Is it okay to buy a Christmas gift from a thrift store?

The holiday season can test a frugal person's patience: There are so many temptations to spend. Sure, we all want to enjoy the festive nature this time of year, but where do you draw the line? And how fugal is too frugal?

Michelle wrote with a terrific question. She has the sort of dilemma I can picture myself facing. Here's her story:

Like you, I am a big proponent of thrift store shopping. It saves money, and it's just more fun going to the mall — at least for me. Because I live in the New York City area, I'm fortunate in that many of the area thrift stores are filled with fantastic stuff, including designer and name-brand quality clothes, many of which are barely worn.

On a recent thrift-store trip, I picked up two designer handbags as Christmas gifts for my college-aged nieces, but now I'm having second thoughts.

  • On the one hand, there's no way they would ever really acquire Coach and Kate Spade handbags on their own.
  • On the other hand, I don't know if they share my acceptance and love for thrifting, and they may not react well to the thought of being gifted someone else's cast-offs.

Since new versions of these bags are clearly out my budget, there's no way to pass these things off as anything other than second-hand. What do you think? Is it tacky to purchase gifts at a thrift store?

My initial response to Michelle's question is that of course it's okay to purchase gifts at a thrift store — I do it all the time! But maybe that's because of the way my family has set up its gift exchange.

In my family, adults exchange $5 gifts: Each of us buys something costing no more than five bucks for every other adult. This arbitrary budget forces folks to get creative. And because of that, thrift stores are actually a fantastic place to find presents. Garage sales, too. (And I've spent many hours trolling Amazon for fun bargains.)

Here's my favorite example: Several years ago, I found a set of nice drafting pens for ten bucks at a garage sale. My brother used to draw house plans (though he no longer does), and I thought these would make a great Christmas gift. I haggled the price down to five bucks. Back home, I researched the actual price for the pens. They normally sold for about $70. Score! (I'm not sure if Jeff has ever used them, but this is the best $5 gift I've ever given.)

Obviously, not everyone is in a situation where giving bargain buys from garage sales and thrift stores is socially acceptable. But I'm willing to wager that there are plenty of people out there for whom this sort of thing is okay, at least to some degree.

But this is the sort of question where I definitely need to poll a wider audience. Not everyone shares my love of buying used. In fact, many GRS readers deplore thrift stores. Instead of steering Michelle down my own (possibly misguided) path, it's probably best to field responses from a variety of perspectives.

What do you think? When is it okay to purchase gifts from a thrift store? Is it always okay? Never okay? And what about Michelle's specific situation: Should she feel any shame in giving used designer handbags to her nieces this Christmas?

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SF_UK
SF_UK
9 years ago

I don’t see why it would be a problem. If I were the recipient, I’d be happier to know the giver hadn’t overstretched their budget for me. But then, my family are frugal through-and-through, so I *expect* my gifts to have been bought in the most economical way. In fact, as a child, I remember asking for a “Mr Frosty” shaved ice maker. My parents felt that it was overpriced and flimsy, so spent a lesser amount of money on an unbranded kitchen quality ice shaver. Same function, but more sturdy and larger capacity, but not snowman shaped… They then… Read more »

Matt
Matt
5 years ago
Reply to  SF_UK

I agree. I think it’s completely fine to do give used gifts and be economical with purchases. After all, it’s the actual gift that matters. Some people might snub it, but I don’t understand why? As long as your gift is truly thoughtful and doesn’t come across as you being “cheap” 🙂

Karen Smith
Karen Smith
8 months ago
Reply to  SF_UK

No because everything I get from a friend smells bad and is coated with dust (and makes me feel sick) and I have to turn around and give them to Goodwill. She’s on disability so I understand and just say how cute the things are, but hope she doesn’t ask me about them later. I feel it would hurt her feelings to tell her.

LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Of course it’s ok to gift presents that you bought at the thrift store!

No matter where you got those bags, they’re still Kate Spade and Coach, and they are still excellent bags!

Now, if you were gifting re-used underwear or something….that’s crossing the line, but bags, yeah, no sweat!

Suzie Bee
Suzie Bee
9 years ago

I think that it’s OK as long as the items you are buying are clearly new (or close as). I don’t think clothes would be alright, because they might have been worn and some people are put off by that, but other items such as accessories and homeware can be found in perfect condition in thrift stores. A designer handbag is a designer handbag.

