Embracing the thrift-store ethic: 18 top tips for buying used clothes

If the national media is any indication, more people are embracing the notion of buying used clothing from thrift stores and consignment shops. Last week, USA Today ran a story describing how secondhand stores are reaping the benefits of recession:

As Americans look for ways to cut spending, they are scooping up bargain clothes, accessories, toys and furniture once owned by someone else.

“We're sorry about the economic situation, … but it is a good time for our industry,” says Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale & Thrift Shops. Three-fourths of resale stores said they had higher sales in September and October, compared with the same period last year, according to the trade group. The average sales increase was about 35%.

According to the article, 70% of adults surveyed last summer say that buying used is now more socially acceptable than it was a decade ago. Buying used has always been socially acceptable to me. I got in the habit of shopping at thrift stores during high school. It was the only way I could afford to add to my wardrobe. For the past 20 years, buying used has been a natural part of my shopping routine.

Kris and I are fortunate that Portlanders generally embrace the thrift-store ethic, and that we live near a highway lined with used clothing shops. (It's actually more convenient for us to buy our clothes from thrift stores than any other source!) Here are some of our best tips for buying second-hand clothes:

  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.
  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. Take your time. At normal clothing shops, everything is neatly organized. Not so at most thrift stores. When thrifting, it's more important to be patient, to browse the racks methodically.
  17. 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.)
  18. 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.

Another great thing about buying used is that you're free to experiment a little bit more. It doesn't hurt much to purchase a $5 cardigan sweater and then discover you're not the sort for cardigans. On a recent shopping trip, for example, Kris picked up this garish pair of pants:

Kris thinks the pants are pretty hilarious. I do, too, but not in the same way. But what's really surprising is the price tags. Check this out: these pants were originally priced at $288, but she picked them up for $8.99.

For many people, thrift stores offer an easy way to delve into frugal fashion. But most shops carry more than just clothes. If your budget is pinched, they're an excellent place to find furniture, to pick up kitchenware, and even to find inexpensive entertainment. A large part of my personal finance library has been purchased from the local Goodwill (for about $3 per book).

More about...Clothing, Frugality

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Annie Jones
Annie Jones
11 years ago

I’d like to add another great reason to buy clothing from thrift stores. Not all, but most of the clothing there has already been laundered. So when you try something on, the way it fits in the thrift store is the way it will fit after you get it home and wash it yourself. No more guess work!

Starving Artist
Starving Artist
11 years ago

One of my best and most-frugal friends has a family budget of $150/year for clothing–they buy all thrift store goods, and they dress well.

Trevor
Trevor
11 years ago

@Annie Jones

Yup. I’ve heard of that tip from many peers that have bought from thrift stores.

Thrift stores are good also if you want to find any gems like brand names. They’re insanely cheap like mentioned in the article.

Thrift stores should be more known. They are just great. Many people don’t take advantage of them enough.

Judy W
Judy W
11 years ago

If you like crafts, especially sewing, thrift store clothing are great for making pillow from sweaters, or using things like that pair of pants Kris found as an inset to an accent pillow or even a small window. I had a skirt I no longer wore, but liked the embroidery on it and turned it into a small curtain for a bathroom. you just have to learn to think outside the box!

Jenn
Jenn
11 years ago

Over the past few years (since I had kids and my body changed!), I’ve shopped only at thrift and consignment stores. Of course, I have my favorite one, and the owner keeps an eye out for the things I like. I recently returned from a business trip, and received lots of compliments on one particular outfit. I realized that I’d spent $3.50 for the shirt and $3.00 for the skirt. No one knows that my clothes cost so little, because they look great. If you’re afraid of the “thrift store atmosphere”, try consignment stores first. They’re more expensive, but they… Read more »

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

leather shoes and wool sports jackets can be a particularly good buy at thrift stores.

dizzle
dizzle
11 years ago

Do you want to sell those pants? If so, what size are they and what would you take for them? I freakin’ LOVE them.

