Steal, Staple, Splurge

How to build your most digestible wardrobe.

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You wouldn’t know this from reading The Joint Account, but I (Heather) am a professional shopper. Well, I fall short of professional, but I am a skilled shopper. Quite skilled. As a fourth-generation curator of the retail arts, I’ve learned the best ways to navigate difficult dress codes, diverse body types, and even hostile shopping environments.

Yes, I’ve stood in a three-hour line for the elusive Tory Burch sample sale back when their flats were something worth elbowing strangers for. I’ve nearly cried over the joy of finding a Vince leather jacket with tags at my favorite designer consignment store. I’ve struck gold on the most exclusive Target collabs. Admittedly, I’ve even had a fraud alert placed on my Bloomingdale’s credit card while shopping in the store, because I bought too much stuff at once. (It was Back to School season—leave me alone.)

You see, I’m an everything shopper for everyone in my life. I am neither cheap nor elitist in the items I seek, and everyone receives the same treatment. But I’m not going to dismiss how much harder it’s gotten in our current phase of life. The girls grow like beanstalks. Douglas and I no longer grow (willingly) but have emerged from the pandemic in a sort-of existential crisis, our closets stocked with clothes from four years ago that no longer fit the bill for our professional lives, our social lives, or the fact that we’re both almost forty (eek). And I know we’re not alone.

Unless you’re a 6’5” blue-eyed finance bro with a closet full of branded vests, you’ve probably experienced what we’re going through. If you haven’t, you will. I believe that some needs, like clothing, feel cyclical: one year you’re totally covered and the next you feel like you can shovel your entire closet into garbage bags. It’s overwhelming at any stage of life, but I’m particularly feeling it now, when I’m strapped for time and navigating the abyss of online shopping feels somewhat impossible without a gameplan.

There’s also the price factor: I don’t know when a summer dress started going for $500, but here we are. As with the rising costs of any goods, sticker shock for the average consumer is real. At least stretching the lifespan of our expensive groceries feels like a noble pursuit. Clothing and fashion seem much more discretionary, though I question the alternative: abstinence? Wearing the skinny jeans that Gen Z ripped us for on TikTok? I’m not ashamed to care about looking cool, but I also have principles when it comes to how I spend our money.

Mentally, I need a strategy to avoid both ends of the shopping pendulum: blowing too much cash or shutting down and giving up. Note, I call it a strategy—not a budget—because I’m not placing numeric limits on any one item. I’d rather have a framework to live by than a restriction I’m constantly making exceptions around.

You’ve probably heard the terms splurge and steal before. I can’t claim them as my own, but I do use them as the bread for my style sandwich. In between, I place the staples.

Before I describe the three buckets in greater detail, I think it’s important to note that unlike the approach of some style bloggers, I know the bucket I am shopping in before I begin. I’ve already assigned items to their buckets, so that when I’m in the hot zone, there’s usually no waffling over making decisions that aren’t aligned with my principles. For example, all blazers are allowed to be splurges. All workout tank tops should be steals. This simplifies the process and facilitates making purchases I won’t regret.

Now, let’s make a sandwich.

Steals are like flings: you might care for a minute how they look or make you feel, but there’s little expectation they will survive for the long term. At the right price point, they don’t need to. Yes, I poo poo fast fashion for its poor quality and abysmal labor practices, but somewhere in the murky depths of what you find ethical, you can draw your own lines.

I look for steals when I am buying peak fashion trends that could be gone by the same season next year. I also look for steals when I’m browsing colors or patterns that are memorable enough for me to grow sick of them fast. Most importantly, you should not waste a ton of money on items that will get worn or ruined quickly regardless of how well you care for them.

My steals: going out tops (because I’m a spiller!), athletic shirts (because sweat stains), super-wide-leg pants (because JNCO has my heart and they won’t be trending for long), anything for a beach or a pool (because chlorine and sand and rough surfaces everywhere), etc.

Staples are the belly of the sandwich! They are the centerpiece around which everything else exists, like a button-down shirt you can build multiple outfits with. These tried-and-true items should offer comfort and durability. You might even go back and purchase in more than one colorway, because you know what you’re getting, and you know you’ll love it. To be a staple, fit and feel matter most of all.

My price point for staples has risen steadily over the years. I still always make a valiant effort to find discounts and sales, but I don’t hyper fixate on it. Some brands rarely put their best staples on sale, and that shouldn’t turn you off from buying something you know will have a versatile, lasting impact on your wardrobe.

My staples: jeans, sweaters, solid tops, work pants, casual shoes, athletic bottoms, undergarments (ladies, you know what I mean), etc.

Splurges have their place, too. Don’t feel as though you’re not worthy of them. I think it’s very easy, as parents whose kids’ expenses are piling up or anyone who is staring down their competing financial priorities, to discredit the value of a splurge-worthy piece. But for the right purpose, they can carry significant meaning. Let’s focus on those.

I believe that splurges should be visible. They should be items you use often that feel rather timeless or that mark special occasions. A nearly identical item you can purchase generic at a lower price point probably isn’t worth splurging on. But let’s be real: a brand that commands a room might be. I have a handbag that I purchased for myself following a tough work situation. Every time I carry it, I think of how I got it; how much it matters.

In this discussion, nothing’s more subjective than what’s worth splurging on. Only you know what’s worth it. But splurges should make you understand the term, I feel like a million dollars, which sounds cliché, but when you feel it, you know. It’s fleeting and magical. It’s everything you want it to be.  

My splurges: handbags, watches, jewelry, outerwear, suiting/blazers, year-round dress shoes, etc.

If peeping inside my closet still leaves you wondering how you’ll put a strategy into practice, I feel for you. We wouldn’t need a gameplan if it wasn’t so hard. One final tip is not to sleep on the apps for your favorite stores and brands. Many have great functions for sorting, filtering, and saving your favorites that work much better than the web browser; or you know, crying in the dressing room of a department store, which I’ve never done. Ever. I swear.

Tell me about your splurges, staples, and steals: [email protected].   


  • Heather is full-blown freaking over being featured in The Skimm’s Money newsletter this week, where she shared a few thoughts about credit scores and the mortgage application process.

  • Douglas wrote this piece for Investopedia on how he talks to clients about budgeting for summer travel!

  • He also issued a word of caution in this CNBC article on why it’s important to stick to long-term investment strategies despite the market reaching all-time highs.


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The content shared in The Joint Account does not constitute financial, legal, or any other professional advice. Readers should consult with their respective professionals for specific advice tailored to their situation.