Best Cheap T-Shirts
Published on By Gina Briles
Fruit of the Loom T-Shirts Review
From $3.50 Best
Sold through Walmart stores, these tees score points for their heavy-duty, 100 percent cotton construction and rock-bottom price tag.
It's true that the Fruit of the Loom T-shirts we scored for less than $5 apiece at Walmart weren't the softest of the bunch we tested. The adult tester in our Fruit-of-the-Loom T-shirt review called the 100 percent cotton material "thick," "stiff," and "dense-feeling," noting that the men's short-sleeve crew (starting at $4.50) wouldn't be his choice on a hot day. But he indicated that he'd be more inclined to don this tee than the others to do some outdoor work.
Indeed, user reviews on the Walmart website say this rugged shirt is ideal for playing and working hard. Given the cheap price, buyers don't worry overmuch about staining or destroying their shirts and stock up for active children or hands-on workers (one reviewer is the wife of a contractor).
When we washed, rewashed, and dried the Fruit of the Loom T-shirts, both the men's and boys' tees shrank significantly. The men's size-large crew-neck started with a length of 30 inches from shoulder seam to hem and shrank 1.25 inches, to a length of 28.75 inches. The boys' small measured 21 inches from shoulder to hem prior to washing and 20 inches after, for a loss of 1 inch in length. Normally we might consider this a deal breaker. However, these inexpensive crew-necks were overly large and drapey on our medium- to slim-build testers to begin with, so the shrinkage only improved the fit. Huskier men and boys, or those seeking a generous fit, should consider going up a size in Fruit of the Loom T-shirts to allow for shrinkage.
The stitches at the seams of the Walmart-purchased tees were tight, close together, and well-reinforced, with no loose or unraveling strings, even after multiple laundry cycles. Any pilling or fading was so slight that we couldn't swear to it. On the Walmart website, the boys' short-sleeve tee (starting at $3.50) has received fewer than a dozen reviews but counts 4.7 out of 5 stars overall. More than 100 reviewers give the men's shirt 4.6 out of 5 stars.
Ultimately the Fruit of the Loom T-shirts scored well in our review, due in large part to their durable, 100 percent cotton fabrication and dirt-cheap pricing. These T-shirts come in 19 colors.
Where to buy
Target T-Shirts Review
From $6 Good
The house-brand Merona and Circo tees have soft, mid-weight material and fit well, but collars that stretch in the laundry and noticeable fraying at the edges knock the tees down a notch.
The men's Merona Ultimate tee we purchased from Target -- a V-neck, as there were no crew-necks in a men's size large -- was priced a bit on the high side at $13. The 100 percent cotton shirt gets props in Target T-shirt reviews on the retailer's website for finding a happy medium when it comes to both weight and fit. Our adult T-shirt tester said the Merona tee conformed to his arms nicely. Post-washing, this V-neck showed the least shrinkage of any adult tee we tested, giving up only half an inch of length from shoulder to hem.
Although the shirt didn't lose much in the way of inches, it didn't fare quite as well when it came to wear and tear. This was the only tee that looked faded after our stress test, and we identified fuzzy halos of fabric wear along the shirt's edges and collar. One reviewer also warns that the printed-on label inside the collar can irritate the neck as it wears off.
The boys' Circo short-sleeve shirt emerged a better bargain than its Merona men's counterpart. Regularly priced at $6 (we paid $5), this 100 percent cotton crew-neck seemed to be stitched adequately. The fabric is substantial enough that one review on the Target website the white tee as opaque. While this T-shirt was initially a little roomy on our child tester, who is on the slender side, it did shrink 1 inch after washing, resulting in a perfect, relaxed fit. After our washing and drying regimen, the Circo tee exhibited some of the same fuzziness around the collar and edges that the Merona men's shirt did. We didn't notice much fading, but as with the Merona tee, the collar got wider and stretched out of shape.
Target's Merona and Circo T-shirts earn praise for their fit and fabric weight, but they also stretched in the collars and showed some fraying post-washing. Despite such wear issues, they made it onto our "good" list as decent options for the price.
