The Style-on-a-Budget Guide to a Fall Wardrobe Update

Thrift stores often get a bad rep, because when people think of charity shops, they envision moth-bitten sweaters and squeaky shopping cart wheels; ’80s razzle dazzle beading and broken old toasters. And to be fair, yes, a lot of that goes down in secondhand stores. But there is a lot of gold tucked in between all those shoulder padded blazers and hand-knit sweater vests. And with fall upon us, hitting those one dollar racks is a great way to update your wardrobe on a tight budget. To prove it, I’ve found 15 pieces for $100 and created 12 outfits with them. Ahead is the breakdown, but before we jump into the fun stuff, let’s go over the prep work necessary in order to come out heavy with bags. It’s not all just blind luck!

Do fall fashion research

Rather than just winging it, I first like to scroll through my favorite stores to see what’s in style for the new season. That way, I have fresh ideas on what to look out for as I’m picking through racks and bins. Granted, there are some obvious pieces I always scan for, like knits and turtlenecks. But seeing as how fashion is cyclical and is constantly pulling inspiration from a previous era, taking note of what vintage-inspired items are making their rounds on home pages is always a safe bet. For example, last year, I might have skipped crushed velvet pants at Goodwill, but because they’re all the rage in Zara now, I’ve learned a modern and new way to style them.

In order to make this as easy as possible, choose two of your favorite websites and only focus on pieces that speak to your own particular style. So for me, I love Zara and Mango, and I have a more minimalist slash retro style. Scrolling through their new fall collection, here’s what jumps out at me and what I hope to recreate at the thrift store:

There are a lot of high waisted and cropped pants, ’80s inspired tuxedo vests, monochrome looks, loose silhouettes, and neutral color palettes. Now that I have these images top of mind, I’m ready to go!

Go to ritzier neighborhoods

There are a ton of charity shops in my suburb, and having hit them all at one point or another, I have found that if I go into the wealthier parts of town I find a bigger score (for obvious reasons). Rather than picking through pilled sweaters that people have given up because they’re decades old, I get to dig through Calvin Klein and St. John outfits that were donated likely because someone got bored of them. That’s not to say there aren’t any PVC boots and knitted vests in those thrift stores, because there are. But I always find there to be a better selection in the glitzier neighborhoods.

Be resigned that it will take more than one stop

For the purpose of this article, I gave myself one week to find all of my pieces, and it took me four trips to two thrift stores. Meaning, I didn’t find all of this loot in one go. Thrift stores and vintage shops put new stuff up every day, so know that you 100% will have to go back in a few times in order to piece together a capsule wardrobe, and that’s okay. Thrifting takes patience, so don’t get discouraged if you only find one piece the first go.

Now that we have our ground rules, let’s check out what I found. I always sweep through every section of the shop, but the main things I look out for are sweaters, purses, and belts. Those are easy updates to any wardrobe and are usually relatively easy to find and fit into. But I also always keep an eye out for dresses, pants, and jackets; just know those are a little trickier to pin down because of fit and dated styles. Here are my 12 outfits:

The pieces that I found for $100 were:

  • 3 pairs of pants
  • 2 sweaters
  • 1 turtleneck
  • 1 collared shirt
  • 3 purses
  • 2 belts
  • 2 jewelry items

Not too shabby for a fall update. Here’s the breakdown of the looks:

In this roundup, the main item I played with was the vest, but as you can see, a lot of my thrifted items helped create a bevy of looks. The vest was actually a part of a two-piece ’80s suit, where it was attached to a dress. The suit was super dated and I would have normally skipped over it, but remembering the tuxedo vest from Zara, I knew there was a fun, modern way to style it if only I separated the two.

Outfit One:

Thrifted: Vest, pants, bag

This is an almost completely thrifted outfit! The cropped pants, vest and envelope handbag were all thrifted during this challenge, and the sandals were the only thing store-bought, which are from Charleston Shoe Company. A quick note on the pants: I hate looking for slacks at thrift stores, because there are just so many options to dig through. But push yourself to do it, and try any pair that gives you pause. You might be pleasantly surprised.

For example, these had a waistband which immediately made me go, “Ew.” But their crisp pleats reminded me of the ones I saw in Zara and Mango, and so I decided to take them into the dressing room just in case. Once I tried them on, I realized they looked just like a pair I order from ASOS for $70. Needless to say, I’m sending the online order back and keeping this budget-friendly version instead!

Outfit Two:

Thrifted: Vest and pants

Knowing the weather will get chillier soon, I wanted to incorporate a look with sleeves, so I popped the vest over a sheer top from American Apparel. I also paired it with jersey joggers because I liked the silhouette they created; something I probably wouldn’t have scooped up on my own if I didn’t do research beforehand. I never buy lounge wear at thrift stores, but I saw Zara was matching joggers with button up shirts, and I loved the fun contrast they created. Then to add some more pizazz to the look, I paired it with a purse from Etsy, and shoes from Tkees.