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
9 years ago

Unless there is a pre-agreement like in JDs family, I am not in favor of it for a present. Now, if you see the handbag and buy it as a kind gesture and say ‘hey, look what I picked up at Salvation Army’, then that is one thing. However, for a gift, I think buying something new is more appropriate.

Kat Ronningen
Kat Ronningen
8 months ago
Reply to  Everyday Tips

I think it depends. I don’t thrift shop, but my hubby has found some decent toys for my son. On the other hand, my mother in law lives to thrift shop. I just got a pair of way too big garden gloves with a big hole in the thumb area from her for Christmas.( A much better gift than the moldly smell scarf with some random bodily hair stuck in for last years present). My MIL is not hurting for money either. I agree with the previous post. If its second hand, make sure it doesn’t have that “smell” or… Read more »

dotCOMreport
dotCOMreport
9 years ago

I think I go with Everyday Tips on this one. Second hand stuff is OK if it’s just like a casual gift kind of thing, but not as a Christmas or birthday present.

Jason
Jason
9 years ago

It *should* be fine, shouldn’t it?! I think this case is an exception because the bags are probably in good shape, and I think at least most people like a discount (even though they prefer that it’s new). As long as there are no defects, it should be just fine. I wonder if they would appreciate a brand-new t-shirt from Old Navy more than these gently-used high-dollar purses from a thrift store. College kids usually appreciate thriftiness, and if the girls feel they’d never be able to afford one they’ll probably be grateful. What drives me nuts is that we… Read more »

leslie
leslie
9 years ago

I would be totally ok with a thrift store handbag. Honestly, my last three handbags have come from a thrift store. I think as long as they look new and not beat up then it is fine.

I don’t think I would buy clothes as gifts from a thrift store just because I know some people are squeamish about that. But I think things like handbags and household goods are totally fine.

Now…you have to use common sense and stick with things that are in great shape and not give someone a beat up, chipped set of dishes, for example.

Sylvia
Sylvia
9 years ago

why don’t you ask their parents how they think your nieces would react?

Are the handbags “new-looking” there is “used” and there is “good as new” and that can make a difference as well

Lori
Lori
9 years ago

In this case (the bags are designer, in good condition), I’d think it would be okay. Were it clothing, I’d think not – I see nothing wrong with buying thrift store clothing for yourself or your immediate family, but not as gifts.

(Do try to make sure that they are not knock-offs, just in case.)

Once the girls start using the bags around their friends, it’s not like anyone is going to care that they came from the thrift store – just the name!

Megan
Megan
8 years ago
Reply to  Lori

I don’t know about Michelle’s nieces, but for me the fact that the designer handbags were purchased at a thrift store at *well* below designer prices would be a bragging point, especially if people complimented me on them. When I was in college, I found a leather bomber jacket at a local thrift store for $20. The lining was a little worn, but otherwise it was in great shape. I gave it to my boyfriend (now my husband) for Christmas. He *loved* it. Whenever anyone complimented him on it (and a lot of people did and do), he says, “Yeah,… Read more »

Thrifty advocate
Thrifty advocate
9 years ago

Asking their parents as Sylvia suggested is a good idea. I’m also inclined to think that giving those bags for Christmas are more likely to do good than harm, but if you approach it in the right way. Don’t just give them the bags and stand there beaming – disclose where they came from, say you were excited when you found those amazing bags but you’d understand if they don’t want thrift store stuff, and along the way, you’ll be imparting some important financial lessons. If they’ve been raised well, they’ll either gently suggest you not do it again, or… Read more »

Alicen
Alicen
9 years ago

I normally wouldn’t give second hand items unless I’ve talked about it with the person before and I know they are ok with it.
However, in the case of designer handbags that the girls would not be able to afford, I think the girls will be accepting of second hand items!

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

I can’t help but wonder if it would make a difference to this conversation if the bags were bought at a vintage clothing store or consignment shop instead? Used is used, but sometimes people think those shops are more acceptable than thrift stores and garage sales. I would be happy to have a gift like this that someone obviously put some thought into and didn’t have to blow their budget for, especially when I was in college. If the giver is in doubt, perhaps the way to find out for sure is to call the moms of the girls and… Read more »

JC
JC
9 years ago

If your college aged nieces are into bags/fashion, I think the scales are in your favor if the bags are good-as-new and classically on-trend. Every fashionable woman appreciates a good bargain!

