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. Awesome rules, and I would like to add a few of my own:

    If you are an allergy sufferer, take an antihistamine or whatever you need in advance. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to cut a thrifting trip short due to an allergy attack caused by dust, mould, smokey clothes, or scented detergents. So I Prep in advance with a little benadryl. Works wonders for me.

    Bring a friend: if I don’t have someone to keep me in check, I will buy stuff that doesn’t fit, doesn’t look good, or that I swear I’m going to modify (even when I know I won’t). Having someone with me means I only buy what I need or what works, barring the occasional My Little Pony or Rainbow Brite doll.

  2. PS. I have to chime in as part of the can use thrift finds for work. I just bought a jacket that fit me like a glove. I got lucky I’m sure but I’m quite happy with it.

    If you’re in need of professional looking clothing you may be able to go to charities that collect just professorial looking clothes. In central Iowa we have an organization that collects and distributes such items of clothing.
    Dress For Success Charity also has world wide affiliates.

  3. I disagree with the bit about not getting professional clothing at thrift stores. I’ve found some nice blouses and slacks – buuuut, to be fair, my job has more of a business-casual dress code.

    I also want to throw in the suggestion to look for or ask about extra nice deals. I don’t know if this is everywhere, but my local Salvation Army has sales pretty regularly. I’ve gone in there more than once when all clothing items in the store were 50% off, and another time where all clothes that were more than 10 days old were 75% off.

  4. while I love-love-love thrift shops, flea-markets, yard-sales and freecycle, you do have to be careful about what you bring into your home.
    clothes go through the wash – although a wool jacket went through the dryer only on high heat (came out fine) and household objects – including toys- go thorugh the dishwasher or get wiped down with alcohol.
    my usual shopping technique is to put anything that catches my eye into the cart and evaluate thoroughly and honestly before I head for the checkout.
    great way to save $$ and lessen landfill deposite!

  5. Oh God, the thrift stores! When I moved to DC itself, I went to a thrift store in the U Street neighborhood to check it out… and discovered books are free there. I went home with over 30 books that day, and I’ve found a few pairs of jeans that work for cheap, too!
    That said, my real passion is two stores in Northern Virginia, where I grew up. One has the best selection of jeans (they’re all I wear and I’m cheap), and the other has so many teacups!

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