10 Tips for Shopping at a Thrift Store

by Miranda Marquit · 75 comments

One of the best ways to live a frugal lifestyle is to make shopping at a thrift store part of your regular shopping regimen. Thrift stores feature items that have been used before. This can include anything from dishes to clothing to books to furniture to toys. These used items are often in reasonably good condition, and can be found at very low prices. Shopping at a thrift store can be a great way to save money, while acquiring items that you need.

Here are 10 tips that can help you better shop at a thrift store:

  1. Show up on stocking days: Many thrift stores have a particular day of the week that they put out new merchandise. Find out what that day is, and show up then to get first pick of the latest deals.
  2. Search for quality: This is especially true with clothing. You might be surprised at the name brand, high quality items some people are happy to part with. Keep your eyes open for items you know are of good quality.
  3. Make a list: You want to be prepared with a list. Even though impulse buying at the thrift store is probably not as bad as when you are paying full price on an impulse purchase, those little surprises can add up. Be sure that you know what you want, and make a plan for what to buy.
  4. Return until you find what you want: Don’t assume that the thrift store is a bust if you don’t find what you are looking for on your first excursion. Check back over time, looking for what you want. Chances are that, eventually, you will find what you are looking for.
  5. Watch for sales: Even thrift stores have sales. Some offer “fill a bag” promotions, “clearance” sales at the end of the season and other sales. This is a great way find even deeper discounts on thrift store merchandise. And, while thrift store shopping works well without coupons, you can also look for thrift store coupons for bigger savings.
  6. Shop during the week: Weekend shoppers are out in force from Friday evening until Sunday evening. Avoid the crowds (and avoid competition for the best finds) by visiting the thrift store during the week.
  7. Ask about store credit: Some thrift stores only accept donations, but others also accept consignment items and will give you store credit for what you bring in. Find out about the policies at your local second hand store of choice. If you can get store credit for what you bring in, that can be a great way to save a little more.
  8. Be careful about overdoing it: It can be very tempting to go a little crazy at the thrift store, buying several things at once. Stick to your plan, though. If you only need three dress shirts, don’t go nuts and buy 10 or 11. Remember that a frugal lifestyle is about moderation.
  9. Plan to take awhile: A trip to the thrift store is likely to take awhile, since you will probably have to dig around a little. Be prepared to take around an hour — or more. This means that perhaps you leave the kids at home for a serious trip to the thrift store.
  10. Don’t forget to donate!: Finally, you want the thrift store to keep going. If if you don’t get store credit, you should still donate some of your unneeded items as well. Keep the cycle going, and provide great deals for others, just as they are providing them for you.

Bonus Tip:

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Shelby February 13, 2013 at 2:17 am

I love thrift shopping! I bought a stunning dress for $15 at a thrift shop. I didn’t tell anyone where I bought it, and wore it to my son’s wedding. I received so many complements on how beautiful/special my dress was. My second son weds in two months and, yes, you guessed, I found another gorgeous dress at thrift! Apart from saving money, I am assured that no-one else will be wearing the same outfit!! 😉

Fiona February 14, 2013 at 3:05 pm

I got a beautiful pair of suede Mephisto walking shoes last week from VV – $10.00 for a pair of shoes that would have cost me $300.00 new, and I don’t think whoever owned them before me wore them very much 🙂

One thing I NEVER do, though, is try something on in a thrift store. I feel sketchy about it in a regular retail store too, but clothing from a thrift store goes into a bag and then straight into my laundry at home. If it fits when I do eventually try it on, great. If not, back to the store or into my fabrics pile for recycling into a crafts project.

Anasofie February 22, 2013 at 1:48 pm

I LOVE thrift stores! Started going to them art my husband lost his job a few years back, out of necessity. We now have lots more money, but I refuse to pay full price anymore clothes. I buy thrift store clothes all the time, as well as shoes, scarves and belts, and receive so may compliments! People never have to know you shop at thrift stores.

Jared82ca February 24, 2013 at 5:59 am

The very first thing one should do before taking that first step inside a thrift store is UNDERSTAND YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD/COMMUNITY. This will make sense out of the seemingly opposite tips folks are offering: all tips do not apply to all situations and locations. You have to determine which ones apply to yours.

For much of the U.S., a Wal-Mart or a Target is a short trip from where people live. In this case, the mass-merchandisers can actually save more money than the thrift stores on some things. In some areas, however, particularly some urban areas, this is not always the case. For example, I live in San Francisco and the nearest Wal-Mart is 14 miles away. The majority of downtown residents do not own vehicles, so this is a one hour trip (each way) via bus, train, and taxi, costing about $50. (The trip can be made for less money, but double the travel time.) There are three thrift stores within walking distance. Even the nearby Macy’s on sale days is cheaper than traveling to Wal-Mart.

