The Ultimate Guide to Thrift Shopping

About a year and a half ago, I started thrift shopping on a whim. After I tried to organize a clothing swap that didn’t happen, I started donating clothes to my local thrift store and selling items I found there online. Little did I know when I started thrift shopping that it would become one of my favorite hobbies of all time. It’s helped me to build a better wardrobe, have a creative outlet, and even earn a little money on the side. If any of these benefits speak to you and you want to try thrift shopping for yourself, here’s a guide to help you get started.

 

WHAT IS THRIFT SHOPPING?

Thrift shopping or simply “thrifting” for short is the act of buying typically second-hand items from a charity or thrift shop. Sellers are often non-profit charitable organizations that sell donated goods at low prices. Note that thrift shops are different from consignment shops, curated second-hand stores, and vintage stores. For the purposes of this guide, though, I consider all of these shops since they sell second-hand items at discounted prices as opposed to what you find in standard retail shops.

 

WHY THRIFT?
 

1) Save money

The biggest benefit of thrifting is that you get more bang for your buck. You save money when you buy second-hand versus new. Consider the cost of a $50 shirt at the department store versus a $5 shirt at Goodwill. You could walk out the store with a bag full of clothes for the cost of one shirt at retail price. And if you’re shopping for children who run through clothes like crazy as they grow and play, you can save on replenishing their wardrobe.

 

2) Shop without (or less) guilt!

Let’s face it, many people love to shop and keep doing it despite knowing that it’s not in their best interest. That leads to a lot of guilt. But when you thrift shop, you’re more likely to stay within your shopping budget or make less of a dent in the wallet. Plus, you can accidentally ruin clothes without feeling guilty about it. When I spilled pen ink on my white cardigan after wearing it only a handful of times, I breathed a sigh of relief that it was only $5.

 

3) Unique clothes and costumes

Thrift stores are the go-to place for Halloween costumes and ugly Christmas sweaters. You can get vintage and specialty clothing for a lot less than at premium vintage stores or brand new. You can also experiment with new clothing items or styles without worrying about wasting too much money on clothes you may never wear again.

 

4) Better for the environment

Reusing clothes longer and household goods until they wear out reduces pollution and waste. When you reuse and recycle clothing, you reduce the amount of textile waste going into landfills. You also reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and insecticides needed to grow materials (e.g., cotton), manufacture materials and products, and then ship products around the world.

 

5) Support local jobs and organizations

When you thrift, you’re better able to determine where your money is going because you’re supporting local communities and organizations.

 

6) It’s entertaining

Many thrift shoppers love the thrill of the hunt and scoring a great find. It’s a scavenger hunt for grown-ups.

 

7) Find a treasure (or at least something new)

While you may be pushing your luck trying to find an undiscovered Van Gogh or Monet for a few dollars, you can regularly find hidden gems worth a lot more than their sale price. Brand name clothing and new clothing with tags are frequently donated and sold for cheap.

 

8) Make money

Make money by turning thrifting into a business. Look for items that are worth more than their sale price and resell them at a higher price for profit. This can help given you some side income or fund your shopping for the things you really want to buy. It may take time to research and learn what sells well, but it’s an easy way to make money with no special skills needed. If you’re interested in doing this, I’ve written about places to sell second-hand items online here.

 

MYTHS AND FACTS

MYTH: Only poor people can and should shop at thrift stores.

FACT: Anyone can shop at thrift stores. Thrift stores exist to make money to support their charities, not to cater to the needs of a certain economic class. And what is the exact amount of income that classifies a person as poor enough or too rich to shop at a thrift store? That’s right; there isn’t one!

 

MYTH: Shopping at thrift stores takes away from poor people who need their goods more.

FACT: There are always new donations coming in so there’s no shortage of clothes and items for sale. Thrift shopping is not a zero-sum enterprise. There’s plenty to go around.

 

MYTH: Thrift stores are smelly and dirty.

FACT: This may be partly true. Thrift stores can look run down or outdated due to the nature of the business. They don’t rent the nicest spaces or hire people to arrange fancy window displays. After having hands on used clothing and other items, your hands will feel dirty because some items have dust or dirt on them and need cleaning. This makes sense since they've likely been used and donated or sitting in people's closets for a long time.

Most stores try to keep a neat appearance. It takes a thick skin to search through the rougher ones. I recommend using hand sanitizer, keeping hands away from your face and eyes while shopping, and washing your hands after shopping. As for the clothes, wash them before wearing them.

