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The Thrift Store Can Be Your (Nearly Free) Storage Unit

The other day, my friend said something unassuming and uneventful, but it stuck with me for weeks and has changed the way I think about some stuff.

She and her family live in an incredibly small-but-functional space, so Kyle (my husband) asked her if she also has a storage unit somewhere in town. She doesn’t. “So I guess you just live with exactly what you need and nothing more?”

Her answer: “Yep. I figure if I ever need anything, I can easily head to the thrift store and buy it. I think of the thrift store as my storage unit.”

My mind exploded just a bit.

I loved this. Instead of storing extra stuff, she enjoys the beauty of small-space living by spending a few dollars when she absolutely has to have something she doesn’t yet own. Her cost of living is small, so paying $3.99 or whatever for a [fill in the blank] is no big deal—especially because the thrift store is kindly “storing” it for her, rent-free.

Okay, so yes, the thing’s availability is sort of a crapshoot. But unless it’s a really unusual object, it’s still worth the freedom of not owning something you hardly use. And if she finds she needs the thing on a regular basis, then boom—she keeps it and it’s in her house, problem solved.

This, to me, is the best answer to one of the most common questions I get when people confide in me their struggles with decluttering: “But I hate to get rid of something, because what if I ever need it?”

Unless it’s near impossible to replace, and unless you use it all the time, there’s really no need to hold on to excess (meaning, more than you need) just in case—especially when that “just in case” almost never actually happens.

I believe that that objection to living with less is mostly about fear—a fear wrapped around what if? What if I need it, so I have to buy it again? What if I get rid of it and then I can’t ever find a replacement? What if I get rid of it, and then the person who gave it to me feels hurt?

True, these things may happen. But really, are these the worst things? If so, then: 1. So you buy it again—and if you got rid of it because you truly never used it, then odds are, this probably won’t happen, 2. If it’s a common object, it’s most likely everywhere, and 3. Most of the time, that issue is about them, not you.

There is indescribable freedom to owning only what you truly, really, honestly need. I’ll take that beauty over the risk of “but what if?” any day. I’m now thinking of the local thrift stores as my storage units. If I need that thing, I’ll just go buy it. But odds are, I probably won’t, and I’m exchanging that risk for a more clutter-free life.

Instead of keeping something just in case, think of the thrift store as a rent-free storage unit with a tiny pay-per-use fee. Keep only what you need, and enjoy a clutter-free life.

p.s. 3 questions to ask when you declutter toys.

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  1. Laura

    In the Netherlands there’s an app for borrowing things from people in your neigbourhood, called Peerby. I guess it’s from a similar idea (Dutch homes in the cities can be quite small and many people don’t have cars). I’ve only just signed up and haven’t needed anything yet, so i can’t vouch for it’s use, but i did see requests for things like a tent or a 3-meter ladder. It strikes me as even better than the thriftstore 🙂

    • Tsh

      That sounds cool!

    • Janet

      I’ve often thought the same thing but I also wonder how you would keep others from keeping the item and/or not returning it, people being people and all.

      • Northmoon

        Your worry about them not returning it is not the point. Let them keep it and store it, you just ask to borrow it when you need it. The clutter is in someone else’s basement or garage!

    • Crys

      What a wonderfully helpful plan!

  2. Jo

    I find it so hard to know what to keep & donate with baby clothes. I have a 2 year old and 10 week old and as I got ready for number two I swear i took 6 bags of stuff to donate and I didn’t buy any of it! I have twin boy nephews and I am so blessed to get all their stuff but they’re 3 years older. It’s great quality stuff but too much darlink! And you never know what season it’ll be when it fits them. A nice problem to have generous family but also a storage issue.

  3. Bron

    Awesome thought…I knew there was a good reason I was drawn to the thrift stores for the majority of my purchases.

  4. Leanne

    I think for me, it’s about the convenience of knowing I can quickly find something I need. Going out and buying something every time I needed it would drive me crazy. I believe in simplifying, but I think relying on the thrift store would be taking it a bit too far for my comfort level.

