summer 07 tagHey Gents,

The other day before heading to the gym, I threw on a grey T-shirt.

(To be honest, it was a little holey. Not holy, mind you, but holey.)

I realized I’ve owned this particular tee for a while now, and out of curiosity, I checked the tag sewn into the side seam to see exactly how old it was.

The tag read “Sum ’07”.

The T-shirt is from Old Navy, and six years later, it’s still going strong.

This made me think… when is it okay to buy affordably? Are cheaper garments really not worth it to buy, or are people just saying that?

Why do we argue for quality over quantity?

Here are some of the common arguments I hear about choosing quality over quantity.

  1. “Quality lasts longer” (you assume you’re paying for durability and whatever goes into creating a long-lasting garment)
  2. “Quality is better” (produced ethically, better practices in the production cycle, though not always true)
  3. “Quality is cooler“, as it usually comes with a brand name, prestige, has history, etc. (Isaia vs. H&M)

Don’t get me wrong. Quality is important. One of the pillars of the Lean Wardrobe philosophy is to buy fewer but better things.

But when does it not really matter as much? When is it okay to buy a cheaper alternative?

This answer will change based on who you ask, and is totally dependent on each person’s lifestyle.

A few things to keep in mind

Here’s how I think of it. This is my thought process when it comes to new garments. Feel free to adopt and / or modify to better suit your situation.

  1. if you wear things out quickly (underwear, T-shirts, socks), buy mostly for affordability, and a few quality versions if you want
  2. if you’re trying out a new style, experimenting with a new look, or adopting a “trendier” piece, go with the more affordable version. You don’t even know if you’ll like it!
  3. if you’re buying a classic item for the first time, it wouldn’t hurt to go with something more affordable

Affordable vs Cheap: Is there a difference?

In a short answer, yes.

There’s a distinction to be made here. Shop affordably, but never go cheap just to save a couple bucks. In the long run, you lose money because you’re buying crap goods.

How do you buy affordably?

  • You can shop higher-end stores’ end-of-season sales.
  • You could find something you like that is full price, and then search for it online at a discounted price.
  • You can hunt for deals on eBay, Style Forum’s Buy and Sell thread, etc.

The guys at Put This On do a great eBay Roundup every week or so, and they also discuss eBay / online thrift shopping quite regularly.

Ultimately, you want to buy well-fitting clothing that you’ll love and wear, regardless of price, quality, or brand.

The first linen suit I owned was from H&M, and I paid $150 for it. Not necessarily top-notch quality, but that fact isn’t apparent to the casual observer. Why? Because I made sure I got that bad boy tailored and it fit flawlessly.

Here’s the bottom line

Well, a few bottom lines. But bear with me.

  1. Sometimes, we want to buy a quality item but we simply can’t afford it. If you can delay gratification, then do so, and wait until you’ve saved up for that great suit, pair of shoes, or whatever that item may be.
  2. If you can’t, and you need that item right away, then find a more affordable version. Know it will suit you well now, but you may have to replace it in the future. The better you take care of it, the longer it will last you.
  3. The general sentiment of buying fewer but better, or buying quality over quantity, can be hard to satisfy sometimes. I’m here to tell you it’s okay if you just can’t afford top quality stuff right now.
  4. If you take a long-term approach and view your grown man wardrobe as a work in progress, you won’t feel so rushed to have the best of everything right this instant.
  5. Don’t feel pressured to buy the best all the time, especially if you can’t afford it.
  6. Do the best you can with what you have, buy the best you can afford, and upgrade when necessary. Simple.

Question: when do you buy affordably, vs buying with long-lasting quality in mind?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s hear em!

PS – We’ll discuss these ideas and much more within the Cladright Association, a new members site I’m developing. If you like the stuff you read on EG, you’ll love Cladright. Sign up here and I’ll send you more info as soon as I can.

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27 Responses

  1. jbird669 on

    I can’t afford $150 shoes or a $750 suit. So I go to thrift store/ebay for sport coats/blazers and other items. Case in point, I got a great Jos. A Bank jacket at Goodwill. I got it tailored (didn’t need much) and I have a local Jos. A Bank by my office. I am getting matching pants at half price. So it’s a win-win!
    I usually wait until my shoes are about to fall off of my feet and get the highest quality I can afford at that time.

    • Barron on

      Thrifting is the way to go. I know a lot of guys who are great at thrifting and always find wonderful suits (I’m talking high-end European and Italian brands, or classic American brands). It depends on where you live of course. Glad you’ve had luck where you shop!

      • jbird669 on

        I have great stores where I am and I am also halfway between Philly and NYC. They have great thrift shops as well.

