Saturdays here at Lothruin.com are all about frugal living. Saturday’s child isn’t the only one who works hard for a living, and we all like our dollars to go as far as possible. My favorite way to stretch the dollar is being a cheapskate in my shopping habits. I think everyone should be a cheapskate. The last non-grocery item I bought at regular price was yarn, and I got it with a gift certificate. I just do not buy things unless they’re on sale, and except for intimates, socks, bath towels and bedding (really, I think those are the only four categories) I’d be just as happy to buy used as new. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve bought bedding and towels used, and even socks and underwear, but you have to understand, I buy vintage and I buy for repurposing. Truth be told, I like to know I’m the only person who’s slept on my sheets, but I’m not above using a set of used sheets for the material. Every person will have a different level of comfort when it comes to using used items, but I’m a firm believer in getting over it. I don’t bat an eye at giving gifts of thrift store purchases at Christmas or birthdays, and I buy garments and housewares for myself and my family with regularity. I also occasionally resell items. However, it does take practice to do this well and make it pay.
OK, first, let’s look at the outfit to the right. I think I look pretty nice. The cuts and colors are flattering and not completely out of date. (I’m generally a little bit in and a little bit out, to be honest.) They’re comfortable, and the entire outfit, boots included, cost me about $25. The top is a dolman-sleeved sweater I picked up at an after-Christmas sale at T.J. Maxx (my favorite non-thrift place to shop) for $10. The skirt, vintage 60′s John Meyer of Norwich, wool herringbone tweed in a sort of cherry-tomato red, $1 at Goodwill. The belt, vintage 80′s, $2 at Goodwill. And the boots, $13 on clearance at Target a few seasons ago. Now look, I’m not one to brag about my fashion sense (not even a little bit, in fact I’m not sure I have it) but a quick scroll through the cool-weather sales at Neiman Marcus convinced me that this look was not outside the realm of fashionable, and I did it for $25 instead of $250. And look how skinny it makes me look!
So, it can be done, this tricky business of shopping at thrift stores. But it takes practice and it takes patience. I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 most important things you need to know to be an efficient thrift store shopper.
Know what you want! Seriously, I cannot stress this enough. It goes deep, too.
What are you buying? Clothing, housewares, sporting equipment, artwork? They sell it all at the thrift store. On my walls I have numerous beautiful and valuable signed art prints. One print is a lifetime limited edition serigraph by 80′s artist Patrick Nagel. I bought it for seventy-six cents. Collectibles, including vintage clothing and housewares, abound at thrift stores, too. The infamous Pyrex Primary mixing bowl set from the 50′s is almost every Pyrex collector’s holy grail, and they sell for $50 to $100 at antique stores and on Ebay, depending on condition. I gifted my Aunt a set two years ago, in like-new condition, and she chided me for spending so much on her. I bought it on half-price day for $15.
Are you shopping just for yourself, or for gifts as well? Keep a list if you have to, but if you’re shopping for other people as well as yourself, make sure you are well-informed about what they love. If they have collections, take note! Heirloom dishes? Check out the maker and pattern! What style is their home? Do they focus on modern and clean or shabby chic, mid-century modern, heavy and ornate? Know their likes and dislikes and keep them always in mind when you’re out thrifting.
If you’re shopping for clothing, know your sizes (modern and vintage!), and do not buy things without trying them on. Know what colors you like, and focus on styles that are fairly classic. Look at the labels! Avoid polyester. I don’t have anything against polyester… OK, yes I do. I hate wearing it. But also, the most unflattering and short-lived fashion styles of the past all seemed to be in polyester. We don’t need to bring those back. Focus on blends of natural fibers, and yes, you can even focus on brand. You can buy designer at thrift stores; it isn’t even that hard. Plus, that Christian Dior top is going to wear and wash better than the Faded Glory one, and they’ll cost you the same price at the thrift store. Do you care if you have to dry clean? Does Angora make you itch? Only buy things you know you’ll use!
