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How to Look Expensive Without Breaking the Bank

There is a difference between looking stylish and looking expensive.

Style is personal and subjective.

We’ve discussed dozens of tips over the years around how to look stylish on a budget  so today, let’s take it up a notch with a new set of tips on how to look expensive without breaking the bank.

How to Look Expensive Without Breaking the Bank

I say “expensive,” but you could call it sophisticated, or elegant and these days it might be called “quiet luxury.”  

It’s a different kind of style that tends to lean more classic than trendy and incorporates subtle luxurious details.

When I was a stylist, I would ask new clients to give me examples of famous women whose style they admired. I was a helpful exercise because it gave us a visual to work towards.

With little exception I would hear: Claire Underwood in House of Cards, Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, and every actress in every Nancy Myers film ever.  

Of course, this was ages ago, but their style is consistent, elegant, and high-end with enormous production budgets to match.

The Difference Between Looking Expensive and Being Stylish

Expensive, or quiet luxury is a kind of style.

It’s easy to look expensive when your clothes are expensive. But, honestly,  even if I had all the money in the world, you’d never see me in head to toe logos. 

And most of us don’t have a bank account that can support living in Max Mara (what a dream) we need to put in a little more effort and get creative. 

With some time and strategy, you can avoid cheap clothes, look just as incredible, and stay in your typical, real-life budget.

To achieve our inspiration look, the usual guidelines apply, like taking time to define your style and focusing on fit.

To go from stylish, to expensive, pay attention to the elements that will make or  break your look.

Today we’re mapping out the non-negotiables, the things you NEED to do if an expensive, elegant style is your end goal.

Let’s get started.

How to Look Expensive in 6 Easy Steps 

Splurge, Spend and Save to Create Expensive Style 

To pull off an expensive look and stay within a normal budget you need to learn the art of mixing high and low pieces together.  This post dives into it in greater detail, but to start it’s important to understand where to put your dollars.

Split your budget into three categories: Splurges, Spends, and Saves.

Splurges, Spends, and Saves method | How to Look Expensive

Splurge on pieces that will have lasting, sometimes lifelong impact. I’m not telling you to buy all of these things at once.

Instead, think of these as items you collect over time. You want to be able to wear them just about every day without worrying about them “going” with anything in particular:

-An iconic, classic, timeless handbag.

-A gorgeous belt. (The Hermes buckle belt is going to be my gift to myself for getting close to something that resembles my pre-baby body … eventually.)

-A trench or other staple coat.

-An indulgent accessory, or jewelry like a pair of diamond studs or pearls.

-Anything vintage or heirloom quality.  Think about pieces you’re saving for a special occasion, or have been handed down to you. Incorporate these into everyday outfits when they make sense.


Spend on better basics, and by spend, I mean to focus a more significant percentage of your budget for these, whatever your budget might be:

-A great fitting pair of dark jeans.

-A classic four-season wool suit or blazer.

-A sheath dress.

Black pumps.

You get the point, the pieces you wear over an again that work within your lifestyle. Just buy clothes that are of the best quality you can afford.


Save on anything you won’t wear frequently or doesn’t have staying power:

-White tees and tanks.

-Printed tops and skirts.

-Special occasion pieces.  Either buy on sale or use Rent the Runway.

-Any trend, novelty piece or a new style you are trying out for the first time.

When you put an outfit together be sure to include a Splurge to elevate your look, ground it with a Spend, and supplement the rest with your Saves.

Focus on Expensive Looking Fabrics 

You’re going to have to get over your all cotton wardrobe and go to the dry cleaner every now and then. 

You cannot have a polished and elevated wardrobe with all wash and wear pieces. When I worked with personal clients, I was always so surprised at how many women didn’t want to deal with dry cleaning.

I get that it adds up, and some people avoid it for environmental and health reasons, but it made my job impossible because all cotton is cute, it’s not always elegant.

Unless you’re a personal trainer, you need pieces with structure, some lining, better blends like silk and cashmere and a few delicate details. This means it requires extra effort to take care of your clothing. 

Expensive Style Needs The Right Accessories

Knowing how to pair accessories is important.  A good guideline is to pull from the same category.  If you’re dressing for the evening, carry a clutch not the bag you wore to work.

A lightweight shoe, like a strappy sandal, needs an equally light bag, otherwise the balance will be off.

