Thrift store shopping can be intimidating and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.
So, let go of the mental picture of poverty, and join the ranks of smart people who know how to find a steal on gently used (usually brand-name) items.
Here are my top insider tips for thrifting:
1. Skip wealthy neighborhoods in favor of small towns.
Seems counter-intuitive, but I promise it pays off.
Small towns frequently don’t get enough donations to stock their store, so inventory is shipped in from large cities with a lot of extra.
For example, the Goodwill in Boise, ID doesn’t always have the best finds, but the Goodwill in The Dalles, Oregon is a gold mine. I’ve even found Coach bags!
2. Don’t shop on Saturday — shop Wednesday instead.
Seriously, everyone shops on Saturday, the store will be crowded, and inventory will be picked over.
Shop the middle of the week instead to get the best items.
3. Prices aren’t the same across different stores, so don’t expect price matching.
Thrift stores set their own prices. You won’t be able to price match at all, even to another store in the same chain.
4. Use Label Resource to find out more about your vintage clothing label.
Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’ve got a vintage piece of clothing or not.
Use your smartphone to check the Label Resource at the Vintage Fashion Guild when you find one you can’t identify.
5. Learn your thrift store’s specialties. (Savers = clothing, Goodwill = furniture.)
Some stores will be better for certain things, and that’s actually intentional.
Many stores will have best kinds of certain merchandise and ship them to a specific store in the area.
One store may be the best for furniture, and another for designer jeans, etc.
For example: You’re much more likely to find designer jeans at Savers/Value Village than other stores.
But in my experience, Goodwill is the place to find good furniture, and Salvation Army is best for inexpensive kids’ books and toys.
6. Ask when your thrift store restocks so you can choose the best day to shop.
Each store is different, so you’re gonna have to ask.
This information is gold and will save you from stopping in when inventory is low.
Plus, you’ll get first dibs on new product as it gets put on the floor.
7. Buy discounted Goodwill gift cards on Raise.com to save an extra 5%.
Want to stack even more discounts on top of buying at thrift stores?
Buy a Goodwill gift card on Raise.com and save another 5% on your shopping trip.
8. Be strong in the face of nostalgia.
Thrift stores can be a pop culture graveyard. You’ll find all kinds of things you remember from being a kid, which is great.
But if you don’t need a Rainbow Brite doll or you don’t have a place to put her, ultimately you’re wasting money.
9. Realize that vintage clothing runs 4-6 sizes smaller than modern clothing.
Size up if you’re looking at a vintage item! And I mean “vintage” in the truest sense. Not “vintage” 1980.
This means it pays to look in the sizes that are larger than the one you usually wear, too.
10. Don’t want to go to the store? Shop online.
Yes, you’ll pay more for an online thrift store purchase, but if you’re squeamish about going to the store and digging, this is a great option.
11. Shop off-season for clothes.
This is true for thrift stores just like it’s true for retail stores.
The very best deals are for clothes that are not currently in high demand.
If you keep a list and shop smart, you can score things like a Wilson’s Leather bomber jacket for only $5 because everyone else is buying sundresses.
12. Look for items to repurpose.
Sometimes you can find exactly what you’re looking for, but don’t forget to look at items in a different light.
For example, I was hunting for an end table for my son’s room, and couldn’t find one at my price point.
But I found a snare drum that was broken on the bottom and turned it into a cool end table for only $6!
13. Shop at least twice a week.
The more often you go, the more likely you are to find the perfect item.
You don’t need to take forever each time — a quick run through is enough if you’re looking for something specific. In fact…
14. Give yourself a 45-minute time limit per store.
It’s easy to get pulled into a several-hour long trip when you’re shopping thrift stores, but try to avoid it if you’re looking for a specific item.
Since you’re trying to stop by a thrift store twice a week, if you don’t set a time limit it’s going to be a huge time suck and you’ll burn out.
15. Dress to match what you’re shopping for.
Looking for a prom or wedding dress? Wear heels so you know how the dress will fit!
Shopping for furniture? Wear tennis shoes so you can lug that thing out of the store by yourself. (You know you’ll have to!)
And always, always wear layers. Not all thrift stores have dressing rooms and it’s much easier to try on that sweater if you can easily remove a sweatshirt or cardigan.
16. In general, it takes three weeks for an item to go on sale.
If you find something with a tag marked 50% off the already-low thrift store price, that’s great!
But general rule of thumb is that if you see something you want in your price range, buy it now.
If you love to shop clearance, go to a retail store like Kohl’s or Target and don’t bother with thrifting!
