Thrifting is the process of buying secondhand clothing and other used items at lower prices. Generally, these purchases will come from thrift shops, consignment stores, garage or yard sales, or online marketplaces.
Maybe you’re thinking … duh, Liz. I know what thrifting is 🙄
Well, okaaaaay, but did you know there are things to consider, and things to avoid, when thrift shopping? Well, if you want to know how to thrift the right way, so you can score some great finds AND don’t spend too much, you’ve come to the right place.
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What are the benefits of thrifting?
Thrifting has gained popularity in recent years due to its environmental and financial benefits as well as the opportunity to find unique and one-of-a-kind items.
I mean, who doesn’t want to save money while living sustainably and discovering new-to-you stuff at your local thrift shop?
You can find things to supply your low-waste or zero-waste bathroom, pick up some vintage, sustainable clothes, land on some used children’s books, zero in on some donated unused lightbulbs for eco-friendly lighting, pick up some art supplies like crayons and markers, and the list goes on.
Thrifting is also a way to support local charities, as many thrift stores donate a portion of their proceeds to non-profit organizations.
By giving items a second chance, thrifting is a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to traditional retail and can be a rewarding experience for those who are willing to put in the time and effort to learn how to shop at thrift stores.
That said, let’s look at some thrift shopping tips as well as some frequently asked questions related to thrift shopping in general.
Thrift Shopping FAQs
What are some of the popular thrift store chains in the US?
A lot of towns have their own local thrift stores. But there are also a couple of “popular” chains out there.
How good they are, as far as having a decent selection, depends on what’s been donated by local residents.
I’ve gone into some Goodwill stores and scored some really unique and expensive items.
And I’ve been in other ones that looked as though someone donated all their garbage. So it really depends.
That said, let’s look at the well-known chain thrift stores:
- Salvation Army
- Habitat for Humanity
- Plato’s Closet
- Value Village
The above stores are popular, and they might be good for thrift store shopping, but I don’t think the first two are the best options when hunting for thrifted clothes, amazing deals, or trying to keep something out of the landfill, and here’s why.
For starters, according to Forbes, Goodwill has a track record of paying employees disgustingly low wages, and a lot of them are disabled or have pre-existing mental or physical challenges to boot.
Now, some argue that getting paid less than minimum wage is a good thing because if they make too much in their paycheck, they will lose government benefits. I’m not saying it is better; I’m saying that individual workers have made this claim, and I know because I’ve heard it myself.
But I’m not going to get into all of that. Just keep in mind there are plenty of people who want to be paid fair wages, and they damn sure deserve them!
The Salvation Army has also received a bit of backlash, being accused of discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community. They repeatedly defend they will serve anyone in need, despite their sexual orientation, gender, religion, etc.
However, a number of big brands and businesses, namely Chick-fil-A and Macy’s, have either cut ties or refused to donate to the SA because of messages and statements made by local Salvation Army reps.
Also, SA churches refuse to marry same-sex couples, so that says a lot right there.
The Habitat for Humanity charity isn’t without public scrutiny, too. Mainly because they have been accused of serving nearly middle-class families instead of routing help to those who are truly living in poverty. But I have not been able to verify that.
I don’t want this post to get into the negatives, but I did want to inform my readers so you can do your own research and decide who you want to support.
Fun fact: The Community Thrift Store and Donation Center in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, while not a chain, is the country’s largest thrift store, taking up 74,000s square feet of space. To put things in perspective, the average Walmart is 187,000 square feet.
What are some good online thrift stores?
Believe it or not, you can score some really cool thrift store finds by shopping online and landing on some high quality clothing.
But if you’ve never partaken in thrifting online and don’t know where to go, here’s a quick list to get you started, along with some benefits of each online store.
- ThredUP. Secondhand clothing for women and kids.
- Thrifted. Online used clothing for those in the UK; specialize in retro clothes from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
- Swap. Super affordable used clothing ($15 or less); women’s, men’s, babies, maternity, plus-sized, etc.
