The College Girl’s Guide to Shopping Secondhand

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The college girl's guide to shopping secondhand

You’ve probably all heard Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” by now, but have you ever tried shopping at a thrift store, or “thrifting”?

Or have you ever consigned your clothing or engaged in a ferocious bidding war on eBay? For the fashion-focused college girl, secondhand shopping is an amazing way to fill your wardrobe with great clothes and accessories without emptying the bank.

While “Thrift Shop” made secondhand shopping out to be totally grungy, it doesn’t have to be that way! More than half of my closet was purchased at thrift and consignment stores, and it consists mainly of classic brands like J. Crew, Club Monaco, Theory, Madewell, and even some designer stuff!

If you’re interested in shopping secondhand but don’t know where to start, I’ve put together a handy guide that’ll get you looking incredible in no time! Read on for the college girl’s guide to shopping secondhand:

Why Shop Secondhand?

  • It’s cheaper. I’ve bought items secondhand for more than 90% off of their original prices (sometimes the tags are still attached!)
  • It’s eco-friendly. By purchasing secondhand clothing, you’re recycling in the most stylish way possible.
  • It’s a great source of inspiration! Sometimes I’ll spot a vintage or totally unique garment at the thrift store that I might never have thought to try on at a normal retail store.

What To Buy Secondhand

  • Coats and Jackets. Wool coats, trench coats, and leather jackets are usually in good shape even if they’ve been well-loved in the past.
  • Woven Tops and Dresses. Silk shirts are an especially worthwhile find, since they’re usually pretty pricey new.
  • Dress clothes: blazers, trousers, skirts. Beyond the scary shoulder-padded ’80s, corporate wear doesn’t really undergo dramatic changes. Even if a pencil skirt is from seven seasons ago, it’s probably almost exactly the same as one that’s in stores now.
  • Special Occasion Attire. Chances are, that fancy cocktail dress or gown was only ever worn one time.
  • Shoes. I know, I know, it sounds a little gross to wear someone’s old shoes, but you’d be surprised how many brand-new shoes wind up in thrift stores or consignment. (Just think about that adorable pair of heels you bought but never, ever wore.)
  • Accessories. Since purses and scarves don’t go through as much wear and tear as clothes, you can often find great pieces in terrific shape.

What to Avoid

Photo of sweaters


Unless it’s brand new with the tags still on, most secondhand knit clothing (e.g. tee shirts, thin sweaters, jersey anything) won’t be in great shape. Even high quality knits tend to pill, snag, tear, or stretch out after a year or two of wear.

Anything stained or stinky

This one shouldn’t need further explanation, but do make sure to check for any stains that might be lurking, especially in the armpit region.

Anything that needs serious alterations

Some alterations are easier than others: if all you need to do is shorten the hemline or replace a button, go for it! But if that dress needs to have the bodice taken in, the neckline lowered, and the sleeves slimmed down, it might be more work than it’s worth.

While a DIY is always fun, it’s easy to get carried away and swamped with “projects.”  I’ve fallen into this trap too many times – I’ll find a piece with a fun pattern or great fabric or cool detail and completely overlook the fact that it just doesn’t fit me. While I occasionally do get around to the alterations, more often than not my exciting purchase ends up gathering dust in my closet.

Do Your Research

  • Although thrift stores usually price their products pretty low, some consignment stores or eBay sellers might list an item at a higher percentage of the original price.
  • If you want to make sure you’re getting a good deal, look up a description of the item (e.g. “gold sequined dress + “brand name on garment”). Big retailers, like J.Crew or Old Navy, usually put a product number on the tag.
  • If your Google search turns up empty, see if you can find out what other similar items from the same brand are going for so you have a point of comparison.

Where to Shop

Thrift Stores

Photo of a goodwill style store

Examples: Goodwill, The Salvation Army, Savers, Boomerangs

Best for: discounted basics, the diamond in the rough

  • I love thrift stores because I’m all about the thrill of the hunt. True, you might have to flip through racks of hopelessly outdated ’80s has-beens, but you never know what you might find! (My personal crowning achievement is a Converse by John Varvatos coat that Goodwill listed at $10 and originally retailed for $790. I bargained down to $7 because it was missing a button.)
  • Some thrift stores offer student discounts and others have discounts based on the day of the week.
  • Most thrift shops I’ve been to have offered dressing rooms, but some don’t. In that case, wear form-fitting clothes on your shopping trip so you can slip things on over them to see how they fit.

Consignment Stores (Buy/Sell/Trade)

Woman shopping at a consignment store

Examples: Beacon’s Closet, Buffalo Exchange, Second Time Around, Plato’s Closet

Best for: a neatly curated selection

  • At consignment stores, the staff has gone through the items brought in by sellers and selected only the pieces that they think will sell. This means that a lot of the junk has been filtered out for you! On the flip side, consignment stores are usually more savvy about the value of the items, which usually results in higher price tags.
  • Many consignment stores offer discounts based on how long an item has been in the store; for instance, at The Closet, a posh resale store in Boston, clothes are 25% off after 30 days and 50% after 60 days. If you can wait it out (and willing to take the risk that someone else won’t scoop up your treasure first), patience can lead to a real score!
  • If you have clothes to consign, a Buy/Sell/Trade place, like Buffalo Exchange, Plato’s Closet, or Second Time Around, will let you choose between getting paid in cash or in store credit. Typically, you get a higher cut of the selling price if you choose store credit. This can be an easy way to refresh your wardrobe without actually spending any money.

