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Tote Bag vs Shoulder Bags: 10 Differences That Matter

Tote Bag vs Shoulder Bags: 10 Differences That Matter

Whether I’m on the hunt for a new tote bag or shoulder bag I’m always trying to match practicality with comfort and style.

When I’m choosing a good quality tote or shoulder bag I need a bag that is durable and can withstand day to day wear and tear. Whether I’m grocery shopping or taking my kids to the beach I need a reliable, durable, and of course stylish bag.

Like most women, I have several good quality totes and shoulder bags depending on what my plans are for the day. I know some women don’t like to use tote bags because they can be too large and bulky for everyday use, while others, like me, love them. I find they are very convenient for “toting” things around. I know…lol

If your trying to decide whether you want a good quality tote bag or shoulder bag, or maybe one of each, here are some of the key differences between the two to help you decide.

Straps and Handles

A shoulder bag or handbag has one strap, usually leather, and two handles whereas a tote bag has the standard two straps. Some people prefer the appearance and functionality of just one strap on a shoulder bag because it can be worn over the shoulder or across the body.

I do find across the body is nice because it evenly distributes the weight between your back and shoulder.

What I also like about shoulder and handbags is not only can they be worn crossbody, you can just as easily carry it on your shoulder or in the crook of your arm. You can also adjust the straps on all shoulder bags, whereas the majority of tote bags don’t have adjustable straps.

A tote bag has the standard two long handles or straps so you can carry the bag on your shoulder. Although there are some smaller cloth tote bags that you can be carried in the crook of your arm, but I find this uncomfortable.

Also, tote bag handles can handle a lot more weight since the bags are larger and designed for carrying a lot of belongings.

Interior Design

There is a wide variety of interior designs for shoulder and handbags. In general, they are more versatile than totes for keeping your belongings organized and secure. A good quality shoulder bag will have a variety of pockets and sections, zippered and unzippered, for storing your belongings.

Shoulder and handbags are far better for keeping your wallet, makeup, phone, keys, etc. more secure and easily organized as compared to a tote bag. Tote bags are just not really meant for that purpose.

Tote bags usually have one large open area for you to stuff everything you need into. You can fit a lot of belongings into a tote bag, but you can’t really keep small items well organized. In fact, you can easily loose your stuff at the bottom, it’s actually pretty annoying when your digging around and can’t find something.

Although some of the more expensive tote bags now have inside pockets for more convenience.

Material and Fabrics

The most common materials used for shoulder bags is either leather or nylon, with leather being the most popular. Whereas with tote bags there is leather, nylon, canvas, and cloth.

The best material for shoulder bags is obviously leather but I also have a nylon shoulder bag that is great for everyday use and I use to carry my laptop in. Nylon is also a durable and more affordable alternative to leather.

But the possibilities are endless with different materials and styles of handbags, and really comes down to personal preference and budget.

Most tote bags used for everyday use like shopping, trips to the beach or parks are made with canvas or cloth. These are durable materials that are easily cleaned and are well suited for everyday use.

Also, there are medium and large leather tote bags which are great for everyday use and in some cases quite affordable. But I don’t use my leather totes for trips to the beach since water and sand will ruin them.

I do like leather totes for shopping and everyday use since they are little more stylish compared to my canvass and cloth tote bags. When choosing the type of material for my totes and handbags I’m always trying to balance durability and style with affordability. Of course, affordability is always the hardest when I see a really nice tote or handbag design.

Shape and Structure

Tote bags have the standard square and rectangular shape but are usually quite large. Totes will have the standard two matching handles on either side, otherwise it wouldn’t really be considered a tote bag. Totes are basically big open pouches so you can “tote around” bulky items. I know…I did it again…

There are some smaller totes available now, but they are not as popular or as convenient as the standard sized tote bag.

There is way more styles and designs available for shoulder bags and handbags compared to classic totes. They don’t have the same boxy or squarish design as a regular tote bag. When I think of a shoulder bag, I picture a bag with a flap or zipper intended to hold a lot less of my personal items in comparison to a tote.

Versatility and Convenience

Since both tote bags and shoulder bags are really designed for different purposes, I find both very convenient depending on what my plans are for the day.

When going to the beach, or park tote bags are hands down far more versatile and convenient compared to a shoulder bag. You can stuff your towels, sunhats, sunscreen, flip flops, extra clothes, well you get the idea, into a tote.

Totes are just an overall great travel bag for weekend getaways or just day trips by yourself or with your kids. They’re a great baby bag, for carrying your belongings to work, and some teachers really love them.

It’s hard to beat the functionality and convenience of a good quality tote bag especially with the ease of access to your stuff with the wide-open tops.

Now, handbags and shoulder bags have a more limited use. They are meant for carrying your money, keys, purse, makeup, and other small personal items. They are just not meant for the same types of uses as a tote bag.