Scott NJ DAD
Scott NJ DAD
11 years ago

clothes at thrift stores can be great!

but don’t forget the other stuff, housewares and a good used furniture store are pure gold

i know this sounds strange, but go to the wealthiest places to look for clothing at thrifts. u can get unbelievable deals on superb clothing, it won’t be $3, but you might find a 1,000 evening dress or tux for 200 etc. (of course u should only buy what you need)

plus its like a treasure hunt!

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

I’m an addict when it comes to thrift shopping. I just hit Value Village yesterday, got four if not new, then practically new tank tops, a belt, and a shirt for $15. It’s my favorite thing to do. I go every weekend, and over the past year, my wardrobe has been steadily expanding instead of me struggling to afford one new piece. It seems like every time I buy anything new it either shrinks in the wash, gets destroyed within a few wearings. Nothing ever lasts very long when you have to wear it every few days. Thrifting is not… Read more »

Meoip
Meoip
11 years ago

the Target across the street from the thrift store moves all their leftover clearance items and old holiday stuff over every other Thursday. Grab it at the thrift for 95% off.

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

Great post 🙂 Unfortunately I don’t find a lot of stuff in used clothing stores (I’m a very popular size, sadly), but you’ve inspired me to try again.

I love to hit the thrift stores at Halloween for costume ideas (and then donate the clothing after the event is over)

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
11 years ago

With regards to #15, some rotate/add continuously, so go often to get the best deals.

Your #1 could conflict with your #12.

#4 is called vanity sizing. It is just US sizes… that way people can keep saying that they’re “just a size 12” despite adding on the pounds.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanity_sizing

~Dawn
~Dawn
11 years ago

I like thrift stores, if you make a mistake washing something, you aren’t out a whole lot of money. Case in point: Bought an XL size, soft wool sweater made by Clairborne and it fit PERFECT. But I needed to clean all the clothes I bought, and without thinking I tossed the clothes and the wool sweater into the wash and then the dryer. Now I have a soft wool sweater that is a size small, even though the tag says XL. A was laughing so hard all I could do was wipe my tears with the teeny sweater I… Read more »

Suzy
Suzy
11 years ago

I got a pair of Lucky brand jeans at a resale shop recently, half off, for $9. I splurged another $15 to have them professionally hemmed, and they are my favorite jeans EVER. They run a little big, but for that price, I’ll gain a few pounds. Thrifting ROCKS!

Leah
Leah
11 years ago

I love thrift stores too! My favorite part is that I own lots of gap and American Eagle jeans (my fave brands), and they were only $5 a pair! Based on how much I wear them, they work out to about three cents per day of wearing or less. I also agree that thrifting helps me take fashion risks. One of my favorite shirts is this cute, low cut number that I bought this summer for $2.50. I kept debating it and then finally said “heck, it’s just $2.50 — if I don’t like it, I’ll just redonate it.” I… Read more »

Robyn
Robyn
11 years ago

I have really realised through this recession that I will never buy clothes at full price again. Although the pickings are of course a bit slimmer, the savings are so worth it, and it has become a bit of a game for me. I have been eyeing some thrift stores but have not gone in yet, but I bought this week 5 really needed items from Target for $25. I committed myself only to the 75% off rack. One was a dress that had some ugly beading on the top, which I simply took off and now it looks like… Read more »

Kristi Wachter
Kristi Wachter
11 years ago

I love thrift stores – I’m actually more likely to find clothes I like than in retail stores. One thought on 6. Check washing instructions. You don’t want to pay $3 for a silk blouse if you’ll never dry-clean it. Definitely check the label, but also consider whether it’s worth buying as an experiment in regular washing. I’ve bought several thrift-store items (including a cashmere sweater) that actually did just fine in the washing machine on the gentle cycle. They might not last as long as they would with dry-cleaning, but for $5 for an Ann Taylor sweater, I won’t… Read more »

Margaret Mary Myers
Margaret Mary Myers
4 years ago
Reply to  Kristi Wachter

As someone else said, I find more things I like at thrift stores than regular retail stores.

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

Most of these stores are run by non-profit organizations and the profits usually go to a good cause. I always check out the local thrift shops when I need something before I go look for the item new. Well, as long as the savings would be worth driving the extra distance.

Also, I would say that you must be careful not to buy more than you need at these stores. Since things are more affordable, it seems acceptable to buy more than you would otherwise. Try to stay away from this!

