Avoid undergarments, and six other advanced thrifting methods

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One of my very favorite Ebay finds -- this amazing dress was only $9. And yes, that's my not-so-subtle camera remote you see there.
I’ll go ahead and admit it: I love a good bargain. I think most people do, but I take it a step further. I scour the internet for Ebay stores and vintage shops that have great clothing at decent (we’re talking $12.99 or less, minus shipping) prices. I love Internet window shopping, but there’s no way I’m going to pay anything over $15 for a piece of clothing unless it’s really fucking awesome and unique, or I have somewhere fancy to be.

Enter: thrift stores, otherwise known as my home away from home. If you’re not sure where your local shops are, ThriftShopper might be your new best friend.

Shopping for little kids at thrift stores is pretty easy, but shopping for adults? That’s a whole other ball game. Since I’m something of a seasoned pro (I’d say at this point, around 85% of my clothing was thrifted), here are a few tricks of the trade that I’ve picked up:

1. Be mindful of your body

It’s never a good idea to go into thrifty shopping without knowing your size and measurements — this is especially important if you’re shopping vintage or online. I would be mortified if I admitted to you how many items of clothing I spent money on assuming they’d fit because they all were sized “S”, only to discover that not all smalls are created equal. I found that it’s quite helpful to take a friend/partner/spouse along — someone who has known you for a while, and can help you figure out what might and might not work.

2. Have a developed sense of personal style

This doesn’t mean you have to be a thrifty fashionista, but going into a thrift store without any idea what kind of clothing you like or what is flattering on your figure is a major mistake. If you’re not into bold prints and crazy patterns, don’t buy them on a whim — stick with what you like. However, if you are trying to change up your style a little and have extra cash to spend, thrift stores could be a great and inexpensive way to test new looks before committing to higher dollar items.

3. Be thorough in your searching

Pay attention to what you’re buying! It sucks to snag a dress that’s super cute and perfect for summer, only to discover that there’s a huge stain on the back that you didn’t notice the first time. For every one awesome person who donates his or her clothing while it’s still in good shape, there are ten that toss every item that has a hole or some kind of damage in the “to donate” pile. Most of these can be fixed, if you’re inclined to do so. If not, make sure you review each item before buying, as many thrift stores have a zero return policy.

Another great find: these sweaters and skirt were $7 combined, and now I have two different outfits -- not to mention the various items the sweaters can be worn with besides this skirt. WIN!

4. Don’t buy stuff just because it’s cheap

It is SO incredibly tempting to waltz into a thrift store and drop $30 because it gets you 20 items — and yes, you can totally get 20 items for $30 at just about any thrift store. Whether or not these are GOOD items is an entirely different question. Sure, that faded green shirt with vague armpit stains was cute back in the day, but now? There’s no way you’re ever going to put that on your body, so don’t buy it in the first place. Just remember: it’s ok if you spend forty minutes in a store and leave with nothing — there’s always new stuff coming next week.

5. Either have a plan, or don’t have one at all

Within the group of people I know who love thrifting, there are two camps: those who plan what kind of items they’re looking for ahead of time and will leave if they don’t find them, and those who go in without any clue what they’re going to leave with. I almost always fall into the latter camp — I’ve found I feel a lot better about my thrifting adventures if I don’t have pressure to find the perfect black shirt, or pick up a pair of teal shoes from the ’80s. Since you can’t predict what will and won’t be there ahead of time, if you’re not the type of person who typically plans shopping excursions out, definitely don’t turn into one while at a thrift store.

6. What not to get: professional and personal attire

There are two types of clothing that I wouldn’t recommend getting from a thrift store unless it’s a really nice one: any type of undergarment, and anything you’d need to wear to a professional meeting — if your job is more traditional. When not editing Offbeat Mama, I photograph weddings for a living, so luckily I can wear pretty much whatever I damn well please.

I’ve never seen quality professional attire at any thrift shop — occasionally there’s a nice jacket or pair of pants, but those are few and far between. If you can get by with regular nice clothing for the most part, I’d save up and spend a few dollars on the occasional fancy item elsewhere. And while I’ve never done it, just the idea of buying someone’s used underwear or bras from a thrift shop totally gives me the hibbie jibbies — I think some items are worth the extra $5 or $10 you’d have to spend at Target or something like that.