    • Tsh

      But this is only for items you really never use. It’d drive me crazy, too, to always go to the store. This is for those things you keep because you might use, but in the five years you’ve owned it, you’ve used exactly once.

  5. Alison

    Love this! When you take into account my friends’ houses, Craigslist, etc. as well, my storage unit is the size of a small city 😉 The power of asking has astonished me the few times I’ve tried it, especially in this info tech age

  6. Suse Fish

    Love this idea. How much of our stuff do we keep ‘just in case’? That handbag we use for a wedding once in a blue moon, for example?

    I’ve tried de-cluttering my daughter’s stuff this week but its not going so well… I’ve been trying your ‘toy purgatory’ trick where she only gets things back if she can spot what’s missing. Trouble is, the child has a memory like nothing else! All week it’s been, “Where is my Barbie phone/tiger keyring/old train ticket?”

    • sunny

      I was like your daughter as a child. My things were important to me. I found out later from a book called The Five Love Languages that “gifts” is one of my love languages – I feel loved when people buy little things (or big things) for me. A niece and nephew are the same way. They can tell you who bought you each item they own – and where it came from. “My papa bought me this tea set when he was in Thailand!” 🙂 So your daughter might place more importance on certain things than it appears to you. Can she tell you what is important to you and what things you can bless others with?

      • Anitra

        I have one kid who is happy to occasionally get rid of stuff, but I have to play hardball with my oldest. She wants to keep EVERYTHING (and, like yours, has a great memory). When I’m at the end of my rope, I will give her a hard restriction (like “you can keep only as many art supplies as fit in this box” or “no, only 5 Barbie/fairy dolls. If you want to keep this new one, you have to get rid of one.”) There’s still complaining, but less… and it lets HER make the decision about what is important to keep.

  7. Becky @ bybmg

    Yes! I think about this with clothes! I find so many awesome steals at Goodwill. We don’t do a whole lot of other stuff shopping there, but lately we’ve done a lot of giving! Thrift stores are where it’s at!

  8. Lauren Hanson

    Yes! I’ve never really shopped a thrift store for things I really need. Just for things to add on to what I already have. What a great way to think about objects that you don’t really need that take a lot of space. I have a friend who only shops at Goodwill for clothes. She can definitely afford to shop else where. She has a motto, “yesterday’s trash, today’s treasure.” I’m not there yet.

    • Abbie

      That’s me! I had a friend tease me recently because I bought a new shirt! (It was an exception since it was my friend’s band’s t-shirt!)

  9. Sarah M

    Totally agree. When we moved from the midwest (flea market & thrifting heaven) to the PNW, I was a little nervous that our scores would be over. Not so, we just had to go to a lot of places and see what was good and what wasn’t. We recently found a place that we picked up the following: a brand-new and stylish work shirt for my husband (who literally has just one work shirt per day of the workweek), a needed children’s waterbottle, a squash ball, and my find–a mint-condition Zara shirt in my size for $5. I’d say spending under $10 for all of that useful and necessary things for us is a steal! I actually like the hunt. 🙂
    Sarah M

  10. Disquisitive Chris

    I love this! As we go through our entire house for the dematerialization revolution, (it’s slow-going), the hardest part is the sentimental stuff. Our children are attached to everything. We are attached to about 1/4 of that stuff and it’s still too much. I have little to nothing of my childhood as I was tossed from home to home until I was adopted at 15 so I don’t want to give away their memories (i.e. their crib and wooden rocking horse). Am I missing a simple answer for this stuff?

    • Tsh

      That stuff can be tough, I agree. When it comes to art, I like to keep three things per kid, per year (it’s not black and white, it’s just a guesstimate): one that reflects their artistic prowess, one that shows their handwriting, and one with a tracing of their hand.

      As far as sentimental “things,” I think it’s easy to equate the thing with the memory, when the thing itself doesn’t actually hold the memory. Our brain does. So we’re scared that we’ll forget something special if we toss away something from that memory, or we’re somehow saying it wasn’t important. For things I want to get rid of, I might take a photo of it—much, much easier to store. And it serves the purpose of holding on to something for sentimental reasons—we just want to look at it. We don’t really want to use it. So a photo works just as well.

