Thrift Store Dos and Don’ts

by Jessica Sommerfield · 38 comments

Many people have either a strong love or hate of thrift stores. Is your first reaction at the thought of a thrift store, “Ugh, gross, get it away,” or “Oh, boy, what kind of deals will I find”? If you fall into the category of a thrift-store hater, you are not alone. I have always had an aversion to thrift stores simply because of their often dingy, smelly, and depressing atmosphere. Honestly, some of the things people donate to thrift stores should be burned, not re-sold. And, if you’re at the point in life where you are forced to shop at thrift stores, the reality that you can’t shop anywhere else only heightens your distaste for them.

In spite of their negative stigma, thrift stores are increasing in popularity, especially as people are looking for ways to stretch their dollar a little farther in hard times. Thrift store shopping takes an open mind and an eye for finding diamonds in the rough. Those who love thrift stores have mastered this, and are able to reap the benefits. If you’re willing to change your mentality about thrift stores and start saving more money, consider this list of thrift store does and don’ts.

  • Scope it out.  Thrift stores can range from high-end to downright disgusting, but you won’t know unless you actually walk in. If what you find makes you want to go home and scrub up to your elbows, at least you gave it a try. On the other hand, you may find a clean store that sells new or barely used items at incredibly discounted prices.
  • Check in regularly. If a store looks attractive but simply doesn’t have any good deals the first time you go in, keep checking back. Stock changes regularly at a thrift store, so you don’t want to miss a one-day deal. The changing of seasons often prompts people to purge, so keep the time of year in mind when looking for particular items.
  • Focus on these categories: home, décor, furniture, and books.  Although you may find some clothing deals, especially in high-end stores, you will be digging through racks of outdated and well-worn items. If you have the patience for this, the deals are yours. Otherwise, focus on items in these categories that are gently used and will not outdate or go out of style.
  • Be skeptical of electronics and appliances. These items are seldom discarded because the owner gets tired of them or they’ve gone out of style; their presence in a thrift store usually means they are broken in some way, even unnoticeably. No matter how cheap, these items aren’t warrantied and will likely be money pits. Furthermore, used appliances can be fire hazards.
  • Stay away from children’s toys. Although you may find nice-looking toys in a thrift store, thorough sanitization is often difficult, and they may be hazardous to your children’s health. Toys you’re not familiar with may have been missed safety recalls.
  • Pay attention to pricing. Just because you expect thrift store items to be cheaper than buying new doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention to prices. Thrift store are still in business to make money. Assess whether the used version of an item at only a slight discount will hold its worth as opposed to buying it new with greater longevity.

If you’ve tried thrift stores in the past and had bad experiences, consider giving them another try, using these tips. Being open-minded about thrift stores can allow you to save money on everyday items and acquire unique treasures you won’t find anywhere else.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Bren June 23, 2013 at 9:06 am

Shop at local thrift shops first. The Goodwill is kind of the “Walmart” of the cheap world. Our Salvation Army store and another local non-profit store went out of business because they could not compete. Now, like Walmart, our local GW has ridiculous high prices. And, always do the smell test before buying anything, especially dressers and books…some smells will never ever go away.

Hypatia June 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

You’re way out of line with your snarky comments. I am an occasional thrift shopper, and know how to choose my shops.

Some of the ones I patronized have great deals on (women’s) clothes; too bad for me because I am hard to fit, but have been known to score great deals .

True, electronics are chancy, but most respectable thrift shops give you 3 or even 7 days to return with receipt. I’ve scored a perfectly good stereo combo for minor bucks.

Sporting goods are good buys, as are office supplies, and even bedding, which can be washed.

Sometimes I wish homeless people would realize how well they could dress out of thrift shops!

I used to travel a lot, and noted that only in English-speaking countries (and some Scandinavian) could one find thrift shops. Perhaps other cultures deem it unacceptable to wear used clothes? Maybe things have changed since then.

