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How to Dress Professionally on a Teacher’s Income

Want to dress professionally (and cute) without breaking the bank? Here's how to make that happen:

Ask 10 teachers the question “Do teachers really need to dress professionally?” and you’ll likely get 10 different answers.

The truth is that the answer depends on a lot of factors. And what works for one teacher may not work for another.

Basically the younger you are, the newer you are at teaching, and the older your students are, the more important it is to dress professionally – especially at the beginning of the year.

The difficulty a lot of us run into, though, is how exactly do we do this? What exactly is professional enough? And how can I afford all these new clothes on a limited teacher’s salary?

how to dress professionally on a teacher's income or how to dress professionally on a budget

When I first started teaching I sure wished I could just clear the racks at Express and Macy’s, but that just wasn’t a realistic option. I had just finished paying my way through college, and my brand new husband had gotten laid off from his job 2 days into my teaching career. The money wasn’t exactly flowing.

But the good news is that you don’t need an entire new wardrobe from the best stores in order to dress professionally. Not even close….

Tips to Dress Professionally on a Budget

[Sorry, guys, these tips mainly apply to the ladies. Your professional dress is pretty simple. Grab a few dress shirts (like these) and a few ties (like this one), and you’re good to go. For us ladies, it’s a bit more complicated….]

  1. Invest in a few staple items. A blazer or two, a black skirt, some cardigans, and a couple pairs of dress pants will take you a long way. Make sure you like how they fit you because you’re going to be wearing them a lot…. (And this doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on them. For example, here’s a cute blazer under $25 and an awesome cardigan for under $20.)

  2. Use what’s already in your closet. The best money-saver is to use what you already have, even if you might not think it’s professional. A bright pink shirt – pair it with a dark blazer and dress pants. Voila – a cute, professional outfit. A cutesy dress? – try adding a matching cardigan and some professional jewelry.

  3. Mix and match. Remember those staple items? You can use them over and over again without your students even noticing. That cardigan can professionalize multiple outfits. And the look changes completely when those dress pants are paired with a different shirt. You can make your wardrobe mix and match even better with a color palette. (My friend Corina shows you exactly how to do this in her outfit guides.)

  4. Shop the sales. This should be obvious, but it bears mentioning anyhow. Don’t just go to the mall and say, “I have to come away from here with a wardrobe of professional clothes.” Instead, shop a little every time you’re out – always looking for a great deal. And definitely check out the discount stores in your area that sell the name brands at a great price.

  5. Be smart about your shoes. This advice is more for pre-service teachers because those of us who have taught for any length of time have probably figured this out by now: You don’t need ten pairs of heels. In fact, you probably don’t even need one pair of heels. I love wearing heels – I wear them to church all the time and even managed to wear them during my student teaching. But when you’re on your feet teaching all day every day….well, it’s a rare woman indeed who can keep the heels. My advice? Get two pairs of cute and comfortable flats – one black and one brown – and you’ll be good to go.

    (By the way – I always just get cheap flats and replace them every few months when they wear out. But many have found it worth it to invest in higher-quality shoes – like these – that last longer and are more supportive. Up to you!)

    This article here lists 30 comfortable shoes for teachers.

Professional Teacher Outfit Ideas

Take a look at our Professional Dress Pinterest board for some ideas & inspiration:

My friend Corina has also put together some amazing outfit guides that will totally help you stretch your budget. She helps you pick out staple pieces in your own color palette so you can mix and match everything and create more outfits with less. I love using her guides because I feel so much more stylish, and I’m not wasting money on clothes I will hardly wear.

Check out Corina’s amazing outfit guides here.

(They say they’re for moms, but that’s just because that’s what most of Corina’s customers are. They are totally for any woman. Just choose the business style guide if you tend to dress more professionally or the casual style guide if you tend to dress more casually. The two also pair beautifully together if you like to blend more professional and more casual outfits.)


What’s your best tip for dressing professionally? Where do you find the best deals or the best items? Leave a comment below.

