The Benefit of Wardrobe Budgeting

The Benefit of Wardrobe Budgeting
Clothes Line
Clothes Shirts Hanging, photo by Jay Mantri via

As you know I am writing a book, called Signature Wardrobe Planning (all title feedback welcome by the way).  It’s been a couple of weeks since I talked about the value of wardrobe planning, so I thought I’d follow up with some thoughts about wardrobe budgeting and buying clothes.

I think many of us know we need to change the way that we think about what and how we wear our clothes.  But where do you start if you want to start all over again?  There are some really interesting and useful websites out there that offer a lot of advice – here are some that I subscribe to:

  • Janice developed a shopping plan for Starting from Scratch
  • Anuschka suggests developing a Signature Look and building that into the perfect wardrobe
  • Courtney started Project 333 where you choose 33 garments to wear for three months
  • Jennifer and her Ten Item Wardrobe inspired by her year in France as an exchange student

I enjoy these sites, but they talk about how to put together a wardrobe together, not how to decide how much you can afford or which purchases you can postpone and which you can’t.  So today I’m sharing some wardrobe usefulness from 1928 [1].  The information comes from a US government survey of consumer expenditure; agents visited a number of homes and collected data about their annual spend on food, medical care, housing and luckily for us, clothing.

While this might sound irrelevant and quite possibly boring to people who aren’t social scientists or accountants, it’s interesting and exciting for me because this information tells us a bit about what their lives were like in 1928.  The respondents, in this case, ten ordinary working families – husband (railway labourer), wife and one or more children, have told us exactly what they bought, and we can use that information to formulate a basic budget of our own [2].

1. How Much To Spend

in 1928

The families, on average, spent 13% of their income on clothing.  Clearly, a higher income ($1,319) appears to spend less (6%) because the lower income ($861) must spend a greater proportion (24%) to achieve the same end.  An even higher wage ($1,695) will spend more money even if the proportion is the same (6%).  Actual expenditure ranged between $76 and $275, but their varied location prevents hard and fast rule making.

The data related to households, and clothing expenditure was proportionally split between family members as follows:

  • children 17% – 78%, average 46%
  • father 12% – 48%, average 31%
  • mother 1% – 48%, average 23%

Given these were “working class” people there was a lot of patching, mending and making over and this would have been because there just wasn’t enough money to spend on clothes.  The money also went a little further with purchases on sale, second hand or church charity as well as clothing gifts or hand me downs from more prosperous family members.  Some families economised by making their own clothes or choosing cheaper more durable items like cotton stockings over silk.

and now…

Brand new mass produced clothing are the most cost effective purchases, partly due to the prevalence of manmade fibres and partly due to off-shore mass production.  In 1928, one mother bought an everyday dress for $2, which was the same as she spent on a visit to a doctor.  For me, that’s about $80, and I could probably make a dress for that, so a 13% budget would seem reasonable on that basis.  However, I would be more likely to be wearing track pants and a t-shirt for $24 so 13% seems like way too much.  But as I mentioned in my April Progress Report I need to start wearing jeans instead, which would take the cost to about $147, though it has to be said that the jeans will last longer than – the t-shirt, so perhaps 13% is just about right.  But just because I don’t really know for sure, I’d suggest 10% – 15% of income, with an annual review and adjustment.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics currently defines “family” as at least two related people, one being at least 15 years old.  It then defines blended, couple, intact, one-parent, step and other families for good measure.  In 2011, 60% of families had one or more children, but of those, 37% had only one parent, so I’m not sure that there is a modern average family.  I think the 1928 model could still work in the modern context – say 45% – 30% – 25% with the main income producing parent taking the larger parental proportion.  A sole parent family could probably split the funds around 55% – 45% children/parent.  This will not work for every family but it’s a start that you can tailor to your circumstances.

2. What We Need

in 1928

In general, the families bought two kinds of clothing – everyday clothes and “good clothes”.  Everyday for father’s work, children’s school and wife’s housedresses, with good for recreations like the movies and Church.  The most common ratio of  expenditure was 4 everyday to 2 good.  The majority of my sample did not have running water to the house, nor in some cases electricity so it’s likely that the distribution would have been 2 to wear and 1 in the wash.  One family noted that the children changed their underwear twice a week, and another that their daughter went to school in a clean dress every day.  Socks and underwear aren’t mentioned by every family, but for those that do, it’s 10% – 15% of their expenditure, and it was common to buy 2 – 3 sets per annum.

