Best Cheap T-Shirts

Price Range

$1 - $20

Cheapism

$20 - $40

Mid-Range

$40 and up

High End

No matter your age, profession, or walk of life, the classic T-shirt is a wardrobe essential. Plain tees come in a wide variety of price points, from cheap T-shirts suitable only as undershirts or pajamas to designer tees with price tags that seem outrageous for such a simple garment. How much do you have to spend for an attractive, serviceable T-shirt that can go from relaxing at home to sweating at the gym to anchoring a button-down or sweater at the office? We tracked down some of the cheapest basic T-shirts on the market, then put them through their paces to see how they would stand up to the daily grind.

Cheap T-Shirt Buying Guide

For testing purposes, we bought a navy T-shirt for men and a boys' T-shirt in a brighter blue from each of four national, budget-friendly retailers: Target, Walmart, Old Navy, and JC Penney. We also purchased comparable but somewhat more expensive tees from the Gap to see how they stack up in quality. None of the T-shirts had a sticker price higher than $20 (and some were on sale or have since gone on sale). We tried each tee on a tester and recorded initial impressions of look, feel, and fit. We also measured the length of each T-shirt from shoulder seam to hem, in order to have a baseline for shrinkage.

To simulate the wear and tear of normal use, we ran the shirts through six heavy-duty wash cycles, then dried them on the normal dryer setting after every load. Afterward, we had our models try on the shirts again and measured the length. We looked over each tee carefully for signs of fading, shrinking, unraveling, or any other indications of poor durability. We also factored in online user reviews for each shirt we tested.

After all was said and done, none of the cheap shirts we tried on for size was a perfect 10. Each had its strengths and failings, and each was best suited to a different purpose or body type. We identified the best cheap T-shirts by considering fabric, fit, comfort, durability, and overall value.

Old Navy T-shirts ($10 for the Classic men's crew-neck, $8 for a boys' jersey ringer tee) and Fruit of the Loom T-shirts from Walmart ($4.50 for men, $3.50 for boys) earned top billing. They emerged as better value than the relatively pricey Gap T-shirts ($16.50 for men, $15 for boys), which had a tendency to stretch out in the collar. Target T-shirts, sold under the Merona and Circo house brands ($13 for men, $6 for boys), had the same problem but also scored well overall. Arizona Jean Co. T-shirts from JC Penney ($12 for men, $14 for boys) were too thin to win us over, and washing the men's tee resulted in an awkward fit.

There are certain aspects of a T-shirt's fabrication that are more a matter of personal choice than a matter of quality or value. Below are some characteristics of our test tees, along with feedback from our testers and online reviews, to help buyers account for their individual preferences when choosing a cheap T-shirt.

100 Percent Cotton T-Shirts vs. Blends.

Cotton is a natural fiber that's more breathable than synthetic fabrics or blends, which tend to trap heat (unless they're specially designed for moisture-wicking). A 100 percent cotton T-shirt is often preferred for people who work or play hard in their tees -- active kids, manual laborers, and anyone getting grubby outdoors. People with eczema or other skin sensitivities choose cotton for its non-allergenic, non-rash-inducing tendencies. Among T-shirts for men, the Gap, Arizona, Merona, and Fruit of the Loom tees all fall into this category. For boys, the Fruit of the Loom short-sleeve tee from Walmart and the Circo short-sleeve shirt from Target were the only 100 percent cotton T-shirts we tested.

Some consumers prefer the sleeker look and stretchier fit of a cotton/polyester blend. These T-shirt fabrics typically don't experience as much shrinking, fading, or pilling as their 100 percent cotton counterparts. The shirts also tend to hold their shape better and don't stretch out as easily. For men, only the Old Navy Classic crew-neck, a 60 percent/40 percent cotton/poly blend, falls into this category. Many of the boys' shirts we purchased were blends, however. The Old Navy jersey ringer tee is a 50/50 cotton/poly blend. The Gap vintage pocket tee and the Arizona slub crew-neck tee from JC Penney are both 60 percent/40 percent blends.

Fabric Weight.

Thickness is another T-shirt characteristic that divides consumers at the registers. Many people dislike thinner tees because they aren't kind to body imperfections, tend to cling to every curve, and generally suggest cheaper construction. This becomes an issue particularly with white or light-colored shirts, when too-thin fabric can leave wearers feeling exposed, as one consumer warns in a review on the Old Navy website. On the other hand, another Old Navy customer notes that a thinner T-shirt works better for layering, and light fabric may be preferable in warmer climes.

For those who like a less revealing fit, or those who are hard on their clothes and need more durable fabric, a thicker material might be more appealing. Others find thick T-shirt fabric hotter, bulkier, and less comfortable. One Walmart shopper offered this as a reason for giving the Fruit of the Loom tee a middling review.

The Fruit of the Loom boys' and men's T-shirts were by far the thickest and potentially most durable shirts we looked at, and we identified the Old Navy, Gap, and Arizona tees as the thinnest in our test. The men's Merona Ultimate V-neck tee and Circo boys' short-sleeve shirt from Target did the best job of finding middle ground.

Putting T-Shirt Brands to the Test

After buying men's and boys' T-shirts from the Gap, JC Penney, Old Navy, Target, and Walmart, we evaluated several characteristics before and after laundering to determine how each T-shirt brand would hold up under the use and abuse of everyday life. When it came down to it, there were three main traits that set high-quality T-shirts apart: comfort, fit, and durability.