  2. jklooster on

    Great post B!
    I struggle with the balance between quality versus quantity. It seems like for me, in the long run, I get more satisfaction out of waiting and going the quality route than I do the faster quantity/affordable route. I just seem to appreciate the quality piece (fabric, feel, fit, ect.) more so and for longer time than the short term satisfaction I get from finding an affordable piece I can add to the wardrobe. Initially I’m happy and proud of the affordable piece I was able to find and incorporate quickly into my wardrobe but the novelty seems to wear off quickly. I then find myself wanting and looking to ‘upgrade’ that piece to something I feel is the best I can do.

    • Barron on

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I have to pick and choose my battles when it comes to stuff I just go the affordable route for, vs. the “save and wait” route.

      For big ticket items (suits, shoes, nice coats, watches) I definitely think it’s worth it to save and wait. For pieces I wear a lot, sometimes I don’t mind going the more affordable route (like I mentioned Uniqlo’s OCBDs in a comment above).

      Different strokes, I guess. 🙂

  3. Lou on

    Here’s an argument for buying affordable quantity: you can afford a greater variety of things, and, because you have more clothes to rotate through, you won’t quickly wear out any one individual piece, even if it’s a of lesser quality.
    For example, let’s say I have to choose between owning 8 Uniqlo OCBDs at $20 each or 3 Brooks Brothers OCBDs at $50 each. The Brooks ones probably last longer (let’s arbitrarily say you can get 250 wears out of each one before it needs to be replaced) but, assuming they’re your only OCBDs, you’re going to be wearing them much more often. If (again, arbitrarily) you can only get 100 wears out of each Uniqlo OCBD before it needs to be replaced, on aggregate you’re getting about the same number of total wears for your money, only with the Uniqlo OCBDs you have more to choose from, which gives you greater flexibility in terms of matching outfits and doing laundry.
    Quality does tend to look and feel a little better, so it’s preferable if you can afford it, but for me the way to go is with quantity as you’re building your wardrobe, and then, as pieces start needing replacement, replacing them with quality.

    • Barron on

      How something feels is a good point, and something to watch out for. If the fabric sucks, it definitely won’t be worth it. Again, it probably takes an educated buyer, and one becomes educated simply by experiencing and going through stuff.

      Speaking of Uniqlo OCBDs, I think those are my FAVORITE for the price point. They’re so affordable and I love how they fit, plus the roll on the collar is pretty decent. High five on that example.

  4. David on

    i like mixing it up as long as it looks good. I used to love getting the $18 dress shirts from Costco (quitenive, actually) and wearing it with an Hermes tie. Kind of a ying/yang thing.
    I can’t use the Costco shirts anymore since I’ve lost weight and they do not offer a slim cut. the “classic” is just too blousy for me.

    I love my $25 slim fit Old Navy jeans as much as my black Hugo Boss jeans that cost $120 on sale. HB is a little more formal, but the Old Navy looks great and seems to be well made.

    I got my first pair of Prada shoes last week at a Neiman Marcus sale. Regular $750, marked down to $250. Even at the sale price, it’s the most expensive shoes I’ve ever owned.

    Outlet stores are also good places for quality labels at lower prices. You have to know what you’re getting. Some, like Brooks Bros and Ralph Loren outlets have mostly goods made for the outlet stores. Others, like Prada and Burberry have overstock and last years fashions. I’ll buy from either one, but it’s good to know which is which.

    also, on line sites like MyHabit are great for good deals. Again, watch for the outlet like marketing.

  5. Sean on

    Would add:
    – Consider how likely you are to get the garment dirty or wrinkled & how much the cleaning/laundering/ironing/pressing will cost you in time, money and the lifespan of the item.
    – Whether you are the same size over long period of time or have fluctuations in body shape (weight loss/gain, muscle gain, etc.)
    – Being an “irregular” size where your choices may be more limited in the first place or where you have to add in tailoring or customization in the first place (making the more affordable stuff cost more to begin with).
    Also: affordable is not the same as quality. I have clothing that has lasted 10 & even 20 years that was affordable but from brands I knew to have quality production (and guarantees to stand behind any defects).

  6. Todd @ Fearless Men on

    I bought my fave all-time suit from Zara. I thought it was quality, but a bit of the seam of the upper left leg started coming undone pretty quickly (it was a quick fix). My question is, when you want to buy something less expensive, how do you ensure that it is of good quality (as cheap doesn’t always equal bad quality, and expensive doesn’t always equal good quality).

    Man, this article would do well in the Personal Finance blog circuit!

    • Barron on

      You could be somewhat safe and stick with brands that have a reputation for longevity and good quality, and shop with them during their sales. Or eBay.

      I would worry about quality more when it comes to higher-priced, important items, like shoes, suits, coats, and watches.