7. If you don’t try it on, be prepared for it to look weird

I have a thing about thrift store clothing — I very rarely try it on before I take it home and wash it (I also struggle with buying denim at thrift shops for this reason — how can you NOT try on jeans before you buy them?). At this point, I can usually look at an item and gauge whether or not it will work for me. I know what colors I like, what fits work best on my frame, and the general style and image I’m going for. However, I have totally had a few instances in which I thought something might look ok, bought it, tried it on after washing, and hated it. In these instances, I usually give the item to someone who it works for or re-donate it. If you have a small budget and can’t afford to give away your recently thrifted items, I suggest sucking it up and trying on the clothing before you leave the store.

How do my fellow thrifty mamas and papas navigate their local shops or online favorites? Let me know!

Comments on Avoid undergarments, and six other advanced thrifting methods

  1. I would add “go with a budget.” My sister and I just went on a thrift shopping spree with a budget of $30 each. For 30 bucks, I got 3 skirts, 2 tank tops and 3 other tops. Not bad, eh? And they’re all things I can wear to work and play.

    One of the thrift stores we go to pretty often is a Good Will near a Target. Target donates things from their clearance racks to the thrift store, so you can often get new t-shirts and sweaters for $2 or tights for 98 cents.

    • Our Target donates to our Goodwill, too. I got my kids a drawing table with bench storage and a ton of clothes from Target. Its especially nice because that is one of the only times I find the same item in multiple sizes at Goodwill.

  2. I am a thrifting queen. I went so far as to get a job at the Salvation Army. 90% of my wardrobe is from work(with a 50% discount it is very hard to say NO sometimes). The only things I don’t buy are undies, bras, socks, towels and sheets. And jeans, I like a particular style of jeans and we don’t get alot of plus-sized jeans that aren’t mom jeans. lol

  3. Wow! I never knew this thirft store tracker site exsisted! Even after living in Orang County for 3 years, I’m not a natural born local, so finding the awesome sweet spots hiddn in our community has always been difficult. Especially whn it comes to thrift shop and mom and pop restaurants. Maybe they mke something for that too… Lol but if so I don’t know bout that on either.

    Thank you so much for sharing! This will be really helpful.

  4. Thrifting an entire wardrobe is hard for anybody, but there’s a totally different perspective from the ladies who can’t shop the bountiful small section. Thrifting is a lot harder when trying to find size L items without sequins, elastic waistbands, and shoulder pads.

    • Agreed, 100%. I am pretty tall, so even when I can wear a conventional ‘large’ (which is very, very rare) it’s proportions are not all flattering, and it’s rare that I find pants with a 37″ inseam (I think it’s happened once) But I have this problem at regular retail stores too, so it’s frustrating all around.

      • I am TOTALLY with you on this – I don’t even bother trying on thrift store pants because they’re ALWAYS way too short, and even shirts can be iffy length-wise.

  5. I just got back from thrifting! I am obsessed too. My rules are nearly identical to yours. I do try things on from time to time and usually don’t do denim. I only do thrifted shoes if they are heels and look super new. I ALWAYS bring a measuring tape with me. I realize it makes me look like a crazy old lady, but it allows me to make sure everything will fit me exactly. You can get a tiny measuring tape at your local hardware store to carry in your purse.

    • Secondhand shoes can also be problematic because shoes tend to conform to the wearer’s feet over time. (Which I’m guessing is why you say “look super new” here!)

  6. Good suggestion about knowing what you will and won’t actually wear. Thrift stores are full of great clothes in styles that I admire on other people, but don’t suit me, no matter how much I wish they did. My Goodwill Hunting rule is simple: If I have to talk myself into an item, even just a little bit and even if it’s super cheap, or if I have invented an elaborate and completely unrealistic occasion in my head for it, it stays in the store. If I get home and regret not buying it, I’ll go back and hope it’s still there. But 9 times out of 10, when I have purchased such an item, it never gets used/worn and goes straight back into the donation pile.

    • “If I have to talk myself into an item, even just a little bit and even if it’s super cheap, or if I have invented an elaborate and completely unrealistic occasion in my head for it, it stays in the store.”

      SUCH a good rule.