Same goes for things like ankle boots and chunky shoes, they need something of equal weight.

Additionally, be sure that everything is in good condition.  Keep leather shoes, belts and bags clean and polished, change out shoe laces, and replace items that are starting to look worn.

When purchasing accessories, think the simpler the better, especially if you are spending less.

For example, and generally speaking, an inexpensive handbag covered in logos and dripping in hardware will end up cheapening your entire look while the same priced bag with clean lines will help elevate it.

Monochromatic and Textured Pieces Make You Look Expensive 

Valentines Date Night Outfit Ideas

The power of keeping your look all one color cannot be overstated.  It’s a sophisticated way of dressing.  But you want to be strategic with it, because you don’t want to just wear all your black at the same time.

Instead, you want to layer on different tones and incorporate texture for a well composed outfit.

You can also mix neutrals, like black and navy, or cream and tan, and even not so obvious combinations like dark gray and forest green.

Texture can be a variety of options as well: cashmere, tweed, basket weaves, silk and any fabric with woven details. Texture adds depth and interest, it works the same way pattern does, but in a more modern way.

Note: You can wear pattern, just be deft in how you incorporate it. 

Often, women who are looking for a classic look, will incorporate pattern to add interest but end up with an outfit that’s more quirky than chic. (And if you WANT quirky, go for it, but that’s not our goal here.)

Your Grooming Matters Most

Polished Nails at home
Perfectly manicured nails done at home – simple and inexpensive

One thing you can do to add a luxurious element to your look without buying a new piece of clothing is taking your personal maintenance up a level, and I say this as someone who hates spending time at the salon.

Honestly, I wish a van would pull up my driveway, stick me in and spit me out groomed and polished, Jetsons style. They do it for pets, why can’t the do it for women with no time?

I get colored, waxed, scrubbed, occasionally sprayed and manicured not because I want to, but because I look 100% better. It’s a difference maker.

The good news is, you can do a lot of this at home for very little money. 

For example, set aside 30 minutes at the start of your week and give yourself a manicure. After years of spending time and money at the salon, I came up with this process for at home nails that I love

You can be in jeans and a tee shirt, but if you are well groomed, you’ll look fresh and shiny, even if your feeling exhausted and shabby. Which leads to our final tip …

Focus on Healthy Skin and Simplify Your Make Up

You’ll find that once you get your skin in great shape, you need less makeup and you’ll use makeup differently.

Instead of piling on layers, you’ll let your skin shine through and use specific products to enhance your best features.  Too much makeup, or makeup done in a haphazard way will cheapen your overall look.

Note: It took YEARS to get my skin to a good place, and it’s always changing. Every hormonal or environmental change in our lives can send our skin into a spiral.

Consider working with someone who understands your skin and can make recommendations, then stay diligent with your routine, and drink tons and tons of water.

It will make all the difference. Consider revamping your  morning and evening skincare routines. 

Now You Know How to Look Expensive 

Think of the stylish women we mentioned at the top of the post. They are flawless, but not overdone. Their fit is impeccable, their style simple, they’re not covered in logos, hardware or prints.   

They also don’t look plastic and have a realness to them, but there is something about them that makes them feel different, even though they are wearing basics. 

It’s because the costume designer is incorporating many of these tips, and while they have access to top labels, you can pull off something similar without spending a small fortune, by focusing on a few updates and paying extra attention to the details that matter.

How to Look Expensive Without Breaking the Bank

Related Posts

 Join Megan Kristel for a comprehensive, 3 hour long, LIVE Virtual Workshop sharing personal style and shopping tips for women over 40 on March 31, 2023.


Megan Kristel

Megan Kristel is an entrepreneur, working mom, and former personal stylist. Tired of the one-dimensional portrayal of women online, she founded The Well Dressed Life as a resource for other professional women.

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Barbara Armacost

Tuesday 6th of February 2024

What a great and informative article!! Lots of good advice. I strive to look stylish on a budget. I recently ordered a navy cropped jacket from Chicos. They style it with a black and white striped top. Would this look ok? I always thought you should not mix navy and black. Thank you.


Thursday 16th of January 2020

Enjoyed the No Nonsense approach to timeless dressing. It makes me feel "smart" when I can get many years from a particular garment ... not old-fashion. Sprinkling a new accessory here & there reduces the boredomness. (Even using my mother's & grandmother's scarves shows my own style. A great conversation starter, too.)