My only caveat is if the bag falls into the “fancy-label, but ugly” category. There are a few COACH bags in recent memory that were quite popular recently, that I thought were unattractive.

You could make these bags into, literally, giftbags by including a great (inexpensive) scarf, lip balm, mints, ballpoint pens, and other useful items that are needed in a handbag.

NicoleZ
NicoleZ
9 years ago

I think it’s more than OK as long as the bags are “Like New.” I agree with many of the other comments here, that accessories and home goods are OK but pass on the clothing.

On a similar note, when I buy electronics as gifts I buy refurbished if available. No way I would be able to give iPods and cameras as freely as I do without it.

Rachel
Rachel
9 years ago

I’m torn on this one… I’m all about being frugal, but not to the point that it might offend someone. I’d say that in this situation, I’d have to be absolutely sure that the recipient is a fellow frugalista, especially since it’s Christmas. Maybe you could put out a feeler with your sister (or sister-in-law) to see if the nieces would mind second-hand designer bags? You could approach it with something like, “I saw these designer handbags and instantly thought of so-and-so. I can just *see* her carrying it down the street! Now, they are in practically perfect condition, but… Read more »

louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife
louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife
9 years ago

I agree with LifeAndMyFinances – it depends on the item. I personally buy all sorts of stuff from thrift stores (or charity shops as they’re called in the UK) or second-hand from other places such as eBay – but I would probably only give something that was either clearly new/never used or something a bit special. If they were in good condition and I thought the girls would like them, I’d give those bags in a shot. I’d also give vintage items – I found a 1940’s Japanese jewellery box in a charity shop a few months ago – it… Read more »

Lydia
Lydia
9 years ago

I agree with Sylvia and Leslie – as long as the item in question is in great shape there’s nothing wrong with giving someone a gift you found at a secondhand store.

SF_UK, my family had the same agreements when we celebrated Christmas. (We’ve since switched to only buying presents for the kids…but that’s another story. 🙂 )

Everyday Tips, I’m curious to hear the reasoning behind why you don’t find this appropriate?

Sarah J.
Sarah J.
9 years ago

I have personally bought used items as Christmas presents for relatives. It makes me uncomfortable in some cases, frankly, but I would not feel uncomfortable to receive something used, especially something as awesome as a kate spade bag. I guess it depends on the personality/snobbery of the nieces. I felt uncomfortable giving my sister in law a thrift store cookbook (even thought it was out of print), because she’s very squeamish about certain things. I wouldn’t bat an eye to give my sister something used though. Also, I’m jealous of that quality of thrift store! I live in rural TN… Read more »

Travis@PlainMoneyTalk
9 years ago

I think it is fine so long as it’s not all beat up and it’s something they would want/use. The fact is that it is a gift and you are thinking of them and spending your time and money. If they don’t appreciate that then it’s not on you.

Danielle
Danielle
9 years ago

I was just wondering this yesterday as I was at my local thrift store! Ha! I ended up getting an original hand printed linoleum cut for my dad… it was $5, and then I took it to get re-framed ($80!), But i will have no qualms about giving something so beautiful to my dad, no matter where it is from!

Liz
Liz
9 years ago

I think buying presents from thrift stores is okay as long as they look okay. No one she knows should be able to tell where she got it from unless she tells them. It’s the thought that counts in gift-giving, not the price! In fact, this year I’m giving my mom a juicer that is someone else’s cast-off – and she’ll be totally fine with that. It’s a great way to see if she actually wants a juicer before shelling out the hundred-odd bucks to get her a brand new Power Juicer by Jack Lalaine.

Chris Osborne
Chris Osborne
9 years ago

I’ve gotten my brother records from thrift stores. They’re obviously used but it’s not like I could find them anywhere else.

I think it depends on the item being bought as well as who’s getting it.

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago

I think its a great idea. I also agree that people have different ideas of what a vintage store is vs. a thrift store. I think its the thought that counts.

