How to Ease Into Thrifting

learn to thrift shop

Yep, time to talk about thrifting. AGAIN. But this time, I’m hoping to bend the ears (er, eyes?) of you readers who still aren’t sure about the whole deal. The germs, the disorganization, the lack of size selection/diversity, the sheer amount of time it takes to wade through the racks at a used clothing store … something is holding you back. But you’re open to the idea of easing into thrifting. If you’ve been reluctant thus far but have just a smidgen of curiosity, this one’s for you.

Hit the accessories

Thrifting for clothes isn’t exactly easy. Unless you’ve become adept at eyeballing fit, you’ve got to try everything on. The racks are crowded, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find anything in your size, and it can all get a bit overwhelming. But thrift store accessories are easier to locate, examine for quality and flaws, and assess for usefulness. Belts can be slipped on over whatever you’re wearing. Scarves can be handled and experimented with in the aisles. Handbags can be tested out, filled with your own belongings, assessed for comfort. If I ever have a very short, defined period of time in which to visit a thrift store, I stick to accessories only. I can be in and out in 15 minutes. And I never feel harried or like I’ve overloaded my senses.

Consider jewelry

I consider most used accessories to be relatively low on the ookey-germy scale – with the possible exception of scarves – but jewelry is even less likely to carry cooties. And friends, thrift stores are just lousy with funky, cheap, unique costume jewelry. This is another great option if you’re pressed for time since a quick peek in an obliging mirror will tell you immediately if a necklace or pair of earrings will work. Other fabulous places to shop for used jewelry? Flea markets, antique fairs/shops, and garage sales.

Try on a few coats

OK, coats you might want to dry clean before wearing. But they’re making this list for a few important reasons: They can be assessed without hitting the fitting rooms, they are among the goods most likely to have aged well despite years of use, they are an incredible value when purchased used, and they are typically confined to a small section of the thrift store. Late summer is a GREAT time to thrift for coats. Most stores have fall stock on the floor, so saunter on by and slip on a trench or a bomber.

Image via modhuman.

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  • Anna

    Upscale neighborhoods produce the best donations/merchandise, especially at church sales and in thrift stores run as benefits for charities.

    • Viktoria

      I second this. I thrift because my taste is more expensive than my wallet can handle. I have this one store that I visit on a weekly basis, and I have made some staggering finds. A black leather trenchcoat for 20 dollars? A designer summer coat for 10 dollars? Two Ralph Lauren shirts for 5 dollars? An atelier-made silk kimono, one of a kind, at 10 dollars? All these clothes are hardly worn at all, most of them originally bought for special occasions. I love it! And I´m doing good for the environment, and support the Red Cross, too!

      • Heather

        What thrift store is this?

  • Diana

    I am a jewelry and accessories only thrifter. My main reason for not thrifting clothes is that I am super sensitive to smells, and very often otherwise clean thrifted clothes will have a perfume or even strong detergent smell that I can’t ever get out to my satisfaction. And let’s not even talk about smoke or body odor smells.

    (I should add that this is not a problem solely limited to thrifted clothes. I’ve returned new items because I got them home and discovered lingering perfume or body odor smells from people who have tried them on previously.)

  • Juli

    I was raised thrifting and did it regularly up until I was about 20 at which point I rented a room on *that* side of town where thrifted pants cost as much as new pants from *that other* side of town. That said, I do miss it and your constant “Try thrifting!” posts are motivating me to go back to it… especially when you consider the fact that clothes off the rack hate my figure and I alter everything I buy anyway.

  • Anneesha

    I worked consignment, and coats are always the most fun to try on! And ask a random passerby what they think as well – it’s a good way to practice social skills and makes things more fun.