Where to buy
Gap T-Shirts Review
From $15 Good
Priced at the top end of our range, Gap's offerings are soft with a relaxed fit and no pilling. Stretching at the neck after washing is a pain point. We say wait for a sale.
Gap has made a name for itself as a reasonably affordable brand that occupies a sweet spot of casual fashion. Its basic tees and jeans are iconic in the Western world, but are they really that much better than less expensive brands? The answer is yes and no, according to our Gap T-shirts review.
It's evident that the fabric Gap uses for its T-shirts is of a finer grade than the fabric used for the budget-conscious tees at Old Navy, which is also owned by Gap Inc. After running both the men's Essential crew-neck T-shirt ($16.50) and the boys' vintage pocket tee ($15) from Gap through the ringer, we saw almost no signs of wear. Pilling, fraying, and fading were virtually nonexistent. The 100 percent cotton material of the men's shirt and the 60 percent cotton, 40 percent polyester fabric of the boys' shirt stayed smooth and soft. Still, not all online reviewers appreciate the fabric. On the Gap website, the men's shirt has earned only 3.5 out of 5 stars from 18 total ratings, with some users complaining that the tee is too thin.
The seams on the Gap tees are tighter and appear to have a higher stitch count than the comparable Old Navy shirts, which theoretically should translate to fewer loose strings and less unraveling in the long run. Shrinkage for these shirts is on the lower end of the spectrum. Our men's size-large shirt lost 1 inch of length from shoulder seam to hem, going from an initial length of 29 inches to 28 inches after laundering. Our boys' size-small tee shrank only a quarter of an inch, from 20 inches to 19.75 inches in length from shoulder to hem.
On the negative side, we noted that the collars of both the boys' and men's crew-necks stretched out significantly after laundering. Additionally, our adult T-shirt model called the fit of the men's tee "a little loose in the middle," something that could be a pro or a con depending on the wearer's preferred fit.
There's no doubt that Gap T-shirts are good products, but they aren't perfect, and they cost more than others on our list. The shirts' relatively dear price, especially given their tendency to stretch out in the collar, confines them to our second tier. We advise that consumers carefully consider their T-shirt needs before choosing to spend extra for this brand; try to find it on sale.
Where to buy
Arizona T-Shirts Review
From $12 Think Twice
Sold at JC Penney stores, these men's crew-neck tees are made of 100 percent cotton and shrink significantly in the wash, resulting in an odd fit that's tight in all the wrong places.
The boys' version of this Arizona Jean Co. crew-neck tee from JC Penney isn't half bad. True, the 60 percent/40 percent-cotton/poly-blend fabric is on the thin side, but Arizona T-shirt reviews on the JC Penney website call this a good, basic shirt that lends itself to layering. Shrinkage was a negligible quarter-inch of shoulder-to-hem length after several wash and dry cycles. The fit was decent, if not spectacular, and we got the $14 shirt on sale for a mere $3.
The men's Arizona slub crew-neck tee ($12) was a different story. The fabric of this shirt was on the thin side and had a textured weave that our shirt model called "slightly scratchy." Online reviewers, though, universally approved of the feel of the fabric, describing it as soft and comfortable. One JC Penney T-shirt review points out that the thin, 100 percent cotton fabric makes this shirt a good pick for hot weather.
The fit of the men's Arizona tee was not as well received as the fabric. Some reviewers posting on the JC Penney site say the tee is cut on the smaller side, and another buyer calls the fit just plain odd. Our tester agreed that the fit of this crew-neck was off-base. After laundering, the sleeves and chest tightened up considerably, resulting in noticeable pulling across the chest. The top of the tee, however, seemed to relax and widen; the neck loosened and looked stretched out. The T-shirt also shrank in length. After a starting shoulder-to-hem measurement of 29 inches, the men's size-large shirt lost a full 1.75 inches. The resulting shoulder-to-hem length of only 27.25 inches made this men's tee the shortest we tested.
In the end, our tester summed up the men's Arizona T-shirt by saying, "This isn't really what I want when I think about putting on a comfortable T-shirt." The tee shrank excessively in the wash, leading to an inconsistent and unflattering fit. And while the boys' shirt was OK, the material was a little too thin for our liking.
Where to buy
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.