      It’s tough to say what brands are affordable (relatively) and also of good quality. I guess it takes a bunch of research and asking around… forums like Style Forum are great for that.

      If you don’t want to do all that work, over time, you’ll find out for yourself what brands work best for you. I would just stick with those, once you find them.

  7. guest on

    For me, it’s not the quality I have qualms about when buying from low end, mass produced, big business stores; it’s the business practices and fast fashion ethics that I hate about it.

    Places like Zara, H&M, Forever 21, etc. destroy what fashion houses and designers work their whole lives to create. They water down the artistic merit of the fashion created in the haute couture industry to produce cheap pieces sewn together by the hands of thousands of impoverished Asian children and women who are taken advantage of in large factories. And for what? To make their money? It destroys the fashion industry. It literally takes the ideas from designers, waters it down to create mainstream trendy pieces, and sells it off for pennies at the expense to both the designer and the people manufacturing the clothes for so cheap. Then these trendy pieces die out, and you have more fast fashion in a matter of months that the masses constantly buy into over and over again. It’s a vicious cycle.

    This isn’t much of a quantity vs. quality thing. For me, it’s a choice on ethics more so. That being said, I know most people who read this blog take fashion/style as a means to an end, and not *the* end, but as a fashion enthusiast who follows fashion blogs of all types, including the menswear collective, I thought I would throw in my two cents on the topic. I hope you understand where I’m coming from, Barron, seeing as you are the founder of a small clothing company yourself.

    • Barron on

      Yep, I understand where you’re coming from. I wrote a polarizing article on this a few months back, and I had pretty much the same argument.

      To be honest, I can see both sides of the coin. While our brand Fifth&Brannan is all produced locally, and we make sure to use fabrics from high-quality mills in Japan / Italy, I still wear stuff from Gap and H&M. Sometimes people don’t have other options because they’re limited by budget, or by the availability of selection where they live.

      I don’t think there’s a clear-cut right / wrong answer, though I definitely understand where your reasoning stems from.

  8. tug on

    this is a great article barron! thanks for writing it and broaching the topic.

    agreeing with @Todd here — i think the million dollar question is how to easily determine if a garment, regardless of prices, item is going to be longer-lasting (or of higher quality).

    let’s be totally honest, most garments are constructed (sewn, trimmed, embellished) pretty much the same way. of course there are outlier products that offer some unique detail, and even some that will explain how their items are constructed to be more durable, but in a typical shopping experience, how would you be able to tell if one shirt costing $120 is of actual higher quality and will be longer lasting than one $60? if you know the secret to figuring that out on the spot, please tell me. after 35+ years of shopping, i still cannot tell the difference.

    yes, one shirt or pant could be made of thicker material, but does that also equate to being more durable and longer-lasting? not necessarily — maybe that same thicker shirt or pant is more prone to staining.

    keep in mind — if the brand you are purchasing from is of a reasonable size (in revenues), they are very likely using a lower-cost workforce regardless of where they are located in the world. even garment manufacturing facilities in the united states are generally strategically located geographically in low-cost rent areas where they can recruit lower-cost workers. this is done to keep operating costs low/affordable. are those workers in the united states any more gifted than their equivalent in other countries? i really don’t think so. generalizing here of course, but i think it largely represents what’s happening.

    don’t misunderstand me either — i’m not referring to manufacturers who are employed in leveraging slave/child labor and offer poor working conditions. not only should we not buy from them out of principle alone, but their product quality would likely be sub-standard anyway. we just shouldn’t support them period.

    material quality (fiber content, knit, thread count, etc) is hard to determine with the naked eye in a store setting, so even if two different garments are constructed similarly, i struggle to believe that it would be easy to distinguish which one will be longer lasting.

    i also think the term “affordably” is subjective for logical reasons. if i’m making $600k a year, a $120 shirt would seem affordable to me — i suppose — as would a $50k car.

    when i shop for clothing/shoes, i usually prioritize my decision making based on several factors:
    1. brand affinity – if there’s a brand i really like, cost is usually not a big factor. though, i may not be able to purchase from them as often as i like.

    2. budget – i know what i have available to spend, plus i know how many items i would prefer to purchase. this guides me in figuring out what my max per item budget can be
    3. fit/look – how does the item fit and look on me. if the item that costs more fits me better or looks nicer on me, i would be more prone to consider buying it over the lesser priced one. of course that depends on how much more that higher-priced item costs.
    4. feel/comfort – probably just as important as #3, but a huge factor in my buying decision
    5. perceived quality/longevity — i can’t tell you the last time i actively wondered “how long will this item last me” when making a purchase. i might passively think about it, but at a certain number of wears, there’s a diminishing return on worrying if i’m going to get 70 wears or 100. i don’t know if i’d ever be able to tell the difference either at purchase time.

    just my two cents (:

    • Nicolas - Kinowear on

      Hi Tug,

      Regarding shirts I can’t really agree. It’s quite easy to do a rapid check-up on finishing touches.

