How to Make Thrifting Work for You

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The following is a post by Rebecca, a graduate of Miami University’s Creative Writing program. She is currently a freelance writer, graphic artist, and will be pursuing a masters in Fashion Design this fall.

Vintage is in. Fashion has come full circle, and with the growing demand for authentic wares and thriving interest in street style, prices are soaring on auction sites. However, the struggling economy has ushered in an era of “inconspicuous” consumption, and not all stores have expressed sympathy for our downsized wallets.

For those (like me) who love to update their wardrobe every season but are tight on the green, secondhand shopping can be an untapped resource, a way to fill fashion appetites without breaking the bank.

Here are some tips on how to make thrifting work for you.

Thrift store shopping tips:

Overcome reservations about thrifting.

Before stepping through the door, purge your inhibitions. Although the prices are low, buying secondhand is anything but penny-ante. Strict rules accompany all donations, guaranteeing quality control. Extremely few garments have stains/smells (nothing that couldn’t be washed out), and some even have tags still attached.

And don’t worry about what your friends will think – it’s nearly impossible to distinguish thrift store-bought clothes from something new, especially when so many retail chains are utilizing the “worn” and “distressed” look.

Get in the right mindset.

Accept that not everything in a thrift store will be trendy, flattering, or have aesthetic merit. It is, after all, a store full of things people no longer want.

But one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and it’s more important to look for things that reflect your personality and curiosity, rather then trying to find a proxy for the latest trend. If you know how to navigate one, a thrift store can be a potential gold mine – but don’t expect the gold to walk up and introduce itself – you have to be ready to dig.

Location. Location. Location.

I recommend thrifting if you want to diversify your closet (i.e. nonessentials). But how do you tell if a store is worth going to?

To a degree, a thrift store’s inventory comes from its community. Stores will vary in the brands that are represented and in overall organization. There’s no barometer for predicting what you’ll find, but keep location in mind.

Stores located in ritzy 50+ neighborhoods (almost like raiding your mother’s closet) will differ drastically from a middle-income neighborhood store. Some of the less established stores don’t research their items (and therefore don’t adjust prices). Personally, I like the bedlam of smaller stores because it feels more rewarding when I find something I like.

If you travel a lot, make thrifting a pastime. Big cities almost always have a “hub” with independent boutiques, thrift, and consignment stores.

Nowadays there are even online thrift stores, if you’d prefer to peruse the offerings online.

Stay open minded.

Thrifting is a world apart from retail shopping in its separation from corporate influences. Retail chains structure their “collections” to appeal to the consumerist masses. Posters and mannequins display pre-planned outfits. Every piece is designed to complement another. However, there is no guiding hand behind the racks of Goodwill. The quality of your discoveries is limited only by your imagination.

Don’t toss your standards, but try to expand your fashion palette. For example, people ordinarily give up items because they 1) are dated, or 2) no longer fit. This means that if you wear a size M, don’t be afraid to look through the L’s. Clothes shrink (fact of life), and become smaller despite their size tags. Try on anything that catches your eye. Explore your inner style across all aspects of fabric, pattern, and color. If something doesn’t look like a standalone piece, try working it into an outfit. For example, incorporate thin and slinky pieces into an original mix through layering. Because the prices are so low, you can take risks without feeling guilty if it doesn’t work out.

In my opinion, a lot of things just look better when they’re worn in. I always keep an eye out for belts and have found two or three where that leather is smooth and broken in, unlike the fake “worn” that stores try to manufacture.

How to shop and what to look for:

Have a strategy.

Thrift stores have a lot to offer, so don’t gun for the shorts or skirts as soon as you walk in. Take some time to look around (don’t forget the accessories). On the other hand, unless you have hours to spend browsing, go in with a mental checklist of what you’re hoping to find (colors, inspirations) and pick up anything that pops out at you.

Here are some questions to ask while you walk: Is it wearable? Does it fit? If not, can it be altered to fit me? What material is it made of? What are the washing directions? (I’ve noticed a lot of dry-clean-only stuff at thrift stores). If you know what you like and what looks good on you, the process will go a lot faster.

To find the best stuff, get to know your store! Call in ahead of time and ask when the store restocks its shelves. Also ask about sale days and discounts. Go regularly during these times for the best selection.

Be creative.

A lot of clothes in thrift stores look like they’re from Mars. This allows you an enormous amount of latitude to be creative.

Because the clothes are cheap, feel free to unleash your experimental side. Cut up (no remorse!), mix, match, and reinvent to your heart’s content. Tailor clothes to fit you, not the other way around. Try DIY for an individualized look. With some basic sewing skills, you could add personal flair to any garment. For example, if you find a cute screen print on an oversized t-shirt, cut it out and sew it onto something else. You might even have the audacity to whip up your own rendering of a runway favorite. The point is, have fun!

Be confident.

Of course you may not feel as “Look-at-me-look-at-me!” in secondhand clothes, but that doesn’t mean you need to feel embarrassed.