Esme
Esme
11 years ago

Thrift stores ROCK. I have been shopping thrift stores since I was a teenager as well and would rather spend an afternoon sifting through the racks than go to the mall. I have found a white men’s Christian Dior evening dress shirt with french cuffs- brand new, tags still on- for $2. A designer 50’s/60’s cropped velvet trapeze jacket, silk lined (looks like something Jackie O would’ve worn) with 3/4 sleeves-$8. 1950’s black winklepicker stilettos, worn maybe once-$5. You cannot FIND some of this stuff anymore, much less buy it for the price of a fast food lunch. The thing… Read more »

frugalscholar
frugalscholar
11 years ago

Great post. Check out my recent post on thrifts–my reasons include creating a sense of community across economic lines!
frugalscholar.blogspot.com

Michele
Michele
11 years ago

I’ve been a vintage shopper for years, which can actually end up costing more than retail, depending on what era and label you’re looking for. To be honest, this new-found public awareness of the used market is aggravating to those of us used to cherry picking! :p

Bether
Bether
11 years ago

The part where often you can get really good quality for cheap is true — also for things like furniture.

When I was furnishing an apartment after college (being broke!), I was able to get really good furniture for Craigslist, estate sales and Goodwill, at the same price or cheaper for much lower quality items at Ikea. A solid oak dresser that costs $40 is a much better deal than a pressed-wood version at the same price.

Miss M
Miss M
11 years ago

I just dropped off 4 bags of clothes at goodwill. Most were brand new or only worn once. A few things were very high quality, designer labels in fact. No use keeping clothes you never wear, someone will find a great steal and be very happy. I’m happy for the write off. If you have a good eye for fashion you can create a fabulous wardrobe from thrift store finds. Bring your patience though, don’t go in hungry or grouchy. Pawing through rack after rack can get tiring.

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

Kristi has a good point about washing. I know someone who used to sew custom clothes and she told me that a lot of “dry clean only” items can actually be hand washed and air dried. Her guess was that manufacturer’s exercise a great deal of caution in their labels because people are often careless when it comes to caring for their clothes.

Besides, it’s usually the dryer that kills things (especially near the end). Even washable clothes last longer if you hang them to dry instead.

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

Bigger cities have some phenomenal consignment stores. I’ve gotten some serious high-fashion items for a song: a $30 Nanette Lepore cocktail dress, a phenomenal pair of Theory dress pants for $15, splurged on some killer Prada heels (so very gently worn that their soles weren’t even scuffed) for $79…

In Boston, Poor Little Rich Girl, The Closet, and Second Time Around are incredible–particularly for gals just starting their careers on a lowly staff assistant salary.

Sara
Sara
11 years ago

I have been a Value Village shopper here in Seattle since high school. The stores are huge and very organized. We try to go on Mondays as it is their 99 cent tag sale day (the day varies from store to store). Their clothes are tagged different colors depending on the week they come in. You can get really good deals on that day, especially if they priced the item way too high and no one was willing to buy it at the higher price. 50% off everything sales occur on most holidays as well. I like being relaxed about… Read more »

Toni
Toni
11 years ago

This is really old news for me. I’ve been shopping at Thrift stores for years. If you want really good deals, try Garage Sales. Although it’s a lucky find to hit one where someone in your size had similar tastes. I’ve moved to a much poorer area and the thrift store prices are higher and the quality is worse. I really really miss good thrift stores. One problem I’ve noticed doing it for years is, if your favorite thrift store doesn’t have dressing rooms, you tend to buy the same styles and types because that’s what you know looks good… Read more »

quinsy
quinsy
11 years ago

I second the point about the ‘dry clean only’ scam (also applies to ‘hand wash only’). I am a very haphazard washer and the whole ‘special wash’ thing seems to be used pretty liberally on clothes. I have never dry cleaned a piece of clothing in my life, nor have I ever hand washed anything, and I have a bunch of dry clean/hand wash only stuff from thrift stores that has regular washed just fine.