    • I also have this rule – and not only for thrift stores. I’ve applied it in new clothing stores during clearance season, too!

  7. I can not even remember the last time I bought any piece of clothing at a regular store ( besides undies and socks of course ) I score the greatest deals @ the store I go too , I got a dior bag for a DOLLAR ! ( Not my style but it was a DOLLAR) my whole work wardrobe is banana republic / j crew and no one would even know I probably spent 20 bucks on the WHOLE shebang!! I am a jean crazy person , and generally I fit most sizes so my jean collection has EXPLODED!! It makes me feel great to get such great bargains , and I have saved soo much money!! Instead of heading to tj maxx and dropping a hundred bucks on a new outfit I can go to this place get 5 for less than 10 bucks! And don’t even get me started on my book collection!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. fantastic advice. i learned from my mom who is such an expert thrifter she found a pair of like new Salvatore Ferragamo riding boots at the goodwill this weekend!!

  9. I’m also a nearly-100% thrifted lady, not just with clothing but house items, too. I never go with a plan on what I’m looking for, but I always keep a piece of paper in my wallet with measurements for things like our windows, my nieces’ and nephew’s sizes, etc so I know if something I find other than clothing will fit what it needs to fit.

    Kind of embarrassed to say it, but I use my Etsy shop as a dumping ground for vintage items so I can fund more hunting trips at the thrift store :0

  10. Also, I am going to have to disagree with #2 in a way… the thrift store is a great place to play with your style without losing a lot of money if you don’t decide you love a certain look. If I’d been left with the Internet or a higher fashion store, I probably wouldn’t ever have had the nerve to branch out into bold and era-obvious items. But I now wear things from the thrift store I never thought I’d own… pinup inspired clothing! Bright vintage day dresses! Hooray!

  11. Excellent article! I love thrifting & the majority of my wardrobe is from thrift stores.

    I have to say, your advice is dead on. The only other rule that I have for myself is that I will not buy anything in a thrift store that I can easily afford to buy new. IE: i don’t buy walmart brands, and i *always* inspect it very well & look at the labels. because depending on what brand it is, you may or may not be getting your moneys worth. even if you only spend $2 on an item, if you never wear it, (don’t have anything to wear with it, doesn’t fit, has a hole etc), it’s a wasted $2. I got a lavender brushed wool Gap duster coat for $12. totally worth it because it’s a good brand that will hold up for many years to come and i look great in it. i would never spend the same amount of money on a Walmart brand jacket second hand because even new, you’re lucky to get one season out of it. It doesn’t matter whether you spend $2 or $25, the point of thrifting is to get a good deal, and part of getting a good deal to me, is making the most of whatever i spend.

    • I disagree in some regards. I am ethically opposed to shops that sell brand new clothes very cheaply (in the UK it’s primark), but sometimes I just loooove their clothes and so it’s great when I find a piece of primark clothing in a charity shop. I don’t mind that I’m basically paying the same price – because I’m not contributing (directly) to a business practice that I find personally abhorrent.

  12. I wish I were better at thrifting. I just despise shopping, period. Even going to TJMAXX and Marshall’s and going through the racks puts me in a bad mood. I shop as little as humanly possible for clothing, which basically means two times a year. All of my clothes are basically the same, and I accessorize with scarves, etc. I also have a hard to fit figure that makes shopping for clothing hard — “knowing my body” makes me not a good fit for thrifting, as I tend to need help. I admire those of you who are good thrifters, though! It’s a great way to maximize your money, help the environment, etc.

  13. I have a hard time finding really awesome things at thrift stores, but I have excellent luck at consignment shops for some reason. The wares are a little more expensive, but in much much better condition. Today I bought a pair of black suede knee high boots for 34 dollars that would be $150 easily in a store. I’ve been looking for a pair like them for about a year now, and never wanted to pay as much as a retail store was asking.

  14. I’ve totally broken the professional clothes at a thrift shop rule – I needed a suit jacket for a job interview, and I was unemployed and broke! There was only one thing in the store that fit me, but it served its purpose (and went straight back into the charity bin once I had an actual job, haha).

