thrift store

12 tips for thrift store shopping

by Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

If you don’t yet shop at thrift stores, why not?  If you picture dingy floors, bad lighting, and torn clothing heaped together, you might be surprised.  There are a few like that in every town, I’m sure, but for the most part, they are a veritable gold mine of unclaimed wealth.

With the sketchy economy, it’s a no-brainer way to save money.  But even when the economic situation is in full bloom, it is a practical, reasonable, and easy way to stretch your family’s dollars.  If your family lives on one income, and you’re the home manager assigned the job of managing the spending, then consider shopping at thrift stores your income contribution – you’d be surprised at the money saved.

I always shop at Goodwill, Salvation Army, or St. Vincent de Paul’s before heading to the “regular” stores – and nine times out of ten, I don’t even need to hit the regular stores.  Here are some tips for getting the most out of your thrift store shopping experience.

1. Go in with a plan…

Know ahead of time what you need. Sometimes they can be a bit overwhelming, and each location has its own organizing system, making it a bit challenging to find what you need.  So if you go knowing you’re looking for 12-24 month-old boy’s khakis, and size 8 black dress shoes, it can be a lot less stressful.

2. …But be open-minded

That said, keep your eyes open for any surprising deals.  It’s hit-or-miss with thrift stores, so sometimes you really hit the jackpot of gear your family truly needs.  If you weren’t necessarily shopping for swimsuits, but you see a darling one in your daughter’s size this summer, then snag it up.  You need to make sure what you find is actually something you need – otherwise, you’re just buying clutter, and you’re not saving money.  Even so, think outside just your immediate family, and consider your extended family, your friends, or unexpected gift ideas.  You could find birthday gifts for all your nieces and nephews, or you might find throw pillows in just the right shade your friend is looking for.

Photo by Barry Smith

3. Look for quality brands…

The older I get, the less the inexpensive brands work for me – I wish they did, but Old Navy clothes rarely fit me well.  Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, or Calvin Klein, however, usually fit me like a glove.  Because over 90% of my wardrobe comes from thrift stores, I can afford these quality brands.  You’d be surprised the amount of well-made, expensive clothing is hiding in thrift shops, just waiting to found. You have to dig for it, but it’s there.  My kids can wear Baby Gap and Gymboree, thanks to thrift stores.

4. …But also try new brands

Keep in mind, however, that there might be some quality pieces in brands you’ve never heard of, or with the tags completely missing.  Check for holes, stains, missing buttons, and loose seams, and pass on something if it looks pretty worn or stretched out.  But sometimes the brands you don’t know are actually really high-end European brands, well worth their money.

5. Try things on

Always try things on.  Just because it’s a beautiful silk Ann Taylor skirt doesn’t mean you should buy it.  If it doesn’t fit well, then it’s a needless purchase and will only clutter your closet. And different brands size things differently, so you can’t assume anything by the number on the tag.

6. Don’t go with kids

Sure, you may have to bring them sometimes.  But if you’re armed with a detailed list, it can be hard to get much accomplished at a thrift store when you have little ones to watch.  Shopping at thrift stores means having to sift through lots of aisles of crammed-full racks. If you have to bring your kids, plan on just shopping one of the store’s sections, and then come back another day to shop the rest.

7. Know your local store’s sale days

Many local Salvation Army stores have half-off Wednesdays.  Other stores have similar days, so call and ask for their regular sale schedule.  A $4 pair of shoes is cheap, but when they’re $2 – even better!

8. If you really need something, ask

If you’re in the market for a very specific item, and you’ve been returning to the store for several weeks in search of it, it wouldn’t hurt to ask an employee to keep their eye out for it.  You can’t expect them to bend over backwards, because thrift stores usually have piles of items that come in unexpectedly.  But if you let them know you’re looking for a light purple Ralph Lauren wool scarf, and then see one come by, then maybe they’ll remember you.

Photo by Cullen Barker

9. Find ways to repurpose

Think creatively when you thrift shop. I was looking for a Christmas tree skirt a few weeks ago, but I happened upon a perfect vintage tablecloth with red and green flowers.  It was thick, durable canvas with a beautiful red fringed border – and it will work better as a tree skirt than I had originally planned.  Sheets make great curtain liners, and mismatched silverware and dishes work well in a play kitchen.

10. Stockpile; think long-term

We don’t need to buy clothes for our kids for a long time, because my mother-in-law has containers of boys and girls clothes of all sizes waiting to be grown into.  She stops by thrift stores weekly, and is always on the lookout for her grandkids’ clothes.  We’re probably set for at least two years, because she thinks longer-term when she thrift shops.  If you have the storage to stockpile, then consider your family’s long-term needs.

11. Go often

If you don’t find anything one week, try again in a few weeks.  A stores’ inventory changes constantly, so you might strike gold one week, and come up with nothing the next.  Make thrift store shopping part of your regular home management routine.

