How having no money forced me to find my own style

Edie Beale
Photography via Imdb
Edie Beale
Photography via IMDB

In 2012, I was poor. And not a over-romanticized, freewheeling, not-poor-at-all kind of poor: thanks to a series of horrible decisions (and story that defines “it’s a long one”), I’d found myself tens of thousands of dollars in debt and moving back home because I couldn’t afford to pay rent anymore. It was bleak. I’ve never seen Shame, but I’m 99% sure that what it’s about.

My parents are generous but we’ve never had a lot of money, so instead of helping me financially, they gave me my childhood room back rent-free. They asked me to start paying back what I owed the bank, which meant the small amount I was earning was going towards interest payments, and that’s about it. I was Annie in Bridesmaids and this was my bottom. And because mania-fuelled shopping was why I ascended to the True Poor throne in the first place (#glamour), there was no way to justify shopping to make myself feel better this time—unless, I figured, I bought cheap.

Shopping has always been a constant for me. Growing up, I’d hang out with my Lithuanian Nana, and she’d take me to the mall where she’d barter with store clerks for pieces she didn’t need just to see if she’d win. (And she did. Every time. Which is also probably why D’Allaird’s doesn’t exist anymore.) If I saw something I liked, she’d tell me that if I found it cheaper somewhere else, she’d buy it for me, and walking into her rammed closet was a testament to just how much you can get for a bargain. Only idiots paid full price, and I, goddamn it, was not idiot.

So I adopted that mantra. As a teen, I’d come home, proudly showing my mom just how much I got for $10, $20, or $30, and when I worked at the mall in my twenties, I’d do the same, filling my own closet with name brand sweaters I didn’t need, but saw on sale, and claimed as prizes.

Then, in 2009, my life changed. Skipping class one afternoon, my best friend took me to Value Village for the first time. And I, wide-eyed and kind of scared, found my new second home. Four years of retail had made me bored of mass-produced inventory, so after adopting thrift shopping as “my thing,” I’d go to my shift at American Eagle and brag to everyone about what I was wearing that wasn’t from there. I figured that I was special. And though I praised VV for its affordability, I used it to copy other people and to interpret mainstream fashion in a cheaper way.

In April of that year I was living at home, making less money than I did when I worked at McDonalds, and unbeknownst to my then-26-year-old self, I was still another year away from learning my spending was partially in fault of my brain’s wiring. So, with my new lack of income, I returned to Value Village, but with a new mindset: now, I had to shop there. And because I felt so lost in every other aspect of my life, I figured I could at least gain control using the types of clothes I bought.

So that’s when I began using second-hand pieces, sales, and stamp cards to create a wardrobe that, at the time, I felt was me. By autumn, I wanted nothing but to kill the girl who I felt was a failure, so I embraced the super-feminine pieces and vintage dresses that old me would’ve dismissed—and got them for $10 and $15 a pop.

High on these types of clothing finds, I began rejecting new things and chain stores completely. Anything over $20 was too expensive, so I’d create outfits I’d seen on TV (read: Mary Tyler Moore) with discounted pieces. I got creative: $50 for a new dress was obscene (that’s a minimum payment, people), so I’d look for similar styles at not-for-profits until I had a coupon. My shoes, my bags, and even my pajamas (that one time) were all used. But, unlike my story four years before, instead of lording thrifted goods over people who didn’t shop the way I did, I used them to fill a closet of clothes I felt strong in.

And it worked. Even though I felt like I was falling apart internally, finding and cultivating a style that made me look put together made me feel like I had more of a handle on things. That, and my style was mine. Sure, I’d see other women wear vintage dresses, I never chose to buy dresses because of those women. And when I looked at my closet, I saw pieces I could actually afford and that I felt good in, not pieces I’d bought and couldn’t remember why.

Now, in 2014, things have shifted again. While I still love dressing up and paying homage to nanas-in-their-twenties, I no longer feel like I have to kill a version of myself, because, frankly, she wasn’t so bad. After all, without her, I wouldn’t have been forced to find my own tastes thanks to a lack of bank balance. I also wouldn’t have learned to hunt for clothes as opposed to taking them for granted, and I learned to dress for myself – and only myself – because I didn’t have the money to just buy whatever.

I’m still far from financial bliss. But now I at least know now the money I do earn will go towards pieces that work with me.

Now, which stores accept bartering?

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