10 Beginner Level Thrifting Tips; Or, How to Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Goodwill

Ever wondered how to thrift, but been overwhelmed by the idea?

One of the things that drew Melissa and I together was our mutual love of thrifting. In a previous post, Melissa wrote about how she hunts for vintage clothing for Vintanthromodern, but she and I both thrift like crazy for ourselves, too. In fact, I have been known to have a problem with thrift shopping; I won't speak for Melissa ... but let's just say this means we are good. A good 90% of my clothing and accessories are thrifted. I mean, hey, you gotta brag if you've got the swag.

Anyway. Enough about us.

The rumor that thrift stores are for LMFAO-soaked hipster wannabes, scouring the racks for the brightest neon track suit known to humanity? Lies! Or twee 19-year-old creative writing students straight out of a Portlandia skit? More lies! Or middle age resellers who could be hiding a child under all the clothes in their carts? Even more lies! Or label-hungry braggers on a graduate student budget? Uh, that one hits a little close to home ...

Not that you won't find these characters in thrift stores; you often will. Still, thrift stores are for everyone, including professionals.

The rough economy of the past four years has been a driving factor in the turn toward thrift among people all across the socioeconomic spectrum, and many people are discovering that thrift stores really do have something for everyone. To wit, there is loads of advice on fashion, style, and home decor blogs about how to thrift. Some of it is great, some of it is ... not so great. Most of it is very general and not really geared toward newbies. But everyone and their mother seems to be thrifting these days -- which is totally awesome. Thrifting is way more fun than shopping at the mall; however, it's much less straightforward. No one is there to, figuratively, hold your hand.

So, how the hell do you start thrifting for clothes? Consider this post the "beginner" level in a series of posts on tips for thrifting clothing and accessories.

1. Find the thrift stores  

What is a thrift store? A thrift store is a retail store, which sells mostly secondhand merchandise that is donated directly to the store or to a third party from the original consumer. In some instances, stores partner with regular retailers who donate overstock items. While there is regional variability in thrift store prices, stuff should be cheap or really cheap. A consignment store is not a thrift store! Yes, the clothing is secondhand, and yes, sometimes the clearance racks can be cheap, but a consignment shop is a) curated and seasonal and b) some portion of the profits of a sale go back to the person who consigned the clothing. Also not thrift stores? Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads Trading Co., and their "buy, sell, trade" ilk. The clothes are sold to these businesses by the original consumer and the inventory is heavily curated and, well, often crap.

Now that you know what a thrift store is, there are basically three ways to find them:  1) stumble upon the old-fashioned way, 2) word of mouth, or 3) the internet. Some people recommend using The Thrift Shopper; I'm personally not a big fan of the interface, but it is comprehensive. Your best bet if you're a beginner is to try hitting one of the national chains:  Goodwill, or the Salvation Army. All three companies have "store locator" features on their websites. (Just don't go to a Goodwill Outlet on your first ever thrift outing. It may scar you for life.) If you don't happen to be near one of the Big Three, check out Yelp. Search "thrift" for your zip code or city. Don't necessarily pay attention to reviews: just find a place that is convenient and strikes your fancy. That Yelp maps all results on a page gives it a big leg up on The Thrift Shopper, especially if you're unfamiliar with an area. Of course, Yelp doesn't help for shit if you're outside of certain geographical areas, so your next best bet? The good old yellow pages! Google actually will do this search for you. Type in "thrift" and your zip code into the search engine and boom! Thrift stores galore ... and on A MAP. Beware the miscategorized vintage and consignment interlopers on these maps, though.

2. "Thrifting" also applies to garage / rummage / estate sales

I was indoctrinated into going to garage sales long before I stumbled into thrift stores as a teenager; I remember stopping to go garage sale-ing with my aunt and my grandma. They were fiends. Back in the day, my mom was a serious sale-r, too. Growing up, I lived next to a community center that held an annual "flea market" and oh -- the anticipation that Saturday morning it opened! My very first vintage owl necklace came to me there; I was six or so.