They also had a definite focus on seasonal clothing with hats, coats, jackets/sweaters, umbrellas, raincoats, rubber boots, etc., mentioned in almost every response.  Most of the families relied on wood or coal for heating so it’s not hard to imagine they could have been wearing all the clothes they owned in winter.  Sadly, one family father was stuck with only winter shirts and underwear while the children had only summer.  One family went into debt to ensure the children were sufficiently well clothed to attend school, while another struggled along in too small clothing.

and now…

The lesson we can take from this is that we need to put two-thirds of our money into the clothes that we wear most of the time, and that’s going to vary depending on where we live but for most of us that’s going to be work clothes.  Our lives are generally less formal, so our version of recreational clothes might be fitness gear, and our good clothes might be jeans or maybe the little black dress we can dress up or down.  The amount of clothing you buy could simply depend on how often you want to change your clothes; I’m fairly sure most of us would like clean underwear everyday, but wear our jeans 3 or 4 times between washes.  Many of us work in air-conditioned comfort, so we probably won’t need a great deal of serious cold weather gear.

3. What is the priority


Our family’s annual clothes shop prioritised father’s work clothes (six everyday outfits), followed by fulfilling the needs of the children and lastly mother (four everyday and two good where possible), half summer and half winter.  Clothes were generally taken very good care of to prolong their lives; when father’s clothes could no longer be patched or made over, they were cut down for sons or used to make underwear or rags for other purposes.  Spending on “good clothes”  is reversed with many fathers not going to church due to the state of their clothes.  While some families do without shoes, socks, underwear and nightwear, the majority bought some for each member of the family.

and now…

My own wardrobe problems have often been caused by too many Princess (good) clothes and not enough Cinderella (work) ones, and when I talk about this with my Katys I find they are just the same, so perhaps we all do this.  I feel that somewhere along the line, we picked up on the importance of looking respectable when we left the house, but not what the most practical and sustainable way of doing that was.  Assuming our mothers knew this.

So I think 1928 forms a good example – prioritise Cinderella, not the Princess.  Of course, you need to know what your particular Cinderella clothes are first – maybe a suit with five business shirts or maybe two pairs of jeans and five t-shirts.  I think this has to include your underwear and tights as well.

4. When Should We Replace Them


Some families had purchasing schedules, but these mainly focussed on fulfilling the needs of growing children e.g. buying one or two articles of clothing for older children every couple of months, or two pairs of socks every pay.  We can’t see a clear purchasing pattern for children’s clothing, but the number of children in the family ranged between one and eight so it’s hard to draw a conclusion from that level of variation.

The agent notes tell us that coats and men’s suits were expected to be durable – the oldest recorded was 12 (in different families).  Another family saved for six years to replace mother’s coat – a significant purchase taking half of her budget.  One Sunday hat was seven years old, though another family bought five hats in four years because they were forced to buy cheaply.  Our families shopped the sales, so I think we could follow their example and buy our annual everyday clothes during the sales.

and now…

Since my transplant, I have been tracking my purchases, and I now know a pair of jeans lasts me about three years, and a t-shirt one year.  I don’t replace all my underwear, but I buy a couple of sets each year, and a couple of pairs of hiking socks – I have washed these on the delicate setting and they have made it through three years.  I spoke with a tailor last year (I wanted to have a suit made), and he said that a well made and cared for wool overcoat could last for 15 years, and a well made and cared for wool suit worn every day with bottoms dry cleaned fortnightly would last five to ten.  Of course, cheaper garments that are not so well made, of lesser quality materials what are not taken good care of will not last as long as these.

Our New Wardrobe Budget

So here’s the short version of what we have learned about clothing budgets:

  • 10% – 15% of NET (after tax) family income
  • split the budget 45% children – 30% main income producer – 25% other partner (or similar as your circumstances dictate)
  • spend two-thirds of the budget on everyday/working clothes
  • annual refresh socks/stockings, underwear, sportswear
  • buy your everyday clothes first – during the annual sales where possible
  • include an allocation for winter and/or summer wear if your climate requires this
  • include savings towards irregular big purchases such as overcoats
  • include dry cleaning and alteration costs

So what do you think about a spending plan?  Do you have anything as formal as this in place?  Do you think it would make a difference if you did?  Do you have any “Yes, but” questions?

[1] Wright, Helen Russell. 1932. “A Year’s Expenditures of Ten Railroad Laborers.” Social Service Review 6 (1): 55-82.

[2] Should you be interested in finding out about more recent purchasing behaviour, the modern survey equivalent is the Consumer Expenditure Survey conducted by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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