Some people are born with money. Some are born with style. A very lucky few are born with both. And then there are those who inherit neither. I fall into the last category. To help you understand where I’m coming from instead of diving right in and preaching about what you should and shouldn’t wear and how you should spend your money, I’m going to share with you a condensed version of my last thirty years in the hope that it will reveal a little about who I am and in turn help you to trust me enough to put your fashion life in my hands. I’d love the opportunity to show you how to find your style without compromising who you are, or worse, the entire contents of your savings account.
I was born in 1980 in Fort Worth, Texas—not exactly the fashion capital of the world, but I’m living proof that where you’re from doesn’t determine where you’re going! To say that my family was of moderate means is a huge understatement. Both of my parents worked tirelessly to provide for our family, so during my early years, my aunt Blanca took care of me while my mother and father were at work.
My aunt is an incredibly talented seamstress who, to this day, still finds time to make her own clothes. She was the one who taught me how to needlepoint and how to sew a garment from a pattern. We would ride the bus to our local fabric store and spend hours looking through patterns together. I thought the women on the packets looked so stylish and chic, but at that time I didn’t know anyone that actually looked like them. I always left the store wondering if there were women out there who really dressed like that. The models were tall, beautiful, and glamorous—when I grew up I wanted to dress like them (particularly the ones on the Vogue patterns), and even more, I wanted to be like them. I would daydream about the life they had, what they did, and of course, what their closets looked like. Little did I know, I’d soon have to learn how to navigate their world.
My parents wanted the best education for my brother and me, and where I lived, that meant private school. My mom found a school that likely cost as much as her yearly salary, and though my parents couldn’t afford the tuition, that didn’t stop them. My mom is incredibly tenacious, and she was willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to get me there. I enrolled at Fort Worth Country Day School in 1988 with generous help from the school’s financial aid program, and before the school year even started, I realized I was in for a total culture shock.
We were required to wear uniforms at Country Day, and the school administrators sent us to their preferred vendor in an upscale neighborhood that my family wasn’t too familiar with. When we got to the store, the parking lot was full of shiny BMWs and Mercedes. My mom and I were instantly intimidated.
Looking back on it, I’m sure she was thinking, Who cares where we buy her poly-blend school uniform? How much could it really cost? What she didn’t know was that the uniform cost was justthe beginning. The sales associate quickly informed us thatall the girls at school monogrammed their uniforms, andbeing the new girl and all, I wouldn’t want to feel left out.Well, duh, who wants to be the un-monogrammed new girl? She then told us that while they offered regular white and blue oxford shirts to go with the uniform, most girls opted instead for a classic Polo Ralph Lauren oxford. Of course they did!
Next we got to the shoes. School dress code dictated that they had to be leather, so my mom and I picked out classic black-and-white saddle shoes that looked perfect. I had never owned a pair like that, and even at a young age, shoes got me really excited. Cue the bubble-bursting salesperson, who explained that part of the back-to-school shopping ritual for most students was getting a new pair of Cole Haans for the year. She escorted us to a fancy armoire where they housed the shoes and showed us the latest collection. At the time, neither my mom nor I even knew shoes came in collections! But the second I got to the armoire, my heart started to race. The shoes were beautiful—some had tassels, some had intricately woven leather, and others were classically chic loafers. I can still remember the way the leather smelled, and I immediately started dreaming of how cute I would look in my preppy uniform and my gorgeous new designer shoes. Then, for the first time—but certainly not the last—I heard my mom utter these four words: “We can’t afford it.”
Up until that day, I had never really wanted for anything. We had a comfortable house. I had plenty of toys, clothes, friends, family, and everything else a little girl could want. In our social circle (which, as with most Latino families, includes only relatives) my family was considered well-off, but I suddenly came to the shocking realization that to the rest of the world, we weren’t.
I didn’t get the Polo shirts or the Cole Haan shoes that day, but my mom did splurge on the monogram, saying it would show off my personality and style. She promised we would take a trip to a local outlet to search for the designer items on sale. My mom wanted me to have all those nice things, but she’s no sucker; there was no way she was going to pay full price.
Like mother, like daughter.
That day was just the first of many times when I would be reminded that my family couldn’t afford what the kids I went to school with could. They shopped at Neiman Marcus, and we shopped at Sears. They bought new dresses for bar mitzvahs, and I had my aunt make mine. They spent thousands of dollars for new cheerleading uniforms without blinking, and my mom had to save for months to cover the cost of my new uniform each year.
During my time at Country Day, there were plenty of days when I felt different, but I quickly discovered that relationships and friendships, like style, have nothing to do with money. While my friends’ parents could afford everything we drooled over in Elle, as teenagers with a weekly allowance, we certainly couldn’t. My friends enlisted my help to show them how to get the look for less at our local mall, and by middle school I was already becoming quite the frugal fashionista!
In the end, sending me to private school was the best decision my family ever made. It opened my eyes to a new world and made me hungry for bigger and better experiences. It gave me the confidence and courage to take on new adventures, and along the way, I learned valuable lessons about money and budgeting—all of which helped shape who I am today.
Reprinted by arrangement with GOTHAM BOOKS, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © LILLIANA VAZQUEZ, 2013.
Excerpted from The Cheap Chica's Guide to Style: Secrets to Shopping Cheap and Looking Chic by Lilliana Vazquez
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