    I used to be a thrifting queen, but that’s because my friend Kristin would go with me. I don’t have anyone to thrift with in Australia! (Anyone in northern Sydney metro want to be my thrifting buddy? :P)

  15. I go to thrift stores all the time and have since I was a kid. But, one awesome thing I never discovered there until after I had my son are the books! Almost all of his books are from Goodwill. They cost $.69 and I can almost always find some great titles!

    • agreed! If you have a working knowledge of basic fabric dyeing, and garment mending/alterations, you can buy a not-quite-perfect garment with potential and make it awesome. One caveat here– make sure you allow yourself actual TIME to perform your rockin’ alterations. This is usually my downfall, and I have a large shopping bag full of garments that have “potential” at the back of my closet.

      • TOTALLY my downfall as well. We finally just re-donated the clothing after realizing neither of us were going to actually take the time to alter/mend.

  16. I tend to wear leggings and a superthin tank top or t under my clothing so I can feel less sketch about trying on jeans/shirts, etc..

    • I couldn’t get the ‘this’ button to register my clicks, so I’m saying THIS. Not only does wearing clothing underneath help me feel less gritty when I try stuff on, but one doesn’t need a fitting room; just find a mirror.

      I used to not bother trying stuff on in the store and only would do so after I washed it at home. Sounds good in theory but I wasted so much money that way. Now I try on everything that costs over a dollar and often put half of the stuff back even before I get to the register. And when I get home, I throw all of the clothes I wore into the laundry pile and take a shower.

      Works for me. 😉

  17. I don’t know if things differ between the US and UK, but I’ve found professional clothes in charity (thrift) shops. I’ve found expensive suits from good suppliers for a few pounds. I’ve also bought dresses for very formal occasions at second hand shops. In fact my equivalent of a prom dress was a second hand find.

    One piece of advise I’ve heard is that it can be worth going to shop in the thrift shops in more affluent areas because they’re likely to have more expensive clothes donated to them.

    • I have to say that buying at the GoodWill (US charity shop) on the ‘rich’ side of town paid off for me. I got a coat with a missing button that was worth about $90.00 new for $6.00. Another time at the same store I got a pair of cowgirl boots worth about $400.00 new for $9.00!

      • Yeah, same here. I’ve acquired a few nice suit jackets that way!

        Though my fanciest I need are teaching clothes, and when you’re in a university… you can get away with a bit weird.

  18. My addiction:

    http://www.oxfam.org.uk/shop/second-hand-clothes

    I have had so much great stuff from here. I’ve also made some mistakes too, but hey, it’s cheaper than making mistakes in actual shops (and you can return things to Oxfam Online, all postage free).

    I very much second the thing about knowing your measurements. What really helps me is knowing my size in different shops – so, for example, I’ll look through (UK size) 10 for certain brands, 12 for other brands, etc, because I know how clothes from those shops fit me.

    I also know what things usually look good (T shirts, dresses with the waist in a certain place, certain shapes of skirt) and what I really need to try on (jeans, etc).

    I too have broken the work-wear rule – though I’m a PhD student, so it’s not like anyone massively cares. I got a jacket for my undergraduate graduation in Oxfam, and recently a really nice pair of pin-stripe trousers. But, again, it was all about knowing that I like the sizing/fit/quality in the shop it originally came from.

    (Check out their wedding dresses too… love it.)

  19. I’ve found some fantastic professional wear at thrift stores – once a great black wool suit for, no joke, $5, and a variety of silk blouses that I wore for years before having to finally consign them to the rag bag. It really depends on the area of town, and even the town, that you live in. Most of my great professional finds were in New York City on the Upper East or West Side, and a few in San Francisco, CA.

    Now, in Memphis TN, I can rarely find things that I like in the thrift store – although I once bought a car for $400 from Goodwill! After a brake job and replacing the heater core (?), it ran great for me for a year or so, and as far as I know, still runs!

  20. I am an avid thrifter, and I have another rule (though it sounds silly): never pay “full price” for clothes at a thrift shop. The Salvation Army thrift shop I frequent has a 50% off sale every Wednesday, if you purchase items with certain color price tags. I only go shopping on the sale days and I only purchase items with the 50% off color tags. I believe all Salvation Army thrift shops in the US have this, or a similar, sale, and other thrift shops I know of will have other (even better) deals: a bag of clothes for $2, for instance. If you do most of your shopping at secondhand shops, find out when the sales are in your area, and take advantage of them!