Thrift stores near upper-middle-class neighborhoods tend to have nicer merchandise, and if the area has a constant turnover of residents, you never know what surprises you’ll find. And not just new items either: I regularly find antiques and other collectibles priced at a buck or two that I know a friend or family member collects, and another birthday or Christmas present is taken care of early!

Sales taxes are governed by the individual states, so whether or not your thrift store will charge you sales tax on your purchases is ultimately decided by the state you are in. Some states have no sales tax, so thrift stores in those states obviously won’t charge you tax. In other states, however, items used by a tax-exempt or other organizations for a charitable/not-for-profit purpose are often granted exemption from sales tax. So if a thrift store operates for the benefit of a religious, educational, or charitable organization, it may not be required to collect sales taxes.

Each of the 2,620 Goodwill Stores in the U.S. and Canada is independently owned and operated; Salvation Army Family Stores are operated and managed by local [congregations] to support the local rehabilitation and community services. This explains the sometimes vast differences in facilities, personnel, and pricing between stores. If one location is not to your liking, try another!

I have to disagree with the comment about not buying electronics from a thrift store. Any reputable thrift will allow you to plug in and test electronic and other small appliances before purchasing them. Salvation Army and Goodwill test them before putting them out for sale, and the SA here even guarantees them to perform properly for a short period of time. And the deals you can find! A few weeks ago, an overstocked Goodwill Store offered your choice of VCR, plus your choice of three videotapes, for $5! This location also has an ongoing promotion in which every fourth item you have is free.

Mike February 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm


I live in Canada so we get to shop at Salvation Army and Renaissance (Goodwill). These two are non-profit entities, their sale price is reasonable and they do not charge tax.

There is another large outfit but they are for profit and their prices are through the roof.

Where can you get a brand name new suit for $30.00 CDN, Versace, Armani, Hugo Boss, Pal Zileri and Canali shirts for $4-5.00 CDN? I rest my case. Being a salesperson on the road, I need the threads but for the price of a brand new suit at retail price, I get 50!

It’s great for X-mas gift too, as big companies get a tax write-off as they donate New in the box material.

We got close to new couches for $120.00. They came from a hotel that was remodeling! Once the cushion covers were washed, the couches were new! Our cats shredded the old couches and they seem not to like these, well more for us. Furniture hunting is great especially when estates give to charity.

We buy when it’s worth it, sometimes we come back empty handed. We call our outings treasure hunting.

The good part is that you can use it to look like a million bucks, then give it away and get some more!

Taylor Brengard February 28, 2013 at 8:37 am

Tip #11: Be sure to wear your grandad’s clothes. You’ll look incredible! 😉

Josef March 4, 2013 at 11:11 am

A word to those who “have lots more money”. Perhaps the deals should be left to those who don’t “have lots more money” as they are the ones who would most benefit from the articles on sale at thrift stores. There is something to be said for people who regularly buy quality items at thrift stores and wear them a few times and then donate them back to the thrift store in essentially the same shape they originally purchased them in. In this way the thrift stores become more of a “rental closet” that helps one appear to have an unlimited wardrobe while still doing much to support their local thrift stores and the worthwhile causes they champion.

Jan Steinman March 9, 2013 at 10:07 am

11: shop in thrift stores in rich neighbourhoods. On our island of eclectic, thrifty people, the two thrift stores are under-stocked and over-priced. But a short ferry ride away in a retirement community of mostly wealthy pensioners, it’s the opposite.

Elouise swanson March 11, 2013 at 11:22 am

Frugal living allows me to cover the cost of computer internet. I measure myself, note it and take the tape to the thrift store. I purchased excellent storm boots from Bronx Salvation Army for $10.00. I have used them for 10 years. When certain people tell me not to buy, I reply, in the hospital you use a second-hand
bed, sheets, blood pressure tools, ect. You are willing to buy second-hand car/house. Get Real , appreciate your article. 3/11/13 ES

Sabrina Friend March 15, 2013 at 8:24 am

Please don’t hesitate to patronize thrift shops. They are mostly run by non profit organizations and volunteers. Even if you are more comfortable financially, this is a green way of shopping for books, magazines, clothing, small furniture, holiday decor and other items.

Our tiny shop in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle thrives because we serve a variety of people. Don’t try to haggle about the price. We are trying to raise money for charity and to cover the rent, utilities and basic expenses.

We are getting ready to clear out our stock piles of items with a massive sale on April 13th at the Ryther Campus. This first of its kind sale should be a wonderful opportunity for shoppers of all backgrounds.

We have a teen mom’s group who regularly come in to the shop to buy baby things and household necessities.

Levell March 21, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I’m sorry folks but with all the got darn diseases going around, aids, tubercolosis, hepatitis and all that good stuff, I just can’t see myself wearing somebody’s used panties and draws. I don’t care if it’s the most expensive merchandise on the market, It’s used and who knows what kind of contagious malignancy the owner had. No thank you, ya’ll can have all that used stuff and the hidden diseases that come along with it. I tried it one time when I bought a pair of pants from this second hand store and low and behold, the crouch was full of “YELLOW PEE STAIN”. All I could think about was AIDS!!!! Hell to the Nah, no used clothing for me bud!