12. Go with cash

Finally, leave your debit card at home.  When you’re armed with cash, you’ll be more selective with your purchases, and will therefore think more level-headedly about the value of items.  When you stick to a budget, then thrift stores are a money-saver.  When you go way over, then you’re buying more than you need – emptying your wallet and filling your closets.  Aim for the opposite.

What are your thrift store techniques? I know several of you have written about your thrift store experiences, so please share the link with your comment below.

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  1. My husband and I are thrift-shop partners, occasionally competing to see who can get the best deal for the week. :) I can’t recall the last time we paid retail for anything, we just think of it as our contribution to recycling. Giving something old a new life with us!

  2. Great tips! I just went to the thrift store near me for their 50% off sale and scored a ton of things for my new baby.
    Here’s the low down of what I found!

  3. avatar
    Second Hand Rose says:

    Thrift shopping for me is the thrill of the hunt. Will I find depression glass, red satin shoes, a quilt worn just enough, a wool coat, vintage jewelry? I have found this and much more. I can honesly say my favorite things are items from thrift stores.

  4. Great comments. I have been a thriftier all my life. Recently I had the same blouse as a friend who bought it retail on clearance cheaper. I don’t care only about the money I save because consignment stores help my local economy. When wearing a very cool jacket I met a woman who said; “did you get that at ‘Repeat Boutique?’ ‘Yeah, I said, is it yours? Do you want it back?’ ‘No, she said, I have a white cat always getting hair on the black fabric, but I hoped it would go to a watercolorist’. You know this is just fun!

  5. Hey girls I found this store. Its like a second hand store for men woman and kids. Check it out

  6. Love your tips! I recently had a fun find at a consignment store (an electronic Yamaha keyboard and stand) for my kids, and now plan to shop consignment stores more frequently — why buy retail when you can purchase slightly used! I plan to include some of your tips on my website, Thanks for the post!

  7. Value Center Thrift Store!
    Mondays- Senior Day 25% OFF ENTIRE STORE
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    BE OPEN MINDED! and BE PATIENT! Just because you didnt see anything you liked 1 day doesnt mean you wont like 50 things teh nest!! you NEVER know what WILL BE THEIR!

  8. I absolutely love shopping. Great tips! Great blog.

  9. I know a lot about shoes and I have expensive taste. I go into a thrift store… I look at the shoes.. A shoe with a leather upper and leather sole is usually a high quality brand. If it says made in Italy I’ll google it.. If its an expensive shoe, buy it. I go home and list them on eBay and sometimes make 3 to 17x what I pay for them. It’s my job but it hardly seems like hard work. :)

  10. I agree on you on that, I plan first before thrift shopping. I plan on what to buy first and my priorities. I also bring with me enough cash so that I could be able to avail of great finds. Thanks for the tips! Happy shopping!

  11. I’m gonna pop some tags only got $20 in my pocket

  12. My daugher and I always shop at thrift stores. We have found some fantastic items that we either keep and use around the house or we resell the items online. We just started on a new website to resell our great finds and wanted to pass along the deals:
    Check it out and pass along our name to friends and family – you never know what you’ll find!!

  13. avatar
    Amanda-Beth says:

    If you know how to sew you can turn that wonderful men’s shirt thats to big into skirt for self or dress for your daughter. Example: So your daughter or maybe younger sister needs a dres for sime reason she is 4 really choices are slm and she’s active si few choices their are just going to get ripped you see the perfect color or pattern in en’s printed T-shirt snag it and turn it inti dress. Its less likely to get ripped and you won’t pull hair out if dose or if it gets stained as didn’t spend that much and the girl has a dress. So in short if you have some sewing skill and you know young girl whom needs a dress or you could use a more rugged skirt look at men’s shirts.

  14. I LOVE shopping at thrift stores! And when someone compliments me on my clothes, I love the surprised look on their face when I say, “Thanks…I got my outfit at Salvation Army.” :-)

    I ditto the tip about not bringing little ones along, if at all possible. Thrift store shopping requires more time and concentration than department store shopping. It can be VERY frustrating and defeating with young ones. However, it can be a lot of FUN with older kids…and teaches them the value of spending money wisely and making good use of someone else’s cast-offs. My 13-year-old daughter and I love thrift store shopping together! :-)

  15. avatar
    lynne moore says:

    We shop thrift stores here – don’t forget school/office supplies. Three-ring binders are very expensive and a slightly used one works just fine for a buck. Plus my daughter used to want to write all over them and only use them for 1 semester. No problem if they are only a buck (or less).

    And the best part about thrift store clothing? They are already broken in. Jeans and ts are already soft and comfy.

    Last year for the holidays, I picked out a glass or mug with each person’s personality in mind and then filled it with trinkets. From adults to kids.

  16. I keep a blog about thrift store shopping. You can check it out at (see website)

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