      Whether the collar is rigid, how many sew points per cm, last button hole horizontal, mother of pearl buttons, hem gusset etc. Each of this details add more than two cents 😉 to the final price.

      Some experience is required of course to be able to distinguish the good from the bad.

      On this topic, see this article about making your own experience of high-end clothes.


    • Barron on

      Hey Tug,

      You’re right, it’s not easy telling the quality of a certain shirt by looking at it. I mean, there are some things to look for, but in general, it’s not that obvious. I like your list of priorities when shopping and I tend to follow a similar list. Perhaps I’m just becoming more a creature of habit as I get older, but once I find brands I love and have had good experiences with, I tend to stick to them.

      Appreciate the comment!

  9. DXLi on

    I apply the Pareto principle. 20% of your clothes make up 80% of your style. Pay more for that 20%. I buy relatively cheap OCBDs, undershirts, etc, but I don’t skimp on my shoes or my jackets.

  10. Eric on

    Cheap plimsoll shoes in place of flip flops. You can get a pair from Marshall’s or somewhere similar on clearance for the same price as a pair of flip flops.

  11. themodestman on

    Hey Barron – nice to hear a reasonable approach to this. I was in an Alden store the other day trying on a $600 pair of shoes when it occurred to me that I’d be okay going through life without spending that much on Oxfords, ever. Hell, my go-to shoes right now are an $80 pair of Bass bucks.

    I don’t think anyone should feel bad about hitting up stores like H&M, JCP, or using thrift or eBay for used items. As long as it fits (and you stop wearing it if it gets raggy).

    Items I would definitely splurge on: dark peacoat, charcoal or grey suit, one great pair of shoes (brown Allen Edmonds cap toes, perhaps…), blue OCBD.


    • Barron on

      Same here re: your splurge items. And even the concept of splurging is all relative, right? Like our splurges (e.g. $350 for AE cap toes) could be someone else’s H&M-level purchase, because they usually buy $1600 John Lobb shoes.

      Anyway, I don’t have a problem with the more affordable chain stores. Even for classic items like OCBDs and regular everyday chinos, in most cases, it’s hard to tell the difference.

  12. Elie on

    I pay more money for things which I get a return on my investment like shoes and suits. Suite I wear every week and if the style if conservative, the suit will last me forever and I will save money over time. The shoes I bought are cordovans and they will last me my lifetime. On the other hand, I could buy 100 dollar shoes every 1-3 years. It will take a while till I break even but I also like quality shoes. The calculation I make is, what is the cost difference and what difference would it make if I have the money in my bank account now. A few hundred dollars for shoes, when I am putting up 100 bucks every year or two, that’s a pretty quick return on my investment since I would be blowing the 100 relatively quickly. Plus, the 100 or 200 in my bank account won’t make the difference between paying my bills and not. However, to buy a new car or to lease, will take thousands more out of my pocket right now but it will be cheaper in other ways. The thousands of dollars that are not in my account right now will prevent me from paying my bills, so it ends up being more expensive, plus I don’t feel an urge to buy these things. But over time it’s cheaper since I don’t keep on having to bring my car to the mechanic. It’s a similar concept to a balloon mortgage. If the money now will get you somewhere, buy cheap now and you’ll be richer later from the money you have now and will use to get rich. If the money will just sit there, buy quality since you will be saving over time and taking the money out of your account now is the same as later since it does not affect the money you need at your disposal.

  13. David Lee Tong on

    There’s another view that I see when it comes to quality/quantity thing.

    While I agree that most items from stores like H&M/Zara/Top Man etc. don’t often last, they do have a lot of styles and designs not available with higher-end, mid-tier brands, however.

    Oftentimes, finding a really great looking jacket or slacks from these seasonal brands may be worth the purchase (especially on sale) and if you REALLY like how they look and fit, you can always head to your tailor and have them make one similar with better materials and workmanship.

    It sure is a better way to experiment if you’re the type who wants shake things up from time-to-time.

    • Barron on

      I agree, and I like this approach when experimenting new garment styles and looks. It never hurts to start affordably, and if you like a certain thing, to make it custom or find a higher-end, more quality version of it. Or, just buy multiples of the affordable version.

  14. Sopia Macy on

    I think cheap doesn’t means bad quality. Spend more money at luxury goods is not a good hobbit. I bought a hermes bag at macybags dot com with almost $300, but the quality is really great. That is the price I can afford. I wouldn’t spent more dollar on this.