Kris
Kris
9 years ago

I think it is all about if buy the person something useful or meaningful to them. If you can find it at a thrift store then go for it. My brother collects video games. I found a few vintage video games at the local Thrift Store. He will be thrilled with them!

Wade
Wade
9 years ago

Much like most of the other commentors, I think buying gifts from thrift stores should be acceptable as long as the items are in good condition. I just went and purchased a used video game for my nephews for half of what it would cost new, and I’m sure they will find the game to be just as fun. After all, it is the same game/product that you could have paid more for.

Jason
Jason
9 years ago

I almost always buy new (out of ease) but I’m not opposed to used gifts, providing it looks and feels new to the recipient.

I would never, ever give a gift that is identifiable as used to someone unless it was a rare/unique item that is extremely hard to find (or very cost prohibitive) otherwise.

Mary
Mary
9 years ago

I agree with others who suggest checking with the parents. But the bags are better than an Old Navy t-shirt, and I would have no problem with it–especially if I wouldn’t otherwise be able to have one. My family, like JD’s, is all about used. I asked for a tv table for Christmas, but I specificed used. My sister asked for a couple books, but does not want them new. However, I’d be careful about who I got something used for if I didn’t know it would be ok. Some of my friends and family wouldn’t mind at all, but… Read more »

Judy
Judy
9 years ago

I think that she should go for it and it emphasizes her personality, taste and style – a lovely thing to express through a gift. I think that it is easy to forget that gifts should come from the heart and that a pricey tag does not equate thoughtful consideration or caring. If her nieces get upset, it will be a great opportunity to discuss with them why it upsets them and the value or meaning that they place on material goods. In saying than, vintage will prob sound much cooler than saying it is from a thrift store;)

Katie
Katie
9 years ago

A lot of college students think thrift stores are hip. It’s a point of pride to wear something acquired from a thrift store. It’s the perfect combo of green, vintage, and frugal. I know my college age brother would appreciate something from a thrift store even more than something new.

I think it depends on the person though. Certainly you should clean the handbags and make sure they look good as new. I say go for it; even if you buy them something new, there is no guarantee they will like that either.

Amy
Amy
9 years ago

Are the bags in good condition? Can you clean/polish them up to give them a ‘like new’ look? I don’t see the problem with gifting someone a thrift store purchased gift IF it’s clean and in like new or new condition. If you have access to quality, upscale accesories at thrift stores, I say take advantage!

Norman
Norman
9 years ago

They say we teach more by example than we do by the things we say, well, giving the thrift-store bags is a wonderful way for the girls to see what great bargains can be had at a thrift store. Nearly new designer handbags for a fraction of original cost! I would explain right up front, before they open the gifts, that this is something special that if they were new, there’s no way you could afford them, but you wanted to give them something incredible, instead of something they’d have to dust.

Gale
Gale
9 years ago

Isn’t this a WONDERFUL opportunity to give a gift you couldn’t otherwise afford AND teach the girls a valuable life lesson?

What about combining it with a shopping trip to show them how they can obtain similar items in the future?

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

I think it really depends on how it’s received. Gift giving isn’t about the giver, it’s about the recipient. If someone doesn’t think a present from a thrift store is appropriate, then I wouldn’t give them one. If I knew that the recipient was fine with it, then I would. If you’re unsure how the girls would react, I would maybe ask their parents.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

If it is new with tags, sure, no problem.

If not new, then I’d let them know you got them at a darling vintage shop.

Hannah Hawley
Hannah Hawley
9 years ago

I love JC’s suggestion of using the bags as the “wrapping” and placing some wrapped inexpensive items in the bag, like lip balm, mints, perhaps a scarf or little gloves. I would and have gifted items from a thrift store. These are the rules I stick to. – If it is clothing, only if the original tags are still attached. – Games are ok if all the pieces are still there and it appears to be in new condition. Bonus if the game is still wrapped in celophane. – Accessories and kitchen/house hold items in like new condition, or gently… Read more »

Mary
Mary
9 years ago

I would love to receive a $5 gift at all! The more creative the better! And if it is from a Thrift store all the better!

