This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.
In the land of Lululemon, the price to look put together is not as flexible as, say, you might be after a hot yoga class. A pair of pants can cost upwards of a buck twenty and sales are slim as the size of thighs that wear them. Guys don’t have it much easier. A Nike Dri-FIT running shirt starts at $32 — but add a pattern and some light reflective elements and you’re looking at an $80 polyester/nylon blend.
If you’re like me, you’ve jumped on the resolution bandwagon and have vowed to tighten up this year — your bod and your budget. In the pursuit of being fashionable and frugal I went on a mission to see if one could do better than old rec team t-shirts and sweats without having to settle for the questionable quality and color choices of Walmart’s activewear department. I hit all the top off-price department stores and this is what I found.
The top runner in my eyes, TJ Maxx offers the best selection of styles at a healthy range of price points. Crowded racks sorted by size results in search-heavy shopping — but if you’re ready to put in the QT, the outcome could be well worth your while. My favorite finds at TJ Maxx were from manufacturers that I was previously unfamiliar with (Reflex, RBX and The Balance Collection), but when bargains look this good I see no shame in suiting up.
Best for: deeply discounted lesser-known brands.
Skip if: you’re not cut out for the hunt.
Best women’s find: compression capris from 90 Degree by Reflex, $14.99.
Best men’s find: Under Armour Heat Gear shorts, $14.99.
A wall inside Ross reads, “Experience the treasure hunt.” This is no joke. Shopping here is all about finding those hidden gems. Upon first glance, I can’t help but scoff at the selection. I’m seasoned in sale hunting at this point and the slim pickings of somewhat familiar items makes me think…maybe TJ Maxx is Ross’s older brother, and these are his hand me downs? (A quick Google search confirmed that TJX Companies indeed owns TJ Maxx and Ross, as well as Marshalls.)
Best for: diamonds in the rough.
Skip if: you can’t handle disappointment. Not every trip will end victoriously.
Best women’s find: Nike Pro Dri-Fit Competition Base Layer shorts, $12.99.
Best men’s find: Reebok Workout Ready Play Dry and Sport Compression shirts, $12.99.
Featuring a rare combination of quality and quantity, Marshalls’ offers a generous selection of the top names in sports mixed with a hefty helping of lesser-known labels. The stock at Marshalls was the best of any store I visited, and my preference toward TJ Maxx is heavily based on them having a better size selection. Marshalls also gets a nod of approval for having a more shopper friendly layout.
Best for: feeling like you’re at a department store minus the prices.
Skip if: you’ve never asked, “Can you check if another store has this in my size?”
Best women’s find: New Balance slightly padded sports bras in every color from hot pink to charcoal, $12.99.
Best men’s find: Nike Pro Combat Dri-Fit compression shirt, $16.99.
Shopping at Nordstrom Rack was definitely my most pleasant experience. The store layout is open with predominantly circular racks — a luxury I would have never noticed until spending time in the hypogeum-like setup at TJ Maxx. Here, you’re unlikely to get bumped into or pushed aside by a shopping cart, but the higher prices reflect these premiums. Items are marked 30-70% off what you’d pay in the department store, which is substantial except that the original prices prevent tags from ever going too low.
Best for: paying discounted prices for last season’s leftovers.
Skip if: you use the term “label whore” — and not directed at yourself.
Best women’s find: Zella Slim Fit Live-In Crop Leggings, $24.97.
Best men’s find: Asics tanks and tees, under $20.
The activewear section at OFF 5TH is reminiscent of a resort gift shop, with tennis and golf gear the clear majority. Their selection of performance and yoga gear features a lineup of designers that fair better in other categories (Betsey Johnson and swimwear line Gottex, for example), and in my eyes don’t have the clout to back their high price tags. Overall, the department seems a bit dated (I thought, “my mom would like this” more than once). Kind of bummed, I let my eyes linger to the evening gown section before a pair of lava print Calvin Klein capris stop me in my tracks. When I check the price tag ($34.99), I decide I’ve seen enough, since I saw the same pair at TJ Maxx for 10 bucks less.
Best for: country club digs and gifts for mom and dad.
Skip if: you question the legitimacy of sports that allow skirts.
Best women’s find: cheeky Corner Shop tanks with sayings like “Run Now, Wine Later,” $14.99.
Best men’s find: FILA Performa Energy long sleeve and sleeveless tops, $14.99.
Editors Note: Best picks were chosen for having a price point near $20, quality look and feel, and relevant style. Product availability and visual layout vary by store location.