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How to find clothes for graduation and balls on a budget

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Hoping to dress for a big event on a small budget? With these tips, you shall go to the ball. And you'll look great while you're there.

Couple dancing

Credit: Roman Samborskyi – Shutterstock

There will be plenty of times when you'll need to dress up at uni. From balls to dinners to graduation, you'll want to look your best.

But, there's no point spending loads on a formal outfit and leaving it to collect dust in your cupboard until the next clear-out. There are loads of great ways to cut down on the cost of your formal clothes, while making sure the outfits are worn, and loved, again.

Thankfully, you really can look and feel a million dollars without breaking the bank. Here's how.

We've got loads more money-saving tips for end-of-year events in our podcast. Give it a listen for tips on how to save money on nights out, cheap cocktail recipes, weird drinking games and more.

5 tips to save money on black-tie outfits

Here are the best ways to find cheap and stylish formal clothes for balls:

  1. Shop in sales for formal wear far in advance

    When thinking about what to wear to formal events, it's key to start planning your outfit way in advance.

    To get cheap formal clothes, try shopping on discount days like Black Friday, Boxing Day or the January sales.

    The key to finding the best deals on discount days is to focus on shops with ball gowns or suits that fit your style. Then, when the sales open, you'll know where to look to get your perfect black-tie outfit or cocktail dress.

    Also, keep an eye on fashion sites with frequent sales throughout the year, like ASOS, to find discounts on formal wear. Even if they don't have anything that you like when you look, look again (and again) until you find the outfit for you.

    Don't forget to look at the sales at sustainable fashion stores, too. You can find some great eco-friendly bargains.

    And, of course, use your student discount when possible for added reductions.

  2. Re-wear old formal outfits

    Pile of clothes with top saying nothing to wear

    Credit: luanateutzi – Shutterstock

    Universities usually have at least one ball a year. And buying new clothes for each one is really going to eat into your Maintenance Loan.

    If you've already got a black-tie outfit in your wardrobe that you love, why deprive yourself of re-wearing it?

    It might feel like a fashion faux pas to wear the same outfit to more than one event. But, even if anyone notices, they're very unlikely to care (we promise). After all, they're probably doing the same thing.

    To refresh an old ball outfit, you can try upcycling your clothes to give them a new look. This way, if you really don't want to be seen in the same get-up on Instagram twice, you can change the whole style of the outfit at no extra cost.

    And, better yet, your upcycled formal clothes would be truly unique (and cheap!).

  3. Rent an affordable formal outfit

    For times when you want to go all out with your black-tie outfit, but you know you'll never wear it again, it's a good idea to rent clothes for the night. Just be careful with the red wine...

    Moss Bros is great for suit hire, with some tuxedos available to rent from around £80.

    Just note, though, that Moss Bros only offers student discount on suits that they're selling, not renting. If you're keen to get your student discount, Burton also does suit rental and their 10% student discount can be used too.

    You can find loads more great sites (including plenty where you can rent dresses and other womenswear) in our full guide to the best clothes rental services.

  4. Borrow black-tie clothes from friends and family

    It's definitely worth chatting to friends and family members who share your dress size. If they don't mind you having a little search through their wardrobe, you could find some real stand-out pieces to borrow.

    Your housemates are probably the best ones to ask about this (one of the many reasons you should live with friends at uni).

    The same applies to shoes. There's no point splashing out on a pair of heels or dress shoes that you're unlikely to wear again. By borrowing outfits, you can get suited and booted for free.

    After borrowing from your nearest and dearest, you can return the favour when they have formal events by lending them something of yours.

    If you haven't already, it's worth checking out our guide to the best websites for swapping your stuff. Sharing is caring.

  5. Find an outfit that you can dress down

    woman holding a clutch

    Credit: MRProduction – Shutterstock

    There are only so many times you can dress up as smartly as you do at uni balls. So, try to find an outfit you can get away with dressing down with a casual jacket and shoes after the ball.

    Maybe think about a shirt you can wear with jeans, or a dress you can throw a jumper over to get loads of use out of them, past the one night.

    Obviously, it will be tricky to make your outfit more casual if you need to wear floor-length gowns and tuxedos for the ball. But, if the dress code asks for cocktail dresses and more casual suits, you can get your money's worth if you pick carefully.

Not sure where to look for your formal clothes? Check out the top online fashion stores for students.

