Thrifting Lessons from a Pro

Thrift shopping tips from a pro

You’ve probably noticed that nearly all of my outfits include at least one thrifted item. I’ve written a whole bunch of posts about various aspects of thrifting, but thought it might be helpful to cull some highlights. Especially since spring and autumn are high shopping times for most of us, and present fabulous opportunities to hit the charity shops and score some fabulous, affordable, environmentally-friendly new duds!

  1. Make time to thrift: Very few people can duck in and out of a thrift store in 15 minutes. Since you’ll be sifting through rack upon rack of poorly organized goods, allot yourself a chunk of time so that you can truly explore the bounty.
  2. Try stuff on: Eyeballing it can be incredibly risky at a thrift store, so try everything on. My method is to wear leggings and a tunic or dress whenever I thrift. That way, even if the store doesn’t offer fitting rooms, I can throw things on in the aisles and make sure they aren’t horrifying on me. Try it all on, friends, including belts and scarves.
  3. Keep an open mind: Take a wish list of items to keep yourself on track, but always allow the Thrift Muses to throw a surprise your way.
  4. Experiment: Does something grab your eye because of color or texture, but scare you off because of how it’s cut? Try it on anyway. Are you drawn to that zebra print skirt, but have no idea if it’ll work in your wardrobe? Try it on anyway. Don’t buy stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable or is wildly impractical, of course, but thrifting is the best possible place to encourage your style to expand. Clothing is affordable, relatively sustainable, and the variety of offerings is VAST. Branch out a little. I mean, why not?
  5. Don’t buy it just because it’s designer and a bargain: Oh man, have I ever been tempted to snap up undervalued duds simply because I knew their true worth. But here’s the thing: Unless you’re going to resell on eBay, you should only thrift items that you love and that work for your figure. A $5 Max Mara dress is a waste of $5 if it makes you feel like 15 hot dogs shoved into a tube sock. Use your common sense, and don’t be tempted by something just because it’s designer.

Image courtesy Lance McCord.

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  • Charlie

    I´ve only recently discovered the fun of thrifting, and I´ve already found so many good skirts and a couple of blouses, too. Looking for new places atm, since there is only two at a walking distance from me and I don´t own a car. Trying to find ones that are located near a bus route or something. Only problem is that time thing exactly. If I find a great place it would probably take me an hour or more to get there, and then I need an hour or more inside, and an hour or more to get back home. That´s a lot of time spent on a skirt!

  • Corrine/Frock And Roll

    I LOVE thrifting! (And I love these tips!) I love the thrill of finding something completely new (and often unique), and I love the teeny-tiny price tags that often accompany those pieces 😀 I would estimate that 70% of my wardrobe are thrifted items!

  • Rachel W.

    I am a huge thrifter and have found some fabulous things for a great price by this way of shopping. I love your tip of taking time…time is a must when thrifting. My best trips are when I can spend at least (no lie) 2 hours sifting through things. 🙂

  • Sidewalk Chalk

    Great tips, Sal, especially "Don't buy it just because it's designer and a bargain." I have an oversized purple Oscar de la Renta blazer languishing in my pile of future Goodwill donations because I didn't think clearly when I bought it. I just thought, "Oscar? I'll make it work!" Ha.

  • Tina Z

    On my last trip to the Goodwill I passed on a pair of Jimmy Choos that were my size but cut across the top of my foot with every step. $20? Yeah, they would have sat unused in my closet. I used the $20 instead to buy a flattering silk Ann Taylor tank top that will a lot of use. It's hard not to be seduced by labels sometimes!

  • The Raisin Girl

    I loooooove thrifting. There's this store in my hometown called Good As New Clothing, and I find the MOST amazing things there. I've been thrifting since I was little, and I never felt any aversion to it. After all, if we went to a thrift store it was pretty much guaranteed I'd be allowed to get whatever I wanted, even if the 'rents thought it was impractical or weird-looking. I'm pretty sure the only leopard-print items I've EVER owned came from thrift stores.

    Some people say "well you don't know where those clothes have been," and that's true. But if it's something that a good run through the washer and dryer–or a single trip to the dry-cleaners–couldn't fix, it was probably apparent in-store and the item should never have been bought. I recently got my bf to bight the thrifting bullet when he had to buy suits to wear to work. Two complete suits, a button-up shirt, and 5 ties for $20? Oh yes.