Fit and comfort are somewhat subjective measurements. They depend on the wearer's body type, style preferences, and skin sensitivity. While some prefer tight tees, others may be looking for a looser fit. Many like the smoothness and stretch of a cotton/poly blend, but some insist on the breathability of 100 percent cotton. The relative thickness of the shirt also comes into play. Although we allowed that differences of opinion would exist, there are some basic boxes the best tees should tick. A shop-worthy shirt should fit comfortably without pulling or sagging and allow unrestricted movement. The material should feel good against the skin and not be abrasive or irritate the wearer in any way. To help gauge fit and feel, we leveraged our T-shirt models, who tried on each shirt before and after our onslaught of washing. We compared their experiences with online user reviews for each shirt to get a feel for fit patterns and problems.

Comfort.

Comfort is of ultimate importance when it comes to casual, everyday tees, which are more about relaxation and practicality than making an impression or looking one's best. Our adult tester liked the "light" feel and "fine weave" of the men's Gap Essential crew-neck ($16.50) and Old Navy Classic crew-neck ($10) and rated these two his favorites. He described the Arizona Jean Co. slub tee ($12) as scratchy; it wasn't "as soft as most cotton shirts," he said, which relegated the JC Penney offering to the bottom of his list. The men's Fruit of the Loom tee from Walmart ($4.50) drew some censure for its "stiff" feel and "dense" fabric but gained points for being functional and ideal for working outdoors. On the whole, online postings mimicked these findings, with one exception. T-shirt reviews on the JC Penney website branded the Arizona tee soft and comfortable overall, in contrast to our adult tester's experience.

When it came to the kids' tees, there were fewer disparities in the level of comfort. The Fruit of the Loom T-shirt from Walmart ($3.50) seemed the coarsest in feel, but that didn't seem to faze our child tester at all. His favorite tees were the Gap and Old Navy shirts, but he appeared equally comfortable in the Arizona and Circo crew-necks ($14 at JC Penney and $6 at Target, respectively). Once we factored in online feedback for each of the boys' T-shirts, the Old Navy jersey ringer tee ($8) quickly took the lead, although the Circo, Arizona, and Fruit of the Loom T-shirts also seem to satisfy wearers in the category of comfort. Online postings for the boys' Gap T-shirt ($15) are sparse and don't include any feedback on the comfort of the shirt.

Good Fit and Minimal Shrinkage.

If a T-shirt is ill-fitting, unflattering, or restrictive, it's a poor value at any price. Although many aspects of fit are a matter of personal opinion, we homed in on shirts that hung well and appeared proportionate. After laundering the test tees repeatedly, we compared their shoulder-to-hem length to our previous measurements to determine shrinkage. We compared before and after photographs of our adult and child models wearing the shirts, looking for any pulling across the chest, tightness in the arms, or other signs of size reduction.

We made certain allowances when making our final recommendations, however. For instance, 100 percent cotton tees tend to shrink more significantly than cotton/poly blends. Although the Fruit of the Loom and Old Navy shirts shrank quite a bit during washing, both tees were sized generously to begin with, presumably to allow for loss of inches. So, while we initially sought shirts with limited shrinkage, we discovered that shrinkage wasn't always a deal breaker, as long as manufacturers factored it in to their initial sizing. Additionally, drying tees on low heat, as many suggest in the care instructions on their tags, can help minimize shrinkage. Consumers satisfied with the pre-wash fit of a shirt can opt to air-dry it instead.

Of all the shirts our testers tried on, only one fit so badly that it was doomed to languish on a dusty shelf: the men's Arizona tee from JC Penney. It gaped in the neck and shoulders, yet pulled across the sleeves and chest. Though our medium-build model personally liked the snugness of the sleeves, larger wearers might find the fit confining and irritating. Our tester admitted he would be in no hurry to make this a go-to shirt, and online reviewers agreed that the fit left something to be desired. In general, this and other tees that stretched out in the neck during washing -- including the men's and boys' Gap T-shirts and the Merona and Circo tees from Target -- looked sloppier on our models and didn't score as well in our recommendations.

Durability.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to cheap T-shirts. Some consumers want long-lasting tees that will hold up to the rigor and mess of daily life. Others, particularly parents of rough-and-tumble tots, want shirts cheap enough that they can be tossed when they get soiled or ripped, or no longer fit a growing child. We busied ourselves looking for the overlap: budget tees that would hold up well under stress and strain but be cheap enough to throw away when hit with a stubborn stain.

The Fruit of the Loom tees emerged as front-runners. These sturdy T-shirts might not have been the coziest our testers tried on, but they were rugged and ultra-cheap. One parent who posted a review on the Walmart website buys the tees for kids who are hard on clothes. The rest of our bargain T-shirts also proved durable, though in varying degrees. Despite their relative thinness, the Gap shirts held up to laundering, without pilling or fraying along the edges. The Target and Old Navy T-shirts did show some wear along the collar, sleeves, and hem, but the strength of the fabric didn't appear to be compromised. The Arizona tees from JC Penney didn't exhibit signs of excessive wear or fragility but also didn't give the impression of particular hardiness.

We examined the seams and stitching of our low-priced T-shirts before and after laundering to check for durability. Were the rows of stitches tight and close together? Were they reinforced with cross-directional stitching to prevent threads from coming loose? Were threads messy or unraveling? We found that the Gap shirts had the strongest stitching, while Old Navy and Fruit of the Loom left more room between threads and seemed to create more potential for snagging. That said, all the shirts we analyzed came through our washer/dryer boot camp in good condition, and not one seam unraveled under our watchful eyes.

In only one instance did we see discern any noticeable fading in the wash: The men's Merona V-neck T-shirt from Target exhibited a minor difference in color before and after washing. Still, any fading that occurred was minimal and ultimately didn't affect our recommendations.

Gina Briles

Gina K. Briles writes family, household, and shopping-related product reviews. She is a displaced Jayhawk and a coffee addict living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, two small children, and Vizsla dog.

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