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. I have used Corina’s guides and love them for myself and know they will be a huge help to you, too. I have not personally purchased any of the clothing items linked here. They are listed for reference. Thank you!

Image by photostock via freedigitalphotos.net


What to Read Next
  • Male teachers…addressed at the beginning of the post…dress pants, a few dress shirts and a few good ties. Much simpler.

  • I buy flats a half size bigger then put Dr. Scholls in them. After a few months you will need to change them out. But this makes your shoes last longer and your feet hurt less.

  • I try to get away with sandals as much as I can, but I also live in Florida. I get lots of great bargains at kohls. Usually save more than i actually spend there!!!

  • I think for those of us whole like heels, it is best to find one really comfortable pair (for me, wedges) and buy a bunch! Buy just one pair, and if you can make it 4/5 days of the week in them, go back and buy more for when they wear out 😉 Same with everything else including the clothes, in fact!

  • I’ve lost a lot of weight and had to replace all of my clothing except for socks and scarves. My best suggestion is to shop consignment stores and/or Goodwill. I’ve gotten some awesome professional clothing at very reasonable prices.

    • Exactly. i have shopped consignment stores since I moved to Oklahoma, especially since they are upscale shops. I scored a pair of Tory Burch flats for $40.00 and numerous simple Michael Kors dresses for $20 and under.

  • Here is why investing in good quality shoes are a must – your body will adore you! It’s not just one’s feet that gets tired and stressed: knees, hips and backs are also affected by what you decide to put on your feet for the day. Cheap shoes wreak havoc on the entire body! Please be sure your footwear supports your whole body well. If you plan only to buy two pair of sensible shoes for work, make sure they are the best- that cost will be well worth it.

    • AGillon, I totally agree with you.
      Good shoes are a must. I’ve been teaching for 25 years and investing is good shoes is never a waste of money. A name brand that began their business by outfitting nurses and chefs now has a wide line including men’s shoes and boots is Alegria.com. Don’t faint at the prices, shop clearance if you need to. They will pay for themselves in the long run. You won’t be sorry about the feel and support. I own five different pairs and just ordered another. Invest in your whole body health with good shoes. Just like a house–the foundation dictates the success and stability of the rest of the structure. Another thought…avoid wearing the same pair of shoes for days in a row. Trade off often. Your shoes and feet will be better off as time goes on.

  • I shop thrift stores all the time. I often find things that are new with tags on them. You just have to look often. I would rather spend less on my clothes and have more of them, and then spend more on shoes. Comfortable supportive shoes are so important to your body and health in the long run. You might not notice any problems wearing cheap shoes or those with no support when you’re younger, but you will definitely start having problems as you get older.

    • Good, quality shoes are so important! I taught for 20 years in cheap flats and year 21 my body rebelled & I had foot pain, knee, and back issues. All, according to my doctor, due to all the years of wearing unsupportive shoes.?

  • I have found that Clarks shoes are the best for teaching. They will last a long time also. They are definitely worth the investment.

  • Yes, a big money investment in cute low or no heel shoes and boots is one of the best ways to look professional and not have aching feet at the end of the day. I spend money in the Macy’s shoe department because their shoes last a long time and are comfortable. I also am friends with my local shoe repair man who will make my old comfortable boots look like new and last another semester or two for $12-$20. Don’t forget, though, to keep a pair of comfy walking shoes or sandals in the trunk for when you have to go to little league practice after work.

  • Clarks are generally worth the money. I’ve owned a few of their shoes and they’ve always lasted easily 5 times longer than my cheaper shoes, and I’d wear them in a small rotation too. Plus they have more support than the cheaper shoes.

  • I am not a teacher, I’m a mom who has sat through many back to school nights. My one bit of advice is to wear a slip. I have watched so many teachers stand up in front of parents wearing a cute little dress or skirt and they are not wearing a slip. Our back to school nights are in the library which has windows behind the teachers. The cute little dress suddenly looks very tacky and inappropriate without a slip, and becomes a huge distraction.

