Ah, New Year's Eve.

Remember when you were five years old, and you rang in the new year by doing a fake countdown with your parents at 9 p.m., banging on some pots, kissing everyone goodnight, and hitting the sack, waking up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to start anew?

There was no crushing pressure to have the most epic night of your life. And that elusive perfect outfit? Footie pajamas.

Every year, I find it more and more difficult to procure this perfect outfit, a phenomenon I attribute to the following:

1. I've learned to care about my budget, and an expensive dress I'll only wear once isn't in it. My first New Year's Eve out of college, I purchased a beautiful cocktail dress for my "I'm a real adult living in the big city" debut. It cost two-thirds of my spending money for the week, and I've worn it only one other time, to last year's NYE shindig. People who are good at numbers will tell you I should have done a more thorough cost-benefit analysis.

2. The statement I want my dress to make has changed. As age 21 gets further away, a dress that says, "I'm a sure thing" becomes less appropriate (and might I add, less attractive). Now we're looking more for "I'm a definite possibility, but you'll have to buy me dinner first."

3. Real fashion rules do not apply. On the other 364 days of the year, it's fine to go to McDonald's in jeans and a grandpa cardigan. Not on New Year's Eve. On New Year's Eve, people sparkle in the windows of restaurants with plastic ketchup bottles on the tables, bare-legged despite freezing temperatures, wearing more makeup than Kim Kardashian at a pro football game.

It's a weird style moment, New Year's Eve. It actually illustrates perfectly that the little black dress is a wardrobe non-negotiable. Every woman, no matter her age, can throw on her tried-and-true black shift dress and walk right out the door looking fabulous. Of course, few of us have the discipline to wear something we wear all the time on a night when we're supposed to look extra-special, so here are some other options.

My favorite solution is the form-fitting cotton mini-dress, which is especially perfect if you're just attending a house party or going out to dinner. It's comfortable but festive, especially if you choose a bright color, and usually the cheapest option because there's no fancy beadwork or expensive fabric. It can be dressed up with strappy heels and an evening clutch or dressed down with a blazer and booties, or even tights.

Another way to go is the bandage dress, modeled after Herve Leger's iconic style, which has popped up on everyone from Blake Lively to Christina Aguilera this year. It's fancier than the cotton mini-dress, better for a swankier event, but both show off your figure without showing too much.

When you're shopping for either style, it's important to be careful about the fit. Exhibit A: Christina Aguilera at the American Music Awards. Both styles can be unflattering if you're going with a cheaper version, or if you refuse to buy the larger size you may actually need.

If all you really care about is ringing in 2012 with sparkle, go for a sequined tank dress. Another hot style of late, it's the modern take on a 1920s flapper dress. A less expensive version of this style definitely exists, but make sure to scrutinize the sequins or beadwork - you don't want to unravel in the middle of the champagne toast. This is also a good choice if you plan on a big meal or several cocktails, as it's more forgiving in the midsection. And let's be real: the first thing you'll do in the new year is look at those pictures from last night.

If you're recycling a dress from last year, the one-shoulder tulip dress continues to enjoy a comfortable position at the top of the style heap. Change up any oldie-but-goodie with different shoes and accessories, or perhaps a new makeup look or hairstyle.

And finally, remember that New Year's Eve is a night of beauty inflation, and if you don't feel like you look your best there will be 364 other chances. Besides, as much as we love to pull out all the stops, life's best moments actually happen when you're hanging out with friends or family, wearing the grown-up equivalent of footie pajamas.

(E-mail Kristyn Schiavone at kschiavone@tribune.com, or write to her c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.)