Thrift Store Shopping Tips: How, When, Where, What And What Not To Buy

When it comes to second-hand dressing and decorating, a lean wallet does not mean you have to skimp on style.  These pro thrift store shopping tips will guarantee that you find the best prizes, every time, and without busting the budget!


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No matter what your clothing or decorating style, thrift stores can be a goldmine of treasures to help you put together a signature look all your own.  But don’t go without a plan!  The luckiest thrift shoppers are not lucky at all.  They go with purpose, intent and rules that make them the best in the game.

We’ve compiled tips from all the smartest shoppers to make it easy to score the all the best finds!

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What to know before you go
  • Basic rules for clothes shopping
  • Inspiration and hacks for furniture and accessory makeovers
  • Valuable parting advice

With a little planning, you can be the smartest thrift shopper in your town!




Getting Ready
1 – Check the National Thrift Store Directory

Log on to this site before you go.  Even if you are in your hometown, there may be a spot that is new or that you didn’t know about.  And always check this site if you are traveling.  We have found some of our favorite souvenirs while shopping on road trips!


2 – Skip wealthy neighborhoods in favor of small towns

This might contradict what a lot of folks will say, but The Krazy Coupon Lady swears by this rule.  Many times, small-town stores don’t get enough donations to fully stock their shelves, so their inventory is often supplemented by overstocks from larger cities.  This means you get great merchandise without all the competing shoppers!  You may be surprised what quality you can find.



3 – Empty your car and pack a blanket or two

You need to make room for all the wonderful things you are going to find!  And the blankets will protect your seats and provide padding for fragile items.

4 – Keep a “shopping kit” in the car

Your mission is to find the best stuff before someone else does.  So be prepared with everything you need to make the day go smoothly.  Water, snacks, tissues, hand wipes, measuring tape and a phone charger will all keep you rolling along and on course to shopping success.


5 – Ask sales clerks what days they restock and have price mark-downs

Good items sell quickly, so you want to shop early and often for the best finds.  In your local stores, know when the new merchandise gets stocked and look for carts with new donations as they are wheeled out of the stock area and onto the main floor.

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credit: Thinkstock

6 – When shopping for home decor, measure before you go

Put together a rough list of areas that need furnishing or accessorizing and take note of minimum and maximum dimensions that will fit that space.  It can also be helpful to take pictures of rooms that need items to help refresh your memory and visualize whether a find will work or not.

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credit: Thinkstock/Paul Rookes

7 – Set a time limit

This is most important if you are making a day of it.  For example, give yourself 45 minutes per store so you don’t get too sidetracked and miss out on your other destinations.

8 – Set a budget and take some cash

You know what you can afford, so don’t be tempted to blow your grocery money on a want versus a need.  Cash helps to keep you on track with your spending.  If you HAVE to have something pricey, try skipping a few months of thrift shopping so you can get back on track and won’t feel too guilty.  It won’t be fun if you don’t feel like you got a good deal.

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credit: Thinkstock/Purestock


9 – Go with a plan and research on the go

Have a short list of what you are looking for, just to help you stay on track with time and budget.  When you come across something intriguing, Google the label or manufacturer to check for quality and value.  Be smart about timing, shopping for seasonal clothing and decor right after the season or during the off-season.

10 – Know what to buy…

Following the lead of the Bargain Babe, you can rarely go wrong with:

  • vintage Corelle
  • Corningware
  • Pyrex
  • Heavy, high-quality cookware
  • Wooden chopping boards and bowls
  • Copper and brass
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credit: Bargain Babe

11 – …and what to steer clear of

Prudent Penny Pincher advises staying away from:

  • Used mattresses and linens could mean bedbugs…ugh
  • Baby items such as cribs and car seats which could have been recalled or involved in an accident
  • Electronics which are easily found new and on sale at big box stores (and often include a warranty), like coffee makers
  • Cosmetics which could be contaminated or tainted
  • For more, check out her complete list here.
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credit: Prudent Penny Pincher

12 – Have a transportation plan

If you find a larger item like a couch or bed frame that won’t fit in your car, know in advance how you might get it home.  You don’t want to pay for your big prize and then have no way to pick it up.



The Clothing Commandments
1 – Check every rack, regardless of size

Don’t assume that only the items in your size section are going to fit.  Items sometimes get misplaced, or a particular label might run large or small.  Do a scan of other sizes and if you see something you like, try it on!

2 – Inspect the item and check care instructions

Stay away from items that smell, have irreparable holes or other visible flaws.  You won’t wear it if you feel self-conscious about its condition.  And always check the care label.  If a piece is not worth the dry cleaning bills, steer clear.



3 – Some Goodwill stores get new Target merchandise weekly!

You read that right!!  Check with your local stores to see if they participate in this program.  If they do, find out which day(s) they stock new Target merchandise and get ready to SCORE!  Thanks to Mommysavers for this awesome tip!