  • I do believe investing in higher quality shoes is worth it. I have a pair of Clark’s that have lasted me several years.They are still in Good shape, very comfortable and supportive and I still get compliments on them.

  • I really like your posts! I wish I had had them when I started teaching. It would have saved me a lot of trouble.
    One comment about shoes: I like quality shoes (of course I do, I’m German;-)) – I also do wear heels since I am a principal and not so tall. So in order to be recognized, I have decided that quality heels are a good compromise.

  • Thanks for the tips! I think it is important to dress like you care–especially when you are going to be seeing parents. I took a leap and invested in a good pair of black flats (I wear them almost every day). They lasted me more than the school year and the great inserts and arch support really helped with all the standing!

  • Consignment stores and thrift shops can be a great place to buy some staple clothing at low prices. I have found JCrew, Old Navy, Ralph Lauren etc all at huge discounts. I also love to shop off season and clearance racks.

  • For comfortable shoes that lessen fatigue in your legs and feet I highly recommend investing in Dansko or other high quality supportive shoes. You might spend three times as much as a cheap pair but you will not regret it. These shoes last a very long time. Some of mine are 5+ years old and still look fresh and new with no repair or maintenance!

  • I very much appreciate the insight.
    It’s going to be helpful to me and many others. Do you have any other sources so that I can dig a little deeper?

  • I’ve taught a L-O-N-G time and I agree – go for the more expensive shoes. Or, if your school allows, really good walking shoes like New Balance.
    The best thing I ever did, was go to a running shoe store. They evaluated my walk and sold me a pair of inserts (about $80 – I think) that I wear in whatever shoe I’m wearing to school. After that, my feet NEVER hurt at the end of the day! I’m an elementary teacher, so I rarely sat down (besides lunch) until about 2:30.

  • Not sure where you are, but we are discouraged from wearing jeans except on a “dress-down” day. Skinny jeans would be frowned upon as unprofessional as would too tight or overly revealing clothes.

  • I started teaching with the 6 basic pieces; 1 pair of dress pants and 1 skirt knee length in each color black, brown and navy. Then I coordinated The bottoms a different blouses. The key is to accessorize your basic outfit with jewelry, scarfs and belts. As far as shoes, I would invest in a good pair. Brands such as Naturalizer, Clarks, Born, and Soft have stylish heels which are very comfortable. I personally buy Danskos (very expensive but extremely comfortable and well made). Many nurses wear them and they are very popular in the medical field. In my opinion, your feet keeps the whole body aligned so a good pair of shoes is well worth the investment.

  • Great ideas in these posts. I had been teaching for over 40 years – and the most useful advice I can give supports others who have stressed the importance of well-made supportive shoes. Over the years, I invested the most money on black, black/ivory, navy blue Hogl ( a German brand) shoes – very professional, comfy shoes with choices of heel heights. They ensured that my feet, knees and legs were not aching at the end of the day. Another NB choice was dress pants in those colours, with different blouses to co-ordinate. I purchased a range of blazers which dressed up the outfit for professional days, and parent-meeting days.

  • How can I find the interview black suit I absolutely love it please if anyone knows please tell me I am very very interested in it ! I want to but it !

  • Investing in pricier, but more comfortable flats is totally worth it! I just bought some Dansko and they are SO comfortable! Good quality shoes will last longer and won’t give you foot problems.

  • I definitely spend quite a bit on shoes. $40-60/pair for a high quality shoe. They last a long time (1-2 years) especially when rotating through 3-4 pair. I’ve found it helps my feet. I also love wearing the athletic compression socks. They provide addition arch support. As to purchasing a few staple items of clothing, It definitely helps the wardrobe ?

  • I wear Clarks flats to work, made even better by Birkenstock insoles. The insoles are $50-60 and I can move them from shoe to shoe. No more foot or low back pain from standing, walking all day!

  • Dressing for a teacher depends on students. The older the students are the more you have to dress professionally. teachers have to be very careful of how they dress. dressing in a careless manner can cause their jobs. so dressing well for teacher are very important. thanks for posting. Very helpful post.

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