Chris July 5, 2013 at 6:44 am

For those not knowing , in UK Thrift stores are commonly known as Second Hand shops. They are great for bargains if you are short on money . I used them all the time when I was a student . Washing them gets you over the thought that someone else wore it before . I would draw the line at pre-owned underwear . There are some things that will never wash out .

John in San Diego July 13, 2013 at 3:45 am

That comment about used appliances being fire hazards made me laugh, since that’s also the case with new ones made in China. Bring them home and test them. If you don’t have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and garage maybe you deserve to have your house burn down.

I also tend to disagree with the assumption there are better goods and deals in the well off part of town. Problem there is the shoppers there are more savvy and know their merchandise. People from the third world stare in amazement at the stacks of broken VCRs.

Peace lover July 23, 2013 at 7:40 am

We have similar stores and flea markets in the UK. Most are full of rubbish and do smell rather unpleasant. However collectors who know their stuff can recover vintage items or parts for clocks etc from such places.

I find the good old American garage sales offer more variety and quality aswell as getting more for ones’ buck/pound.

Finally he biggest thrift/flea markets are on the web…I reckon eBay/Amazon/Gumtree and other comparable sites have more to offer in terms of value and variety. However eBay can have some unscrupulous sellers who will lie all the way to your wallet.

With most online sellers I would suggest that the buyer beware, having said that I have come accross some right idiots as buyers. One example is where a vintage aka collectors item from the dental history archives was purchased by a practicing dentist who complained it was too old for modern use! One born every minute and this guy is a dentist! God bless you all and god help us.

smithy July 26, 2013 at 4:11 am

I am sorry Jessica but I have to agree with some of the comments..your article was one of the most condescending and rude article I have seen in some time to those who love and use thrift stores. You come across so snobby.

I have never felt the need to wash myself to the elbows. If you find something that you feel should be burned, who cares, there are still hundreds of other things to chose from. Just pass it buy,. it will either be sold to someone who wants it or marked down.

I rarely see pants that have rips..even the worst of the stores do not sell outright stained, ripped rags generally.

I feel most people who are “forced to shop there” do not feel more distaste, but rather feel incredibly grateful such places exist. Even rich people like a bargain and they are found here.

Some people like not have new models all the time with electronics and donate good computer parts and things to make way for the newest models.

People who cares about the environment feel good about recycling and people who donate feel good about helping others and not letting things they like go to waste. I know my sister throws away new clothes or stuff wore one time as she is a neat freak who wants things super orderly and minimal to clean. I was stunned to see her one day throw away a ton of barely used children’s clothes many with the tags still on them and all super cute.

I am sure there are other people with that trait and others can benefit from their compulsions. how much better to donate it so someone who does not have much money than to throw it in the trash new or barely worn. Many have sentimental attachments to all their kid’s cloths but cant store dozens of boxes just to go through them once in a blue moon to trigger happy memories but can’t quite throw them out either. But the thought of someone else coming to look the items they do, can give them the push to donate it so they can have more room in their house or stop paying to store it. Knowing there are thrift stores to donate things you can’t quite throw away when decluttering makes it a little less hard as you feel you are helping someone and not wasting the items.

How stores must hate thrift and dollar stores but how lucky we are to have alternatives.

My son’s school was too poor to buy stuff for their school plays and found the eclectic and off the wall things they often needed at nearby thrift stores. Why buy new to wear for a week.

Often people only use Halloween costumes once and they can be brought for a steal here. Often people die and families find comfort in donating their things rather than throwing them in the trash. One might have brand new furniture or appliances that they donate so new or good things can be found. thrift stores do not only help the people who need them but also the people having hard time parting with cherished things. Even if something is outdated and noone buys it, the person going it thinks someone will use it and that makes them happy to give.

I imagine some people migth even buy things and resell at garage sales, flea markets, ebay a living or an income supplement. since they is so much stuff in the stores especially if one lives in a large city with dozens of thrift stores that they would not feel guilty doing this as the poor can stiff find stuff and the stores can use the money in make in part to help the poor in other ways.