  • Rachel

    I love to thrift shop! It's also a must since I have three kids and we are a single income family. My #1 rule of shopping is this- if you don't know you love it- put it back!
    If you are not sure, leave it on the rack and think about it while you shop. Still thinking about it when time to check out- go back and get it. It's gone, you say? Then it wasn't meant to be.
    I love to see the look on a person'g face when I tell them I got that really nice/cute top at Goodwill.
    enjoying your blog

  • Franca

    Great tips! I think no 1 is the most important, because it's the one way in which charity shopping differs significantly from normal shopping. There will be a lot of crap. The good stuff will be not displayed for you, you need to dig it out. This means either long mamoth sessions or a lot of shorter ones. It's not time efficient but its FUN!

    My other tip is that your eye will develop over time. When I first started thrifting, I bought a lot of stuff that I then wore once and then returned back to the charity shop. But that's ok. Now I'm much more selective, and can find the things that will work quickly. I do kind of miss the days of coming home with SO MUCH stuff!

    Ok, that wasn't really a tip, but oh well!

  • Darling Petunia

    Oh, have I got tips.

    First, if the store arranges by size, look in all the sections anyway. A top that's a size small may have been meant to be oversize when it was made, but may fit you just fine. A skirt marked XL might be a junior size XL.

    Go often. Can't be said enough.

    Think it takes too long? Don't look at every. single. item. Focus on a section and scan the fabrics. You can skip anything that's faded or pilly. Skip anything that's a bad hue. Skip the shiny polyesters, etc. Just zero in on the ones that look promising.

    In shops without dressing rooms, I've slipped on a giant dress and tried on pants or skirts underneath.

    CHECK THE RETURN RACKS!

  • Almost 40

    Lots of good stuff here, as usual, sweet Sal.

    My junior high daughter just had her very first successful thrifting experience last week. She has already determined that looking like everyone else is boring. She did AWESOME and got some great stuff. And was was so sweet was that she was amazed at all she got for so little money! Nice!

    Now, I will admit, I very recently was seduced by a dress. It's a vintage Gaultier. And the price? Insanely cheap. Did I buy it? Absolutely. This dress is ART. BUT, before I purchased it, I asked the store (who I have a great relationship with), if I could take it around the corner to my tailor for her to look at since it needed a little work (those designers just don't appreciate a girl with GIRLS!) Anyway, my tailor agreed that I should NOT pass this up and that she would gladly work with me to make it work for my body. Even with the cost of the tailoring, I got an unbelievable deal. And even better, it's a sort of fancy dress but VERY wearable. It's quite quirky but REALLY REALLY cool. As I said, it's art.

  • Bethanne

    Great tips, Sal – I'm so bad about coming home with things just because they're tantalizingly close to working or have that designer label but are so not my size or style. 🙂

  • Andie

    I have recently begun to embrace thrifting- I've found lots of great accessories, belts, and fabrics (sheets) to use for dresses and skirts!

    I plan to do some shopping at a thrift store today that is owned by the Junior League!

    Great tips!

  • Sal

    Darling Petunia: SO TRUE! Sizing is weird, and even weirder if you're crossing eras, so look everywhere. If something is marked as a small and you're a large but it looks like it'll fit, try it on!

  • K.Line

    You are so right about the Max Mara skirt and 15 hot dogs!! 🙂

  • Future Lint

    Drag anything interesting into the fitting room to try, once you have your pile of things that worked and you want to buy, park your cart off in a corner where you are out of the way. Do a top to bottom thorough inspection of the item. Often times (especially on something with a busy pattern) I'll get it home and discover a stain or moth hole and it's frustrating. A few minutes in the store will save you from heartbreak later!

  • gina

    I used to pass up designer items if they weren't my size or style, but I'm starting to change my habits in that area. I have a lot of resale shops very close to my house so if I see a cute designer bargain while thrifting, I'll buy it even if I'm not sure it will work for me. If it does, great. If it doesn't I sell it to one of the shops in my neighborhood, usually at a profit, and then take the store credit to buy something else.

    Example – I recently purchased a strapless Nanette Lepore dress at a thrift shop, absolutely gorgeous, but when I tried it on an home without anything underneath, it was just a tad too loose around the chest to stay up, so I sold it to Buffalo Exchange for more than twice what I purchased it for. And they priced it twice that amount – almost 5x what I paid!