Take pride in the fact that you took the effort to set yourself apart from the herd. Don’t worry about being judged, especially in college, where most people have grown out of the label-conscious phase. The advantage to thrifting is finding truly unique, one of a kind clothes that reflect your personality and taste. Deign to wear indeed.

Your thoughts?

Thrift stores are not only a way to find great vintage clothes at affordable prices, but also form a bridge between the lavishness of fashion and the rest of the poverty-plagued world.

Do you shop at thrift stores? If so, what are your best thrifting tips? Leave ’em in the comments and happy hunting!

29 thoughts on “How to Make Thrifting Work for You”

  1. No I never shop at thrift stores because there are none in my city, only department stores and boutiques so I shop there to find some cute clothes.

  2. thrift store can be gr8 place to shop and i shop in them alot but most of the people i know think that ther place were old ladys shop :/

  3. We usually hit up the thrift shops before the mall. Most of the time those are the only places we shop. I have even gotten my 10 year old to ONLY want to go there because you never know what you will find and with the little allowance she gets she can actually afford to buy something with her own money!

  4. Jessi-
    The kids at the school where i tutor have to wear polos everyday, and it’s interesting to see how creative they can get! They experiment a lot with bright colors and layered shirts underneath. Simple, but maybe helpful!

  5. I love to buy jeans at thrift stores! I always find jeans stretch out and no longer fit me when I buy them new. I’m also only 5′ so I can never find jeans that are short enough for me. Great thing is, lots of people hem them for me when I buy them second-hand. 🙂 And since I like them snug, I don’t have to worry about them stretching out!

    (And they all only cost like 9$!)

  6. Thrifting is infinitely better if you can sew (needing to spend heaps to tailor an otherwise cheap item really brings the cost up). I’ve bought jeans that I liked the denim of, but drastically re-shaped from flares to straight-legs. I also always like getting slightly odd things (my fave purchase- a shoulderbag shaped like a strawberry), so it doesn’t matter too much if I don’t get a heap of wear out of it. That said, I’ve also found expensive basics (like coats and blazers) at a fraction of the price and in awesome condition! I personally steer clear of Tees (theyre usually stretched and balled in the thrift shops I frequent) and also suggest shopping out of season to get the best selection of items.

  7. I love thrift stores! I started shopping at a thrift store near me a few years ago, and up until then I never wanted to cause when I walked in with my mom (who’s always been a fan of thrift store shopping) I would take one look at the big rack full of clothes and think there wasn’t anything good in there. The ugly or totally outdated stuff would stand out and make me not even want to bother looking. I find that you really have to dig, and go through each item, and then you’ll find lots of great stuff! It’s totally worth it.

    They’re especially great for shoes and bags – I found a pair of black Chinese Laundry pumps for like $7, and a few really nice purses (Guess, etc) for like under 10 bucks each :). I also have found many things that are really original, like my new favourite purse – a no-name boho-ish green bag with sequins and beading (5$!)

  8. I like this post! Thrifting is so much fun. To me, it’s actually more fun than “normal” shopping because you never know what you’ll find.

    A tip I have is, if you like blazers, look in the little boys section of thrift stores! Those old uniform blazers look cute and cropped(ish) on girls. 🙂

  9. great post and advice! Some of my favorite shopping finds ever are from a local thrift store! Especially in today’s economy you can’t beat the prices. The pieces you find while thrifting are so unique & make great converation pieces


  10. ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ is definitely true. I once found an amazing dress in a thrift store and got it, while wondering how anyone could get rid of it. Looking through these stores does take time but is worth it when you find something gorgeous at a great price.
    Secondhand clothes are also great to use when customising. Because they’re not too expensive or new, I don’t mind cutting them up.

  11. I have this silver shirt that I got at a consignment store last summer and I get so many compliments on it. Also, the owner of the store was working and she was so nice she gave me an extra 20% discount just because. Some stores in my area will even give you store credit if you bring in some of your old clothes.

  12. I’m all about thrifting, though it is pretty time-consuming. My biggest problem is that because everything is so cheap, I often find myself forcing my brain to like something a little more than I actually do because of the price tag. If you aren’t 100% sold on it or if it doesn’t fit, don’t waste your time and money. I have lots of thrifted stuff that I thought I liked, but have only worn maybe a couple times (or not at all).

  13. Nice! I love thrifting too – when my boyfriend lived in Brooklyn, I was constantly hitting up the vintage stores in Williamsburg. I found the most amazing ankle boots ever – they cost $5 and I got so many compliments on them. I’ve been hooked ever since 🙂

  14. I’ve always had my reservations about thrifting. My mother always encouraged it. She was in college in the 80s and always told me that you find the most unique stuff there. Recently, after much refusal, I was shopping at my favorite Chicago stores and at the end of the night, I ventured into a thirft shop. I was there a while, about 2 hours, and I found a piece that will be with me a long time. There was a sale on leather coats, for $5!! I found a perfect cropped leather. I’ve been wearing it all around and my friends absolutely love it! I decided to hit up the thrift shop at least once a month.


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