Business Travel Wardrobe on a Budget

a black dress on a mannequinIt’s happened to so many of us. You’ve landed a job right out of school, and realized you can’t wear yoga pants and tee-shirts to work. Or you just had a baby and need a transitional wardrobe until your old clothes fit you again. Or (as happened to one unfortunate person on a message board I frequent) your husband accidentally dropped off your dry cleaning bag at Goodwill. You need a work wardrobe, and you need it on a budget. The variables increase when your job includes travel. I’m going through this right now, and while it’s fun (hooray shopping!) it’s also stressful having to start from scratch. Here are some tips for getting a business travel wardrobe on a budget, as well as a sample capsule wardrobe to start with. (For more in depth advice, check out my Building a Business Travel Wardrobe series.)

Prepare to spend a little time. Any time you have a budget, you have to spend a little more time planning and searching. That’s okay! It means you will get the absolute most for your money.

Professional, comfortable, and wrinkle-free. These are the most important features of any business travel wardrobe.  Obviously you want to look professional, but comfort is just as important. Any time you spend hours traveling to your destination comfort is key! And once you arrive, you certainly don’t want to waste your precious time ironing.

Shop the sales and outlet malls. Nordstrom has fantastic sales on really nice merchandise.  I also love the sales at Talbots and Ann Taylor. Likewise, outlet malls can have amazing deals. The catch: it takes a lot of time to comb through the rough to find the diamonds.

Sign up for email lists. The best way to find out if your favorite store is having a sale is by email. Before I signed up for Banana Republic’s email list, I never knew they regularly had 40% off the entire store. Talk about a great deal!

Spend the bulk on basics. Definitely spend more on slacks and skirts that you’ll wear over and over again, and less on tops and accessories. Also make sure those items are a neutral color that will go with everything you buy.

Discount stores are great for trends. Target and Old Navy always have fun tops and belts for low prices, plus amazing sales on a regular basis.

For a basic business travel wardrobe, I would start with the following:

Two bottoms. I would start with a pair of slacks and a skirt, but two pairs of slacks work too. Buy neutrals with stretch that are no-iron. These a woman in a black skirtblack wide leg slacks from Old Navy are a low price option, and this pencil skirt from Ann Taylor is a solid basic on sale.

Cardigan. A critical layering piece! Get a solid color that coordinates with as many of your tops as possible. Target has a ton of great options for under $25.

Four to six tops. The only requirements here are comfort and wrinkle free. Other than that, go crazy! (Love this purple top from Target. I would pair with gray slacks and a yellow necklace.)

Two pairs of shoes. You definitely want two pairs, as wearing one pair every day can end up quite painful. I prefer flats, and recommend a purple shirt with a patternneutrals that match your bottoms. I have a pair I bought from Old Navy four years ago that I still wear all the time (similar to these black ballet flats).

Accessories. Don’t neglect the extras—they pull together an outfit, making it look like you spent way more than you did. A statement necklace, some earrings, and a belt are a good place to start.

If you have a little more to spend:

Another bottom. It’s always nice to have options! Get another skirt or pair of slacks in a different color neutral, or maybe a pinstripe.a close-up of a shoe

Jersey dress. They are great—they pack well, are super comfy, and can look very professional. Note: not all jersey is created equal, so make sure it’s thick enough to conceal everything you want hidden. I love Boden for jersey (like this classic black dress), but it’s pricey so look for sales.

Fun shoes. Since you’ve got your neutral shoes, get a pair to have some fun with. Red? Purple? Hot pink?? Yes, please!! (This plaid ballet flat is perfectly cozy, just in time for fall.)

Readers, where is your favorite place to shop for bargains?

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  1. Any recommendations for “trade show” shoes? Those concrete floors are so hard on your feet and most flats don’t offer enough cushioning or support.

  2. Trade shows are so hard! For shorter ones I’ve just added gel soles to my normal comfy flats. For longer ones I like flats by athletic companies. They are definitely sportier than your typical work shoe, but if anyone judges you for wearing good shoes during a trade show they’re a jerk IMO 🙂

    I like these by Puma a lot:,dsw12cat460004

    I also like more “comfort” brands like Clarks and Easy Spirit.

  3. My absolute favorite “trade-show” shoes are my White Mountain Loafers. I found them on for around $25.

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