Charlie-Paylessforfood.com
Charlie-Paylessforfood.com
11 years ago

Interesting secret. Most thrift stores have an area where they process their clothes, ie check the donations and put prices on them. This area is generally in the back.

At the better thrift stores you’ll usually find ebay-ers (those who buy clothes and then resell them on ebay) waiting right outside this area for the new racks of clothes to come out. As soon as the racks of clothes come out from this back area the ebay-ers pounce. So if you want to get the absolutely best deals follow the ebay-ers

RJ
RJ
11 years ago

I like thrift stores, too, and I occasionally make a trip to a couple in my neighborhood to check out the goods. I particularly like the random, serendipity factor in finding stuff that I’ve been meaning to get, but never quite got around to getting. However, don’t forget that consumerism is consumerism whether it takes place in a thrift store or department store. Perhaps it is more noble to hit the thrift stores and recycle used items, it’s easy for a lot of people to buy lots of stuff they really don’t need. It may be cool, cheap stuff, but… Read more »

Jess
Jess
11 years ago

I also love buying books at secondhand stores! I never buy them full price but instead walk down the street to Goodwill, where I can generally pick up 5-7 books for less than the cost of one new one.

I also like to buy some housewares secondhand — things like ramekins that I need very occasionally and don’t want to pay full price for. I picked up two great casserole dishes just prior to Thanksgiving for $5 each.

Neal
Neal
11 years ago

I’ve been frequenting thrift stores for years. I need someone to break in a t-shirt for 5-10 years before I’m ready to wear it so this works out for me. If you peruse the music section of these stores, you can always entertain yourself by checking out some of the old LP covers. There is some priceless stuff in there. Thanks for this great post!

Ryan K from Going Carless
Ryan K from Going Carless
11 years ago

I agree with shopping secondhand. Not only because it saves you money, but also it saves the environment and keeps little kids from being chained to sewing machines.

My girlfriend is putting together the plans to open a thrift store.

She also is thinking about starting a blog to chronicle her goal of not buying anything new only used.

Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson
11 years ago

It’s not quite a thrift store, but my favorite place for used clothes is in Burbank and sells used wardrobe items from the movie/TV studios. Many of my favorite clothes made their first appearance in movies and soap operas, and the prices are fantastic!

Jeff
Jeff
11 years ago

Portlanders (and other West Coasters): Buffalo Exchange on W. Burnside is a great place for “recycled fashion.” I have a goal not to purchase any clothes in 2009, but that’s where I shopped this year with great savings on quality brands.

allen
allen
11 years ago

Two things: 1) I have better luck, actually, finding pants that fit at thrift stores, since different brands all fit so VERY differently (at least for Jeans, at least for me). 2) Here in Madison, WI, at least, we have three Goodwills. They send the best of the cloths they get in donations to one of the stores, best of the small appliances to another, and so on. So, keep an eye on your different thrift stores, some are better then others, when it comes to quality, even in the same city. I know a couple who make a drive… Read more »

Pieter
Pieter
11 years ago

This is an example of how value differs between people. My entire family shops at thrift stores, but I HATE it. Although I admit to a slight prejudice against thrift store clothing, that’s not my primary reason for refusing to do it. I prefer to drop $50 on a pair of jeans that I know will fit, that I know I’ll like, and that I only have to spend 30 seconds locating versus searching for 30 minutes to find a pair of jeans that I’ll have to convince myself actually fit comfortably. I’m not a clothes horse by any stretch… Read more »

Angell
Angell
11 years ago

nice pants, though Kris should really wear trainers with them, not posh shoes – the combination will work much better.

Diatryma
Diatryma
11 years ago

Pieter, it may just be that you are much better at regular shopping and male. I don’t know a single woman who has been able to find jeans that fit comfortably in thirty seconds more than once– and that once was me, going in to Sears with brand, cut, and tag number of the jeans that have since been discontinued. Last time I bought jeans, I spent hours in the store finding anything that I could convince myself fit. My reasons for not thrifting aren’t related to difficulty in finding clothes that fit; I assume that no stores ever have… Read more »

Maggi
Maggi
11 years ago

I’ve always been more of a giver than buyer, and passed on lots of good quality, almost (or completely) new items to my local Salvation Army shop before I moved out to Greece. It was easier than doing all the work involved for eBay or garage sales, and I felt good about giving them money in this way.
I’ve never been a clothes buyer because if I found something I liked it never seemed to be in my size, and even a few dollars is money thrown away for something that doesn’t fit.

