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Pearls of Wisdom from a Thrift Store Shopping Savant

Pearls of Wisdom from a Thrift Store Shopping Savant
Rachel Humphrey

If it weren’t for thrift stores, my life would not be as good. I’m the type of person who absolutely has to feel like she’s getting a deal or she can’t buy something, and thrift stores excite me like little else can. Where else can I find a Le Creuset dutch oven in flame orange for $10, or a J. Crew Dress for $4.99?  A lot of my friends know about my thrifting habit, and some of them think it’s great, and some of them think it’s gross. For the latter, it’s their loss! More great deals for me. If you’d like to get on board the thrifty train, keep reading. I’ve got some wisdom to share.

Thrift is Thriving

In the current economy, thrift stores are thriving because people have less money to work with. While many stores close, thrift stores like Goodwill have enjoyed a rise in sales for the past few years. People are looking for ways to stretch a dollar, and you can get ten shirts for the price of one at a thrift store. Buy secondhand clothes for your family, and you’ll have more money for housing, food, entertainment, and everything else you need to keep a family healthy and happy.

If You Fail to Plan...

You know the rest! Don't fail at thrifting; have a plan of attack, because thrift stores can be daunting. Many of them are huge. My favorite thrift store has so much stuff, I could spend all day in there. But I can’t spend all day in there.  I have a job and a baby to tend to. So, I plan what I’m going to focus on that day. Some days it’s clothing and kitchen items, and some days it’s books and toys for my son. Picking specific items to look for allows me focus on those things instead of running around like the proverbial chicken with no head. The other key to success in thrifting is to do it a lot. I go about three days a week, since thrift stores put out new stuff all the time. My husband goes almost every day on his way home from work, and he pretty much always brings home something exciting.

Get the Good Stuff, Avoid the Bad Stuff

Not everything in the thrift store is good. A lot of it is junk, and some of it is really just garbage. Don’t settle for anything that is less than like-new. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Clothing should be free of holes and stains, and should fit and flatter you. Just because it’s cheap, that doesn’t mean you should buy it. If you don’t find something you like today, you probably will next week. I find most of my clothes at the thrift store, and most of my son’s, too! He’s the best dressed toddler on the block. Make sure to immediately launder clothing in hot water and dry on high heat to kill any bedbugs that might be on it.  It’s best to bring your purchases straight to the washing machine when you get home, and try to avoid bringing them into your house. When I find something nice that can’t be laundered that way, I have it professionally cleaned. Even with the cost of dry cleaning, it’s still a lot cheaper than buying new. For example, last week I spent $5.99 on a Max Studio wrap dress that retails for $128. I had it cleaned for around $7.00. I still came out spending much less than I would have on a new dress.
  • You can find electronics still in boxes or like-new, but make sure to test them before you buy. Most thrift stores have outlets in their electronics sections where you can plug in and test electronics. Thrift stores don’t allow returns, so make sure you’re not buying something broken.
  • Books are great to find at thrift stores. I avoid books that are dirty, torn, stained, or smell bad. Books that smell like cigarettes should be avoided because cigarette smoke leaves poisonous residue that can harm your family if you bring them into your house.
  • Kitchen items are one of my favorite thrift store finds, especially vintage barware and enameled cast iron. Don’t buy Teflon pans or plastic items that are scratched up. Make sure you disinfect any dishes you buy in your dishwasher before you use them (with the exception of vintage). Check the insides of pots and pans to make sure they are in good condition. Enameled cast iron can be pitted or cracked, and you shouldn’t buy it if it is.  Always handwash vintage glassware or Pyrex. Don't put it in the dishwasher. It will fade it, and it won't look nice anymore.
  • I generally stay away from furniture that can’t be easily cleaned, like sofas and anything upholstered. Wood furniture is great, and plastic children’s furniture can easily be cleaned. It’s a bad idea to buy a crib second-hand, because it might not meet current safety regulations.
  • This is a personal preference, but I think secondhand shoes are pretty gross, especially since I can’t wash them. I don’t buy shoes at the thrift store unless they’re obviously brand new, tags still on, with no sweat stains on the insole and little to no scuffing on the bottoms.
  • I only buy toys that I can wash before I give them to my son. Wooden and plastic toys are great, but I never buy stuffed animals or cloth toys unless they’re washable.  Look for board books in the children’s book section, but make sure they aren’t chewed on or marked up with crayons and markers.
  • Beauty products are risky (and icky) business at thrift stores. Don't buy anything that has a shelf life (like lotion, nail polish, perfume, etc.) because you have no way of knowing how old it is. Don't buy anything that could be contaminated with someone's germs. That pretty much leaves... nothing. I don't buy beauty products second-hand, and you probably shouldn't either.
  • Are you looking for collectibles? I have found lots of hidden treasures at the thrift store that my husband and I have resold for more than 10 times their value. If you want to make money off your thrifting hobby, just keep looking. I regularly find vintage Pyrex, Bauer bowls, Fiestaware, and other highly collectible items that I can sell for much more than I pay for them. Just make sure they’re in good condition. No one wants to buy a cracked vase or vintage kitchen items that have been faded from too many trips through the dishwasher.

Stop Being a Snob and Save!

People are always surprised that the bulk of my wardrobe is thrifted. When people picture a person who dresses in second hand clothes and shops at thrift stores, I think they often picture someone who looks schlubby and poorly put together and lives in a home full of junk. Not the case. My husband and I have an amazing collection of modern furniture, vintage pottery, and other treasures, and I have a closet full of practically new clothing from high-end brands. If you haven’t thrifted before, go ahead and go to your local thrift shop a few times, and I guarantee you’ll find some treasures of your own. The most thrilling thing about thrifting is finding all the amazing things you never knew you needed or wanted.


  1. Carolyn

    I love this article! Very motivational and practical.

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