying items that work interchangeably and in several situations is a great first step to developing more personal style. That’s where sticking to Style Essentials can help you out, too.

Without further ado, take a look at budget-friendly suggestions for a basic style starter kit under (about) $250:

On Your Feet:

Clarks Desert Boots (Available on Amazon for about $100, dependent on size and style).

Old reliable tan suede desert boots by Clarks. Beat-up, but durable.
Personal pair of old, reliable tan suede desert boots by Clarks. Beat-up, but durable.

As far as a casual shoe goes, desert boots are about as versatile as it gets for pairing with chinos and jeans, enough even to justify the high price point relative to the overall budget. In a neutral shade, like grey or tan, they can be worn with virtually any color of jeans or chinos while standing the test of time. They aren’t exactly fashion-forward by any stretch of the imagination. They look cleaner and more polished than a pair of sneakers, and for a pair of shoes you can wear virtually every day, the price point isn’t too bad, either. Swapping out athletic kicks for desert boots also forces you to step up other areas of your game, as well (try wearing desert boots with athletic shorts, for example). If budget expansion becomes a possibility, kicking around multiple different shades can leave you covered for virtually any situation. Check out retailers like JC Penney for boots at even lower prices than Amazon, too.

OR…..

If desert boots aren’t your thing, a pair of Canvas Authentic Low Pro sneakers from Vans could do the trick (Available for about $45).  Some are partial to Converse or other classic sneakers, (Effortless Gent has a great guide on other types casual footwear here), but Vans are about as simple as it gets in terms of the logo and profile. These are a shoe that could switch between shorts, chinos and jeans interchangeably — not too bad for about $45. Keeping that white sole clean is key, and choosing a neutral shade amps up their versatility too.

On Your Legs:

Dark denim (something like Levi’s 511 or 513 jean–now available for about $43 on sale).

Dark denim on display. Jeans on left by Scotch & Soda. Right - Standard Cloth.
Dark denim on display. Jeans on left by Scotch & Soda. Right – Standard Cloth.

Every guy needs a pair of dark blue denim in his closet. Some are extremely partial to high-quality, Japanese selvedge denim, made through a long process that definitely results in an extremely durable pair of jeans. For the rest of us, turning to an old standby brand like Levi’s will do the trick just fine. Know that places like Urban Outfitters also carry jeans like Standard Cloth in nice, slim fits.  Sticking with the original though, Levi’s are the gold standard for classic denim. Look for a slim fit to keep those lines clean and avoid bunching fabric at your ankles. And keep the wash clean and dark (free of pre-distressing or holes) to stand out from the pre-distressed crowd in a good way. Snagging a pair on sale in person (at Macy’s or Urban Outfitters’ website, for example) could knock the price down even further. At such a favorable price point, they could turn into a “wear almost everyday” pair of pants, in casual and more polished situations, like with a white OCBD.

Up Top:

In the warm weather: Old Navy Slim or Classic Fit Polos (About $10)

The 'Classic Polo' in white from Old Navy. About as inexpensive & simple as it gets.
The ‘Classic Polo’ in white from Old Navy. About as inexpensive & simple as it gets.

For those of us partial to throwing on a shirt with a collar in warm weather, there’s almost no better option on a college (or similarly cheap) budget than Old Navy. As of now, prices on some of the slim fit versions are down to $10. Just $10.  A great deal, to be sure, and available in loads of colors. The key is to know that you get what you pay for. On a personal note, Old Navy polos have held up very well in terms of wash, fit and color, although some have had varying experiences. At that price though, it’s hard not to like what you see. Uniqlo also offers tremendously well-priced options. Reaching for a slim fit polo (or sizing down in a classic fit) ensures that the fabric stays trim through the body and around the arms — this is a big key no matter how big or small you might be. Old Navy and Uniqlo also offer t-shirts and pocket tees in varying colors to mix up your casual wardrobe options, too.

In Cooler Weather:

Old Navy Oxford Cloth Button-Downs (about $26) and V-Neck Sweaters (about $27)

A classic blue OCBD from Old Navy.
A classic blue OCBD from Old Navy.

If I had to pick one outfit combination to wear into the cooler months of fall and winter, it would be some variation of the above style: A button-down collar shirt with a v-neck sweater, over dark jeans, with desert boots. It’s entirely appropriate for business casual settings in some areas, and it’s polished enough to go on a date or out to drinks without looking too formal, or conversely, too sloppy. Other options in the same price range include Target’s Merona line, which offers a nicely-done white OCBD (among other colors) for about $3 less than Old Navy. Using these two pieces interchangeably allows for terrific versatility; stock up enough nice sweaters and a few white or blue OCBD’s, and you can stockpile outfits for days on end while maintaining a consistent overall appearance.

The Rest:

Watch: Timex Weekender or other options (Available at Target for about $35).

The original, and one of the best casual options on the market for someone on a budget.
The original. One of the best casual options on the market for someone on a budget.

When we talk about a tight budget for a watch, paired with other casual clothing options, it’s tough to beat a Timex Weekender. It’s clean and simple in terms of design, and it can be customized with a wide variety of slip-thru straps. And like most of the other items on the list, the low price point could mean it’s not too terrible if it gets beat up a bit. Different dial colors (like grey or white) also lend themselves to other color combinations of straps and outfits. For those who prefer sportier looks, the Timex Expedition series might not be a bad bet. On the other hand, if you’re not a “watch guy”, per se, this is an area that could be skipped for now – leaving you with more money in hand.

Patterned socks (by Old Navy, about $7)

Patterned socks from Old Navy.
Patterned socks from Old Navy.

While it’s extremely important to take stock of the major components of an outfit, the difference is in the details when wearing lots of simple, relatively classic pieces. A standout pair of socks, when seen, add a fun pop to any outfit. Granted, some of those patterns from Old Navy don’t have the reaction factor that a pair from Happy Socks might, but they’re a good starting point.

Item Total: About $248

Given the fact that one pair of shoes made up the lion’s share of the total, to be able to snag other major pieces (and a watch) for about the rest of the price is a great way to tackle financial difficulties associated with shopping. It’ ll be necessary to deal hunt and do research regardless, but buying for color and fit is just as important as buying for price.

Using these items as a guide could be a helpful first step to building a wardrobe on a budget. Sacrificing quality for price is a tough decision to make for most, but working through reliable, trusted brands like Old Navy and Timex can reduce the uncertainty around buying on a budget. Searching for versatility and fun colors also enhances the potential reach of each item, while saving you money for longer-term purchases. Now, start saving and get shopping while you can.

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