- Poshmark. “Peer-to-peer” thrifting. Upload a photo and go.
- Retro and Me. One of several online vintage stores where you can look at secondhand clothes and accessories from the 50s era and up. They have 100% carbon offset shipping.
- The Real Real. The site for used designer fashion.
- Goodfair. Items mostly sold in bundles.
- Local online thrift store. Check Facebook for a local “store” near you.
These online thrift shops are just a handful of examples. There are plenty more out there, but the above examples are a great start for when you want to go thrift store shopping.
What are some things I should avoid buying at a thrift store?
Most people are aware of things they shouldn’t thrift, like mattresses–and that includes cribs–underwear, and bathing suits, for obvious sanitary reasons.
But what about some of those other items we’ve all seen sitting on the thrift shop shelves? If you’ve been tempted to grab the following things from a thrift store, you’re not alone, but it’s best to avoid them, and I’ll explain why.
- safety equipment (like car seats, helmets, safety gates, etc.)
- antique or vintage cookware
- appliances (old computers, microwaves, vacuums, etc.)
- certain toys
Let’s talk about each one briefly and why you may want to steer clear of these things when thrift store shopping.
Car seats, as well as certain toys, have major safety features that cannot be tested, and they are sometimes recalled. Also, a car seat’s functionality could be compromised if it was in a crash, or it could simply be expired as car seats are not built to last forever.
If it’s still in its original packaging, you know it’s brand new, and you can research the brand, that’s the exception, in my opinion. But otherwise, it’s best to skip over it and let your little one have something you know is solid.
Shoes are iffy. They tend to conform to the user’s foot, and so a used pair may not feel good after a while. But you might get lucky and find a pair that looks brand new. Or you could be looking for something to wear for special occasions only, not for everyday, all-day use.
I think some toys are okay to buy used, like puzzles for older kids or anything that doesn’t pose a risk. But then again, there could be pieces missing. Use your common sense here.
Helmets can carry germs, and again, you don’t know if the item still holds its original integrity.
Safety gates that are purchased to block off rooms from pets can be bought secondhand, but if it’s for your baby, it’s better to buy new ones for the same reasons you wouldn’t buy a used car seat.
Used cosmetics are never a good idea, and I don’t know why any thrift store would have any!
Appliances are a special breed when it comes to buying used. The risks are that you can’t really test it to be sure it works, and there might be some faulty or outdated wiring which could pose a safety hazard.
But in my opinion, that can happen with any appliance.
Also, some items like blenders, toasters, and vacuums all contain crud from other people’s homes and kitchens, like dust, food, and lord knows what else. Make sure it’s something that can be thoroughly cleaned before use.
And vintage cookware or plates could contain paint with lead, so think about that.
Ultimately, you have to decide if the purchase is worth the risk or the headache if it doesn’t work and you’re burdened with getting rid of it.
What should I avoid donating to a thrift store?
The above list is a start, but I’ll be honest. There have been plenty of times I’ve donated shoes, toys, and kitchen appliances to thrift stores. Obviously, people still buy those items used, and never have I ever donated something that was broken or on the fritz.
Here are a few other things I would avoid donating to your local thrift store:
- anything that’s broken or damaged
- hazardous materials (used batteries, paint, liquids that could be toxic like certain art supplies for example, etc.)
- items that were used for purposes other than their intended use
Hopefully, it’s relatively clear why you’d want to NOT donate the above. Just think about whether you would want to buy these things used and go from there.
And remember, each individual thrift store has its own policy in place as to what they accept. I know that some have giant bins you can just toss your things inside of, and the temptation to donate “trash” is real.
But consider the fact that someone will have to go through those bins at some point.
What are some alternatives to thrift shopping at an actual store?
- You could do a little digging and see if your town has a local clothing swap. Sometimes churches, private schools, or organizations have seasonal sales where you can get racks and racks of clothes for adults, teens, kids, and babies. My mom used to get tons of stuff for my daughter this way when she was much younger. You get clothing super cheap, and you get to help a local charity, church, or organization.
