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.