Thursday 28th of February 2019

Absolutely great tips- and I completely agree that personal grroming makes such a difference. I could be wearing the simplest black skinny jeans & white tee, and if I have my hair curled, a slick of red lipstick on and manicured nails, I feel like a million bucks already!


Tuesday 27th of November 2018

Hey, Megan...

I've had my Burberry trench for 20+ years, but damn if I haven't lost the belt, and finding a match for my vintage coat is unlikely. I even reached out to Burberry, to no avail. Can you make a creative suggestion for a substitute belt?


Sunday 25th of November 2018

Thank you for this article. Your comment about dry cleaning is so true, if the cleaning company picked up and delivered, that would help, we have too many errands! And I agree cotton is wonderful, but looks worn out faster. I am a decent seamstress, and I hand wash all my cashmere and silk items, and I even iron!


Saturday 22nd of September 2018

Wow, this was a wonderful read. After so many years of sadly, thinking, "someday, I'll get my wardrobe together", I've finally begun to sit down and study how to do a beautiful classic look. Articles like this one, are all you need. Thank you, thank you!

Megan Kristel

Monday 24th of September 2018

Thanks for such a kind comment Martha!


Sunday 19th of August 2018

I splurged on my Burberry trench a few years ago and love it! Meg, do you have tips on the easiest way to switch from your day handbag to an evening one? I find that’s my one hang up, having to move everything from one bag to another. The wallet in my day bag is too large for a clutch, plus having to move a few other things. Any great tips/tricks to make that easier?

Megan Kristel

Monday 20th of August 2018

I'm so glad the trench was worth it - it's still one of my favorite items. I think the deal with switching out bags, especially from a large day one to a small evening option is just giving yourself the extra few minutes to do it, and make it a habit. I've pared down what I carry significantly. At night I keep my cards, id and some cash is a slim wallet, sometimes I can fit my full wallet in certain clutches, then I makes sure I have my phone, keys, and a lipstick and that's it. Maybe when you need a new nighttime bag, keep size in mind so you can carry your essentials without having to break them down too much.


Friday 17th of August 2018

Love this post Megan! A decade ago when I turned 40, I splurged on my first Louis Vuitton handbag (wasn’t waiting for my at the time boyfriend, now husband to buy it for me... LOL). I felt guilty when I bought it, but totally agree how years later it is a classic splurge staple that elevates any outfit from Old Navy summer dresses to JBrand skinny jeans and heels! After reading the comments here, I may have to purchase that Burberry tench as I just entered my 50s without that splurge!

Megan Kristel

Monday 20th of August 2018

Thanks Tracy! My husband bought me my first LV when we had no money and my oldest was a baby. I felt guilty for, like, 2 minutes and then I was so excited. I've carried it for over a decade and it not only elevates lots of casual outfits, but is such a nice reminder of how far we've come and how sweet it was that Bri save up for it, despite everything else we had going on.

When you make your next splurge, just make sure it's something you'll happily use just about every day!

Neen James

Thursday 16th of August 2018

Love this list and the differences, so many great ideas and yes that Burberry Trench, black stiletto and great bag are my foundations... and can't wait for Fall to pull them out again!


Thursday 16th of August 2018

GREAT advice! I love my Burberry trench and I live in tanks/t-shirts from Target. This advice works!

I would add, if I could, solid foundations. A bra strap (or ill fitting bra where your boob spills over or the cup is too big) or panty lines are outfit killers to me.

Rose Clark

Wednesday 28th of April 2021

Have you tried a vintage store or upscale thrift shop? They have belt racks and you may find a match there

Megan Kristel

Thursday 16th of August 2018

Yes! Foundation garments are key regardless of what kind of style you are shooting for. The Burberry trench was on every clients wish list - it's the rare piece you'll have forever!


Thursday 16th of August 2018

Love your distinction between spurge and spend! (Burberry trench, I'm looking at you!)

Megan Kristel

Thursday 16th of August 2018

Thanks! I've been trying to figure out how to articulate the difference for a while. So many of us have the things we need, and categories we need to spend more on, but still want those extra special pieces on occasion. Our chats in your closet were definitely inspiration!