10 Tips for Thrift Store Shopping

January 26, 2009

Now that we’ve embraced frugal living, I’ve learned to fall in love with thrift-store shopping. It’s a love that I’m passing along to my own daughters, ages 11 and 13, as I wrote about in this back-to-school shopping post. And when I say thrift store, I’m not just talking about a clothing collection in a church basement (though you can find some rare gems there, too). What I’m thinking are consignment shops, resale chains like Plato’s Closet and well-known stores like Goodwill.

Recently, I was reading a piece over at the Simple Mom blog on thrift store shopping tips. This article provided excellent ways to make the most of your thrift store shopping experience, and then many readers posted comments with additional tips of their own.

Using that article as my jumping off point, here are my 10 tips on how you can get the most bang for your buck when shopping at thrift stores.

1. It’s not just about clothes. One of my favorite items to pick up on the cheap at thrift stores are cookie tins. I use them to decorate my kitchen but I’ve also been known to make a batch of cookies, toss them in a tin, and use it as a last-minute hostess or holiday gift. Also, at places like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore stores, builders donate over-runs on all kinds of construction supplies, like doors, windows and appliances. So if you’re doing a renovation, this could be a cheap place for you get what you would likely find in Home Depot or Lowe’s but for a lot less money. Oh and you’re supporting a good cause, too. Finally, resale stores like Play It Again Sports are great if you’ve got kids who play sports and regularly need new equipment. The last big purchase we made at a Play It Again Sports was actually something for us grown-ups–cross-country skis.

2. But brands do matter. Recently, my husband picked up two brand-new Kohler sinks that we can use when we finish renovating our daughters’ bathroom upstairs. While the sinks were dirt cheap at Restore, we know they’re going to be rock solid because of the brand name. Similarly, when my daughters shop at thrift stores, they look for brands they know. Adults are known to this, too. This way they’re getting clothing brands they’ve likely worn before so they can trust the fit and craftsmanship. And the fact that they’re a lot less expensive than in the name-brand stores doesn’t hurt either.

3. Shopping thrift doesn’t always mean used. Take my aforementioned Kohler sinks. They are brand-new, still in the box. Last summer my daughter found a brand new Aeropostale skort on sale for $5 at Goodwill. The skort still had the tags on them. A few years ago, I picked up a sherbet green wool pea coat from the Gap but at a church thrift store. It, too, still had the tags on and still had that new-clothing smell. Instead of spending $50, which is what it had retailed for a the Gap, I got it for $.50 (I’m not kidding). And, like I said, it was brand new.

4. Even thrift stores have sales. I’ve learned that on each day of the week, Goodwill puts certain items on sale. You’ll know what those items are based on the color of the plastic tag on the garment. So one day it could be everything with an orange plastic tag is 20% off whereas the next day items with a blue plastic tag are 20% off. Saving extra money on already affordable items is a definite in my book.

5. You can find outlet stores for thrift stores. Everyone knows that you can often snag great deals at outlet stores for name-brand retailers, such as I wrote about in this outlet store-shopping post. But what I’ve just discovered is that the Goodwills of the world have thrift store outlets. One commenter on the Simple Mom post mentioned above says that at her local Goodwill outlet store, you can buy items by the pound instead of per article. If you’re a seamstress or knitter looking for fabric or sweaters that you can use in your crafts, this would seem to be the best deal out there!

6. Damaged goods can lead to discounts. If I’m shopping in a regular store and I find something wrong with a garment–and there aren’t any other garments like it left to choose–I have no problem bringing that garment to the register, pointing out the damage and then asking “So what can you do for me?” Usually, I can get 10% or 20% knocked off the price of an item. Turns out that you can use the same techniques at thrift stores, too. True, you’re probably already getting something for a good price. But it doesn’t hurt to point out if a button is missing or there’s lipstick on a shirt–if you know that you can replace the button or clean off the lipstick no problem when you get home–and see if you can’t get a little more money off of your purchase.

7. Thrift store shopping can help you think outside the box for special events. As I wrote in this post on frugal wedding planning tips, a bride on a budget could have a field day shopping for her wedding at a thrift store. On any given day she might find a wedding gown, bridesmaid dresses, items to use as centerpieces, even linens, flatware and dishes (albeit mismatched) that she can use at her reception so she doesn’t have to rent them.

