Debt-Free Holidays: Chic, Festive and Frugal Fashion

Woman shops for cocktail dresses at H&MThe magazines make it look so easy: You're invited to a fabulous party, so you throw open your walk-in closet, pluck out a new $300 dress and float off to an evening of sparkling conversation and gently clinking glasses. As if.

In reality, we can't help you avoid running into your boss or your ex next to the onion dip, but WalletPop's in-house experts (plus a designer sales manager) can help you look good while doing it -- without breaking the bank.One easy way to add holiday festivity to your wardrobe is with something inexpensive and sparkly, says WalletPop's Bonnie McCarthy. "Festive frugal seems even easier to achieve this year since sequins and glitter are making a statement across the board," she observes.

"I've seen cute, sequined tops for under $20 at Target, and similar prices and styles at Kohl's," she says. "Layer it under a jacket, or wear it with great jeans and heels -- just make sure the jeans are long enough -- and you're good to go."

"I bought my own winter coat, and one of the two holiday party dresses I'll buy this year, at my neighborhood consignment store," says WalletPop's Tara-Nicholle Nelson. "I probably saved in the $500 range on the two items, based on similar items' online prices, and hard-core negotiator-slash-frequent-customer that I am, I got the owner to throw in a Banana Republic raincoat!" Nelson hits on two key tips embraced by thrift-store devotees: Go often, and don't be afraid to haggle.

When it comes to holiday clothes for the kids, the challenge can be greater because there's a good chance they won't fit into a single piece of any outfit they wore last year. Clothing swaps are a good place to find low-cost looks for them, too, points out WalletPop's Teresa Ciulla. "Swap! It's the best way to save money," she says, adding that she swaps fancy dresses for the holidays with "some of the moms I know who have girls either my girls' age or size."

Thrift stores are also a good option for finding quality, gently used clothes for kids, many WalletPoppers point out. "You have to put in some looking, some return visits, but you'll find worn-once fancy items for your kids with a little persistence," promises WalletPop's Julie Tilsner. "I've found black dress shoes for my son's winter choral concerts, black dress pants, pretty frilly things for my daughter when she was younger and nice winter coats as well. I don't think I've ever bought a dress-up item at a retail store."

What if you don't have kids - but you're expecting one? Caitlan Bose, sales manager at Elie Tahari in Central Valley, N.Y., says it was a struggle to be both stylish and budget-conscious last holiday season when she was six months pregnant. "What saved my life was TopShop and H&M, which make maternity lines. I loved Target, too," she says. These lower-priced retailers have designers working with the current styles for their other lines, she points out. As a result, the maternity clothing is trendy and up-to-date.

"I lived in leggings and a tunic top, or wrap dresses, since they accentuate your collarbone," Bose says. She adds that she invested in a nice pair of leather riding boots, since they would be comfortable throughout her pregnancy and could dress up even casual clothes like leggings.

Even if you're not sporting maternity couture, Bose says that relying on accessories during the holidays can make you look festive and dressy without a big investment. "I always just change my jewelry," she says. Hit the low-priced mall chains -- Bose likes Forever 21 -- for trendy looks that can update the rest of your wardrobe for just a few bucks. "They're on point with the feather earrings, stackable bracelets and cocktail rings that are big right now," she points out. Wear them for the season, then give them to the kids in your life to play dress-up with.

As WalletPop's Tom Barlow says, there are even options out there for people who just have to have the latest designer fashion. "There's the possibility of renting fancy clothing," he points out. Even Oprah has featured this low-cost way to look like a fashion plate.

The cost of dry-cleaning all that fancy party gear can be steep, too. But as Nelson points out, some items that are labeled "dry clean only" can actually be hand washed, gently, with a soap such as Woolite. (Test on an inconspicuous part of the garment first.) In addition, keep your eyes out for coupons that your local dry cleaner might offer; Ciulla says that she scored a deal for $60 that yielded $500 in savings.

Finally, one WalletPopper points out that many of us may be overthinking our sartorial decisions during the holidays. "When it comes to getting dressed up for the annual office party or holiday open house, I don't think an entirely new outfit is always required," says McCarthy. "Do you think anyone is really going to remember if you wore that black dress last year? If it still looks great, some glamorous red lipstick and the perfect nail polish may be all you really need. To quote my mother-in-law, 'If you're having fun, they'll never see past your smile.' "

Now that you're all dressed up, want to learn how to make the rest of your holidays debt-free?
See our other articles in this series on food, shopping, entertaining, decorating, travel, and cards and invitations.
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