 

MYTH: Donated clothes are in bad shape.

FACT: This is also partly true. You have to look carefully before purchasing items because many articles of clothing will have stains, holes, or general wear. But you’ll also find clothes at are new or look new. I regularly find clothes with tags still on them. Children grow out of clothes before they can wear them. Tons of people have clothes they’ve purchased only to never wear them. Ever receive a gift that you didn’t use? All these things get donated. My local Goodwill regularly gets new items donated from Target or other companies after their selling seasons are over. I’ve spotted new pieces (mostly samples) by the brands Reformation, Tobi, and Deep or Shallow in the past year.

 

MYTH: Thrift shopping takes too much time.

FACT: Thrift shopping does take time. You have to sift through racks of clothing and baskets of random items that are not always accurately categorized and arranged. But with time and experience, you’ll learn to work through a thrift store quickly and distinguish quality items from junk within a few seconds of looking at or touching it. Thrifting should be enjoyable. If you’re mindful of the amount of time you have to do it, categorize it as a hobby or leisure activity and allot time to it accordingly.

 

WHERE TO SHOP

These are a few examples of places to shop. A quick online search of thrift stores will help you locate what’s near you.

Goodwill – Goodwill is a non-profit organization that focuses on job training and placement. It also provides jobs to people who have difficulty finding employment such as people with disabilities.

The Salvation Army – The Salvation Army is a Christian charity organization that runs charity shops or thrift stores to fund their mission.

Value Village

St Vincent de Paul Society store

Out of the Closet

Curated second-hand stores: Crossroads, Buffalo Exchange, Plato’s Closet, etc.

Garage and yard sales

Online – While they aren’t thrift stores, online shops such as eBay, Mercari, Poshmark, thredUP, Craigslist, and many others offer second-hand items at discounted prices.

 

Questions to ask before thrift shopping or donating
 

1) What are the mission and values of this organization?

It’s worth doing some research on an organization before buying from or donating to it. While all organizations purport to do good for the world, each has a different mission and way to go about it. You may find your values don’t align with those of an organization. I’ve read that Goodwill pays people such as those with disabilities far less than minimum wage based on their duties and the amount of work that they complete. The Salvation Army has faced controversy over its stand on gay rights. With more knowledge of such issues, you can decide for yourself whether or not to support these organizations.
 

2) How does the organization use donations or the proceeds of sales?

Websites such as Charity Navigator allow you to see an organization’s financial performance, accountability, and income statement.  This will allow you to determine if an organization is well run and your donations and the money they generate are being well spent.
 

3) Are contributions tax deductible?

Contributions to non-profit organizations are generally tax deductible, but not every thrift shop is run by a charitable organization. Pick carefully if this is important to you. This may be beneficial if you plan to donate a significant amount of items in terms of their monetary value.  Be sure to get a receipt for your donations.

 

HOW TO THRIFT SHOP
 

1) Check the condition of items

Stains, pilling, holes, even pinholes from the price tag are common on thrift store clothing. Look closely at the quality of the material and the amount of wear it already has on it. Don’t be afraid to run your hands on clothing to get the feel of it. On men’s clothes, check shirt collars for stains. Check for makeup stains around the neckline of women’s clothing. Look closely at armpits and wrists, which are areas that tend to stain or dirty easily due to sweat and wear.

Beyond that, ensure all buttons are present (extra buttons are sometimes available on the inside of a garment) and test out all zippers. Inspect items under good lighting and hold up items to the light if possible to spot faint stains or runs in the fabric.

Some flaws can be fixed. A hole at a seamline can often be mended without drawing attention to itself. Also, some stains can come out. Rub the fabric together a little to see if any dirt or stain lightens. If it does, it can likely be washed out. This is usually true for mild deodorant stains. For the most part, I buy items in good condition or not at all because any fixes beyond a washing in the machine add extra time and/or money to the true cost of an item.

2) Check the fit of items

Try on all clothes and shoes if you can. The best way to determine if an item fits or and see any flaws missed on a spot check is to try it on. A pair of straight leg pants can easily be shortened without drastically changing the style of it. Ill-fitting shoulders on a jacket and pant rise are much more difficult and costly to alter. Consider also that alterations can change the overall look of an item and add to the total cost of acquiring a wearable item.