5 tips to save money on graduation outfits

These are the top ways to find the perfect graduation clothes on a budget:

  1. Find a graduation outfit you can wear to interviews

    Cash might be tighter than usual after graduation when your Student Loan stops and you need to find a job. So, if your graduation outfit is versatile and also appropriate for job interviews, it'll help you save money in the long run.

    Plus, once you get a graduate job, this outfit can also save you when you're stuck on what to wear to work. The possibilities are (nearly) endless.

    To find a graduation outfit that you can re-wear, again and again, keep it simple. Maybe resist the temptation to get a real show-stopping number and ask yourself: "could I get a job in this?"

  2. Stay open-minded about your graduation outfit

    There isn't usually a super strict dress code for graduation outfits. So as long as it's smart and you feel comfortable, there are loads of options you could try.

    When buying clothes for graduation, if you have an exact idea of the kind of item you want, it can be costly. This is because, when you finally see something that matches the idea in your head, it's hard to let it go. You feel like you have to get it and will be tempted to spend more.

    By shopping with an open mind, you might find a surprising winner that looks great and isn't too pricey.

  3. Keep your graduation outfit simple

    graduates hugging

    You'll obviously want to feel good about your graduation outfit. But, it's worth remembering that you'll be covered in a gown most of the day! You don't have to wear a completely dazzling outfit to look the part.

    If you find a simple, affordable dress or suit, you can look great and feel even better knowing your bank balance hasn't suffered much in the process.

  4. Re-wear old shoes for graduation

    Some heels and dress shoes can cost a small fortune. There's no point buying them for the sake of it.

    That walk along the stage to get your degree is scary enough without the added discomfort of wearing new shoes. Trust us, it's NOT worth the risk of wearing shoes that could make you slip or trip over.

    Do you own a pair of shoes that are comfy, easy to walk in, and look respectable enough for graduation? If so, these could be your best option.

    Or, if you really do want a new pair of shoes for graduation, check out our fashion deals and our guide to buying cheap shoes. We've found some top discounts you wouldn't want to miss.

  5. Buy a second-hand graduation outfit

    Charity shops have made a bit of a comeback with students as they're often filled with vintage gems at bargain prices.

    If you struggle to find a treasure among the packed clothes rails, check out our guide to charity shopping.

    And charity shops aren't the only places to find some pre-loved clothing. We're big fans of Vinted and Depop – both online marketplaces where anyone and everyone can sell their secondhand clothes.

    With our Vinted selling tips, you can even sell the clothes onwards when you're done with them.

    One of our former editors, Jess Murray, is a bit of a Depop fiend, and she couldn't recommend it more:

jessica murray headshot

In my final year of uni I had quite a few black-tie events to attend, and I saved so much money by getting my dresses second hand on Depop.

Most of the stuff is still pretty new as well – if you see something you like in Topshop, just wait a couple of weeks and it's guaranteed to pop up on Depop for half the price.

Everyone said there was literally no way of telling the clothes were secondhand. Plus, it's super easy to sell them once you've worn them so you can make your money back!

Jess Murray, former Save the Student Editor

Plus, find out how one savvy student went a year without buying new clothes.

Looking for graduation gift ideas? Check out our top ideas.

How to save money on workwear and formal clothes

When buying clothes for work or a formal occasion, it can feel like there's pressure to wear clothes from big, expensive brands.

In reality, you can make low-cost clothes look more expensive than they are if you're savvy. The best way to do this is to try and find an outfit that fits well, with no pulled seams or uneven edges.

If you're getting a patterned item, look along the seams. Ideally, you want the pattern to continue uninterrupted across the joins of pieces of fabric. For example, if you have a patterned top, you don't want the pattern to look disjointed along the seams where the front and back pieces of fabric meet.

To find clothes for work or a formal event on a tight budget, something that's unpatterned is your safest bet. Look for clothes in plain but bold colours if you want to jazz your outfits up a bit.

Plus, if you're keen to wear a nice fragrance, there are loads of sites that sell cheap designer perfume.

Ultimately, it's important to be yourself and wear something you'll feel comfortable in. If you're happy with what you're wearing, the price tag shouldn't matter.

Need formal wear for an interview? Don't just dress to impress. Check out these job interview tips.

Laura Brown

WRITTEN BY Laura Brown

Laura Brown, Head of Editorial at Save the Student, is an award-winning writer with expertise in student money. She project manages influential national student surveys and has presented findings to MPs in Westminster. As an expert on student issues, Laura has been quoted by the BBC, the Guardian, Metro and more.
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