PLEASE NOTE: “As an Amazon Associate, [Need Coffee] earns from qualifying purchases." You know we make money from Amazon links,
and I know you know this, but they make us say it anyway. More info, click here.

Top Ten Tips for Ultimate Thrift Store Shopping

[Editor’s Note: Thrifting is fantastic. I’ve gotten some of my favorite t-shirts and jackets from such places. But nobody out-thrifts Thespia. If it becomes an Olympic sport, with her on the team, we’ve got it in the bag. No pun intended. She knows her stuff. -Widge]

How many times have you complimented a friend on a piece of clothing and heard the response, “Isn’t it great? And I got it for only five dollars!” Finding great deals isn’t as hard or as time consuming as many of us may believe. One of the easiest (and I daresay most fun) ways of saving tons of money on clothing, household items, etc. is to check out your local thrift store. Whether you’re a seasoned “thrifter” or have never set foot in a second-hand shop before, check out the tips below on how to make your trip smooth, effective, and enjoyable.

1) Location can make a big difference.

All those people who want the latest fashions, outgrow their jeans, or just get bored of that sweater they’ve been wearing for the past three Christmas parties are very likely going to donate anything they no longer want to the charity shop closest to them. A good rule of thumb if you’re in search of a thrift store with higher caliber items is to do a Google search with the names of the ritziest neighborhoods or zip codes in your city plus “charity shop”, “thrift store”, “Goodwill”, etc. and see what pops up. During my own trips to local thrift stores I have scored leather jackets and purses, Calvin Klein satin shoes, a White House / Black Market dress, Nine West boots, and much more. Those high quality items are being donated somewhere, so just do a little bit of homework and you can reap the benefits.

2) Double up on your trip.

Once you find somewhere you’d like to visit, use it as a donation drop-off when you go. There are always those no-longer-used items taking up space in your shelves and closets, and this is a great way to de-clutter and feel good doing it. If you’re in an “I need to clear out some of this old stuff but I don’t know where to start” mental place, an excellent tip is to turn all the clothes in your closet with the hanger hook facing out rather than in, then after you wear each item hang it back up normally. After a certain amount of time (two months, six months, a year—whatever you like), you can tell in a glance which items you have worn and which ones you haven’t. It’s a simple and no-stress way to assess which things you should consider donating (without racking your brain trying to remember the last time you wore something). As to household items, memorabilia, etc., a neat philosophy of how to decide what to keep is the KonMari Method summarized in Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kond (basically if an item doesn’t give you a little joyful thrill when you hold it, that may be a good one to let go). Not only will donating your surplus items do some good for others, it will also clear some space in your home and may even count toward a tax deduction (if this is your goal, make sure to request a donation receipt).

3) Find out when their next major sale is.

“Sale?” you may ask. “Isn’t everything already super cheap?” Yes. But just like regular retail stores, thrift stores have inventory constantly coming in, which means they need to move the older inventory out. Sometimes there is a “color of the week” which denotes a certain discount on items tagged with a particular color, sometimes there is a special sale because it’s Independence Day or Memorial Day or the like, and some stores even have a mega sale a couple of times a year to clear out the past couple of seasons of merchandise as the seasons are about to change (i.e. a sale to prepare for Fall or Spring)—these can be such major blowouts that you can end up getting deals like a beaded evening gown for 25 cents (yes, I’ve done that and it was awesome). Some stores are great about advertising their sales and some are a lot more sneaky about it, so make sure you ask.

4) The early shopper gets the best picks.

If want to attend a major sale or plan to hit the store on a busier day like Saturday or Sunday, go EARLY and be prepared to possibly wait in line to check out. It will be worth it, but plan ahead knowing that there will likely be a lot of other people there who want to save a ton just like you.  Another thing to keep in mind is that unlike department stores, thrift stores generally only have one of any particular item, so if you see something you like, go ahead and carry it around with you as you decide (if you leave it on the rack and someone else grabs it, that’s it!) Remember also that just like any other sale, your kids have a tendency to get bored long before you do, so either have a distraction plan in place (play with some of the toys, have them pick out three shirts they like, etc.) or if at all possible come solo.

5) Don your superhero suit.

Under your regular clothing, wear something as skin tight as you can manage in the event that the dressing rooms are full or closed (or in case that store doesn’t have any). Some thrift shops even have dressing rooms with doors that stay locked, which involves getting a staff member to come over with the key, etc. If you come wearing leggings and a camisole (or for gentlemen a snug tank top), you can take off your regular shirt or pants, slip on the thing you want to try, and see if it fits or not while staying decently clothed the whole time. It’s important for your under-layer to be form-fitting so that you get an accurate idea of how something will actually hang on you (trying a t-shirt on top of another t-shirt won’t give you any idea of how it would look in real life). If the dressing rooms are available, great, but come ready to try things on in front of one of the mirrors around the store and you’ll likely save a bunch of waiting time. In that same vein, consider bringing knee-high pantyhose or VERY thin socks if you want to try on any shoes to keep things sanitary. Once at home you can almost always wipe shoes out with alcohol wipes or spray the insides with disinfectant (which is what they do at formalwear rental places, by the way), but while you’re still at the store you don’t know what your bare tootsies will encounter.