      Now, of course I’m not talking about valuable antiques or family heirlooms. Those, I keep (though I really don’t have many things that qualify as that!). But if it’s just a thing, then I snap a pic and send away.

      • Marie

        I love this! I always tell people the thrift store is just a rental place. Why buy a punch bowl for a baby shower when you can just “rent” one at the thrift store for a few dollars, then donate it right back when you are done with it? We “rent” books for summer holidays, rather than have to worry about due dates at the library when we are away for 6 weeks. We “rent” chairs when we have a big crowd over, and then just donate them right back.

      • Chris K.

        Thanks Tsh! Thanks for this wisdom. We do take some pictures now. I’ve been able to let go of more now than I used to…especially art stuff. Its the letters of honors and projects they’ve spent hours on that I feel so guilty about. I do notice with time, I feel less attached so I go back through bins from a year or two ago and am able to weed through more. Getting there – I’ll keep trying. 🙂
        Thanks again!

        • Tsh

          That’s honestly a pretty good plan. Sorta like that saying about time + tragedy = comedy, it could be a case of time + emotional attachment = freely letting go.

      • Gramma D

        For art stuff…how about taking a picture of it and eventually make a photo book of their art. Especially useful for those big oversize pieces that are difficult to store?

    • Holly

      I DO believe in keeping memory boxes even though I love simple living. I don’t think a photo ever does to your brain what touching/feeling the outfit your baby came home from the hospital in does. So I just set limits- one box for memories. Has to fit in the box. When our foster children left our home of course I had a million photos but I allowed myself 1 thing each for each child- barrettes from our little girl and the winter hat our little boy arrived in. My daughter’s box has her coming home outfit from the hospital. Whenever I get those things out, I’m transported back to that day I was introduced to my children. If you are able to prioritize (that means not hoard everything but choose a select few special items), this method could work for you.

      • Tsh

        Oh, for sure – we keep some things in small boxes, too. I have my kids’ first baby shirts, a few keepsakes from special moments, etc. I’m not referring to those one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable objects. I’m referring to the random souvenirs, the drawings, the seldom-played with stuffed animals, etc.

  11. Sarah Westphal

    I finally just got to donate our ‘just in case’ bedding…that we haven’t needed nor used in FOUR years(!). Man, that felt good. A new immigrant family is using it and we couldn’t be happier. Because that is what it comes down to: your ‘extra’ or ‘just-in-case” stuff can actually benefit others who Need it and will Use it. Rather than it take up space (both mental and physical) in your home.

    After 7-9 years of de-cluttering, we are finally getting to that place of “Enough”. There is no price on that. I can take Stuff Manager off my list of duties and just enjoy what we have chosen to keep. (and probably get rid of more later on should we choose, but what we have now isn’t taking up any more of our time or mental energy to keep) With a baby on the way in June and we have a 1 year old, 2 year old & 4 year old already, who wants more to look after?

    Love living simply!

  12. Yin

    Love this idea and post! We just moved and downsized a year ago. Had to throw out a lot of possessions. One strategy was to really keep only what we regularly use. Some stuff we gave to relatives and friends and told them we will borrow them back in the rare occasions when we need them! The harder stuff to part with in my opinion were those with sentimental value. We took photos and scrap booked these in order to be ‘able’ to part with them. We also used a storage unit for nine months – took that time to gradually and completely give up the last of the stuff that could not fit in our new home. After not seeing those stuff for nine months we were more able to give them up! 🙂

    • Gramma D

      It is emotionally hard to let go. Sometimes I ask myself “would I. replace this with insurance money if our house burned down?” If not then it can’t be that important.

  13. robin simpson

    Love this! I also think of the library as my book storage.

    • Tsh


    • Chelsea

      Me too!

    • Sarah M


    • Abbie

      Yes! Just yesterday my daughter came home with the book order form from school. I let her put all the ones she wanted on hold at the library!

