Sara Noel

Article Summary:

How to plan ahead to make your secondhand store shopping effective.

How to Shop Effectively at Secondhand Stores

Are you saving your hard-earned money by shopping at thrift stores? Why pay retail when you can purchase many items secondhand for the fraction of the cost? No one knows it’s previously owned, unless you’re like I am and many others that LOVE bragging how we got an item for a steal! It’s a definite way to ease your budget and environmentally friendly too. Shopping secondhand is like a treasure hunt. It takes time to learn how to bargain shop, but you can become a money-saving thrift store shopper by planning ahead and being prepared.

Know What You Want or Need
You may not find items you’re interested in during your first visit, so keep a wishlist of items handy in a notebook. Know your size and the sizes of family and friends. Consider color and style preferences too. Go through your closet and home to have a good idea of items you’d like to add to your wardrobe and decor. Write down household dimensions in your notebook. It’s not fun to find what appears to be the perfect items, but you’re not sure if they’ll fit. Bring a tape measurer just in case too.

Don’t just impulsively buy just because it’s cheap though. If you won’t use, don’t buy it. Thrift store shopping can be addictive. Keep in mind that you may find continuous great deals on clothes as an example, but do you need another five sweaters just because they’re cheap?

Be flexible and think creatively. Don’t forget to consider possible gifts or things that can be recycled into something else. You may come across a skirt and not initially want it, but maybe the fabric could be utilized to create something wonderful or with minor alterations it could become a personal favorite.

Before You Head Out
Dress comfortably and practical. You may want to try clothing on or be rummaging through merchandise near the floor or in boxes.

Eat something before you leave home. There are times the cash out lines are a long wait. It’s possible you could be out shopping a couple of hours too.

Be sure to have enough extra cash with you in case there are unexpected surprise items you find while shopping. Many thrift stores only accept cash. It would be very disappointing if you came across a super deal and didn’t bring enough money.

It’s important to have a good idea of what items cost when brand new before you go. A little golden rule to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t pay more than half the retail cost of the item when new.

Try to go shopping by yourself. This is ideal because you won’t have competition, a crying child, or an antsy spouse. I know some people think the experience is best shared with others, but when you both spot the perfect bargain or others are rushing you–well don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Scope Out The Shops
Thrift stores are all diverse. Some stores have higher prices, emphasize clothing or household goods, or may have more toys. Get to know which store locations have the best types of certain merchandise. Know the price ranges for the particular items you’re looking for at each shop. You can add a pricebook section to your thrift store notebook.

Merchandise always changes and it changes rapidly. An item that is there one day, most likely won’t be there the next. You can talk to the owners/managers and inform them of items you are looking for. You can request that they contact you when particular items arrive. Not every thrift store will do this, but there’s no harm in asking. My local thrift store manager called me and let me know when an oak dining set was brought into the store.

Take Your Time
Don’t skim racks. Go through them slowly. Browse the entire store. It’s an adventure to experience. Some items may be overlooked or be misplaced elsewhere in the store. It takes time to get accustomed to the displays at thrift stores. Items aren’t always displayed by color and size or as neatly as in retail stores. Your initial reaction upon just peeking around, may have you thinking there’s nothing but dirty junk. There’s definitely more than junk there! Remember what you may think is trash is another man’s treasure.

Be Selective
Don’t forget to inspect closely and plug in electrical items to be certain they work. Look over the items for torn seams, missing buttons or pieces, chips, tears, etc.
If an item has a couple of different ways it can be used, you will not be wasting your money. As an example, you may find a great basket and are trying to decide if it’s worth buying. Can you think of alternative ways it can be used in the near future?

Look for dept store tags. Many thrift store items are brand new with tags. Look at the tags to verify sizes too. Try items on to be certain they fit since items are sold “as is” and many thrift stores don’t allow returns.

Doublecheck for safety! Here’s a handy safety checklist.

Best Times to Shop
Many thrift stores have regularly scheduled discount days. Many shops do color coded tag discount days, seasonal discounts, or discount by department. Shop regularly or get acquainted with the employees to be alerted about sales. If you’re too shy to do that, you can try tracking the sales in your thrift store notebook and see if there is a schedule. My local thrift store has color coded tag discount days and then offers additional discounts during holidays.

Thrift store donations are at their peak in December. Many people are donating items, so they can write off on their taxes. There are also heavy donations made by individuals and corporations when the seasons change or it’s near the holidays. Spring and Summer is also a good time to shop because many people donate their leftover garage sale items. Try and drop in frequently and early morning to get the best results. There’s never a bad time to shop at a thrift store!

Pay It Forward
Donate items you no longer want to your local thrift store and encourage others to do the same. Many of these donations help support programs in your community. You can contact your local thrift store for their donation policies. These donations are tax-deductible. Here’s some information on determining the fair market value of your donated items.

Now you’re better prepared with some basics to begin the hunt. The possibilities are endless. You can shop for yourself, friends, family, or even to resell at places like Yes. You can even MAKE money shopping at thrift stores. Thrift store shopping is a simple abundance with bragging rights. It’s fun and guilt-free too. If you aren’t convinced by all the benefits of thrift store shopping, that’s ok. There’s more for the rest of us treasure hunters. It just doesn’t always make “cents” to shop retail.

Sara Noel is a freelance writer and the Editor/Publisher of both and of Visit both these sites for information on getting back to basics through frugality, gardening, lost arts, simplicity, and natural family living.

Read all advice by Sara Noel; Find more Budgeting experts

More advice on Budgeting
» Family Budget Example
» Frugal Budget Basics
» all Budgeting articles