  • Sally – Some wonderful thrifting tips here. We have limited overall shopping in our town of 8000, but I nearly always find something great at one of our two thrift stores. As someone with fluctuating weight (lost some recently and hope it stays off), thrift stores are great for getting different sized clothing without making a big financial commitment. I would also say that going often (even for short periods, like you suggest) is the key–one day I stopped by on a whim with just a few minutes and found three pairs of shoes for $1 each (two of which had clearly never been worn). I have joined a gym right near Goodwill and it’s a great incentive to work out and then browse the racks–and avoid getting ice cream at two tempting places nearby. I also occasionally find great home items–earlier this week I found a painting for $4 that is not a masterpiece but has beautiful colors and will be a great boost for my home office. Also don’t forget to check out frames or mirrors–you can get great prices on these to gussy up your house.

  • Stacy

    Those are great tips. Some of my favorite belts came from my local thrift stores: wonderful Native American hand-beading, hand-tooled leather, and the funky super-wide tribal print one I’m wearing today. I have found Coach purses in almost new condition, and vintage beaded clutches. My latest find is a hand-beaded scarf featuring a beautiful cobalt and pink floral print.

    I’ll add that in some areas, the shoes are a gold mine. Almost new suede knee-high boots, velvet pumps with a gold clasp, and like new Doc Martens were all found at my local Salvation Army.

  • I think I first got started thrifting by looking for costumes, either for Halloween or plays I was in. What a lot of people don’t know is that you can find items in thrift stores that are new with tags. Or things that are barely worn–that’s probably why they got donated. Definitely check items all over for stains or damage. Thrift stores can also have really interesting housewares; no need to try anything on. A run in the dishwasher should zap germs.

    Also, people could try more “upscale” second-hand stores like Buffalo Exchange or Crossroads. They are pretty bad for anyone over a size 12, though, which sucks.

  • Always keep in mind that it is possible to alter or refashion clothes to a certain extent or even redo the lining of a bag or coat. (Just consider if it’s still worth its price then.)

    Since I do sew as a hobby, I also love to check out big sizes to use as fabric, home linens are also great for this.

  • Eliza

    I have to say, despite being a regular thrift shopper, I rarely find jewelry. Mostly I see flaking plastic pearls, and a few overpriced crystal necklaces. Maybe it’s because I tend to shop the smaller, local charity thrift shops, rather than Goodwill?
    Books can be a great starting place too. When my grandparents visited my college just before graduation, they wanted to see my favorite local haunts. One of the places we stopped into was the thrift shop down the road. My grandfather found a brand new, hardcover copy of a book he wanted for .50, and couldn’t stop telling everyone about his ‘incredible bargain.’ Now he’s talking about wanting to try eBay…

  • I tend to feel the exact opposite as you, Sal. Purses can be hard to sanitize and often hold onto the ‘stink’ of thrift store too long for me to feel comfortable purchasing bags. Coats can be a great investment if you can find a good one, but I’d definitely take it to the cleaners. I did splurge on a fur coat for $14, but add in cleaning costs and it goes up.

    My best picks are things you can easily pop in the washer. I know most people prefer ease of shopping, but when thrifting, I want to search for things that will be best for me to care for and wear. I prefer natural fabrics that can be washed. So tanks, jeans, or cotton skirts are my prefer sections to frequent.

    Consignment stores might be a good option for those who feel squicky about tackling the major racks, but really the joy in thrifting is having the patience to dig for those hidden gems. I don’t know how else to say it, but sometimes it just takes the patience of going back, digging, and trying again.

  • Rebecca

    Fantastic advice! I’d add that starting at a consignment store instead of a thrift store could be even more of a gentle easing-in. Consignment stores are less likely to have the chaos, funky smells, and overwhelming selection of crap that thrift stores do, but still give you a chance to get used to great prices on a limited selection.

    I have the worst time finding belts & scarves at thrift stores! Ours are a bonanza of jewelry and not bad on the shoes, but I can’t find a decent belt to save my life.

  • Molly

    I know this is clothes, but I want to suggest easing into thrifting by trying on items that are fairly basic and likely to fit. I wear a lot of tank tops (solid color, sleeveless but not spaghetti strap), and because I know what colors I like and what tends to fit me, I can quickly browse through that rack at the local thrift store. I often find “nice” brands that I would never buy full price for relatively cheap, and I don’t have to take off my shoes or jeans or whatever to try them on.

  • Catie D.