6) Bring cash.   

Sometimes there is a special line allocated only to customers paying cash (which considering almost everyone uses plastic these days often means it’s much shorter than other lines), and at other times the credit card machine for your line may be down and the cashier has to wait for a manager to come deal with it. By bringing cash, you give yourself the option to pay either way and possibly save some time at checkout. (This is also a good way to make sure you stay under a certain spending limit if that’s important to you— it’s pretty easy to convince yourself to nudge that shopping budget higher if you’re just swiping a card, but once the cash runs out, it’s out.)

7) Consider where something came from / what it touched and if you can clean it. 

That 3-foot teddy bear is so adorable—and it’s only $6! Pause for a moment and think—where was that toy before? Was it a gift to a sick child? Was it in a basement sitting beside a comforter that had bed bugs or fleas in it? If you have no way of thoroughly cleaning something that might be suspect, it’s best to steer clear. As previously stated, shoes can be wiped or sprayed and things like leather and wool jackets can either be wiped down or brought to the dry cleaner, but things like large stuffed animals, pillows, hats, etc. might be more of a tall order depending on your cleaning resources. I also have a personal policy not to buy anything like swimsuits, underwear, or even little lacy camisoles that might have been featured in someone’s honeymoon activities— those are all washable, but in those categories I aways opt for brand new, both for safety and mental comfort (the same goes for brushes, combs, cosmetics, etc… in those cases it’s best to spend the extra money to know you’re the first one using them rather than risking your health to save a few dollars.)

8) Bring Kleenex and wet wipes.

Secondhand stores are not as grungy as some think, but they are mostly aimed at selling clothes cheaply to raise money for charity work, so cleanliness of the store and the items is not the absolute top priority. No, you shouldn’t be worried that you’ll have to battle flies, fleas, and horribly dirty floors, but the household linens are probably a bit dusty, the silver jewelry has tarnish, and the toys have been well-loved by at least one child if not several. It’s a good idea to bring some Kleenex to aid your runny nose brought on by any dust and Wet Wipes in case you do run into anything you might want to wipe off of your hands. (Wipes also have an added bonus of helping you to determine if a mark on an item might be cleanable or if it’s there to stay). As a side note, if you see something metallic that’s beautiful except for the tarnish, try purchasing it and cleaning it with toothpaste at home (unless the item contains pearls or gemstones). If the toothpaste doesn’t totally remove the tarnish, you can always re-donate the item knowing it didn’t break the bank, but you’d be amazed at how well this can work.

9) Be considerate.

Just because prices are lowered doesn’t mean your standards of behavior should be. Don’t let the kids run amuck. Don’t take eleven items into the dressing room when the sign says the limit is three. Pay attention to the clothes hangers policy – some stores request that you remove them yourself before getting in line in order to save the checkout attendant’s time processing your purchase. If you remember where you got something, do the staff a favor and put it back there rather than leaving a ton of stuff on the “reject” rack beside the dressing room. Unlike department stores, thrift shops usually only have a handful of employees working at a time and often they’re in charge of doing many things at once—putting out new items on the floor, straightening up, unlocking dressing rooms, checking customers out, helping load large items into cars, processing donations, etc. Being considerate of them and the other customers is simply good form.

10) Be careful not to overspend.

This may sound silly considering the majority of the items you’ll see are probably less than $5, but that almost makes it more of a risk—if the financial barrier isn’t there, it’s so much easier to throw something in the cart even if you don’t absolutely love it. Then when you get to the register you’ve somehow spent three figures on things that end up being forgotten in the closet until the next time you do a purge, and they end up in the donation pile themselves. Whether something is $1000 or $1, if you’re not excited when you think about your first chance to wear it, probably pass it by and keep an eye out for that next amazing item instead.

Thrifting is not only a great way to save money but is also a kind of treasure hunt— there are a lot of amazingly good (and some hilariously bad) items to be perused, and since the inventory is ever-changing, it’s like stepping into a different store each time you visit. If you’ve never gone before, roll up your sleeves, grab your cash, Kleenex, and wet wipes, and set off for a mini adventure at your local thrift store. You never know what you might find.

Image by Mike Mozart under Creative Commons. Slightly cropped and resized.