I really enjoy the knick knacks. Being a shopaholic sometimes, thrift store like dollar stores give me a chance to feed my addiction or feel better when money is tight. Of course that does lead to a bunch of stuff I don’t need and have nowhere to put but hey…at least I did not waste tons of cash paying full price.

Plus size clothes are super cheap compared to the few shops that cater to this group and sell stuff way higher than thinner people can get and they are often all sorted in a group and rack called plus size or big men so one does not have to go through 20 racks of cloths where only one in 20 things fits them…if they find something they save tons of money if not, well maybe there is some household stuff there they might find.

I have bought many cars at their auctions at a price I could afford and some lasted years. In fact, now I exclusively buy them here.

My brother who fixes cars like to make money and though he has a good job, he sometimes buys cars really cheap at salvation army and fixes them up and sells at a big profit.

They often have 50% off everything in store days and give senior discounts.

Thrift store allow people to supplement their Christmases, cloth their kids, find some camping stuff cheap, find some cute St Patrick’s decoration and so much more.

I have shopped them for nearly 50 years and can’t even imagine the money I saved on all kinds of things. They helped me all those times when money was tight. They also sometimes allow you to find items or books you liked but that got broken or had water spilled on them that were no longer available before we had amazon…you often cannot find a replacement anywhere but a thrift store if you are lucky

Once I bought a juicer for $125 at the department store the next day I saw one at the thrift store for $6 and it worked fine. I bought it took the other back and had money to spend for other things I might want, I later for years. I help a lot of people with their health and one thing I recommend is juicing and I always suggest they get a juicer at thrift store so they can have money for the herbs and other things they need as they can often be found for $10 and since quite a few people don’t know what they are, they often stay on shelves for some time just waiting for you to buy them.

One can save on food processors which there are tons of and even some kitchen gadget like a apple slicer or something.

I have almost never bought an appliance that did not work. I always test them before buying. While once in a great while, I have smelled one that seemed burned or ran funny I just looked till I found one that worked or tried another one. The only time I had a “money pit” was with telephones as one could not test them but they often are just a couple dollars.

Sometimes you get expensive kitchen appliances you would never buy yourself as they are too expensive or not used that often. maybe a brad maker or something.

Many of the toys and especially stuffed animals look brand new possible won at a fair or crane that the people who wanted to play the game for fun but did not want the animal. Plastic toys can be sanitized. Essential oils that are made to kill germs put in spray bottle with some water and can get in crevices.

Ive gotten good, expensive looking tennis shoes that I just wash in washer when I get home.

When I took my son to Florida for 2 weeks, I remember getting a lot of Disney, and Florida shirts for him to wear that made it exciting for him to pack and fit the theme when there and made for cute pictures.

It allowed me to buy a lot more clothes for my kids than I could have bought if just shopping regular toys and so much to chose form, it was easy to find nice ones.

They had new clothes too but this gave them a lot more to choose from. I think my son did not wear the same outfit to kindergarten for 5 months (some of those outfits were bought, some form relatives, some as gifts and some from thrift stores).

Most thrift stores have different colors each week that are are 50 to 75% off.

As a tip, if you are looking for something specific in advance, I have brought a light bulb in my purse to test a lamp or a battery to test other things so I can test before buying.

Thrift stores might come in handy if you split your pants or something and need emergency cheap pants or spill juice on your shirt to wear home:) You never know Then you can throw them away if you want as sometimes they are only a dollar.

Sometimes you can find new all kinds of new stuff like yarn or cut fabric for a steal. I once found a cheap cloth doll that I put black hair over the blond and sewed a Pinocchio outfit for it that mathed my hyoungest sons that I made for Halloween and then put strongs and crossed wood and made the cutest marianette and had my older son carry it who was dressed like Gepetto. Both of them won first most orignal in every one of the 6 contests we entered (designing Halloween costumes was my hobby)

I would never have found the perfect doll or marionette and if I did it would have cost a fortune.