Of all three of these types of sales, I like rummage sales the best. Garage sales (or tag sales, as they get called in New Haven) don't often have many clothes, and estate sales can be absurdly overpriced. Yes, I once picked up a vintage Hermès wool dress for $5 at an estate sale in Portland, but that's not terribly common. At rummage sales, rarely are items individually priced due to volume, so accessories or clothing will be a set price, maybe $1 or $2 per item. Church sales and school sales in well-to-do areas are gold mines. If an item doesn't sell, the organization doesn't make money and has to deal with then donating the item, so they want it sold and gone.

If thrift stores terrify you, hitting up private sales for secondhand apparel and accessories is a great alternative. How do you find them? Craigslist and the local classifieds. Most local newspapers have online classifieds sections, so check them out  ... and read about your local community! Since these sales almost always happen on weekends, you'll want to plan your time carefully. Summer is sale season, and there will be many each weekend. Set goals realistically to hit one or two at first. Then work up from there.

3. Prepare to head out on your thrifting adventure 

Things you'll want to bring with you:  a reusable tote bag (boo plastic bags!), a purse or wallet you can carry hands-free, hand sanitizer, cash money, a time limit, and a good curious and relaxed attitude. Dress comfortably -- sweatpants optional -- and remember that no sales assistant working on commission is judging you in a thrift store.

Thrift stores also lack some nicer features of "first run" retail stores. Expect:

  • No fitting rooms, or very limited and overcrowded fitting rooms
  • No restrooms
  • Disorganization and very full racks
  • Unpleasant smells
  • Staff who cannot help you
  • Cash only or $5/$10 credit card minimums
  • Dust, dirt, and allergens
  • Heavy representations of the 80s, 90s, and 00s (1996 is big right now in thrift store inventories)
  • Dim overhead lights
  • Children
  • Screaming packs of teenagers with cameras
  • Seriously scary regular thrifters (ignore us!)

As for timing? There is no magical time to go, or day of the week. If you're headed to a thrift store (or stores, you ambitious person, you!), go when it is convenient. Personally, I like weekday evenings because stores are less crowded; what is true of Costco and Walmart is also true of Goodwill. A crowded thrift store can be extremely overwhelming, even to old timers like Melissa and I. And trust me, you aren't missing out on anything amazing by going in the evening.

4. Take a buddy

Hardcore thrifters often fly solo (and sometimes for quite selfish reasons -- less competition! I think that's mean; spread the love, yo), but having someone along can make it more fun ... and keep you accountable. Partners-in-crime can help lighten the mood and decrease your chances of actually buying that bedazzled cheetah print whatever-the-hell-it-is.

5. When you're first beginning, be a brand snob; or, thrifter, KNOW THYSELF

No, really. Seasoned thrifters often eschew labels -- and sizes! -- but when you're first starting out, start with what you know. Are there certain common enough brand names that you like and wish you could get cheaper? Gap? Banana Republic? Zara? J Crew? Ann Taylor? Brooks Brothers? Michael Kors? Certainly don't limit yourself to what you know, but working within some brands gives you a) something specific to hunt for and b) a decent guess on what is going to fit you and what is not.

Part of being a brand snob is also knowing your own personal style. Yes, thrifting offers you the opportunity to experiment with your wardrobe for cheap, but if you're a leather jacket kind of lady, don't waste time contemplating the pink polka dot trench or vice versa. If it isn't you, it isn't you. Thrift stores are not just for wild and crazy finds best rocked by college students at themed frat parties; rather, they are filled with what ordinary people actually have purchased and worn, representing a wide variety of styles, colors, and sizes. If something really works for you, it probably really worked for someone else, too. Know what you like, broadly speaking, and know what you don't.

When you're first thrifting, you don't need a list; you're acclimating to the activity, and being open-ended in your perusal can keep you from getting frustrated by not finding exactly what you want the first (or fifth) time around.

6. Grab a cart

Cartless thrifting is for advanced users only.

But don't put your own handbag in the cart! Sadly, this is how things get stolen. Don't invite it.