8. Dress the part for thrift shopping. The one downside of thrift stores is that they don’t always have generous dressing rooms–if any dressing rooms at all. That’s why whenever I decide to go shopping for clothes at a thrift store, I make sure I wear fitted clothing that will allow me to try other things on over it. Granted, in the winter this isn’t always easy on the bottom half–like shorts in summer are–but even just stripping down to a long-sleeved crew neck shirt should make it easy for you to try things on while still standing in the aisles. (I learned this trick when I used to shop at New York City sample sales.)

9. Know the real price of things before buying. It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that you’re always getting a great deal at a thrift store. It’s like stores that are going out of business and start having liquidation sales. You think that you’re going to find great prices on every item in the store. But as frustrated shoppers at Circuit City are discovering, liquidation doesn’t always equal super cheap. The same can happen at thrift stores as I found out after Christmas when I went shopping for cookie tins. I found a bunch that were a buck or two apiece, which seemed like a total score. Then I headed over to Target to see their after-Christmas sales and found tins for about $.50 each. I would have spent more in gas returning the items to the thrift store, if that was even an option, so I just lived with my mistake.

10. Speaking of returns don’t expect great return policies at thrift stores. One of the ways that thrift stores keep prices low and make money for the good causes they support is keeping their overhead low. And they do that by not having elaborate return policies. Most sales are final sales, which means you really need to think hard about buying something if you know you can’t return it. It’s kind of like going to a garage sale. You have to ask yourself will you have buyer’s remorse the minute you get in the car? If so, then don’t get whatever it is you’re holding. Also, don’t take too long actually holding on to an item and agonizing over its purchase: a recent study showed that consumers were more likely to pay more for a worthless item they didn’t actually want or need when they held it in their hands longer.

Have you come up with other strategies and tips for thrift store shopping? If so, let us know what they are.

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26 Responses to 10 Tips for Thrift Store Shopping

  1. Those Tricky moments…what to do? | TheMomCafe.com on September 28, 2011 at 2:45 am

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  2. […] frugal mom knows a thing or two about being thrifty, her article covers a few different topics when it comes to […]

  3. Denise on April 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Tripped on a nice resource for thrift shoppers. The site is a directory of clearance sales and can be found at http://buzzoot.com

  4. Is Secondhand Better Than New? | A Life of Less on March 21, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    […] Want to thrift? […]

  5. Lindsey Turner on December 1, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    Great tips! I love thrift shopping too! I don’t know if you like to read other thrifty blogs but I have one called Thrift and Shout! I feature amazing fashion and home decor that I find for next to nothing! I love to inspire others and encourage them to try thrifting. Keep up the good work!

  6. Hogan on February 20, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Great Post! I have a similar list on my site. Here are a couple other tips.

    Prices tend to go up in the winter for cold weather clothing and other related items. Sometimes thrift stores will stockpile winter goods during the year (if they have the space) and put it all out in the fall or when the weather starts to get cold. You will notice that most thrift stores change with the seasons having Christmas stuff in December etc.

    New (used) items to thrift stores generally arrive daily and are priced throughout the day in the back room and then finally brought out into the store (where we can hopefully find something great). In my experience the bulk of the newly arrived thrift store items are put out in the morning as this is usually the slowest time for thrift stores and their employees, with the afternoons being busier for staff members (helping customers, cashiering, etc.).

    Another thing to look for at thrift stores are the discount days and discount colored tags. Most thrift stores have certain days that offer some percentage off all or selected items. Most thrift stores also have senior, military, and even student discounts. Many thrift stores also have certain colored tags that are discounted daily, these discounts are usually posted around the store on signs or even announced over the PA system in the store.

    • Leah Ingram on February 20, 2010 at 5:57 pm

      Thank you for this great information!


  7. Kathy on January 30, 2010 at 11:41 am

    It’s a balance. For years I didn’t shop at thrift stores because I knew other people had a greater need than I did for those inexpensive things. As my income now goes down, I do, but I try to keep in mind that the Goodwill type thrift stores are in it to help others. I don’t need 10% more off if it helps them help others. So I go in and if there’s something specific I need that perhaps has been there a while (example – I got an embroidery hoop for 50 cents the other day) that doesn’t put me in competition for other people who have a need, then I do take advantage of that. And on top of that – I compare the price i would have paid (say, $1.50) to the price I paid (50 cents) and put the difference ($1) into a “savings” fund. I’m also a big fan of the 29 gifts approach of giving something (not necessarily something financial) EVERY day – surprising what positive things come back your way, some of them very amazing (think free lodging in Hawaii and job offers).