  14. Heart and Haven

    Great post, and so true! I’m expecting baby #5 (and most likely last one) and found out it’s a boy. I finally brought of all my daughter’s outgrown clothes (newborn – 4T) to our tax deductible “storage unit” 😉 Soooo many clothes, many I had bought really cheaply as big lots from craigslist, but now 5 more Rubbermaid bins emptied from our garage, yeah! Little by little I’m clearing out items from the garage that have been things I’ve been reluctant to get rid of.
    Maybe I should charge myself rent for the rest of the items stored in the garage (per sq. ft. of space)….perhaps that would motivate me to only keep items that I’ll need and use! lol.

  15. Sharon Holbrook

    Very clever! While I still have a long way to go, I have decluttered a lot for many years, and I cannot think of one instance where I regretted a donation. (My children, on the other hand, do have a memory like one of the other commenters above, though, and DO regret that their mother declutters!)

    Now, if I got minimalist, I think it would arise more often that I need/really want something that I’ve donated. Some things are easy to find at a thrift store. There are always full shelves of vases and dishware, and breadmakers seem to multiply there. Others, though, are not so easy. I’ve never seen a Kitchenaid stand mixer, so I’d be hard-pressed to replace mine if need be. (Not that I would – I adore and use it too much!) However, I could borrow one in a pinch from any number of friends. So maybe a combination of borrowing/lending and thrift store replacement could work well.

    Great food for thought!

    • Tsh

      Yeah… those KitchenAid mixers are a keeper. Never getting rid of mine, either. 😉

  16. Kelley

    Small house: less to clean and forced to live only with what matters or is essential. An added bonus: my girls must share a room and now they too are learning they can only keep those things (toys!) they really like.

    The thrift store and borrowing from friends are two ways to keep our consumption and production down. This is a great mantra Tsh. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  17. Katherine

    I think I remember Rachel, at Small Notebook, saying this in regards to Craigslist and kids’ stuff. Instead of storing the big swing, the bouncy seat, whatever- let it go via C’list and then repurchase if you have another child a few years later. Makes so much sense!

    • Tsh

      I remember her saying that, too. 🙂

  18. Teresa

    I am so glad I am not the only one whose thinks this way!! I am always getting things at our Thrift Store and returning them. It probably helps that I volunteer there and am president of our board but we borrow stuff to different organizations and schools all the time. There is no point in everyone having so much “stuff” that gets used so infrequently. We are thinking about starting a tool/party item/etc. borrowing area but space is an issue so we will see where that goes. I love the freedom this type of thinking gives me!

  19. Aleah

    I have found the best way for me to do this is to hold off on truly getting rid of stuff for a few months. If I’m not sure, I put it to the side — out of sight, in my basement or garage — and revisit it in a few months. If I haven’t pulled it out of the box after two or three months’ time, I don’t need to own it! We are still in little kid stage, so other than clothes/tools for any future babies we might have, to the thrift store it goes. Something about not having a kind of “proof test” for whether we use it makes it way easier for me to ditch things, even sentimental things.

    • Tsh

      Yep! We do the same thing.

  20. Marla Taviano

    This is exactly what I do!! Brilliant way to put it.

  21. Tanya

    This is totally something I need to work on. I have more stuff that I know what to do with most of the time.

  22. Rachel Ambler

    I definitely need to have this perspective on most of the things we own. The only thing I have every really regretted giving away has been textbooks (because the ones we gave away were irreplaceable and have been wanted). That’s my only exception. Everything else is up for donation. Just need to actually get to the Thrift store now….

  23. Tara

    I want to love this, because I totally use thrift stores this way. But much of your philosophy rubs me wrong. Specifically, your comments about “objection” coming from “fear”. For much of our country, that fear is not abstract and unrealized. It is very real and present. Owning stuff is insurance. You get a free used lawn mower from your cousin? You could give away your old one, or maybe even sell it for $50. But… If that new used one breaks, you may not be able to find a suitable replacement for it for $50, or you might not even have that $50 that month to buy a new used one. Or maybe your sister will be hard up for one next spring, and you could pass it to her. Or maybe you have a month where you can’t afford to pay the power and phone bills, but all that stuff thats only worth a few bucks apiece could mean a $600 yard sale. Those are day to day realities for many of us, not abstract and unrealized fears. I may be at a place in my life where I can consider thrift shopping to be “renting” my clothes, and I wholeheartedly promote it from an ethical perspective; but I don’t pretend that most of the people in Goodwill with me are there because they can’t afford to do any differently. They can afford a $4.50 pair of used jeans which they will wear until they fall apart, not wear for two months, then return to Goodwill to buy a different pair.