7. Start with the durables and touch things

Why I suggested that you hit up a national thrift chain first:  they all sort clothing by type; some even sort by size! Often, they look a lot like a regular retail store. The layout of these stores makes it a lot easier for you to navigate the new world of thrift.

So, look, knit shirts are not durables. Most tops aren't, actually. What are durables? Coats, blazers, skirts, bags, sweaters, and dress pants. Why are these durables? Because they are usually worn less by the original owner and because they tend to be better constructed. You'd be surprised when you are going through racks of clothing of all types that a wool or 100% cotton skirt from Old Navy feels better made than 97% of the things you've touched in the blouses ... and it is! Durables are also often constructed from better materials -- wool blends, leather, heavy cottons, etc. The problem with durables is that they tend also to be associated with a fall/winter wardrobe. This won't do you a lot of good in Southern California, I'm sorry. It's a bonanza for Bostonians, though! The 30 coats I had in my closet when I lived in Cambridge are testament to that ...

Coat collections aside, you know what else is not a durable? Anything from Forever 21 or Target. RUN AWAY.

Touch and sight are the key senses you need to engage while thrifting. When you start out, use your sense of touch, but rely on your eyes. Walk slowly down the aisles, with your cart, and scan the racks carefully. You don't need to click through every hanger in a section -- if you're just beginning, you'll be slow, and lose precious time. Pull out interesting pieces and take a look. This is why it's important to know thyself:  you won't bother even looking at orange sweaters if blue sweaters are your thing.

8. Take what you like while you're shopping, and edit when you're done

When something is in your cart, think of it as "under consideration." This is the stage like casual dating: for interest, not commitment. When your allowed time is up and you're done browsing, take your cart into a corner and edit. Doing this, you'll see what has drawn your eye and get a good sense of what the better items among your items are. Here's where you need to decide who you're going to take home to meet the family (or at least who needs another date in the dressing room before you decide). Be ruthless and inspect thoroughly. You may have really liked something the moment you saw it on the rack, but do you like it as much -- or at all -- on a second look?

9. Do not buy anything just to buy it

And don't buy anything just because it has a great label, is pretty, is something you think you "should" have, or even because you love it. The same rules of regular shopping apply to thrift shopping -- don't buy it if you won't wear it and can't use it.


  • Don't buy it if it doesn't fit. (Try things on!)
  • Don't buy it if you don't want to clean it.
  • Don't buy it if you can't clean it. (Ink, paint, underarm, grease, and heavy stains are unlikely to come out.)
  • Don't buy it if it needs mending you can't do.
  • Don't buy it if it has holes.

If you leave empty handed, that's okay! Don't be discouraged.

10. Wash and clean your items before wearing them

No brainer, folks! Thrift stores aren't as gross as many people think, but you still don't know where that item came from. And let's be honest: people are nasty, and more often than not donate things before they've seen the inside of a washing machine. (And one poopy pair of kids' pants ruins the whole bin.) I rarely dry clean any thrifted items; if something for my own wardrobe can't survive a hand wash or a steamer it doesn't come home with me. I also routinely ignore "dry clean only" warnings because DISREGARD THE CONSTABULARY. Oxy products and vinegar are great for removing organic stains and stinks, respectively. Rubbing alcohol gets the nasties out of most shoes. Sun does wonders for almost everything. Just ... don't throw cashmere in a washing machine with an agitator. It won't end well.


Don't be a jerk

Thrifting is not for everyone. Thrifting requires skill and patience, but it also requires the understanding that thrift stores are diverse places where people from many walks of life, and with vastly different needs, come together. The Salvation Army ain't Nordstrom. Some thrift stores are important third spaces for local communities, particularly for lower-income persons, immigrants, persons of color, and religious groups, and it is important to realize that in those cases, you may be entering someone else's space. If thrifting is a lifestyle/consumption choice for you and you visit communities other than you own, and you can't be open-minded, tolerant, and respectful, don't thrift. Really, don't.

--> Watch out for the next post in this series:  tips for intermediate thrifters!