I also recently found a discount store that sells new clothing that I have recently just bought 2 months prior the exact same items for $60 or on sale for $28 and thought I got a fine bargain at $28 but here it was $7 to 10 for brand new with tags on them. they must buy the ones Catherine and Lane Bryan doesn’t sell so they can make room for their new stuff.

If you are in Ohio, check out fashion discount warehouse. Last time I saw the exact same item I had bought a few months earlier at Catherine’s for $30 on sale for $6. I got some items for $6 that cost $60 so it was 90% off. and at least 70% off. I did not see any shirt for more than $10. I’m talking 35 to 85 dollar shirts and they are new.

Today I went there and got a new plus size bathing suit for $13 (6 for top and 7 for bottom sold separately). The last time I got a bathing suit at Catherine’s plus size it was $135.

I needed a bathing suit and don’t have over a hundred dollars to spend and these were new suits with the tag still on it from Catherine..this one was $70 brand new. I have decided I won’t go to Catherines or Lane Bryant anymore..why should I? –between the new cloths at dfw and the perfectly fine ones at the several thrifts stores here I can buy 10 times as much cloths for the same price as 1 elsewhere.

It’ just like I rarely go to full price movies and pay $12 when I can go to the movie a few months later at the dollar theater for $1.50 allowing me to see 8 or 9 more movies free.

I save moeny by buying produce at farmer;s markets and wholesale warehouses.

It makes good sense to be thrifty in today’s economy and look for bargains and also do something good for the planet to buy recycled goods of all kinds.

When my brothers fixes my car and gets parts so much cheaper at the junk yard not only do I save lots of money but I am recycling and not giving greedy corporations any more money than I need to…these things give me alternatives just as dollar stores do.

I prefer to vote with my money by spending as little as possible on big corporations who then lobby to get their pollution and outsourcing allowed, get corporate welfare and all that knowing the money I spend some of it is recycled to the growing poor cause corporations or marking stuff up unbelievably high and screwing their workers, outsourcing jobs, polluting the environment and getting themselves classified as people. By spending less, I am doing a form of protest. the more people who buy the cheapest stuff, the less they make to bribe congressmen. Doing all the things I mentioned often supports the locals, the environment and all that while helping myself.

Yes you cannot get everything at thrift and dollars store but you can put a big dent in money feeling too tight.

Dollars stores kind of remind me of the Santa shops we once used at christmas where everything was the same small price so kids could go in there, chose form many things any item they wanted and get mommy and daddy cheap presents.

Yes you don’t get the lady helping you but if a parent sends kids in with an older kid and tells them pick any two things you want for me without you seeing it till christmas they like that since they can get a lot of things to choose from for just a couple dollars and not have you see what they chose yet.

It can be good for behavior modification charts..if you get x stars all week I will give you $5 (or whatever price you chose as a reward for bring good all week) to spend at the dollar can get whatever you want.

So you see, these have so many positive benefits. this might even encourage you to buy some little thing from even the ones you don’t like knowing how it helps the needy and the one who donates it and how blessed we are to have these alternatives.

Robin August 1, 2013 at 5:01 am

Love Thrift Stores. I collect vintage American pottery like McCoy Bauer Hull etc and have found some amazing pieces at thrift stores. In fact most of my collection is from there. My daughter collects Fiesta Ware and vintage Pyrex and I have been able to find her pieces for $2.00 or less!

calannie August 21, 2013 at 5:18 pm

I had a mother who would NEVER have bought used clothing–but in high school my girlfriend turned me on to thrift stores and I bought a black corduroy blazer for a dollar I wore for a decade.

My best buys have been real copper pots and pans–I have amassed a small collection I could never have afforded. Once I bought an engraved glass just because it was pretty and I liked it–over a two year period I found matching pieces in various sizes at various stores and now have a lovely set.