Mary W March 29, 2013 at 12:21 am

I can only share my experiences. Shop at Goodwill in the extremely low income neighborhoods because the items will be priced a bit lower, however much of the merchandise comes from a central donation clearance center and is equally distributed. This is especially true i large cities In smaller towns and the burbs, go to the better neighborhoods but expect to pay more because that is where people do direct donate. If you are looking for one very special item like a black leather trench coat or a wedding dress make a few purchases with the same clerk over a period of weeks and when they get to know you, quietly offer a “finders fee” if they will pull that item for you. This also works with electronics. If you’re covering pillows, or making baby clothes, the best fabric can often be found on the plus sized clothing items. Also, see if your town has a donation clearing center where you can take bags of items from the unsorted bins priced per bag. All of the above has worked for me.

John Smith April 1, 2013 at 5:39 am

Whenever I go to the thrift shop I only bring $20, you wont believe how much stuff I can get!

Lesley April 9, 2013 at 9:21 am

Levelle, you can’t get aids or hepatitis from pee, nor can you get TB from pee. Aids and hep are transmitted via blood and blood products.

Elsie Sieben April 12, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Having shopped at thrift stores my whole life and outfitted my family and many others with good finds, I love thrift stores. However, recently I wonder with concern whether bedbugs might become a problem. (Cockroaches would be bad enough but at least one can get rid of them by hiring an exterminator, but apparently it is almost impossible to get rid of bedbugs.)

Camiddle April 16, 2013 at 11:03 am

As a book lover, I adore thrift stores. You can buy gently loved novels for as little as 50 cents. This stretches the pocket, when a new one can run $7.99 and up.

Floyd Gary Thacker April 21, 2013 at 9:53 am

Go to clean thrift stores that are run by people who care. Some make sure that items are cleaned or cleaned and pressed when brought in. Inspect clothing for bugs and if you see any – head for the china. No, not head to China – but you can buy platters and dishes which are much easier to clean and get great deals at a thrift store. Happy hunting.

Mary Kim May 11, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Sometime people are afraid to buy underwear and panties because sometimes there are stains inside. If it’s a dark brown stain, then perhaps it’s been washed over and over so choose not to buy it. But if the stain is light brown, then soaking in water with salt, not too much salt, perhaps 1 coffee cup for one sink of water and the stay will go away. The light brown stain in the panty will become lighter and lighter. Then add bleach, soak over night, then stain will almost 100 percent gone. Save money this way because new panties are expensive.

Helen June 4, 2013 at 3:53 pm

@Elsie Kay – the concern about bedbugs is a good point. I learned from an exterminator that the best thing to do is to put all clothing straight into the dryer on high for 30 minutes as soon as you get home. Heat is one of the few ways to kill them.

Lesley June 10, 2013 at 11:32 am

We donate all the time in our local big city shop, and each time we do we take a browse through for things we might need. With two growing kids we are able to pick things up that some other child may have only fit for 3 weeks, then my kids will only fit them for three weeks and we re-donate. My kids and husband get books at thrift shops all the time, read them, then send many of them on their way. It’s recycling at it’s finest!

Nancy June 13, 2013 at 6:21 am

Josef..I don’t agree about leaving the “deals” for those with less money – the SA has an arrangement with most social services organizations that a word from them will let those without the means to get their things for free, they need those who have the money to pay, in order to cover their administration expenses. This comes from a friend whose Mom and Dad both are SA managers. So to the general public – do purchase from the SA and other “gentley used” organizations…they need the money!

jack brownfield July 2, 2013 at 6:17 am

Is there a list for discounts for veterans.


Jack Brownfield

Dary July 14, 2013 at 10:45 am

I shop at Goodwill all the time here in AZ and find they have a lot of good “stuff”. My biggest problem is Goodwill searchs E Bay and prices just a little lower. I doubt if anthing is tested “ELECTRONIC” just priced and jammed on a shelf. AZ Goodwill does not charge tax but are fairly pricey. Also Phoenix metropolitan area has like 30 retail stores and none seem to price items the same. If you shop for say a printer it will not have a power cord attached but will find it hanging eslewhere with a separate price tag.

Chris July 16, 2013 at 9:42 am

No wonder plus size people can’t find clothes. You are suggesting to use them as FABRICS! It’s really hard to get clothes if you are plus sized and low income, please STOP taking the clothes for fabric.

SashineB July 22, 2013 at 8:22 am

I love shopping at thrift shops. I’ve found plenty of rare books that I’d wanted for years, in addition to some pieces of china that matched my collection. The greatest find, though, was in getting a brand new (original stickers and tag were still on it) cast-iron, enamelled pot by Staub. I had seen this in a high-end shop, and it cost $400. At the thrift shop, I got it for $19 (nineteen dollars)!! Amazing!

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