When our family became Suddenly Frugal in 2007, we quickly learned how thrift store shopping could be a great way to buy clothing and other household goods that we needed without blowing our budget. We also learned that when it came to putting cash back in our budget, certain thrift store donating could do just that. And when we couldn’t make money from consigning our clothes, we could bless others with our in-kind donations.
One of the most common thrift stores on our shopping list is Goodwill. I’ve written frequently about donating clothes to Goodwill, how shopping at Goodwill can help you get designer clothes at a fraction of the cost and, from time to time, giving back to Goodwill can actually save you money on new clothes. Most recently, I’ve discovered that you can ship your donations to Goodwill for free, if you don’t have the time to get a Goodwill location or there isn’t one located near to you. In fact, I wrote about this topic for Parade.com. Portions of that article are reprinted below. And I’ve even written about how Goodwill can help get you outfitted for an ugly Christmas sweater party!
In fact, I’ve rounded up all of my advice for thrift store shopping plus donating to Goodwill in this blog post. This compiles dozens of posts I’ve written over the years into a single article, thus saving you time from searching all over Suddenly Frugal for the thrift store shopping advice you’re seeking.
*Note: This post contains affiliate links.
TURN TO A THRIFT STORE FOR YOUR UGLY CHRISTMAS SWEATER NEEDS
When my daughter was in high school, she had an ugly sweater party with her friends. Most ugly sweater parties are held around Christmas or involving Christmas sweaters as hers was. (FYI, Dec. 18th is National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day!
At first I was panicked because, thanks to my excellent sartorial taste, no one in our family owns an ugly sweater–Christmas or otherwise. The closest we can come to that “ugly” status is a navy blue Izod sweater that my husband held onto from the preppy 1980s. And even so, I’d say it’s more “vintage” than “ugly.”
What that meant was that my daughter needed to go out and, purposefully, purchase an ugly sweater. Thankfully, we discovered five frugal ways to get an ugly Christmas sweater for an ugly sweater party.
- Borrow one from a sartorial-challenged relative. I’m sure we all have at least one relative (likely of the older generation) who revels in wearing holiday themed-appropriate sweaters and sweatshirts at a certain time of the year. I might suggest that my daughter ask this relative if she can borrow a sweater for her upcoming party, which she can describe simply as a Christmas sweater party, leaving the ugly part out.
- Put a request on Freecycle. I mostly use Freecycle to get rid of items around my house that I no longer want and don’t want to end up at the dump–here’s my take on Freecycle etiquette. When we moved into our house 4.5 years ago, I used Freecycle to giveaway my moving boxes and bubble wrap. It is also possible to request to get things via Freecycle, so I might suggest that my daughter use my Freecycle account to ask about anyone giving away ugly Christmas sweaters.
- Hit up your local thrift store. A recently article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on ugly sweater parties said that most Goodwill stores and Salvation Army locations plan in advance for the increased demand for ugly sweaters at the holidays, and make sure they have plenty in stock. It seems to me that a thrift or resale store would be an excellent way to get an ugly sweater on the cheap.
- Check with your high school theater department. One of the ways that our high school’s theater department fundraisers at Halloween is by renting costumes from their costume closet. If you were desperate for an ugly sweater, I might check with the theater director, and see if you could rent something ugly or garish from their costume closet for an ugly sweater party.
- Buy one on clearance at after-Christmas sales. Let’s be honest: come December 26th, everything Christmas is going to be marked down in the stores. So if my daughter gets really desperate for an ugly Christmas sweater for her party, I would take her to the mall and let her peruse the department store clearance racks. Who knows what kind of ugly sweaters will turn up there?
Of course, if you can’t deal with wearing someone else’s ugly Christmas sweater, you can always turn to companies whose sole mission is outfitting people in ugly sweaters. I’m thinking of one of my Shark Tank favorites Tipsy Elves!
10 TIPS FOR THRIFT STORE SHOPPING
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.
HOW DONATING TO GOODWILL CAN SAVE YOU MONEY
Once or twice a year Goodwill Industries partners with the Bon-Ton family of departments stores for a good cause that benefits both donors and recipients. For a specified period of time, you are able to bring clothing donations that you might make to your local Goodwill with you to your local Bon-Ton store. Bon-Ton will collect your donations and give you a coupon for a discount you can use as you Shop Bon-Ton. In the meantime Bon-Ton will send all of those donations to Goodwill, to help support the good it does in the community.
For each item of clothing or textile you give as part of your Goodwill donations, you will receive a discount coupon that can be used online or at any Bon-Ton, Bergners, Boston Store, Carsons, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s or Younkers stores. That discount applies to nearly everything in the store–women’s, men’s and children’s apparel, shoes, handbags and accessories at a 25 percent discount, home store merchandise at a 20 percent discount and cosmetics, fragrances, furniture, and small electrics at a 15 percent discount.
Donations will then be sold at Goodwill stores within the communities in which they are collected. The revenue from the donation sales will fund job training programs and other community-based services that help people find jobs and care for their families. Just one bag of clothes creates one hour of on-the-job training for someone who needs employment assistance. To date, Bon-Ton customers have donated more than 95 million items during the semi-annual Goodwill Sale equating to 8.9 million hours of job services to help local members of the community get back to work.
Every year, Goodwill provides employment training, job placement, financial education, youth mentoring and more to millions of people throughout the United States and Canada. The Bon-Ton Goodwill Sale is Goodwill’s largest and longest standing cause partnership and department store donation drive.
SHIP YOUR DONATIONS TO GOODWILL FOR FREE
Thanks to an online company called GiveBackBox.com, Americans can box up their gently used yet unwanted household goods and ship them to Goodwill for free, thus clearing out the clutter and benefitting a good cause at the same time. (I wrote about Goodwill before when I profiled Evette Rios for Parade.com.)
I already had a number of shopping bags full of clothing and housewares that I was going to donate to Goodwill the next time I passed one on my errands. However, once I heard about this service, I changed how I would make my donations.
All you need to do is log onto the GiveBackBox website, plug in your ZIP code so the organization can locate your nearest Goodwill that will receive your donation, and print out a free shipping label. You can choose to ship your box via UPS (you’ll need to drop your box at a local UPS Store) or the USPS. With this latter option, you can bring your box to the post office or have the postal service pick it up at your doorstep.
- Ann Taylor
- Boston Store
- Levi Strauss
As far as what you can and cannot donate, any household items will do—clothes, shoes, jewelry, housewares, etc. You cannot donate electronics, liquids or anything hazardous. There is no weight limit to the box and you can request to get a tax receipt for your donation.
Having learned about this service, I gathered my donations, found empty boxes from my online shopping, packed them all up, printed out my free shipping labels and placed them on my front porch for the postal service to pick up. The only downside of my experience so far is that, as far as I could tell, the site is not set up to generate multiple shipping labels if, like me, you have multiple boxes to send to Goodwill. So I had to log back in multiple times to get the three shipping labels I needed.
Other than that minor hassle, this is definitely a win-win. You can reuse and recycle the boxes from online shipping. You can donate unwanted household goods to a good cause at your convenience. You can reduce the clutter in your house at the holidays. And you get a tax donation receipt in return.