  • Anonymous

    i'm not 'put off' by thrifting, but it doesn't work for me. i'm very hard on clothes (i wear them out quickly), so any thrifted clothes last only a few months of normal wear.

    plus i'm hard to fit and picky (in any era). so i have to spend an inordinate amount of time thrifting (to find anything that'll fit and to replace the pieces that are quickly wearing out).

    shopping new is just as time-consuming but at least the clothes don't wear out as quickly. fortunately i sew, so i make a lot of my own clothes. shopping is so hard for me that sewing takes about the same time or less than shopping, and i can make things that i know will fit and last.

    how it saddens my cheapskate heart to say it! – but thrifting's not for me. great tips! steph

  • Courtney

    I love thrifting and get a good portion of my clothes that way. The only advice I'd add to all this is to learn to do a simple hand sewn hem. I've found so many promising items at GoodWill that were perfect except for the length. But now, I can fix that and it's made thrifting a much better experience!

  • Luinae

    I ADORE thrifting. I allows me to have a so much bigger wardrobe then my classmates, and be more unique.

  • Emily

    I really want to get on board with thrifting but I have a couple of strikes against me. First I'm plus sized. Sifting through all of the clothing to find something that is not heinous and in my size is VERY challenging. And secondly, I'm a single mother of a toddler and her attention span just doesn't withstand a long shopping trip at this time 🙁 Perhaps if I just stick to the scarves, bags and jewelry – less store, less time, no sizing issues.
    Thanks for the tips!

  • Ashley!

    Here is my ultimate tip for thifting:

    Go into the tacky wedding/prom dress isle, and see if theirs any skirts or fabrics that catch you eye. Try on. If you like it, you should by that tacky $20 wedding dress, bring it home, chop of the bodice and/or hem it, then dye it! I absolutely love the tacky dress isle…but then again, floofy, impractical skirts are totally my thing.

  • Jenni

    First: "15 hot dogs shoved into a tube sock" is one of the most awesome gross phrases of all time. Amazing.
    Second: I love thrifting, but the thrifting in Las Vegas is ATROCIOUS! It's overpriced and there's hardly any vintage. I can't wait to go home to Ohio and get some REAL thrifting done. 😀

  • Amy

    These are some great tips!

    I completely agree with the experimenting tip… I once got this shirt that I originally thought was so ugly, but I kept coming back to it everytime I was in the aisle. Finally I tried it on and to my surprise it wasn't as ugly as I originally thought, so I had to buy it!

    xoxo
    Amy

  • Charlotte

    Most of my clothes are thrifted, and as a result, I wear VERY nice clothes. I certainly couldn't afford them otherwise. Pinching up garments for $3 a pop just makes my heart sing. Getting them for 29 cents makes it sing AND dance. When our Goodwill store here has a sale, it's a great sale.
    Sometimes I buy things that I don't wear, but I figure it's still a donation to a good cause. It goes back in a year or two: a double donation.
    I always try to remember to take a tape measure along. That can save time. Dressing rooms are limited to a laughable 6 items at a time, so I can skip trying on some basics if I know the measurements are right.
    Also, because it's been preworn and probably already laundered, the sizes are all over the places. A small might fit like an extra large, an extra large like a medium. This helps you get over your size fixation in a hurry.
    Another great post, Sal.

  • Ecc3ntricCynic

    I would love to thrift more, but I'm an out-of-town thrifter. I often go to thrift stores on vacation. My local thrift stores have not been any sort of gold mine. They're often terribly picked over.

    While in-town I tend to stick to my discount places. They're a lot like thrift stores in you have to sift a lot, but the clothes aren't worn- just past seasons,irregulars or damaged out items. So the fun and thrill is still there, but you pay slightly more than a thrift store, less than a regular store.

  • Carrie Phillips

    I work on a (very) limited budget, and my new thrift rule is: if its stained, ripped or needs fixing that might not work or I definately won't get to this month; don't buy it! This goes for the sale rack at Macy's too. If you can find something wrong with it, don't buy it! I'm much happier and less broke when I hold off for the perfect items.

  • Heather Feather

    Both my husband and I love thrifting! We love searching and finding that perfect treasure. I love your tips because you do have to take time to look through everything and try things on. I'm lucky because I'm a seamstress and can change anything to be what I want it to be. It'd be worth it to learn simple sewing techniques for ripped seams or a missing button.

  • Sarah O.

    What fitting post! I found a number of designer button-down shirts that I almost took home, but I usually consider button down's my work/dress clothes. I'm not currently working or attending any button-down shirt parties, so I ended up leaving those behind. I also saw a Kate Spade bag that made me gasp, but it was so small that my big old wallet wouldn't fit in it so I left that too. I still ended up with a $50 jacket that I didn't really NEED, but it was red leather and fit oh so well.