    • Tsh

      I agree with you with some things you’ve mentioned here. Please keep in mind I’m talking about those things that you keep “just in case,” not jeans you wear regularly until they fall apart (which I also do, when I find a good pair).

      Also keep in mind that I’m writing to my audience, and to not to everybody in the entire world, in all situations. Sure, there might be a number of readers who are genuinely living below the poverty line, so the problem of extra clutter, the holding on to things they don’t need just in case one day they might need one doesn’t apply to them. But this post was written for readers who have excess. Stuff they just don’t need.

      Thanks for reading.

  24. Stephanie@Mrs.Debtfighter

    Just had this conversation with a friend yesterday who was talking about her husband hoarding too many things because he “might use it someday.” With Craigslist, thrift stores and good neighbors you don’t really need to hang on to that “someday” stuff. 🙂

  25. Naomi

    The best part is when you return to the thrift shop and the things you “dropped off at the storage unit” are STILL there! Truly speaks to the fact that most likely NO one needs it 🙂

  26. Stacy

    So I am going to print of this post and all of the comments and mail it to some beloved family members and friends (who think my thrift-renting and then returning is a little odd. I am not the only one who thinks or lives this way (it is a relief)! I really was starting to feel like The Last Unicorn;) Great post!

  27. se7en

    Oh this is the best post on earth… this is exactly how I think… I grew up in a home where we saved everything for a rainy day, only that rainy day never came… games, puzzles and art goodies were saved for ever, totally silly!!! Now if we need something we get it, I don’t keep a supply of art materials in case we do a project… or clothes in case a child is going to grow into them in the right season. What you see is what we have and there is nothing else. It just works for us.

  28. Asta

    Another benefit to “renting” from the thrift store is that you might get to choose something you like even better when the time comes! I was holding on to some decor items for “someday” when I realized that they’ll probably be outdated by then. So now they’re off to the thrift store so someone else can use them while they’re still pretty. And on the off chance I need another vase or bedspread or whatever, I’ll get the fun of shopping for exactly what I want at that time.

  29. Eric West | Rethinking the Dream

    I blogged about something similar a couple of weeks ago – Awesome! In that post I talked about how we have many small warehouses within our house. Think of the spare parts in the garage or junk drawer, the clothes that the kids will grown into, the extra craft supplies. We have a limited amount of space in our homes, so why should we act like a warehouse to hold all that stuff, why not let the store hold it, and you pay a small fee to get it when you need it.

    Using thrift stores make that fee even smaller!

  30. Kendall

    Great thoughts! My husband teases that I rent my clothes from the neighborhood thrift store. I purchase clothes there and donate them a couple of seasons later! Only once have I repurchased one of my donations! I hadn’t given much thought to “renting” household items, but now I am. Thanks for the push- I’m cleaning out cabinets today!

  31. Jlynn

    Two years ago I moved into my current apartment, and for the last year I have been simplifying and donating lots of things. I had never considered using thrift stores in this way.
    I recently realized now my problem is with what is coming in, mostly papers and I am trying to come up with a way to tame that beast as it seems that if I don’t work on it weekly it multiplies faster than rabbits.

    I had a lot of books, a LOT, and I decided I would pull each book out and ask myself this question. “If there was a fire, would I replace this book?” The ones that I answered yes to I kept. The ones I answered no to went to library sales. It’s nice not to have an overcrowded book shelf and now I have room to buy a new book if I decide to, but I’m enjoying more room on my shelves right now.