Sassy
Sassy
9 years ago

College aged? That’s when I discovered thrift stores — I would bet that they would be more likely to congratulate on such a score! And per Sylvia, you might ask the parents, although you could be getting their reaction, not the kids’ reaction. I would go for it and if they react poorly, explain budget and how thrilled you were when you spotted the bags, because you thought they were so cool.

tb
tb
9 years ago

I don’t buy new clothes. If I buy clothes they come from the thrift store, period. For me it is about wasting money and resources…mine and the earth’s. I can’t imagine spending $45 on a pair of jeans I can buy for $5… and I would have no issue giving those jeans as a gift. I still bought them, I still was thinking of the person I bought them for,and most of my friends shop the way I do. I say buy it all from the thrift store! I see nothing wrong with it as long as the item is… Read more »

The Penny Hoarder
The Penny Hoarder
9 years ago

I think it all depends on who you are giving it too. My friends are all recent college graduates and I would have no problem giving them something I found in a thrift shop, but I’m not so sure my “well-to-do” parents would love it as much. But, quite frankly a gift is a gift. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this and that is what matters…

Danna
Danna
9 years ago

I agree with Everyday Tips. I would probably purchase a new gift and say “oh by the way, I got this for you too.”
Most of my clothes are bought from thrift stores. Its good for my wallet. It helps the local economy and I’m recycling. I recently bought an Ann Taylor jacket that retails for over $150 for $6! I feel rich when I wear it!

MutantSuperModel
MutantSuperModel
9 years ago

If they’re in college, I bet it will fly AND you can use it as a teaching opportunity. If the girls live close to you, I’d even enclose a gift certificate for One Day of Thrifting with Auntie. You might really get them hooked. I’ve never known someone good at thrifting and so I’ve never really “gotten” it. Having an aunt like you, especially during broke college years, would be a GREAT resource. And what better way to lure them into thrifting than with designer bags?

Kyle
Kyle
9 years ago

Call the purses vintage and your nieces will not have a problem with receiving vintage designer handbags, trust me 🙂

Albina
Albina
9 years ago

I think this mostly comes down to the personality of the receiver, I gave my best friend a thrifted vase recently for a gift, she new it was thrifted but loved it. She herself mostly wears second hand clothes so I knew she would be ok with it. However, I know most of my friends would be grossed out by getting something “used” as a gift. These distinctions are so funny though because a lot of people pay good money for antiques or vintage things which essentially are other peoples used things which they did not want any more but… Read more »

Tracy
Tracy
9 years ago

This is one of those situations when a casual discussion with either the girls or their parents would be in order. If they like thrift shopping they’ll love the bags and will likely pump their new favorite aunt for the location of her awesome shop.

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

If you know the recipient doesn’t mind 2nd hand gifts, then it’s ok to give him/her something from the thrift store. 🙂
Our family doesn’t care at all if something is new or used so thrift store is great. The Mrs goes there all the time to pick up clothes.

honeybee
honeybee
9 years ago

But JD, doesn’t setting a $5 limit just encourage a lot of Stuff/junk aquisition? I see how you got creative with the pens — and after all, who knows if anyone actually uses the gifts we give at Christmas/birthdays/whenever or not — but I’d think that a $5 limit would result in a lot of Strange Cheap Stuff without much purpose.

Barb
Barb
9 years ago

Well, first Im going to assume that you know for a fact that said nieces like designer handbags (havent seen that assumption mentioned). Assuming that and the fact that said pruses are in good condition and/or spiffed up by you-I see absolutely no reason not to give a used gift. I agree that you coudl also put a couple cheap items that would normally go into a purse, but not necessaryily

cmadler
cmadler
9 years ago

One of the best gifts I ever gave, I found for $0.50 at a yard sale.

If the gift is right, the price and source don’t matter.

Brian
Brian
9 years ago

I have always heard that if you wouldn’t mind receiving it as a gift then it is acceptable to give to someone else. If it’s good enough for you. . . I have a slight problem with the ones that say it is not acceptable. Why are there rules for giving gifts? I am not obligated to even get anyone a gift.

Jackie
Jackie
9 years ago

I’m going to go with a big fat “it depends”. If it’s something that the recipient would really enjoy and will keep, and if the item is either in like-new condition or supposed to be old, it’s fine. If you’re just out combing the thrift stores looking for any old gift, then I’d say no, because the person won’t be able to return it if they don’t like it.

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