  8. luv2save on January 9, 2010 at 7:45 pm

    If you buy something that just doesn’t work out, you can always donate back to Goodwill or other charity thrift stores and claim the tax benefits.

    • Leah Ingram on January 9, 2010 at 7:51 pm

      Good idea!

  9. thriftymomma on December 14, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Hello. How about online thrift stores? I blog about them all the time. You can find anything from rare paintings to designer duds. I love to thrift shop and am living a year with only thrifted finds. This includes online thrift, etsy, ebay, consignment stores and regular thrift stores. I love it and may never return to retail prices again.

  10. efleaa on September 8, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Very well written article, keep up the good writing, thanks Jerry.

  11. Dawn on August 9, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Great blog and great advice. We’re all in this together nowadays and it’s no longer uncool to shop at thrift stores. Thanks for sharing.

  12. sarah on May 26, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    I know this is an older post, but I just stumbled across your blog today and I wanted to mention, I found my wedding dress at Goodwill for only $20 it has some ‘stains’ on the bottom if it and I decided if they wouldnt come out I would just have the dress trimmed instead, I took it to the Laundry mat, turned it inside out and washed it on delicate, and I had a dress that would have retailed me over $1000! It was fantastic!

  13. snaphappy on January 31, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Leah — just checking back and saw your question after my comment — the consignment shop that I go to is the traditional model — I get paid after they sell the clothes. I usually wait until I have a significant enough balance before I “cash out.” Last time, I got over $50. :)

  14. […] sales on products in Home Depot Expo stores starting immediately. But be forewarned: as I wrote in my thrift-store shopping post, it’s important to know the real price of items and not to let liquidation sales suck you in […]

  15. Jen Miller on January 26, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Leah –

    I think the difference is that at consignment shops, you don’t get any money unless/until your item sells. When my aunt remodeled her home, she sold her furniture through a consignment shop. She split the profit 50/50 with the shop when it sold.

  16. Brigitte on January 26, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Thrift Stores are my passion as you can see from my thrift stores blog so I’m right there with ya.

  17. Kimm at Reinvented on January 26, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for the great tips. I plan to share this with my readers.

  18. Daisy on January 26, 2009 at 11:39 am

    I shop Goodwill for my son’s pants for yet another reason. He has very poor fine motor skills, and handling the zipper and button on a pair of jeans can be too difficult for him. He has only just mastered the skill in the last year (he’s 17), and I buy his jeans at Goodwill so that the button is worn in and easy to use.

  19. Michelle Smith on January 26, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for the link to our blog, Leah! These are great shopping tips, too!

  20. leahingram on January 26, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Good question about consignment shops. I sort of lump them together with thrift stores and perhaps I shouldn’t. I know that there are two kinds of consignments shops. There are those like Plato’s Closet, that pay cash on the spot for your clothes, and then they resell your garments at their leisure. And then there are consignment shops that follow a more traditional route of only paying you once they’ve sold the clothes you’ve consigned to them. Which of these two kinds do you frequent?

  21. snaphappy on January 26, 2009 at 9:40 am

    I have been meaning to check out the Unique Thrift Store in Wheaton, MD for a while. On Mondays they have 25% off. I’ll make it there, soon!

    In the meantime, your post made me think about consignment shops — have you written about this yet? I have consigned TONS of my kids clothes and toys. I imagine that for some things I could have gotten more on ebay, but you can’t beat the convenience. I use the money I get from consigning as “fun money” for my hobbies. :)

  22. Jen Miller on January 26, 2009 at 7:07 am

    I stop in at my town’s thrift store just to see what they have (they also have lovely window displays, so I can check things out on my morning dog walk). If you’re looking for something specific, especially in a small store, ask. The women who work there know everything they have, and where it might be.

    Also, be careful of your demeanor and words because a lot of people shop at thrift stores because they don’t have any other choice. Thrift store shopping can be fun, but it’s serious business for some people. My high school drama club shopped thrift stores for costumes, and we got this speech every time.

    Speaking of high school, a friend found a brand new tuxedo at a thrift store. He had it altered and still wears it.

  23. leahingram on January 26, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Great. And when you do share the tips, please link back to me, OK? Thanks!

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