    • priest's wife @byzcathwife

      now THIS blows my mind! As a homeschooling mom, we have a LOT of books…I am going to ask this question while I declutter

  32. Kathryn

    I outfitted two homes in SC from the thrift stores. Last summer, we moved to Texas with 1/3 of our stuff. The rest got donated or sold, in some cases for much more than I paid for it. It got easier and easier to let go of stuff. I’m just now starting to send things back to the thrift store–I was used to dropping off at least a garbage bag every week. I replaced a few things, but most of the stuff has not been missed.

  33. Rosie

    I love this idea! I first came across it in a thread on Metafilter, in discussion of a guy called James Savage who had an extensive collection of old Macintosh computers. Pastabagel <a href=""repliedCoveting possessions is unhealthy. Here’s how I look at it:

    All of the computers on Ebay are mine. In fact, everything on Ebay is already mine. All of those things are just in long term storage that I pay nothing for. Storage is free.

    When I want to take something out of storage, I just pay the for the storage costs for that particular thing up to that point, plus a nominal shipping fee, and my things are delivered to me so I can use them. When I am done with them, I return them to storage via Craigslist or Ebay, and I am given a fee as compensation for freeing up the storage facilities resources.

    This is also the case with all of my stuff that Amazon and Walmart are holding for me. I have antiques, priceless art, cars, estates, and jewels beyond the dreams of avarice.

    The world is my museum, displaying my collections on loan. The James Savages of the world are merely curators.

    As I am the curator of their things, and thus together we all share the world.

    As a keen op-shopper, I try to keep this in mind!

  34. Jayana

    My only problem with this is availability- when I need a specific but rarely used type of bag or a specific book that I donated two years ago or whatever, I need it *now*. Waiting until goodwill is open and actually finding the right item in time for when I need it is not feasible. But for dinner parties, kids toys, furniture, good idea.

  35. Annie

    I live in the UK and the idea of a minimilistic lifestyle or home is virtually unheard of. Consumerism and Jonesism is rife on this little island of ours!
    However, it’s a way of life I’m keen to adopt and I’ve started decluttering our home as the intention is to downsize to a smaller one in the future.
    My friends think I’m stark raving bonkers for donating so much stuff to the charity shops when I could sell the items, but the feeling of relief I get when I create more space is priceless.
    I sincerely hope that the UK one day wakes up to the USA idea that “less is more”. I adore it!

    • Abbie

      Much of the USA isn’t on board with “less is more” but some of us are!

  36. Mary

    Excellent! I have an entire garage full of STUFF that was just cleaned out from my downstairs area. We are embarking on a HUGE simplification process in our family — I’ve been making multiple trips each week to Goodwill, the thrift store, and to people who I know can use the things that I never do — but somehow have held onto for the 10 years we have lived in our home.

    Love your post. Thank you!

  37. PointSpecial

    My only issue with this is my issue with many things in life… I’m 6’10” 300+ lbs.

    I stopped expecting to walk in ANY store (even big and tall), let alone a hit-or-miss store like a thrift store, and walk out with a purchase that fits me.

    I usually hang on to things that fit… just because it’s nearly impossible to find them!

  38. Chef William

    Great article. In Mexico we walk to the local meat markets and produce markets daily and purchase just what we need for the day. The refrigerator is never over packed leaving us room for the cold water etc. We also are big on visiting the Sunday open air markets where we can find anything we need. And we live in a small house.When people come to visit we sit outdoors. It adds up to about a 30% less cost of living than it cost us during the months we are at our home in Wisconsin each year.

  39. Sharon

    I belong to my local Buy Nothing Facebook Group for this very purpose! It allows me to borrow or ask for an item that I don’t use often enough to store or to justify buying.

  40. Tim

    Hi this was great. Had a similar post which also talked about fear.

    Cleaning out ones garage is actually a spiritual discipline to face fear, uncertainty, scarcity.

  41. Maggie Squarepennies

    LOL, my first thought was the opposite of what you meant. I thought, what a great idea for cheap storage! Just take some items to a consignment shop! No storage fees. If they don’t sell, I know where I can get them if I need them. If they do sell, I probably won’t miss them and I’ll have a littl extra money. Win-win-win! You got me thinking though! Haha.

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