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credit: Mommysavers

4 – You MUST wash previously worn clothing in HOT water to kill germs

Take care with this one.  You don’t want to ruin a precious item by washing it incorrectly, but you don’t want cooties either.  Try hand-washing the first time, if you can.



5 – If the price is right, buy more than one

This is hit or miss, but sometimes you might find multiples of an item that you love.  Buy the other one for yourself or as a gift for someone with similar taste.  Then be twinsies 😉


6 – For the best selection, shop around the change of seasons, when people are clearing out and donating the most

You know the drill.  When folks are digging out clothes for the coming season, they tend to start purging items that they didn’t wear much in the past few months.  That’s your opportunity to snatch up the best inventory.


7 – Don’t buy hats or undergarments

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again.  Cooties.


8 – True vintage clothes run several sizes smaller than modern clothes

Sizing has definitely changed over the past decades, so you won’t wear the same size in a true vintage garment.  Get over the numbers, check all the sizes for something that you love and then TRY IT ON!  Use your smartphone to check out Vintage Fashion Guild for on-the-go info on a particular label.


Home Item Guidelines
1 – Before and after inspiration

If you followed our previous “getting ready” tips, you have an idea of what space you need to furnish.  Before you hit the stores, browse Pinterest or Instagram to see how others have upcycled.  That will give you an idea of the kind of piece that could fit your needs.  We love the Pottery Barn look that Southern Revivals gave this old dresser that was a bit past its prime.  They needed a nice piece that would hide small toys and this fits the bill!  Can you imagine what they would have paid to buy a new item like that from the catalog?!

For even more inspiration, check out this amazing compilation of thrift store makeovers from DIY n’ Crafts.


2 – Sign up for store mailing list and check Goodwill online

Live Love DIY brings us this great idea.  She says not all stores offer this option, but if they do, it’s a great way to get a sneak peek at featured items and sales.  A picture of this chair was sent to her in a weekly store email.  What a find!



3 – Have a bag of tricks for restoring furnishings

Build a toolkit and develop some refurb skills.  You can take a class in chalk painting, or if you are really ambitious, you can learn to upholster.  It’s always fun to master new things and you will easily recoup that investment with the money you will save by thrifting.  Apartment Therapy has a great list of repair and restore tips for you, including:

  • the best wood glue
  • how to repair tears in leather upholstery
  • how to remove mouse pee stains (ewww)
  • and tons more!


4 – Give old art new life

We LOVE this idea from Live Love DIY, who was able to find modern beauty in an outdated painting.  She used the original work as a base for her own color scheme and ended up with a completely transformed masterpiece that matches her decor perfectly!  This is a lesson to us not to overlook old art when we can easily and affordably make it our own!



5 – Always test appliances/lighting in the store

Don’t be afraid to ask a salesperson if you can plug something in to make sure it works.  I promise, there will be some things that don’t and you don’t want to waste your money or time.



6 – Look for marks of quality in wood and upholstered furnishings

You may fall in love with a piece, but if it falls apart on you, it’s not worth your effort.  In wood pieces, check for quality marks like dovetail joints and sturdy legs and feet.  For upholstered goods, follow this advice from HomeGuides on how to spot quality pieces.


7 – Check closely for damage

Before you get emotionally invested, check your find thoroughly to make sure there are no damaged areas that can’t be easily repaired.  If there are problems that are outside of your skill set, walk away.  If your project ends up being a giant headache, you won’t love it.  And you want to love it, don’t you?



Some final things to remember…
1 – Make friends with salespeople

If you visit your local stores enough (and frequency is the best way to score big), you will get to know the salespeople and they will get to know what you like.  They might even reach out to you when something really great comes in.  Plus, it’s just always nice to have new friends 🙂

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2 – Consider re-selling

If the thrifting bug has bitten you hard, you can make money refurbing and re-selling.  Whether on Ebay, Craig’s List or in an antiques mall, tons of people call this a vocation.  How much money you make depends on how good you are at restorations and how diligent you are with marketing your merchandise, but it can be done!

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credit: Thinkstock/Jack Hollingsworth

3 – Don’t forget Senior, Student and Armed Services discounts

That’s money in your pocket and it can add up.  Don’t forget to take advantage of it!


4 – Embrace weird

If you see something odd that speaks to you, grab it.  It likely won’t be there the next time you go and if it’s that strange, the chances of you ever finding another are slim.  Let go of “what other people will think” and have fun with it!  The Outfit Repeater bought this dress simply because it reminded her of a favorite movie.  We love it!



5 – 31 Best Thrifting Tips

Finally, check out this fantastic video on thrift tips and tricks from Mary Elizabeth.  She really knows what she is talking about and she has so much fun while she shops!

We hope you learned some valuable thrifting tips and are ready to embark on your next shopping adventure.  Good luck and happy thrifting!


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