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How to Shop for Clothing at a Thrift Store

Updated on May 25, 2017

When I was 15 years old, I had a job as a regular babysitter and made a decent amount of money. I was the oldest of four kids and I was growing so much that eventually my mother just threw her hands up in the air and said, "buy your own clothes!" Even though I was making a decent amount of money for a teenager, I was growing so much it was only efficient to buy clothing at the thrift store. So, thus began an eight-year journey of thrift store shopping.

Have you Ever Bought Clothing at a Thrift Store?

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Why Buy Clothes At the Thrift Store?

  • You can get brand name items for a fraction of the cost
  • You can find barely-worn or never-worn clothing
  • You can easily buy clothing that matches your personal style, instead of searching through department stores for something that matches your personality
  • You can wear something only once and not feel guilty about the cost
  • You can save a lot of money!

1. Know that Chain Stores Aren't All the Same

When we think of thrift stores, we often think of Salvation Army or Goodwill. Although these stores are part of a bigger company, each individual store has different rules and regulations. This means that a Goodwill in one area may have excellent clothing, fantastic sales, and great service, while another Goodwill may disappoint (I'm speaking from experience). Find the specific stores you like and keep going to those stores.

2. Consider Where the Clothes Come From

I know of several thrift stores that buy out the extras from larger chain stores such as Target. So, sometimes I'll find new, never before worn clothing at the thrift store that was originally from Target! Other stores operate strictly off of donations. If you happen to find clothing with the tag still on it at a particular store, make a mental note that this store will receive new clothing about once every season.

3. Find the Stores that Organize Clothing By Size

I've wasted hours in stores that just throw all of the jeans together on one rack and all the dress pants on another. I usually don't even look at the sizes and just try guessing instead. It's so much easier to find something that fits you quickly if the clothes are organized by size. It's also a good indication that the store takes good care of the clothing.

4. Check Buttons, Pockets, and Zippers

Buttons get pulled off, pockets get huge tears, and zippers, well, zip on their own. Make sure you have all of the buttons (or you can easily replace them), and check for large tears around the pockets. (Also make sure you don't find anything odd in the pockets...like chewed up gum or a sucker without a wrapper.) For zippers, check to make sure the zipper still works and is easy to use.

NOTE: When you try on pants, zip them up but don't button them. Walk around a little bit and see if the zipper undoes itself. If the zipper comes down on its own, that means the zipper will do that whenever you wear the pants. I highly suggest not purchasing those pants.

5. Find the Major Brands

Some thrift stores put high-end clothing on different racks. They usually charge more for the clothing, but it's also of better value and will be less likely to show the extensive wear-and-tear that most thrift store clothing displays.

GREAT BUY ALERT: I bought a Calvin Klein jacket at a Salvation Army, and it's my favorite jacket ever. I probably paid a fraction of the price, and it looks fantastic on me.

6. Consider Stains

Look over every inch of the clothing you buy in good lighting. If I find a piece of clothing with a lot of stains, I just put it back; I don't want to know where its been. Once in awhile I find an article of clothing with small, treatable stains, and I go ahead and take a leap of faith (makeup is a good example). It really depends on what you're willing to go through to get the stain out. Regardless, look over every inch of the clothing. You don't want to get it home and find out you can't wear it.

NOTE: Fully examine clothing under bright light. Generally, the lighting in thrift store dressing rooms is a little dark, so examine the clothing outside of the dressing room. Also, examine your clothing when you're not wearing them. It's easier for stains in inconspicuous areas to hide when you're wearing the item.

Not bad for $25 huh?
Not bad for $25 huh?

7. Know the Sales

Some stores have periodical sales, but others have weekly sales. Know what sales are going on as soon as you enter the store, so you can be sure to get the most bang for your buck.

GREAT BUY ALERT: I bought my wedding dress for $25 at a thrift store. My mother found it and called me right away. It looks as if it had never been worn, but it probably cost somebody a pretty penny.

8. DIY Your Clothing

Thrift stores are a great place to buy sweaters to turn into mittens, jeans to turn into shorts, and scarves to turn into kimonos! If you find something you like but it's too big or fits awkwardly, don't be afraid to experiment a bit. You may find that a quick zip on the sewing machine fixes your problem. Thrift stores are also a great place to pick up scrap fabric for craft projects. Head into the store and look for patterns and fabrics you like!

9. Know What You're Looking For Before You Go

Even if it's a long list, it's better to have a list than wander aimlessly for hours (ask my husband). I usually have a list of things I like that I wouldn't mind purchasing:

  • silk shirts
  • button up shirts
  • big bulky sweaters
  • skinny jeans
  • etc.

I also make a list of colors or consider what colors I like to wear so I don't pick up every silk shirt or every bulky sweater.

10. Wear "Easy to Layer" Clothing

If you're planning on trying on shoes, wear socks or bring them with you. If you want to try on sweaters, cardigans, or anything that might be see-through or low cut, wear a tank top under your shirt so you can still model the clothes you try on for your friends. Think about what clothing you'll be looking for and how you would normally supplement it. This will help you decide whether an article of clothing will be a great addition to your closet.

11. Be Picky

Especially when you're budget is tight and you're trying to expand your closet for less, it's easy to be too flexible about what clothing you purchase. I used to leave thrift stores with dozens of items, but now I'll leave with only three or four at the most. Be picky about everything from the wear and tear of the item to the fit, the comfort, and the cost. It may be cheap, but you don't want to look cheap. Plus, thrift stores typically have "no-return" policies, so there's no looking back after you purchase that ugly sweater.

12. Wash the Clothes When You Get Home

I cannot stress this point enough. Regardless of where you buy clothes, you should always wash them before you wear them. I also worked in retail, and I can assure you that the clothing on the rack is not as clean as it looks. Running the clothing through a wash cycle won't kill you, but skipping the wash just might.

Interested in Shopping at Thrift Stores? Check Out this Awesome $20 Thrift Store Challenge!

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