Storage Capacity

This is an obvious difference between the average tote bag and shoulder bag. Tote bags are much larger than a standard handbag and are designed to carry way more stuff. There is no arguing the amount of stuff you can put in a tote bag as compared to a shoulder bag.

This is the reason why tote bags can be far more convenient for everyday use in comparison to a shoulder bag or handbag. Now you can get larger shoulder bags but again they are not really meant for carrying a lot of belongings to the beach, picnics, trips to the park, etc.

Closures and Flaps

Most tote bags are open top without any type of closure.  This allows for easy access to your belongings and much easier to dig to the bottom. There are tote bags that have zippered tops, and in some cases, some people will sew their own zippers on.

But this really comes down to personal preference, some women love the open top, while others prefer some form of zipper or magnetic clasp. Women who use public transit or are in more urban areas usually prefer zipper top totes because of the added security against thieves.

Of course, zippers due tend to get stuck or break so that is one disadvantage with having a zipper on your tote. Especially if you have a lot of belongings in your tote, this can put a lot of pressure on the zipper and make it stick.

Pretty much all shoulder bags and handbags have some form of closure such as: zippers, classic flap, snap, or magnetic clasp. It wouldn’t really be a shoulder bag without some kind of closure to keep your belongings secure.

Different Sizes

Classic tote bags are commonly much larger than a shoulder bag or handbag. Although there are smaller totes available, they aren’t as popular. Totes are meant to be large square or rectangular bags that can carry a lot of your stuff.

There is a wide variety of different sizes for shoulder bags but usually most commonly are either medium or large. Shoulder bags are a more compact option compared to tote bags.

Style and Fashion Tips  

Your shoulder bag length, shape and size will often determine how you will look wearing it. It’s always a good idea to have your handbag’s size in proportion to your body type.

  1. Petite or short women look shorter when carrying large bags and will look taller when carrying smaller bags.
  2. Tall women with a slim figure look fabulous with a midsize or large bag. Its not recommended to wear smaller bags if your tall since they will make you appear larger.
  3. Pay attention to the length of the bag and where the bottom hits your body. Where the bottom of the bag hits will emphasize that region of your body.
  4. This is a more classic tip fashion tip. You can’t go wrong with matching your handbag with your belt and shoes.
  5. The bags that every woman should have in their wardrobe is a medium sized shoulder or handbag, a large shopper or tote bag for the weekend, and a classic handbag for your evenings out.

DIY Friendly and Custom Designs

Tote bags are far more DIY friendly compared to your average shoulder or handbag. Shoulder bags are far more difficult to make for the average consumer since most are made with leather.

Leather is a difficult material to work with compared to canvas or cloth that totes are commonly made from. You need quite a lot of sewing experience and equipment to be designing and making your own shoulder or handbags.

Now with tote bags there is a ton of guides online on how to make your own personalized tote bag. Totes are very easily customized especially canvas or cloth tote bags.

You can make them zipper topped, open top or pretty much use any type of iron on design you can think of. You can even make your own iron on designs or simply order premade ones.

You can even just purchase premade canvas tote bags and personalize them however you wish. The sky really is the limit when it comes to designing and making your own tote bags.

Here is a great video showing you how to make your own tote bag:

Canvas totes can be made with lovely prints and patterns and are a great reusable shopping bag.

Although you cannot necessarily DIY shoulder and handbags, there is a very wide variety of custom designs available. There is shoulder bags with custom designs based on your job, sports, hobbies, pretty much anything you can think of.

Here at Rebels Depot we offer a wide variety of different custom designed shoulder bags and tote bags that may interest you.

Price and Affordability

Tote bags tend to be more affordable than a standard shoulder or handbag. Of course, like anything it depends on the type of material your bag is made with. But in most cases, you’re not going to be paying a ton of money for a tote bag that you take to the park or beach.

Now a shoulder or handbag are usually made with leather and can be far more expensive. There is a lot of affordable options when it comes to shoulder bags and here at Rebels Depot, we have quite a few affordable handbags available. But our shoulder bags are a bit more expensive than our standard totes.

I won’t even get into the cost of high-end designer bags. A fairly simple leather tote bag by a big-name designer can cost upwards of $1000.00 and cost much much more for a handbag.

Related Questions

Can you iron a tote bag safely? You can iron a canvas tote bag by simply spraying the tote with a little water and using a handheld iron. Ironing with steam is also effective at removing wrinkles. In both cases the iron needs to be on the highest temperature setting. To avoid scorching cover with a damp towel or Teflon paper.

Why do tote bags not have zippers? Having a zipper on a tote bag ruins the design and even cheapens it. The zipper will often get snagged on clothing, get stuck or even break especially totes with shorter strap drops. Finally, a zipper makes it less convenient to just reach in and grab your stuff.