This fall, the key to heading back to school in style and under budget involves knowing what pieces provide the most cool for the cash. If a closet full of brand new clothes is not in the cards (and really, who has those cards?) it's time to take note of the fashion cues setting the tone this season.

Wallet-friendly wardrobe updates begin with knowing which design details make clothes look dated -- and which ones signal fresh, just-took-the-tags-off style. By subtracting yesterday's trends (and adding a few new items in the latest cuts, colors, prints and patterns), style seekers can get the look they crave without going into debt ... which is soooo last decade.

Warning: There are Iron Clad Rules when shopping for key wardrobe items on a limited budget. Absolutely-Unbreakable-Rule-Number-One: The item must look good -- on you. No exceptions. It doesn't matter if the entire world is wearing the cutest dress that's ever been cut from cloth if it does not flatter your-very-own-self. Put. It. Back. Walk away.
Iron Clad Rule Number Two: the item must fit well. No buttons that pop open at the chest, sleeves that look okay if they're worn rolled up, or pants that might fit if we lose five pounds. No dice. Fashion companies make up their own sizes; no laws mandate that a size six must fit certain measurements. It's an imperfect system designed to give folks a general idea of what to bring into the dressing room. Don't get hung up on a number. Try on several sizes and buy the one that looks and feels the best. Period.

Iron Clad Rule Number Three: You've gotta love it. Not like. Love. Shopping on a budget doesn't allow for flirting. There's no casual dating here, it's commitment. It might take a little more time to shop, but your money will be better spent. You can't hurry love. This should also help in avoiding the classic I-don't-love-it-but-it-was-such-a-good-deal mistake that wastes money and closet space. You're on a mission. Stay focused.

With ground rules out of the way, it's time for a cram session. Happily, we're talking fall fashion trends -- and the test is always multiple choice. Linda Chang, senior marketing manager of Forever21 told WalletPop, "One notable trend we're excited about is geek chic with our most recent "I <3 Nerds" Twist collection. We also love themes like sporty, rock n' roll, grungy punk à la '90s, tons of plaid, leather with lace and mixing prints." Seventeen Magazine's September issue highlighted Chang's favorite themes as well as noting the importance of military details, Native American boho spirit, urban romance and the glimmer of gold.

Although it may seem overwhelming, shoppers can narrow the search for key pieces by identifying common denominators. These items are interpreted and found throughout all of the trends. A cardigan sweater may have lace trim in the romantic category, be made out of sweatshirt material for the sporty spice look, or have a varsity letter for a prep look. The point is, the button front sweater is hot. Choose the one that suits your personality best (and matches a few things you already own).

Key trend pieces are an instant wardrobe update. For instance: Geek Chic, think skinny jean in a fun color. Military mode, go skinny cargo pant. Rock-n-roll angel, pick skinny ripped jeans. Get the picture? If you're gonna buy a new pair of pants, make 'em straight and skinny.

In fact, when Target spokesperson Katie Heinze was asked what items she considered a must have for fall she told WalletPop, "We're excited about skinny cargo and denim pants in a variety of colors and washes – not only are they great basics but they carry well from season to season." In regard to must have items for the season, Heinze also suggested, "Great layering pieces such as plaid button downs, military jackets and cozy sweaters."

At Forever21, Chang said, "If we had to choose, it would be soft shorts, skinny cargo pants, trousers and especially Oxford (shirts) -- they're a timeless piece that you can wear all year-round."

The same goes for this season's short skirt. Whether, straight, ruffled, knit or leather a short skirt is the length to have to for back to school. Layer over leggings or tights to change up the look.

Cardigans are a natural fit with fall's straight and narrow bottoms. Longer, looser shapes balance out skinny pants and leggings and are flattering on most figures. Short cardigans look cute layered over longer tops, T's and tanks.

To glam it up and achieve the luxe look on a budget, Chang suggests: "One easy way is to go with faux fur and faux leather, it keeps prices down without sacrificing style." Of course, a little goes a long way. A faux leather jacket can punch up the basics and give an outfit an updated edge.

Accessories are also a style score. Heinze said, "Pick up a few inexpensive accessories to add punches of color and pattern to your wardrobe essentials. Statement jewelry is all the rage again this season. Clean black and white watches in oversized shapes provide a fresh update to classic styles. Animal prints also make a return, adorning handbags from hobos to clutch wallets." Last year's jacket, this year's accessories. Voila'! Seventeen tip: Look for chunky, oversized scarves...or better yet get busy. Knit one, purl two.

A little homework before heading to the mall will also pay off. Check out the cute clothes you already own and make a cheat sheet of new items to update your look. Include: must haves, wish list and details. Skinny pants, cute cardi. Check. Oxford shirt (maybe plaid?), short skirt, leather-look jacket. Check and double check. When shopping, think about how you would wear the item with what you already own.

It could be the most fun assignment you'll get this year.


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