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When my husband and I married we were both finishing up college degrees. This meant pinching some pennies to make tuition payments and buy books each semester. I learned a lot from that "poor college student" stage, and, I found a new passion: Thrifting. Here are a few tips I have gained from my experience.

1. Learn your local stores.

Every town will be different. Some towns aren't welcoming to thrift stores, others have them on every corner. I suggest doing a quick internet search for thrift stores in your area. Map out the few closest to you (you might want to make sure they aren't in a sketchy part of town) and then take a Saturday to explore them all. I suggest going into several different stores before you buy anything. You'll want to note several things about each store before you make purchases:

  • What payment do they accept? Some stores accept cash or credit card but not debit card or check. Some stores only allow you to use a credit card if the purchase is over a certain amount. If you are shopping for small accessories you might want to avoid stores with these credit card limits (unless you are a cash shopper).
  • What do they "specialize" in? I have one store that I go to for furniture and household items and I look for clothes and accessories at another store.
  • What types of sales do they run? Be aware of any specials that each thrift store runs. One store near me doesn't offer any regular specials, but once a quarter they offer a $1 sale on off-season items. Another store I shop at uses a tagging system where the tag color on the item corresponds to either full-price, 30% off, 50% off, or 75% off. These sale colors change weekly so sometimes you can get the best deals by knowing when they change the color and shop accordingly. 
  • What type of returns or exchanges do they offer? Many thrift stores don't offer exchanges or returns so if you find one near you that does it's a gift!
  • How often do they put out new items? Small stores usually put out new items as soon as they get them in, processed and priced. Larger stores may do this or they may only put out items on specific days. Don't be afraid to ask an employee what their system is (same thing with the sales and specials).
  • How competitive are their prices? This may seem unnecessary since it's a thrift store but you really should compare prices between stores. You'll be surprised of the difference it makes. 

2. Come prepared.

This is where all the investigation you did in different stores will come in handy. If you start on a thrifting trip looking for furniture (if you have done your research) you will know which store to head to first, which day to go on, and what type of payment to bring. Think ahead. If you are shopping for furniture, or if you think you might buy furniture, make sure you have the right vehicle to get it home in. Some stores have a hold policy for larger items but many don't or will only hold for 24 hours. If the store doesn't have carts or baskets you might want to bring a basket or shopping bag of your own (if they allow this in the store).

If you're shopping for a certain size of furniture or fabric, don't forget a tape measure. If you're trying to match a color, don't forget your swatch. If you're shopping for someone else (I shop for my husband's clothes often) don't forget to write down the correct sizes for each item of clothing you are looking for.

If you normally carry a handbag you might want to switch to a shoulder bag or a satchel. Sometimes the aisles or racks are very tight and it's easier to maneuver, pick up items, inspect items if you aren't lugging a giant bag around after you. On that note:

3. Inspect every item carefully.

One of the worst feelings in thrifting is coming home with an item that you thought was a great deal, only to find a stain, rip, or chip. Here are some ways to avoid that nasty thrifting after-taste:

Clothing: Check for the normal imperfections likes stains, rips, tears etc. Try to do this in natural light. If you can't tell if something has a stain, walk up to the front of the store, by a window/door to look at it in sunlight. Don't forget to check for manufacturing defects (I have come home with a pair of jeans that one leg was shorter than the other). Remember: There is a reason that this item has come to the thrift store. You hope that reason is somebody just bought the wrong size and forgot to return it, but it could be for other, not so pleasant reasons. Personally, I always check for any "weird" smells on the garment as well.

Household items: Obviously this is a broad category. For fabrics, check for the same thing you would for clothing. For electronics, check that they work and have all working parts. Some stores promise working electronics or you can return them. Some stores offer outlets to plug the electronics into for you to test them yourself.

Furniture: Similar to clothing, check for rips, stains, smells. Also, remember to check for the structural integrity of the piece. If it's a chair, sit in it, move around, feel for any wobbles. You don't want to get the thing set up in your living and then have it break when a guest sits down. For furniture it's not just about how it looks but how it will actually function in your home.

4. Trendy vs. Timeless.

When you are shopping at a thrift store it is important to think about the value. There are two ways I look at this. For example: When I shop for clothing at a thrift store I am either looking for something trendy, a vest, a skirt, an accessory, OR a classic staple (i.e. timeless) like black dress pants, little black dress, blazers, denim.

Trendy: If the item you are looking for is trendy, meaning you won't wear or use this item more than a couple of months, you won't want to spend as much on this item. You'll want to look for a better deal or wait for this item to be on a special or sale. It's not wise to pay full-price (even thrift price) for an item you are only going to wear half a dozen times.

Timeless: If the item you are looking for is timeless, meaning you're going to use this item on a daily basis or for many years, you will want to consider paying more for this item. When looking for timeless items look for quality. Strong fabrics or materials, with very little wear, in basic colors, and if possible, a well-known, quality brand.

5. Use your imagination.

I'll be the first to admit that we don't always buy thrift store items for what they are and instead pay for what we might be able to turn them into. Don't forget this when you're shopping. How this will affect your shopping will all depend on your capabilities, your creativity, and the time you have available. If you have the desire and the basic tools (or a husband with the tools) you might be able to turn that wobbly side table into a work of art. If you are even a beginner seamstress you might be able to turn that too-long skirt into your new favorite skirt. Don't be afraid of imagining what that item might become with enough time and effort. Of course, if the price is incredible low, you have even more incentive to bring the item home to experiment with. For example: When my husband and I moved into a larger space I needed some wall art. I found a large, framed photograph at my local thrift store for $0.75. They had marked it down because the frame was scuffed and scratched. I couldn't pass up that price so I brought it home. I decided to sand down the wooden frame to mask the scars and give it an antique or "destroyed" look that is so popular right now. That photograph now hangs in our kitchen and I enjoy looking at it every day.


Thanks for reading and happy thrifting!