    While it’s not exactly fashion-y, I cannot stress to you enough the great things you can find in the appliance section of a second hand store like Goodwill! In the past few months, I’ve picked up a quesadilla maker, a George Foreman Grill, an espresso machine, a coffee pot, and a milk frother. All for under $35.

  • Margo

    Men’s all cotton shirts are usually easy to find at any thrift store near or run by a hospital, I’ve found. But here in LA, vintage dealers usually snag the great stuff leaving the tired behind.

  • Shaye

    Agreed on starting with consignment or upscale secondhand stores where people get cash or credit for selling their clothes. These collections are already curated for style and checked for cleanliness and good condition. It can be a great way to ease into buying used.

    I seldom shop these places anymore, since charity thrift stores sell equally unworn and stylish threads, but I shopped these kinds of stores for years before I started to ease into the life of a hardcore thrifter – partially inspired by Sally!

  • Mel

    Funny how everyone’s different about germs. I’ve been known to wear thrifted shoes right out of the store. I can hear you saying “Ew!” already, but I’ve never had any problems.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for all these posts on thrifting. I finally went out and did it. I was amazed! I actually found items in my size, and scored a couple of amazing finds. Chicos travelers pants, in my size, tags still attached, for $6. A Coldwater Creek suede jacket that looks like it was never worn for $7! And an all cotton full skirt from Banana Republic for $2.50.

  • Sufiya

    Gawd, I LIVE for thrift stores! While I understand the “squick” factor, and I know what is meant by “thrift store smell” (I call it “Value Village smell”) there’s LOTS to be found in terms of decorating items, books, scarves (I have found scarves that have made grown women weep), sewing and crafty supplies, fabrics (I got 3 1/2 yards of exquisite $30-or-more-per-yard Chinese brocade for $8 once) ornaments, furniture (I got a gently-used wrought-iron daybed worth at least $350 for $85 once).

    And I buy clothes and shoes as well; it’s hardly difficult to discern what has been worn once or twice and what has been worn half to death! And the thing I like is that you can do whatever you want with what you find: paint it, alter it, cut pieces off, add pieces on..something you would never want to do with something you paid full retail for! I have found kitchen items and appliances barely used that I would never have gotten otherwise-much too expensive! But there they were at the Sally Ann, costing a mere pittance!

    And getting RID of stuff is easier too; it is psychologically much easier to divest yourself of something you only paid a few bucks for, rather than something that cost you three figures new! Just take it back to the thrift store!

  • I buy cheap things from Supré & Cotton on from op-shops – most guides to op-shopping recommend against buying cheap quality tat, but there’s no way I’m paying $20-30 for a singlet when I can get it for $1 from Vinnies.

  • Last Saturday I ended up at a high end thrift store in West Hartford, Connecticut. The most affordable piece that I saw there was a Zara dress that was listed for $39. Although it was pricey, there were a few pieces that I would have loved to add to my closet but the items were either too small or too big. My wallet is thanking me that this was the case. But I can’t emphasize enough the TREASURES that were in that store and the THRILL OF THE HUNT makes the finds so much for loved.

  • I love this. I have recently gotten really into thrifting, not just for the fun of it and to save money, but also to decrease my ecological impact. When I shop at my local Goodwill, not only can I usually find a couple of whole outfits for the cost of just one item new, but I know that every dollar is supporting a local business that does good, instead of supporting sweatshops.

  • Saving the environment, saving money-such good reasons to thrift. But although I’m a regular thrifter, I feel so shamed thrifting. Like my non-thrifting siblings, I feel shamed taking things that even more poor people who have no CHOICE but to get two dollar shirts could have scored for themselves. As an impulse shopper with an equally good heart, I’ve given away so many things that would be appreciated by smaller people (I’m 6’2; most regular things don’t fit me properly) or those who can stand harsher fabrics like pure wool….But I see the poor(er) folks in there, and try as I might I cannot associate thrifting with my lovely twee fashion-loving friends. I struggle with the stigma of the poor person who must live on next-door to hand-outs. Even though I’ve a right to frequent these shops because I give. Bah.