Outfit Three:

Thrifted: Vest

When I saw this vest, I knew I wanted to wear it with minimalist outfits, so here I combined it with white pants (that I thrifted last year,) a simple pair of ASOS sandals and a small crossbody bag.

The lesson I learned while creating these outfits was that I don’t think I would have been able to piece them together if I didn’t scroll through my favorite stores and created a mood board with the looks that called out to me the most. I always skip over ’80s pieces in thrift stores, and I wouldn’t be able to see the potential in this vest, but once I brought it home I knew exactly what pieces to pull from my closet. So don’t skip that research step!

You can almost always find sweaters around the $5 mark at thrift stores, but there are a few things to look out for when doing so. First, don’t choose any that are pilling, no matter how cheap. You wouldn’t buy a pilled sweater at a boutique, so why should you buy one at a thrift store? And don’t let the price tag sweep you away. If you see a two dollar sweater, but it fits weird, is itchy, or doesn’t really speak to your style, then don’t get it. You won’t want to wear it often, and it’s just going to take up space in your wardrobe and make you feel guilty for constantly skipping it. Knowing that, here are the looks I created with this great Gap sweater:

Outfit One:

Thrifted: Black sweater, belt, purse

This outfit is pretty much my usual formula for fall: Cardigan and high waist jeans. But what I really want to talk about is the purse, and tips on how to score your own great find. If I was impatient, I would have 100% skipped over this purse at the thrift store, mainly because our purse wall is crammed to the brim with bags. In order to be successful, you have to patiently paw past all the scuffed up pleather bags and rhinestone clutches. But it’s easier to spot something with potential when you know what to look for, and that’s where your research step comes in handy (I know I keep driving this point home, but it’s that important!). I remember noticing that simple black purses with gold buckles and chainlink straps were the look du jour on Mango’s accessories page, so when I saw a gold buckle gleam behind an ugly burnt orange backpack on the rack, I pounced on it immediately.

Outfit Two:

Thrifted: Black sweater, purse

Here’s another outfit inspired by my mood board. When I saw the chainlink strap of this croc envelope purse, I immediately dove into the fray to make it mine. I prefer my outfits to be pretty simple, so I paired it with white pants (thrifted previously,) and a green windbreaker, which was also a thrift store find. I remembered seeing a similar jacket in Topshop before I hit my usual charity shop, which is why I told myself to try it on even though it looked baggy and three sizes too big on the hanger.

Outfit Three:

Thrifted: Black sweater, belt, purse

The belt was one of my most exciting finds: It’s Calvin Klein, the prettiest butterscotch color, and only cost me $3!

Turtlenecks are probably the number one thing I score at thrift stores during the chillier seasons, mainly because they’re an easy fit and an amazing layering piece.

Outfit One:

Thrifted: Turtleneck, belt

I love the look of thin turtlenecks layered underneath button down shirts, especially when they’re tied together with high waisted pants. Here’s a great example of how you can mix store bought and thrifted pieces seamlessly: the collared shirt was thrifted previously from the men’s section, the jeans are from American Apparel and the hoops from H&M.

Outfit Two:

Thrifted: Turtleneck, necklace

Even though the jewelry section of a thrift store is often times full of broken watches and clip-on earrings, every now and then you can score a pretty, geode necklace on a dainty chain. You just have to sift!

Outfit Three:

Thrifted: Turtleneck

If you want to bring your jumpsuits into the nippier season, simply layer them up with thin turtlenecks. I’m also a sucker for sandals with socks, (I know, I know!) so I paired my Tevas with black ankle socks to keep my feet toasty. The purse is also vintage Coach, thrifted previously (for $5!)

The number one tip I can give you about pants at thrift stores is that if it catches your eye, no matter how doubtful, try it on. The worst that can happen is that you put it back on the no-thank-you rack outside of the dressing room. Take these pants for example. They’re pleated, elastic waist pants. Meaning, these are definitely trousers meant for women on retirement. While that might not be my age group, I loved the color of them and remembered that that cropped look was splashed all over Mango, so I decided to give them a try regardless. And I’m so glad I did.

Outfit One:

Thrifted: Pants, white collared shirt

Sometimes all it takes is a sleek, expensive looking bag to upgrade an outfit. While I have a closet overflowing with dresses and pants, the number one thing I try to stock up on is well-tailored purses, because you can wear bottoms from a dollar rack and make them look high-street when paired with a smooth, leather bag. This particular purse is from Topshop, the shoes are from Urban Outfitters, and the jacket was previously thrifted.

Outfit Two:

Thrifted: Pants, purse, turtleneck, belt

I remember seeing a bunch of monochrome outfits tossed together by my favorite stores, so matching up all my browns was a no-brainer.

Outfit Three:

Thrifted: Sweater, pants, belt, necklace

Here’s another completely thrifted look. This sweater is a testament to having patience while digging: I went from hanger to hanger through an annoyingly over-stuffed rack, and found this Eileen Fisher sweater wedged between a pompom knit and a sweater pilled to oblivion. Don’t rush yourself, do the work, and you’ll definitely find something worthwhile!



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