  • grace

    Great tips! If any of you readers are plus sized, I actually wrote a post on thrifting-while-plus-sized tips here: http://www.noonewatching.com/archives/2008/01/thrifting_while_plussized_a_pr.html

  • Sal

    grace: You rule! Thanks for sharing your post.

  • Melissa Blake

    Awesome tips!! 🙂

  • Rachael

    "15 hot dogs shoved into a tube sock"…hehe.

  • lyrebirdgully

    I thrift because secondhand shops give me a huge CHOICE of styles and colours ranging over the last 4 decades -most of which are simply impossible to find in this season's clothes. And what's more, I can even find examples of CURRENT trends when they are reworkings of vintage fashions e.g.,genuine 80's jackets with "power shoulders", and waisted harem pants: these are really easy to find in thrift shops right now.
    My thrifting strategies:
    1.SHOP BY COLOUR. Since the garments are so jumbled, just scan for YOUR COLOURS and pull out only those items that fit your colour criteria. This will save you time .
    2.SELECT A GARMENT CATEGORY. As others have said, do not try to sift through the whole shop. Either target the garment type you are short of, or if you have time to browse,
    3.SELECT THE HIGH-YIELD CATEGORIES
    WHERE THE GOOD STUFF IS–
    …you can get lucky in any category, but some are less rewarding than others; e.g.PANTS and T-shirts, being garments that usually get heavy wear and heavy laundering, are more likely to be in poor condition. Size labels on pants are usually illegible or missing, so for these you may need a tape measure to winnow out the unsuitable items before you head to the fitting room.
    Conversely,tops such as tailored JACKETS do not get the same amount of wear-and-tear as pants, and are therefore often in top condition.
    In climates with a short winter, hardly-worn WINTER COATS etc are in abundance.Likewise for women's dress SUITS, which most previous owners kept dry-cleaned and wore infrequently.
    FORMAL/PARTY/GLAMOUR WEAR: often a gorgeous gown has only ever been worn once.
    NATURAL FIBRES: many designers no longer use pure wool or silk in their creations these days, because of the cost. But thrift stores often have woollen coats and jumpers, because woollen garments last longer than their modern synthetic counterparts. Your woollen or silk/linen thrifted cardigan/jacket will often look more expensive than a brand new synthetic one too. Just remember to check woollen or silk garments carefully for stains and moth-holes. Happy hunting!

  • Diana

    These are all fantastic thrifting tips!

    My contribution fits in with the "keep an open mind" tip – always look in every section, even if you don't think there will be anything. I recently found a gorgeous cardigan in the pajamas and robe section, because the store considered it lounge wear.

  • Kaytoe

    These are great tips, Sal! I also totally agree with Darling Petunia's addition – you can get in a quick & successful thrifting session by choosing only 1 department to sift through.

    The other thing I do is kind of the inverse of the designer rule. I'm not a big fan of buying supercheap, disposable clothing brands. It's often not much cheaper than when new, & the clothes fall apart much quicker.

    Thrifting has really expanded my style & let me feel confident in stuff I wouldn't have bought new. It's also made me more comfortable with my body, because you get to see how arbitrary sizing really is.

  • Alissa

    I love thrifting! I've found some of the coolest stuff at my local Goodwill:) My latest find was an Elie Tahari dress in black that fits like a glove, for $8. I'd call that a win:)

  • Eyeliah

    I’ve done #5 a few too many times before and it’s just not a reason to buy something, lol.

  • Melissa

    "…15 hot dogs shoved into a tube sock."

    That made me giggle!

    I've done more resale shopping than thrifting…mainly because I tend to be lazy. But when I've hit the Salvation Army store or the Goodwill Boutique, I've found great things. I think those will be my first few stops when I have some clothing budget money again!

  • RoseBarbie

    Can I ask you where do you go for thrift store shopping…I live close to Mpls and I don't know any stores… 🙁

  • Sal

    RoseBarbie: My faves are linked to at the end of this post!

  • Ann M.

    I'm trying to get a little more into thrifting – the sad thing is, I haven't found many thrift stores in my city yet. Still, these tips are immensely useful and I will be sharing a link to this post on my blog 🙂

  • Peggy of Plush Nest

    I think your tips are great, I'd also add:
    Know your friends' measurements and bring a tape measure. You might find something that is perfect for one of their styles, but if you can measure the item to see if it might fit her, you can look like a hero for cheap.

