On a street corner near our house is a store called The Dig, which advertises “most clothes $3 – $4 – $5″. Many of these are items of the latest fashions, which have been rejected for whatever reason. Clean and organized, the store also has dressing rooms, something many thrift stores lack. I used to mock Kris for going to The Dig. It looked like a dive. Then I joined her for a trip a couple of weeks ago — now I’m a convert.

I buy most of my clothing at one of two places: Costco or the local thrift shops. It makes me wince to pay more than $20 for a piece of clothing. (Unless it’s something top quality, like a Filson jacket, in which case I’ll gladly pay $150.) Costco has styles I like, but the selection is limited, and the prices are three times those at thrift stores. Thrift stores have a huge selection, but the garments are often flawed. And to find anything good, you have to sort through tons of junk.

Used clothing stores like The Dig are a compromise. The prices are better than at Costco. The selection isn’t as wide as you might find at a thrift store, but the quality is generally better. Here are some tips about shopping for second-hand clothes. (Kris gave a lot of help with these.)

  1. Set a budget. This is difficult at first — you don’t know how much things cost. But eventually you’ll be able to tell yourself, “I’m going spend $20 today”. It becomes a game to see how much you can buy for $20.
  2. Discard your prejudices. Some people consider thrift stores and used clothing shops nasty dirty places. Some are. Most aren’t. Explore your neighborhood. Find a shop or two that you like, and you’ll be hooked. (My mother-in-law was nonplused when we shopped for used clothes on our San Francisco vacation, but even she became excited when she found a new pair of her favorite Birkenstocks — in her size! — for just $8.)
  3. Go with a friend. It’s good to have a second opinion. Your friend may have an eye for what looks good on you — and vice versa.
  4. Try things on. Sizes vary widely between manufacturers and even by eras. (Today’s clothes have looser fits.) But go in knowing your general size and measurements. Note that some places don’t have dressing rooms, so it’s smart to wear a modest thin layer in case you need to strip down in the aisle.
  5. Examine each item thoroughly. It sucks to get home to find your new shirt has a hole in the pocket. Or that the slacks you thought were a steal actually have a broken zipper.
  6. Check washing instructions. You don’t want to pay $3 for a silk blouse if you’ll never dry-clean it.
  7. Use the tags as a guide to find quality brands you like, but don’t limit yourself. Sometimes a brand you’ve never heard of can yield a favorite piece of clothing.
  8. Think layers. Maybe that shirt with a stain on the sleeve has a great collar for wearing under a sweater. For $3, you can afford to buy a single-purpose shirt.
  9. Use thrift stores as a way to diversify your wardrobe. Buy colors and styles on which you normally wouldn’t spend much. Wear the new clothes a few times to see how you like them, and to gauge the reaction of others.
  10. Used clothing stores are great for certain accessories. Why pay $30 for a new belt in a department store when you can get a better belt in your size for just $2? I like to shop at second-hand stores for hats. (Nice hats.)
  11. Look for clothes new with tags. Sometimes unsold department store inventory finds its way to used clothing stores and thrift shops. You’ll generally pay more for these items, but not much.
  12. If you won’t wear it, don’t buy it. You don’t save money buying a $3 shirt if it just sits in your closet for two years.
  13. Wash clothes when you get them home.
  14. Watch for sales. Used clothing stores (and thrift stores) run periodic specials. Our favorite local store just ran a half-off sale. The local thrift stores often have specials on certain items.
  15. If you go to the same store often, ask when they rotate stock. Stores get new shipments regularly. Most also have extra stock in storage. If you become familiar with the owners, you might even ask them to keep an eye out for particular items.
  16. If buying used clothes becomes a habit, institute a “one in-one out policy”. Every time you bring home something new, get rid of something old. (Give it away, take it to a thrift store, or save it for a garage sale.)
  17. Have fun! Buying used clothing can save you money. It’s also a fun way to kill a Saturday afternoon. At $3 an item, you can afford to be adventurous sometimes.

Used clothes shopping isn’t just for women. Men can find some fantastic deals, too. I hate to shop for clothes in department stores, but I love the adventure of buying used clothes. Don’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Good second-hand stores aren’t smelly, dirty, or scary — they’re just great places to find bargain clothing.

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