Online Consignment

Threadflip screengrab

Photo: Screenshot

Examples: Threadflip, Tradesy, Bib+Tuck

Best for: Mid- to higher-priced designer goods

  • While I can’t vouch for the other sites, I’ve purchased from Threadflip several times and had a great experience. Online consignment is essentially the same as at a brick-and-mortar store, but you can filter for brand, size, color, etc.. Although you can’t try anything on, you can always ask the seller for measurements or additional pictures.
  • Like any other e-retailers, you can join the e-mail lists for flash sales or members-only discounts.
  • If you’re in the market for a designer purse or accessories, online consignment is a great choice, since many sites offer refund policies if the item turns out not to be authentic, or they will authenticate items themselves.


Ebay screengrab

Photo: Screenshot

Best for: finding a specific item

  • I’ve definitely spent hours just perusing the infinite listings on eBay, but it’s best if you have a particular item in mind, say, that Anthropologie dress last season that you were absolutely in love with but had a price you just couldn’t justify.  It’s always worth doing an eBay search to see if you can snag it on sale!
  • Be familiar with eBay lingo: for instance, NWT means “new with tags” and NWOT means “new without tags.” Always make sure that the seller you’re buying from is reputable.
  • While there are definitely some amazing deals to be found, be wary of anything that seems too good to be true, especially if it’s a designer item that’s being listed as brand new. (Ladies, no matter how much we wish it were true, there’s just no way that an authentic Chanel bag would ever be listed for $50!)

What did you think?

Do you shop secondhand? Would you try it? Do you have any tips of your own to share? Let us know in the comments!

11 thoughts on “The College Girl’s Guide to Shopping Secondhand”

  1. I LOVE thrift stores! I have found some amazing pieces since I started (or my mom found for me). I have gotten a cashmere sweater for $1 barely worn and no pulling and a cashmere dress for $5 in the same condition. 100 % cashmere you guys. Also, DO NOT BUY FROM GOODWILL! If you have a conscience, you won’t. The CEO takes home millions while he pays workers (often mentally or physically disabled) minimum wage. Look for locally own thrift stores. I found one in my area where the lady washes EVERYTHING before she put it on the racks. If if smells but you absolutely love it, spray it with white vinegar. Let it sit out until it’s dry and voila, no smell. Not even a vinegar smell. Stains are a definite no no though. Alterations are less of a worry for me, but I need to start working on my pile of things that need altering!

  2. Clothes Mentor is another great one. It’s a consignment shop for high-end & designer brands. I’ve seen everything there from Zara to Chanel. At one of the locations near me, I scored a never worn pair of Steve Madden leather boots for $23. They’re not in every state but it’s worth checking if they have one near you (

    They have in-store events and sales all of the time. Oh, and they have a store loyalty card where you get a stamp for every $10 you spend (plus an extra stamp if you go bag-less), and when you get 20 stamps you get 20% off your next purchase.

  3. Wow! I actually did something similar to this on my blog! You have really good tips and I definitely will use some of them. I’m familiar with Tradesy, but I’d love to give Threadflip a try. If I’m ever in Boston, I will definitely check out The Closet!

    Love this post!

  4. I would add that you can buy second hand sweaters if you have a lint shaver. They sell them at places like Jo Ann fabrics (use a coupon). I have a battery powered one. It’s easy to use. I’ve never made a hole with it. All my ancient sweaters look practically new.

  5. Overall nice write up and basic guide, however it’s kind of weird to brag about bargaining to pay less for something at goodwill…it’s a 3 dollar difference and the money goes to helping people.

  6. I love thrifting! I always find some great items that I end up getting so much use out of! Great article!


  7. I have been thrifting since the age of 12 (now 21). It’s honestly the best bang for your buck, especially if you live near a metropolitan area. Recently, I found a Jcrew silk tank top that had the tag still attached! It was original $70, but I got it for $3.50 (thanks to half off days).

    You never know what you could find at your local thrift shop!

    Great article!!

  8. @Hazel: Just trying to illustrate the point that you can find great deals at thrift stores! While I don’t usually bargain at Goodwill or other thrift stores, I do believe that if an item is somehow defective or damaged, it’s fair to ask for a discount, no matter what kind of retailer you’re at. (I also happened to only have $7 on me that day!)

    @Mariah & Rena: Great tips about using white vinegar and lint shavers! Cashmere is definitely a great buy at secondhand prices.

  9. I love plato’s closet! great for little gifts for your friends to! Think scarves, books, or jewelry. Also I’ve found GUESS jeans there for only eight dollars!


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