    Bring a snack. Even if it's just craisins in your purse, thrifting is hard work and it's not good to try it while hungry.

  • Rad_in_Broolyn

    Great tips! I love thirfting and I'm pretty decent at it so I limit the number of times I go or else I am overloaded!
    I agree with idea that you should have a HUGE pile and to try it all on. The tunic and leggings thing works well.
    Having a budget when you go in is also important. I run through my pile a few times after I try things on and before buying to make SURE that I would wear these clothes.
    I second Franka's advice and I don't think that's it's a bad thing to do. Sometimes, you pick up stuff that you think will work for you, but it doesn't. Take it back to the thrift store and consider it to be your contribution to charity that some other woman will enjoy. Or give it away to your baby sister.
    I recently picked up a pretty blue dress and it worked well in the store, but now that I've tried it on, I think it's too short in the bust area (it has an empire waist). So I am going to cut it up and hem it a bit, and turn it into a beautiful blue skirt, and save the buttons and the collar/bib for another great project, that will be all kinds of awesomeness.
    As for the designer/too big, I've done that and given it away to buddies. Nothing says "I love you" more than thrifting for someone else!

  • Jessica

    You know what's even better than finding an awesome thrift store shirt/skirt/pair of shoes for yourself? Succeeding in finding them for a friend, and having them fit wonderfully once you bring them to the recipient. Having this approach doesn't actually lead me to waste that much money, because I'm pretty good at eyeballing clothes for the people I sometimes shop for even though we are not similar in size. Plus, even when it doesn't end up working, they so appreciate the thought.

  • Melanie

    Thrifting is one of my FAVORITE ways to shop! I feel less guilty because items cost less and it's good for the environment to reuse.

    However, sometimes I've talked myself into buying pieces I never end up wearing — mostly because of the cheap price.

    When thrifting, I really try not to look at the price until after trying something on and deciding whether or not I actually want it.

    -Melanie

  • Jackie

    This is my first visit to your site, and I think your tips are great! One thing I would add:

    If the item has any flaws at all, assess how much work you are willing to do to fix it or adjust the piece to be perfect. If it's a matter of sewing on a button, or running a pill shaver over the fabric, it's probably a keeper. If you have to do a total reconstruction, or spend more than double the cost of the item at the dry cleaners, it probably isn't ever going to make it out of your closet once it goes in.

  • Caroline

    My top thrifting tip is to take a friend. I've been thrifting for over 10 years, and tend to go it alone most of the time, but have realised that I am in the habit of scanning rails for particular indicators. On a recent thrifting trip with a friend I came away with two amazing dresses that I had skimmed past and she pulled out as perfect for me. Just because they weren't what my well-trained eye automatically looks out for!

  • sara

    One of my FAVORITE reason for thrifting: I’m contributing to a great cause. It’s therapy for me to shop by myself (me time) and I’m recycling and someone else also gained from it: WIN-WIN-WIN 😉

    Besides the goodwills and church thrift stores, my favorite ones i frequent in the area are run by small no kill animal rescues that saves the animals on their last days at the pound. They’ve had to downsize their operations, meaning they’ve had to turn away or can’t save as many as before, in this economy.

    This allows me to feel good about buying that “hmmm… should i?” to “YES! even if i wear it just once, I helped them care for a poor helpless dog” of course, I donate stuff right back to them.

    My other thrifting tips are:
    1. Plan ahead what you’ll need for next season or close upcoming events, it’s true you can’t go thrifting finding something specific, but if planned, you will. We had ski trips and hiking trips planned, so I’m always looking for items specifically for it, and found all the things we needed. Don’t go overboard and hoard, i always tell my friends. Be picky and specific when it comes to buying for next season.

    2. If i can’t find it at the thrift stores, we probably don’t need it. You’ll be amazed at what you really NEED and want. Obviously, undies doesn’t apply here but pretty much everything I own is either thrifted or secondhand. I grew up this way and I’m teaching the same to my family. We are true recyclers.

    3. Multifunction. See a great sturdy belt? Use it as a dog collar or leash. We are crafty, so I’m always looking for things with nice materials to upcycle.

    4. Don’t buy kid’s toys or kid’s clothes new. Sure they need a couple of nice new outfits for outings, but everything else will be outgrown and thrown around. The staples items I do buy new are from companies known for lasting guarantee, I splurge on bookbags and linens in basic colors from LLBean or Lands ends. Will not go out of style and stay classic. That way, if we do give them up, they’ll still have plenty of life left for the next swap or thrifters. In that note, no personalize monogram please.