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 }

Amanda August 12, 2010 at 3:42 pm

The most important tip missing from this list? Check everything CAREFULLY. There is a reason someone parted with it and you are better off discovering a flaw before you buy it.

annie lee October 6, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Another tip, don’t buy anything you can’t wash in hot water. You’ve read about David Sedaris and his crabby thrift store pants, haven’t you?

Suzn November 26, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Making a list is fine but successful thrift store shopping requires taking advantage of the opportunity. Most stores have a daily or weekly special, and it may be for something not on today’s “list” but great value for useful items. Some thrift stores keep a customers’ wish list and will let you know if they get in an item you want. Carry a small tape measure with you to use to size things. Oh and you will often find new, unused clothes and merchandise too.

Francie March 10, 2011 at 9:41 am

Good advice in the article and comments. I have nothing against buying from thrift stores. We know about bedbugs spreading. I agree with not buying anything you can’t wash and dry on HOT. If you MUST buy secondhand, know the tell tale signs bedbugs leave (fecal spots, cast skins, etc) and examine CAREFULLY AND THOROUGHLY. I personally would never buy furniture or mattresses from a thrift – ever – no matter what. No “bargain” is worth infesting your home with BB’s which may cost thousands to have properly and professionally exterminated.

Carla March 14, 2011 at 3:04 pm

Wear simple, easily-removed clothes, so that when you go into the dressing room, you can quickly try on your selections.

I like to wear a slim-fitting sleeveless top and skirt under my coat or sweater. Then I can easily try on almost any top or dress directly over the clothes I’m wearing.

Sara March 26, 2011 at 10:48 pm

If it smells when you walk in, walk right back out. It won’t get any better.

Liz Pakula March 28, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Yes, please leave the kids at home and don’t let them play with the 2nd hand toys. You don’t know who had them last.

Irma Gilbert July 30, 2012 at 1:32 pm

I have notice some Thrift stores charge sale taxes. These charitable donation that people donate should be free of sales taxes. People that shop in these location are very poor people who can not afford prices in department stores, these thrift stores live Savers is despecable, these stuff are smelly, durty, they are not new stuff, I think it is a scam, do they declare this to the government?, that is the reason I do not donate to any of these thrift shoope that impose a sale tax.

Suzy B August 13, 2012 at 8:26 am

Yes, even the non-profit thrift stores pay sales tax. It’s the law! Also, please note many thrift stores wash and iron everything before it goes out.

Chelsea August 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I find Disney brand clothes all the time! I simply cannot afford to buy anything new. I just got a used car for $600 it runs just fine! I got a used microwave from 1977 it works great! It also came with an original sales receipt.

Joyce Ford August 28, 2012 at 9:51 am

Once you buy a new item it becomes “used.” Previously owned clothing is a great deal if it is good condition. After years of thrift shopping, the prices in department stores simply shock me.

D September 7, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Irma, when you purchase something at a thrift store you aren’t making a “donation.” You’re receiving something for your monetary output, so it must be taxed like any other item. That’s also why you can’t deduct thrift store purchases in your annual tax returns.

dingles September 29, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I bought a metal/wood bed frame from a thrift shop. Following delivery I found that the wooden bed slats were riddled with woodworm.

bluetrue October 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I buy and give away to people who need it. I don’t feel that stuff should be sold. A man’s junk is another man’s treasure and I find people are happy to get free stuff. I saw a top in goodwill for $9.99 and I had mine on and I only paid $6.99 at Walmart so why was it so high at goodwill? I say free stuff.

Mike Oxlong October 9, 2012 at 12:34 pm

There’s nothing wrong with thrift store clothing. I buy almost all my clothing there and often find new, unworn items (shoes too, esp. Doc Martens). I do advise that you check the pockets, no, you probably won’t find money there although it’s possible, but I did buy a leather jacket once that had marihuana in the inner pocket–good thing I didn’t get pulled over because I’m sure they would have never believed me.

Mike Oxlong October 9, 2012 at 12:37 pm

And yes, you do need to know what items are usually priced. I’ve seen several items that are priced higher than retail or eBay prices, clothes included. Good wills in my area get donations from Target that are unsold sale items. They raise the price on them. So if it still has a Target tag, you can probably find it at a Target store for less on a clearance rack. They also get items that were returned so make sure all the parts are there and that it works.

anna frederiksen October 13, 2012 at 10:11 am

I shop on the “senior days” when most everything is 1/2 price!!!! (I think most thrift stores have 60 as the age limit but if you are disabled, they probably will give you the discount anyway)

Debbie Hale October 13, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Absolutely make sure the item has all its buttons, zippers work properly, and all the seams are good, plus make sure there aren’t any stains. I’ve never seen already-laundered used clothing at any of the thrift stores in my area, and frankly, most times the clerks are minimum-wage and extremely over-worked, so don’t assume the clothing is ready to wear. However, that being said, if you’re dieting and need smaller jeans, you can’t go wrong with thrift store jeans.

Pachistima October 13, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Hey Bluetrue – how long do you believe a store would last if it gave stuff away free? Or were you trying to make a joke? If so, it’s not funny.

Deedee October 14, 2012 at 10:49 am

I no longer donate to Goodwill since they make a profit off of donated items and the CEO just keeps getting richer and employees are overworked and underpaid. All my donations go to Salvation Army now, as they are a true non-profit organization. Or depending on what’s being donated it might go to Habitat for Humanity.

Maddie October 15, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Hey Deedee, Goodwill employees make minimum wage. Sometimes a little more if they’ve been working there for a long period of time. If you object to workers being paid minimum wage, you should probably stop buying things from any retail store, thrift shop, grocery store, fast food place, or gas station. Also, Salvation Army is a conservatively Christian, anti-gay establishment that donates money to actively homophobic institutions that lobby against gay marriage. Sorry, but I’d rather donate to a neutral charity than a partisan one. You’re not truly charitable if you contribute to denying people their rights!

Daisy October 16, 2012 at 3:05 am

As a thrift store veteran let me share a few tips. Wear a leotard/body suit and bike shorts under your clothes. I also did this to use the communal dressing room at Loehmans.

You can get great deals on mattresses at the Salvation Army on 1/2 price days. By law the mattresses are cleaned before going on the sales floor.

Go on a rainy day. You will have the place to yourself (almost) and if that store has a mold problem you’ll smell it right away.

If you drive, hit the stores in the expensive part of town. Rich people donate nicer stuff, especially artwork.

Bring a phone with internet access so you can comparasin shop.

Happy thrifting!

tracy October 21, 2012 at 1:52 pm

I agree the Goodwill in our area is way to expensive, since I can buy new stuff a lot cheaper. The Salvation Army prices are that way as well. I don’t believe an item should be taxed twice either. The stuff is dirty and overpriced! I used to thrift shop but not anymore. It is just a big business making themselves rich off the poor.

Ardus October 24, 2012 at 5:05 pm

The goodwill thrift store in my area hires black women that are very prejudiced against white people. They think it doesn’t show but you can cut it with a knife. I am never going back to the goose creek store, EVER. I guess that’s what they wanted anyway.

Alrica October 27, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Hi Ardus, In what specific way did the black ladies show prejudice against whites? Being black myself (living in Canada), I’m curious. Thank you.

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