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Why we buy clothes we don't wear

Most of us wear only 20% of the clothes we cram into our closets and drawers, a report says. Here's how to pare it down and end up with a wardrobe you love.

By Donna_Freedman May 8, 2013 9:41AM
Logo: Young woman trying on jeans in front of mirror, low angle view (David Stuart, Digital Vision, Getty Images)Closet so full the door won't close? Ask yourself this: How often do you wear what's in there?

According to The Wall Street Journal article "A closet filled with regrets," most people wear only 20% of the clothes they own. That's because shopping is often more about desire than necessity.

We buy when we're bored or sad. We get talked into purchases. We just can't resist a great deal. We believe the magazines that change advice each season: Plaid is the new black, a shrug is a must-have, no wardrobe is complete without some pashmina in it.

"Or maybe the outfit was perfect for the thinner, edgier, wealthier person you aspired to become," writes Ray A. Smith.

Plenty of us have had buyer's remorse about purple parachute pants or the deck shoes we wore exactly twice before breaking up with our sail-happy girlfriends. News flash: You don't have to keep clothes that aren't working for you. Instead, stop throwing good money after bad and figure out why you buy. 

Begin by looking for unworn clothes bought fairly recently and trying to return them. This might not be easy, as Smith notes that retailers have tightened their return policies. That's one reason so many people keep unusable items: They don't want the hassle of taking things back to the store.

It might be possible to regift an item here and there. If it's still got the tags on it then your brother or BFF won't know you bought it for yourself six months ago. You might also have some luck selling these items consignment stores (local or online), or on eBay, or organizing a clothing swap with friends.

Starting over

Or just set aside an hour or two this weekend to go through your closet and create four piles: "donate," "throw out," "repair" and "soul-stirring" (i.e., must-keeps). That's how Get Rich Slowly writer April Dykman did it. In "How to stop buying clothes you never wear," she admits that some of the garments had never been worn.

Dykman donated, consigned and gave away three-fourths of her total wardrobe. What's left is "100 times more functional." For example, she owned a dozen pairs of jeans but wore only three of them because they were of good quality and looked great. She learned from that mistake.

"Only buy items that make you feel like a million bucks," Dykman says. "If it doesn't make your heart sing, it'll probably never see the light of day."
Not that it's all about emotion. Among her practical tips:
  • Most of your wardrobe should be basics, with no more than 30% as accessories and non-daily-wear garments.
  • When buying look for items that will work with what's already in the closet, to get "maximum use" of your wardrobe (and your wardrobe dollar).
  • Buy only what fits well right now (not for when you lose 10 pounds), and seek quality fabrics (e.g., a wool sweater rather than acrylic).
  • Shop for your real life, not "the fantasy version." If you currently work from home, why buy another business suit? Yes, the little black dress is a classic -- but if you're in your 50s now, a too-little black dress probably isn't appropriate no matter how much time you spend in the gym.
Stop the (mall) madness
Ginger Burr of Total Image Consultants has never had a client come in saying, "I want more clothes." What they want are the right clothes, in the right quantity.

Go through your closet and think about your motives for buying that particular tie or T-shirt. A few common issues Burr has seen:
  • You might need it someday. "If you can't make an outfit with it right now (and especially if you don't love it), get it out of your closet," she says.
  • Holding on to hand-me-downs. Your sister or your BFF has an item that would be just perfect for you? This is "really tricky," but you have to decide if it's right so don't accept it and never wear it. On a related note: Resist being talked into purchases by friends, relatives or obsequious salesclerks.
  • Sunk cost. So you spent good money on it? Either make it work with something else you already have, or get rid of it "and chalk it up to a learning experience."
  • Your weight fluctuates.If you have clothes for different weights, pack away everything that doesn't fit today.
  • You can't let go. Maybe you keep clothes for sentimental reasons, e.g., the flirty style you wore as a 20-something or the business suits from your previous career. If that's not you any longer, move on. (This can be tough.)
  • Following somebody else's rules. One client had been told every wardrobe needed a white blouse. She bought several dozen, hoping each one would be the one she loved. The takeaway: Not every fashion dictum works for every person.
Incidentally, it isn't just women who love to shop. Journalist and author Buzz Bissinger ("Friday Night Lights") recently revealed his shopaholism in a GQ magazine article, "My Gucci addiction." In two years Bissinger spent more than $587,000 on clothing, mostly flashy designer duds.

Take the challenge

Another closet-clearing option is the "wear everything challenge." For the next few weeks, or however long it takes, wear every seasonally appropriate item you have at least once.

Really: everything. Doing this could help you discern why you never wear those chinos (they pinch in the waist) or that dress (looks great, but the material makes you itch). Keep what works and dump the rest.

Finally, consider instituting a cooling-off period. That Wall Street Journal article mentioned a man who bought expensive wool sweaters in an attempt to impress other businesspeople. But they just weren't him.

So he consigned some and donated others -- and learned from the experience. Specifically, he now waits 10 days after seeing something he might want to wear. That gives him time to think it over, which beats the heck out of buying something he may never use.

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2Comments
Jun 10, 2014 11:48AM
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Since being retired I've taken a new look at my closet. I had so many clothes I did not wear and I've cut my closet down to 2/3 of what it was and haven't missed a thing. I no longer go shopping on weekends and buy things because it's a "good deal". I've saved a lot of money and am looking forward to buying a new car. Shopping makes women feel good but it makes me feel good to have no credit card debt!
May 8, 2013 5:42PM
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Interesting. There's another way some folks shop... we have a "uniform". One barnd/size pants works well, so we purchase in every neutral color available in that size. Ditto Jeans. Or there's a particularly flattering fit in a 3/4 sleeve sweater? Grab it on sale in several colors, along with polos, tank tops, or whatever works for your bod. Then what you have in the closet always works for you, and boring though it may be, it's fast to get dressed every day.
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