Battra92
Battra92
11 years ago

Perhaps I am a snob here but I will not shop for clothing at thrift stores. Sure I’ll go in and buy other stuff (Thrift stores are great for video games, CDs etc.) but I just can’t get over the icky feeling of them being on someone else.

I do donate, though.

Thrift stores helped make my vintage videogame collection what it is today. Nothing like walking out with an Atari 2600 and some games. 🙂

April
April
11 years ago

I warmed to the idea of used clothing when I started to consign clothing last year, but I never, ever found anything that I like that also fits. One time I thought I had a big find–a Diane Von Furstenburg cashmere sweater for $25 in my size–only to find a tiny hole in the fabric once I tried it on. No matter how many times I gave it a shot, I couldn’t find even one item. Just because something used to cost $300 and now costs $3, doesn’t mean it’s a good buy or right for you. It’s just too… Read more »

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

Sorry. $8.99 is still too much for those pants.

Seriously.

karla
karla
11 years ago

I’m with the small minority who appreciate the value of a thrift shop but HATE to shop there.

I have no patience to methodically go through all the racks. It’s not enjoyable for me, and I see it as a waste of my time, regardless of the bargain.

I also don’t do well at flea markets, rummage sales or any other disorganzied shopping experience.

Come to think of it, I don’t do so well at regular retail shopping either.

Good thing I’m a jeans and sweatshirt type of person (and can wear those to work).

Nicki
Nicki
11 years ago

Winter came quick where I live and I needed some boots for my 2-1/2 year old. I couldn’t find any for under $25. I wandered into our local consignment shop and found an LL Bean pair for $5. LOVE IT!

Carmen
Carmen
11 years ago

Since I was 12, I always had to buy my own clothes (other than uniforms), so I grew up shopping in thrift stores because it really made the most sense. I have always loved it! I would add another tip on clothes shopping – look for the possibilities in things. If you can sew (even a little bit), you can take something and make it into something else. Pants to shorts – a long skirt to a mini skirt, a wool sweater into a felted purse. You can make yourself one-of-a-kind outfits. It is much cheaper than even buying that… Read more »

aartha
aartha
11 years ago

i never used to buy anything in thrift stores,but the situation has changed now,wat can we say,i lost my job and i need to adjust my budget and the christmas is on d way,wat to do,we need to change according to the changing environment.i depend completly on thrift stores for my shopping this time.one thing tat makes me happy is i can get more number of dresses in thrift store for the amount i spend on one pair.

Ariel
Ariel
11 years ago

One tip I didn’t see here that I use all the time. Use a measuring tape to measure clothes that you already have that fit you well. Then when you go to the thrift store you can measure the clothes and narrow down the ones you try on. I also agree that dry cleaning can often be replaced by handwashing. My local thrift store is annoying though, they don’t organize by size and they mostly have size 4 and under and size 18 and up. I’m a 10/12 and I have to go through a whole rack of clothes to… Read more »

claire7676
claire7676
11 years ago

I have tried thrift store clothes shopping & have no luck. The local thrift store sorts clothes by type (pants, shirts) and color, so you have to search & search & search for something in your size. This is also why I hate TJ Maxx. I have prices in my head of what I will & won’t pay for clothes. So, even the consignment stores can be too pricey for me. I have better luck looking at sale racks in retail stores that I do like. I don’t discern between brands or fabrics; if I like it & it looks… Read more »

Andrea
Andrea
11 years ago

I could afford to buy pretty much anywhere short of true designers. I just don’t care enough to do it- not to spend the money or buy the latest style. I love to watch “what not to wear”- but in the end- don’t care. I tend to wear a “uniform” -it changes. Right now, it is black pants or skirts and various sweaters or jackets with a light top underneath. Recently at the thrift store, I got 2 black skirts- one Anne Klein and one Donna Karan- $3 and $4. I was just looking for size, color and a basic… Read more »

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