When you shop, dress in fitted clothing that is easy to layer over and shoes that are easy to remove. This way you can try things on in the open if needed. In the busiest of thrift stores, dressing rooms can be crowded, dirty, or too far away. Typically I don't try on clothing these days because I find it a hassle. I inspect items thoroughly and accept that once in a while I will miss a flaw. If I’m unsure if an item will fit me, I buy it only if I can make use of it in some other way or if I can resell it.
 

3) Consider the price of an item

Prices vary for the same items depending on where you shop. Shops will price primarily according to category, quality/brand, or both. At my local smaller thrift store, shirts range from about $2.50-$5.50, which I consider reasonable. Anything the staff deems higher quality or brand name goes on the designer racks and can go for much more. Prices can be mind-boggling, even over retail. No matter what store, expect that some things will be overpriced and some gems will be priced way below value.

Your best bet to getting a good deal is to know how much things sell for at retail and used. Look items up on your phone while shopping to compare new versus used and decide if it’s better to purchase or pass. A Google search, eBay, and Amazon are good places to check.

4) Keep a BOLO (be on the lookout) list

While it's important to have an open mind about what you'll find while shopping, it's also helpful to have a list of things that you want to find. Having a few key items in mind will give you intent and keep you on track while shopping. This will also help you be more mindful of what you buy.

 

5) Have a plan

If you go into a store and wander around aimlessly, you may get overwhelmed and either spend hours there or immediately walk away. It’s helpful to get a feel for the layout of a store and then work your way through each section given the amount of time that you have to shop. Everyone has a different order of how they like to work a store.  I recommend your first stop is at the new clothing racks. These are the racks of clothes brought onto the floor but not yet sorted to their appropriate department. You’re viewing these items before most customers do and can get some great finds that way.

After that, prioritize departments by what you like to view. Some people start with jackets and dresses because those give them the most profit when sold. I always start with athletic wear because that’s what I like to look at and buy. If I have time, I’ll browse shirts, dresses, children’s clothes, and home items. I rarely look at shoes and purses because offerings are not very good at my local shops. With time, you’ll develop a system in your own stores.

Once you see something you like, take it and hold on to it. If you leave it there to think about whether or not you want it, it will be gone! Grab what you want while you can and inspect the items later when you’re done working the store. Don’t be afraid to explore other departments too, even if you think it’s not to your liking. I’ve found plenty of smaller size Lululemon and other women’s clothes in the children’s section because employees miscategorized them. These items have the added bonus of being cheaper too.

6) Timing helps

Shop early morning before other shoppers arrive and try to spot the racks that have newly arrived items. Weekdays tend to be less crowded than weekends. By Saturday afternoon, stores are often crowded and the best items will have been bought, leaving disorganized racks for you to pick over. 

Visit stores regularly if you have the time. New clothes and items are put out every day so your best bet to getting great finds is to browse the racks frequently. If you live in a college town, stores often get donations when campus clears out for winter or summer break. Thrift stores also see an upsweep in donations in December as people squeeze in the year’s tax deductions.

7) Know your stores

Most thrift stores have specials for additional discounts. Each week at Goodwill, a certain color price tag gives you 50% off those items. Seniors also get discounts on certain days.

8) Have a good attitude!  

Be open about what you'll experience and find. Thrift store shopping is not for everyone as much as playing golf is for everyone. You have to enjoy the process of browsing through racks of often mediocre items and sometimes even junk in search of good finds. It takes patience and your hands will get at least a little dirty. Some days you may strike out and leave with purchases you later regret or even empty-handed.

9) Know when not to thrift

While thrift shopping has its benefits, some things are better bought or can only be bought new. The latest season’s designer suit, the perfect wedding dress, a perfect fitting swimsuit. You’re better off buying these things at retail stores or online in 99% of cases. In my case, I shy away from shoe racks at thrift stores because good used shoes are hard to find. Shoes take a lot of wear and tear from even a few wears and I simply prefer them new, although not always at full retail price!
 

10) Donate from time to time

Thrift stores keep going because people donate to them. Whether it’s quarterly or yearly, go through your closets and drawers and decide what to keep, sell, or donate. It will clear your mind and your house!

 

Whew! If you’ve made it to the end of this guide and you’re still on the fence about thrift shopping, give it a try! If you do try it and like it, keep at it and happy hunting! 

The Ultimate Guide to Thrift Shopping