But my best buy was a black purse that looked like it had never been used. It had a Prada tag–I didn’t really know much about Prada but I liked the style. I figured it was probably more expensive but not until I looked it up after someone commented on the value did I realize there are idiots who pay more than $900 for purses. Mine was $3.99.

The Chief August 28, 2013 at 5:48 pm

After reading many of the comments below, I just have to comment myself. I’m a 62 year old retired Navy vet. Not only do I shop at all the thrift shops in my area, I also volunteer my time at a thrift shop on the AF base here. Yes, there is crap to be found in any store, but careful shopping can yield some fabulous bargains. I bought a brand-new XXXX Stetson hat, that retails for $175 for $25. I’m not poor, but the bargains are too good to pass up. Why pay for pre-washed, pre-stained designer jeans at $50.00 a pair and up when the same jeans can be had at a thrift shop for less than $5.00? I collect and build models of all sorts, and I’ve found new kits that retail for $20+ for less than a dollar. Today I found an adjustable aluminum cane for $1.97! The same cane retails at the local drug store for $35.00 and almost $50.00 on line. The secret is careful shopping. The bargains are out there if you take the time to look. As for frequency of shopping? I go “shop hopping” every day. Most stores get daily deliveries, and some have multiple deliveries throughout the day. No, I don’t HAVE to shop at thrift shops, but it’s fun, and after you get to know the people who work there, you can get some insider information as to what they have “in the back room” that will be on the shelves in the very near future. We have NO Goodwills in my town, and the Salvation Army store is a joke. The two best in town are run by churches, and the third is an independent shop where I’ve got some incredible bargains. I bought a guitar stand for $3.00 that retails for 10 times that much. Whether you can afford a new Lincoln, or you’re lucky to have a bicycle, thrift shops are places that often hold some nice surprises. Once again though, shop wisely. Not everything in a thrift shop is a bargain.

Diana August 29, 2013 at 6:17 pm

Love thrift stores. Some are very organized like dept stores. If youre looking for a red blouse, you can find every style and color. I stopped buying photo albums at regular stores. You can usually find them unused for less than even the dollar store. It’s an acquired taste. I recently found a Samsonite leather pet carrier for my dog for $11.

kathielee August 29, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I was raised by a single mother who fed six children on a part-time job, and was introduced to thrift store shopping at an early age. The key to happiness with an item is to INSPECT and TEST. Check clothes for imperfections and if possible try them on. I can chip my own china, thank you. Bring a bottle of water (can be from your sink) to test the coffee maker. Most stores have outlets. If they don’t, go somewhere else. Goodwill is excellent at taking donations with tax receipts, and the idea of buying used to keep things out of landfills unnecessarily is a big plus. I also look for gently used DVDs for my pediatric patients, since we don’t have resources to buy these things new.

Ann October 8, 2013 at 10:36 am

Thrift stores can be a fun place to shop. I have a large oil painting of a old ship at sea. It was stunning but had a rip in the canvas. I taped the back of the canvas & it can’t be seen on the front. For the $20. I spent, I have a gorgeous painting, that looks terrific on the wall. I prefer that to paying the same amount for a print in a cheap frame. A Jeanette glass vase, was another thrift store find.
Pressed glass, cut glass & antique furniture, old picture frames, afghans, & needlework samplers, & doll house items were among my thrift store finds. I buy with an eye to: “How do I clean or sanitize this item.” Thrift stores can be great fun if you are discerning about your buying.

Pam December 12, 2013 at 8:48 pm

I think our Goodwill is way over priced. They want 6.00 for jeans and for another 4 I can get brand new Rustlers, never worn. All blouses are one price, no matter what. I just don’t have the time or inclination to hunt through pants for hours to see if maybe they have my husbands size. Some things just aren’t worth it. I never buy electronics. Mostly I go for kitchen gadgets, like I got a melon baller for .75 that I use on strawberry’s to get the stem out of, to core apples with and to take the stem part off tomatoes. But I wouldn’t pay 6.00 for one in the store. I find consignment shops much better for clothes than Goodwill.

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