Here’s How a Simple Formula Can Help You Be a Smarter Clothes Shopper

TPH writer Grace Schweizer walking on a sidewalk
TPH writer Grace Schweizer provides a simple math formula to figure out an item’s cost per wear. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

In my never-ending quest to simplify my life, my closet and (most importantly) my budget, I’ve been spending more money than usual on clothing.

I know that sentence sounds counterintuitive, but I promise you it’s not.

Right now, rather than focusing on amassing an overflowing wardrobe consisting of an inexpensive variety of items (my usual MO ever since throwing in the towel on my capsule wardrobe project a couple of years ago), I’m focusing on making fewer and more intentional, purchases — even if it means I have to spend a little more up front sometimes.

But that’s the whole idea: Rather than shelling out again and again for cheap pieces that will fray, tear, shrink, unravel and fade after a few wears, I’ll pay more for clothes that will last longer, feel better and actually earn a spot in my closet by eventually achieving a low cost per wear.

But What Is Cost Per Wear?

Cost per wear is a general rule that the more uses (or wears) you can get out of an item, the better your investment.

For clothing, that rule translates to the cost per wear.

The cost per wear of an item can be found by doing a little guesstimation and a little (the horror!) math.

To find an item’s cost per wear, you first have to estimate about how many times you’ve worn the item (or, if you’re shopping, how many times you think you will wear the item). Then, you take the original price, divide that by how many times you’ve worn or will wear it and that is your cost per wear.

OK, so the math isn’t that difficult.

As an example, let’s look at my favorite pair of black jeans. I bought them at Gap for $18 several years ago. (I scored an awesome sale price — those are usually $80 jeans!)

TPH writer Grace Schweizer posing outside
Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

I guesstimated (conservatively) that I’ve worn those jeans two times per week for the past seven years, meaning I’ve worn them about 728 times. If I divide the price I paid by the number of times I’ve worn them, I get 0.02 — or 2 cents per wear. (And they’re still going strong!)

That might be the best clothing investment I’ve ever made (at least it is if we’re looking strictly at the numbers), but I did get lucky with a low sale price on a quality product. Still, the cost per wear of a full-priced pair would have come out to about 11 cents — still not a bad deal.

What to Consider When It Comes to Cost Per Wear

There are two things you should always consider when factoring out a cost-per-wear.

First, the quality. Will this item last through multiple washes and wears? Will it keep its shape and color? Will the fabric hold up?

Say you’re looking at two black sweaters in a similar style, a high-quality one priced at $50 and a low-quality one priced at $15.

If you could end up getting 200 wears out of the pricier one but only 20 wears out of the less expensive one before it starts to unravel or shrink, your cost per wear of the more expensive sweater would end up being lower, thereby giving you the better value.

The other thing to consider when working out the cost-per-wear of an item seems like an obvious one, but I’m guilty of skipping over it when I spy a really good sale.

That other factor? Considering whether or not you even like the item.

Avoid the Low Cost-Per-Wear Trap

What you don’t want to do with the cost-per-wear formula is use it to justify buying up all the sale items just because they may ultimately have a low cost per wear (even if you only wear them a few times).

That shirt you found on the sale rack for $7.50 might seem like a great buy, but if you get it home only to let it hang in your closet for months on end between wears because you liked the price more than the shirt itself, that sale price is meaningless.

You don’t want to end up forcing yourself to wear something you dislike just because you feel obligated to bring down the cost per wear, and you don’t want to have to stare at a shirt you hate because you let a formula trick you into buying something you wouldn’t have looked twice at had it been full price.

Ultimately, if you don’t like the way an item of clothing looks on your body, you won’t end up getting any use out of it. So if a quality shirt that makes you feel like a hundred bucks is a little more expensive than the one that came from the 75% off rack but sits in your closet because you hate the way it drapes, it might be worth it in the long run to invest in the pricier shirt.

Still, just like with my jeans, you can luck out by scoring a low sale price on a piece of clothing you know you’ll wear for years to come and love the fit of — and that’s the sweetest of victories.

Cost Per Wear Isn’t a Hard and Fast Rule

Either way, achieving a low cost per wear isn’t always the end-all, be-all — it’s more like a handy tool to have around when you’re considering a major purchase (or even just browsing the sale racks).

There will still be times when I buy a dress for an event knowing I’ll only get a few wears out of it — and that’s OK! The idea behind cost per wear is having a tool that will help me stop to think and make sure I’m making the purchase because it’s the right move for me and not because a sale tag caught my attention.

Plus, there’s no real threshold that your clothes’ cost per wear needs to hit. It’s totally up to you what your target cost-per-wear number looks like. The cost-per-wear formula is really just a way to evaluate and retrain your shopping habits as you strike your own balance between quality and quantity.

So, for a girl who used to love loading up on trendy, fast fashion but is trying her best to find that balance, the cost-per-wear formula is a really helpful guideline to know.

Grace Schweizer is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder.