Closet Math: Defining ‘Enough’ in Order to Do Good

Photo by Jon Yu

Like any self-respecting, globally conscious, middle class white girl, I feel guilty about the things I have. I try not to think about children in Kenya as I slip on my Kenneth Cole boots or homeless Americans as I prance around in my Lucky Brand jeans.

I give to charity, but I don’t want to look like a street person myself. Is there middle ground between excess and deprivation?

The answer might just be in controlling the closet and raising your standards. Yes, I said raising. Come with me as I do some closet math.

I don’t have one of those ginormous walk-in closets that are all the rage now, the ones with a rest stop halfway in and their own Starbucks at the back. I cram my wardrobe into a midcentury post war closet and a dresser.

Yet, I have more than plenty. Last year, I took inventory. Literally. I counted:

  • 42 T-shirts or T-shirt like shirts (8 slight variations on black, 6 very similar brown and 4 red)
  • 14 Nicer blouses (The cool kind, cute plaids and pin-tucked linen)
  • 19 Sweaters (4 more slight variations on black, 4 more similar brown, 3 red)
  • 9 Cute coat-y things (including leather jackets and menswear suitcoat jackets)
  • 4 Rockin’ Blue Jeans (plus two that are waiting to be hemmed and have been for probably two years)
  • 4 Other colored jeans (2 white, 1 grey, 1 black)
  • 9 Non-Jeans Pants (corduroy, cargo pants, basic black, grey trousers)
  • 7 dresses
  • 11 skirts
  • 5 Pairs of Boots (Not including snow boots)
  • 13 pairs of other shoes (everything from running shoes to three inch stilettos)

So that’s a grand total of 56 basic tops and 28 bottoms.

And that’s just winter clothes. My summer clothes were packed away. For simplicity’s sake, I did not count fancy-pants outfits for special occasions, like the gowns I wear to an occasional black tie event (my man looks good in a tux).

The inventory covers casual and work clothes, which for me as a movie critic, have a big overlap. My work fashion standard is Hollywood-cool, all runched jeans that look like they they’ve been run over by a tractor but really cost $350, super-skinny designer t-shirts, and mile-high heels.

I rarely meet that standard. Unlike Kim Kardashian, I cannot justify spending that kind of money, no matter how hard I try.

But I digress. Let’s get to the closet math.

56 shirts and blouses x 28 various pants and skirts = 1568 possible outfits out of my closet.

Let’s say, to be fair, that only ten percent of those are something someone would actually, you know, put together. That’s still 156 outfits.

Add in the 19 sweaters and 9 cute coat-y thingies: 156 x (19+9) =4368 possible outfits. Apply the ten percent rule and that’s 436 outfits.

Winter is only about 90 days long.

So I had 436 outfits for 90 days. Those extra 346 outfits seem a bit silly.

Then I used math to figure out what was enough. (Who says you never use math after college?)

Laundry every 14 days (more or less)…some cushion…allowance for variety…carry the two…multiply by pi…I came up with 40 days worth of clothing per season. For me, that meant 10 pants, five skirts, 30 tops and 25 sweaters and/or cute coat-y thingies.

The key here is finding a limit, any limit, to mindlessly buying clothes. Hey, we have to wear clothes, no matter what the hippies said, and we might as well look fabulous doing it while being good stewards of our resources.

Can it be possible to pare down the wardrobe and look better than ever? I think so. It’s all about choosing quality over quantity.

Here are the rules of thumb that have helped me.

First – this may seem obvious but is hard on women- get rid of things that don’t look good. Is it stained? Out. Does it not fit? Out. Does it fit but have shoulder pads from the ‘80s? Out. Wrong color for my skin type? Out.

Get rid of the things you settle for when your favorite things are dirty. For me, that meant paring down to the two best black t-shirts.

Whatever number you’ve chosen as your limit, pick the best. I picked the 10 best pants that flattered me and looked good with my other things.

Secondly, when you buy something new, get rid of something old. Setting a limit for yourself makes you truly reflect if the new thing will be better than the old thing. You can’t have both, so you have to pick one. I think the act of having to choose keeps us from spending frivolously.