17. Shop the first day after your store marks items down.
Most stores have a color of tag that goes on sale each week on the same day. For example, our local Goodwill store has a color tag that goes on sale for only $1 every Monday.
And every week on Wednesday they discount a specific color tag by 50%.
- Savers marks down their tags on Monday.
- Goodwill marks down their tags on Sunday.
18. Learn markers of quality so you can easily spot valuable pieces.
Some basics are:
- Hardwood furniture is better quality and will last longer than veneer. Hardwood will have the same grain all the way through, and furniture with a veneer will be made of plywood on the inside and feel less porous.
- Natural materials are more expensive, regardless if it’s furniture or clothing, so when you see natural materials, you’re looking at a higher quality piece.
- Lining in a blazer means it’s a higher quality item of clothing. The best blazers are also a wool blend.
- A woven, not printed, tag in a piece of clothing means it’s a more expensive brand.
- Expensive, 100%-leather shoes will have a mark on the sole and the words “vero curo.” Shoes that are leather but have a rubber sole will be marked “leather upper.”
19. Haggle over the price if an item broken or damaged.
Thrift stores frequently price like items at a single price, regardless of quality.
If you spot something that you want but it’s lightly damaged, don’t be afraid to ask for deeper discounts.
20. Keep a Pinterest board full of items you’re looking for to keep yourself on track.
Make sure you keep track of the items you’re hunting for by creating a Pinterest board just for thrifting.
Take your smartphone with you, and give yourself a quick refresher before you start to shop.
21. Always remember to test electronics before you buy.
Like cleaning supplies, keeping a small stash of different sized batteries on hand will save your life.
Most thrift stores also have outlets available for testing items with cords too.
22. Make friends with the employees, and they’ll hook you up.
This is even better advice at the thrift store than it is for traditional retail stores.
At my favorite Goodwill, the cashier and the manager know me well enough that they will set aside pieces they know I’m looking for.
TIP: Thrift store managers and cashiers have a lot more control and say over discounts when asked than a traditional retail store. So being a regular customer they like can get you even more savings on an item.
23. You should be saving 80-95% on new retail prices.
Since most of what you find at thrift stores isn’t new, it follows that you should never be paying more than 20% of what the original retail price of the item was when new.
Aim for more than that — I’m not exaggerating when I say you can get as much as 95%-99% off original retail prices.
24. Keep your eyes peeled for seasonal coupons.
Coupons will be different for every store and for every region. Keep your eyes peeled, because often stores will release coupons several times a year during peak shopping times (think Christmas).
For example: Savers right now is offering a free $5 off any $5 or more purchase when you buy a $25 gift card for Mother’s Day.
TIP: Goodwill always offers a 20% off coupon with any donation, so keep a bag of old clothes in your trunk, and donate them one at a time.
25. Get a 20%-off coupon when you make a donation to Goodwill.
Depending on your local Goodwill store, you could get a coupon for your donation.
26. Best things to buy are furniture and kids’ clothing.
Let’s face it, as a parent you know how fast kids grow out of clothes and shoes.
And if they don’t grow out of them, they destroy them by playing. Thrift stores let you keep your kid well-dressed while still keeping costs down. The same goes for furniture!
Do you love The Children’s Place, Baby Gap and Gymboree? Thrift stores are overflowing with cute pieces from expensive children’s clothing stores at around $1.
27. Worst things to buy are swimsuits and underwear.
Not even once.
I really don’t think I need to explain this one.
28. Download the Goodwill App if you have one for your area.
Did you know that for several regions, Goodwill has an app to track sales? Check for your region to see.
29. You can return your purchase within 7 days, for in-store credit only at most thrift stores.
Make sure you really love that find, because you usually won’t be able to return it! If you shop often and don’t mind store credit, this is a good option for clothes that don’t fit, though.
30. Employee discounts are different for each store chain.
- Goodwill: 25% off and it can be stacked with sales, but you’re not allowed to shop in your own store.
- Value Village/Savers: 50% off of all clothing or apparel, and all other items 30% off.
- Salvation Army: No employee discount.
31. Stack your military/senior discount with sale days or coupons.
Don’t have a military or senior discount? Take Grandma shopping with you!
32. Sign up for email alerts and discounts from Savers/Value Village.
Savers is the best for offering a loyalty program. Sign up for their Super Savers club and get exclusive email notifications for sales, early access to deals and more.
33. Keep your eyes peeled for 100% new items.
Target has a standing arrangement with Goodwill stores to donate any unsold clearance goods when they don’t sell. This means you can find totally new clothes, seasonal items and toys at Goodwill for a fraction of the cost.