    I also pick up kitchen items at thrift shops. This might not work for you if you need high quality items (though sometimes you will get lucky!), but if you just need something simple that will get the job done, then this is the way to go. I’ve picked up a corkscrew and can opener for $0.50 each at a thrift store(and washed them well once I got home).

  21. I love thrifting. SO much I decided to sell on Ebay to fund my thrifting habit. I live in the heart of Silicon Valley so I can find American Girl dolls, Le Creuset, Descoware, Emile Henry(amongst housewares) and Lilly Pulitzer, Eskandar,Lapis, Anthro brands(in clothes)pretty easily.

    The only thing I buy new are towels, undies and socks!

  22. I was just going to add, don’t be afraid to visit thrift stores in other neighborhoods either. I take my kids down to visit my parents and we’ll hit up the thrift stores there, the neighborhood is really nice and we’ll find some good high end stuff sometimes. My kids love getting brand named shirts (like the paul frank sweatshirt my daughter now lives in and I paid $2) and I love the prices. Also there is a website called shopgoodwill.com that is sponsored by goodwill and has some awesome stuff, just be careful of shipping costs sometimes they REALLY add up.

  23. Question – Does anybody, especially East Coasters, have any concerns about bed bugs? I have heard that they are not killed in the washer/dryer, and can get on clothes – and then infect an entire house. Is there a way to safely buy items that I am missing? I actually live in the Northwest, where bed bugs are less of a concern, but I am looking forward to doing some NYC shopping in a few months. I have bought consignment clothing for a decade, but my mom starting freaking out when she heard I was planning to consignment/thrift shop while visiting family in the city.

    • NYC resident and yes I am concerned.
      I love thrift shopping, and curb-diving, but concern over bedbugs has slowed me down. After a day trip somewhere two bedbugs came home with me on my bag, which led to a full course of extermination and paranoia. Now my thoughts are I can get bed bugs anywhere, but can’t live a life of fear, so I just try to be careful. I do not pick up free furniture on the curb any more, but I have started shopping at thrift stores again.
      I don’t generally try things on. If I buy something I tie it up in a plastic bag from point of purchase until I can bring it to the laundromat and wash it on highest heat and dry on highest heat. I don’t buy used books generally, but if I found one I had to have I would bring it home and bake it @ 140F for 90 min. (Which will alarm fire safety people, but will make sense to the bed-bug paranoid.)
      Keep in mind there have been reported cases of bed bugs in several NYC higher end retail stores, though I haven’t heard of any in thrift-stores.
      (If you get really freaked you can buy a “pack-tight” to run all your stuff through. Or leave everything in your car, parked in the sun all day on a really hot day.)

      • I live in NYC, too, and fully agree with Sara B. We had bedbugs (not from a thrift shop but moved into an infested apartment building), and it was a truly terrible experience. They are not only a NYC problem, but all over the US. I am now very vary of shopping in general, even new items at discount stores. Who knows how careful people are in donating clothes, not everyone discovers that they have bugs in time, and the extermination process definitely leads people to discard a lot, possibly untreated (wonder what they do with the inventory if a store has that issue, e.g. Victoria’s Secret or Bloomingdales). I have seen people dig through the trash on our street (where every building has bed bugs), and re-sell it from tables on the side walk (books, shoes, picture frames). Not to be paranoid, I would recommend washing your clothes and heat-treating shoes you wore while thrifting as well, and inspecting things closely you brought to NYC with you (purse, luggage). Don’t bring anything you can’t wash or that has a huge emotional value!

      • Whoops! Clarification: I didn’t get bed bugs from a thrift store.
        I went on a day trip upstate, took the subway, to the PATH train, to the Metro North train, spent a day at a relatives house, then took all those trains back home, tossed my laptop bag down on my bed and 20 min later found two bed bugs crawling across my white bedspread.
        I either got them from the train, or from when I set my bag down in the hall to get the mail. (I never had a full blown infestation. My downstairs neighbors did a month after our scare.) But I did not get them from a thrift store.

  24. Here in San Francisco I see *awesome* professional clothing in thrift stores all the time. Downside is, even the Goodwills and similar “lower-end” thrift stores here are pricier than elsewhere.

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