Third, stop saving the good stuff. Some of my best clothing used to languish at the back of the closet while I wore ill-fitting, bad looking clothes, waiting for a good reason to wear the pretty thing. What are you waiting for? Dare to look your best all the time. Except when painting the house. Then wear the torn-worn stuff, the one (and only one) work shirt you saved in the purge.

Fourth, try everything on before buying and reject things that aren’t perfect. Let me reiterate: PERFECT. Not almost perfect or well-priced or on sale or just needing a little adjustment (unless you’re a seamstress), but perfect. You shouldn’t buy it unless it gives you that “I can’t wait to wear this!” feeling.

Be ruthless.

Fifth – and this is the fun part-choose quality over quantity. Lucky Brand jeans are way more expensive than Old Navy jeans, but they look oh-so good. Because I’m not buying six pairs, I can spend more on the Lucky Brand and actually spend less money over all. (Plus, I buy on sale but that’s another blog.)

Finally, by limiting myself, I can choose to be content with what I have and not spend money mindlessly. It’s about setting up structures to live within a certain goal. This is a spiritual discipline the church calls good stewardship and which I am still learning. I control my spending, at least in theory. It does not control me. I choose to have money left for other things.

Which means there will be more to give to those Kenyan street children and downtown homeless shelters.

Plus, we’ll save money by not having to build a bigger closet.

Speaking of homelessness, Steve Hass has a fantastic post on choosing to see and engage the homeless over at The Salt Shaker.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a movie critic. Check out her work on Rotten Tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • E CB V

    Yes! Yes! Yes! European women have known this forever! It’s not how new your clothes are that matters; it’s how well they fit and how you wear them. You just have to bite the bullet every once in a while (!) because well-constructed clothes last and last and last. Lucky us; we live in an age not governed by “what hemlines are doing this year”. It’s SO worth $$$ to look at feel “Versace” good every time you step out (in clothes that you don’t have to worry about or second guess every time you put them on or keep adjusting because they shift into sloppiness the minute you move). Looking like a knock-out in a 15-year old coat rocks. Besides, I hate to shop! And all that money you save while looking so great? You can spend just a little of it on a haircut that works (even while it’s growing out between cuts) and face cream that is worth applying (because, Lord willing, your face will outlast whatever clothes you buy). A small but well-fitting wardrobe is a great way to simplify your life and ultimately save a lot of money.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      “because, Lord willing, your face will outlast whatever clothes you buy” – Ha! Too funny. I do hope that.

  • Alison Hodgson

    Clothes is my one area of natural minimalism. I am not a shopper, so that helps as does my eternal hope that I’m about to lose fifteen pounds. With my sister’s help I had built up a small but good wardrobe which I enjoyed until someone burned my house down a year and a half ago.

    In rebuilding the house itself I have neglected to rebuild my wardrobe. This became clear over the holidays as I scrabbled to pull together a couple of “Holiday Casual, no jeans please” outfits. All I wear is jeans!

    Thanks for the post, Rebecca. What you are suggesting is the sartorial version of William Morris’ golden rule, “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.” It’s a good reminder for me as I replace my wardrobe and the rest of my belongings.

  • Ellen Painter Dollar

    The “quality over quantity” thing is something I’ve tried to do in other areas of life too, such as with furniture, appliances, that sort of thing. As cool as the living rooms in an Ikea catalog look, I’ve usually chosen to save up for a really well-built couch instead of buying something less expensive that will be falling apart in five years and sitting on my curb waiting to be taken to a landfill. Because quality is nearly always more expensive, this philosophy also forces you to delay gratification so you can save your pennies. Which, in itself, is probably a good discipline, plus sometimes the time lapse helps you eventually realize that you don’t really need/want whatever it is you were saving for.

    I wonder, though, about whether buying kids’ clothes requires a different philosophy, because they grow out of them so fast? I never buy anything from Old Navy for myself, but I find it’s a great place to get basics for my kids because they’ll only be able to wear them for a season. Although on the other hand, buying nicer kids’ clothes has allowed me to pass some items from kid to kid, and eventually to other families. You can’t do that with a cheap Old Navy tee that falls apart after one season.

    Great post. Thanks!