And think outside the box. I do a lot of costuming, and thrift stores are indispensable to me. A flat twin sheet makes two pairs of adult-sized bloomers, and you don’t have to hem the cuffs. It’s just a big piece of white cotton, but it comes with finished edges and it’s cheaper by the yard than a fabric store. Leather coats, priced cheap, can be cut up and made into leather gauntlets, corsets and spats, for a fraction of the cost. It’s worth spending a little time thinking of what something could be, rather than what it is.
Know your shops! This is so simple. Know all the thrift stores in your area, inside and out.
Most thrift stores draw on the neighborhoods nearest to them. Now, the Goodwill in my area does some re-distributing to other area stores, but only if they’re overstocked at the location where the items were donated. So, every store will have a certain character, or will specialize, for lack of a better word, in certain types of items. In addition, some box stores donate unsold clothing to area thrift stores. It’s worth knowing if that happens, and if so, which stores donate to which other stores. I could sit down right now and from memory draw you a map of my town and the location of every thrift store, and add notes about their strengths and weaknesses.
Know your stores inside as well. Shopping is much easier when you’re familiar with the store layout. If you’re looking for a gift for a party that night, and your friend loves vintage glassware, save yourself some time and head straight to that section. That way, even if it takes you several stores, you haven’t spent a lot of time looking. However, shopping last minute isn’t a thrift store forte’. Avoid it if you can.
Keep track of sale cycles! This is a life truth.
All the thrift stores where I shop have regular sales, sometimes several at a given time. This helps them rotate their stock. Generally, clothing or housewares tagged with certain colors will be 50% off. Sometimes, you’ll find a Buy 1, get 1 (or 2 or 4) sale. Or, like the one I found today, it might be 10 for $10. My local Goodwills rotate by color, so that every time you go into a store, SOMEthing will be 50% off. But they also have a traveling sale on clothing that cycles through each location, and a monthly sale on clothing that drops the price of almost every apparel item in the store, including most coats, to $1. They publish calendars you can take at the register, and the info is available on their website. It doesn’t take anything more than a question to find out the sale cycles at your stores and make note of them so you can get the most bang for your buck.
Shop early and often!
I hit up most of the thrifts in my town once every two weeks or so, or more if I know they’re having good sales. Their stock is so changeable, you never know what you’ll find. You have to grab what you want when you see it, and you have to see it to grab it. I’m always a little worried that my heart’s desire will show up in some store and I’ll miss it because I left that store out of the regular rotation one month. Don’t let that happen to you!
Everyone I know, every year, promises themselves they’ll start their Christmas shopping early. Even I feel the crunch come November. But I also know I’m better off than a lot of people I know, because I do not stop shopping for gifts, ever. I know what the people I love love, and I am always on the lookout. I keep a list, and I make my rounds with due diligence. I have specific areas of focus in every store, depending on how much time I have available, and these places I never miss.
No matter for whom you shop, inform yourself about makers of value and their marks. That goes for clothing, housewares, furniture, artwork, etc. I promise you, even the most fastidious and high-fashion friend you have would not turn a nose up at a Tiffany vase, even if it did come from the Sally Anne. Develop an eye for types of glassware, textile patterns, etc. Thrift store shopping becomes easier and easier the more practice you have. You can run an eye over a shelf of glassware and pick out the one piece of Fenton. You can scan the racks and racks of clothing, and pick out the cashmere sweater in seconds. I am not joking. I can do this, and so can you. You’ll learn what certain fibers look like when knitted or woven into clothing. You’ll learn what types of colors and textures mean what era. You’ll know what types of labels mean what decades, based on typography and colors, the presence or absence of a union label, etc. There are a hundred different tricks to a learned eye, and you’ll learn them all as they best apply to you, if you just give yourself a chance.
And there you have it. The five most important things you need to know to be good at thrift store shopping. And it is worth it to be good at thrift store shopping. I save hundreds of dollars a year by buying gifts and clothes at the thrift store. I’ve invested money in high-end art by shopping at the thrift store. I beautify my home on a budget by shopping at a thrift store. It is so very worth it to be good at thrift store shopping.