- You can also shop at consignment stores. There really isn’t a lot of difference between this and thrifting, as you’re keeping perfectly good items out of the landfill, but you’re also supporting someone who’s trying to make a few extra bucks.
- Find a flea market, garage or yard sale, estate sale, or something of the like. Flea markets generally have new things but at a discount, and you’re often supporting a small business or entrepreneur. It’s been a long time since I’ve stopped at a yard sale, but this is a great way to help a neighbor and find some unique treasures.
How to Thrift – Some Personal Tips & Tricks
Whether you love thrifting or are just getting started, here are some easy tips to make the process smooth and enjoyable.
1. Sell your old stuff first
There’s that famous expression, “out with the old, in with the new.” It’s not, “in with the new, out with the old,” and there’s a reason for that. We need to make room for new things, and it’s no different when thrifting.
If you can find a consignment store that will buy your used clothes before you shop, it’ll put a little extra money in your pocket and motivate you to stay focused and search for the perfect pieces for you.
2. Check your current wardrobe before you go
Take a quick look around your own home before leaving and see what you really need. This will save you time and money and keep you from buying crap you don’t need or won’t use.
3. Shop off season
Finding the perfect winter coat during the spring can be difficult, if not impossible, when you’re at a retail local store, but that’s not generally the case when thrifting. People donate all kinds of items all year long, and if you can score some good finds now, you might be able to avoid fighting the crowds for seasonal things down the road.
4. Find thrift stores with fitting rooms
Many thrift stores, especially Goodwill, have dressing rooms so you can try things on before you buy them. Being able to do this can reduce the risk that what you buy won’t be immediately recycled or thrown out.
5. Dress right
If you find a thrift store without a dressing room, all is not lost, if you’re dressed right. I suggest you wear clothes that are snug, like tight t-shirts or spaghetti strap tops that will allow you to try on sweaters, shirts, blouses, etc., and get an accurate idea of how well they will fit.
6. Buy things that fit your style
I don’t know how many times I’ve bought a clothing item that I loved but didn’t really fit my sense of style. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s something we’ve all done. Then we get that dress or pair of pants home and realize we have nothing to match it, or nowhere to wear it.
So try to stick with clothing that matches your style and current wardrobe.
7. Bigger may be better
At the risk of sounding crass, bigger can be better when it comes to used clothes. What I mean is that some of you know a seamstress or tailor who can do some alterations. So if you find something you love and know someone who can make it fit, I say go for it.
8. Research the best store
As I mentioned previously, I’ve shopped at some pretty awful thrift stores. And it’s true that all towns and cities have their good ones and bad ones. So I would suggest taking the time to find the best stores near you.
If scoring a used Coach or another designer bag that’s still in pristine condition is your ultimate fantasy, you might think you need to find a thrift shop that’s nestled in an affluent area. But that’s not always how it works out, as items may be bussed or shipped in. Do a little homework, and I promise you’ll get to know the good stores from the not-so-great.
9. Find “repurposable” items
Maybe you’re not in need of a candy dish. But you have been looking for something to hold that shampoo bar in the shower.
Can the candy dish be repurposed for that? If so, it’s a win-win.
10. Ask shop owners about sale days
A lot of thrift stores and consignment shops have days of the week they mark things down. Usually, these are items that have been on the racks for a long time and are at risk of being tossed out.
This is where you swoop in and get some great deals while also saving the day, and the article of clothing, from certain disaster.
11. Know if it’s vintage, or not
If you’re a vintage clothing junkie, simply look at the tag, then head over to the Vintage Fashion Guild to see if your find is vintage after all.
12. Avoid impulse buys
Impulse buys are things we don’t need. My simple and straightforward advice is to avoid it if at all possible.
Final Thoughts on How to Thrift Like a Pro
Thrift store shopping can be a tiring process. And it can drain your wallet if you’re not careful, just like shopping for brand-new items can.
Following these tips will ensure you have a positive thrift shopping experience, find great deals, avoid getting duped, and it’ll help you become a pro thrifter in no time.