How to Shop Thrift Stores and Save Money

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Lately, my boys have been outgrowing everything. Half the time, I go to take them out and realize that their pants are several inches above their ankles and have to search for pants that fit. Fortunately, I know how to shop thrift stores, so I can make sure my fast-growing preteens always look great, without having to spend a fortune.

Finding the Right Local Thrift Stores

Some thrift stores are just gross and have very little of value. Stay away from those. It takes some trial and error, but with a little time spent, you can figure out which thrift stores in your area are the best options.

To start, jump online and do a search for local thrift stores. Make a list of them, along with addresses. You can either do a heavy duty search day, or you can simply visit the ones you’re near every time you are in the area. As you look at each store, rate it on your list. You should be looking for:

  • Cleanliness. Is the place well kept up or is it a total dump? Are the clothes stained?
  • Value. Are the prices in line with what you’re willing to pay or are they too high for your budget?
  • Clothing. Do they even have clothes that you would consider buying? Keep in mind that there is usually a high turnaround in these stores, but if there are no children’s clothes, you probably won’t want to go back.
  • Sales. Do they offer discounts and sales on items? Are there special offer days?
  • Proximity. Is the store close enough to get to easily or is it a longer trip to go shopping?

The best thrift stores will have great prices with occasional or constant mark-downs and sales, clean, orderly spaces and items that you’ll actually want to buy. Eliminate the sub-par ones and keep just a handful of shops that you’ll want to visit.

How to Shop Thrift Stores to Get the Most from Them

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Knowing how to shop thrift stores requires some advance planning. If you’re serious about getting the most from second hand shopping, there’s a method to the madness.

Shop the Sales

The first thing you should do in each thrift store that makes your final list is find out when they mark things down. For example, the thrift store I like to shop at puts out new items every Sunday and on Saturday, marks last week’s items down. Going on the right day will help you find the best deals. Some stores will have special tags on the clothes and offer a discount on all red tags or whatever color, on specific days.

Keep an Updated List

It’s also important to set up a list before you shop. Do your kids need pants? Write that down and make sure you measure them. It’s much easier to shop without kids, but if you do, you’ll need to know exactly what sizes they’re in.

Keep to a Budget

It’s tempting to go over your budget when you see a particularly cute pair of jeans for your kiddo, but if you set a budget ahead of time, you’ll save a lot of money. For example, I go into the thrift store knowing I won’t pay more than $3 per pair of pants. This helps me avoid spending too much money and lets me move quickly through the available items.

Shop Early

New stock is almost always put out before opening and on the “hot” days, you might even find people waiting in line for the store to open. Get there early in order to scout the best merchandise, but don’t overpay just because it’s awesome!

Use Your Phone

It literally takes seconds to look something up on your phone when you’re at the thrift store. Getting the best deals requires knowing what something is worth, so be sure to do on-the-spot research. Sometimes, those deals aren’t so great when you realize that they’re almost the same price as the same thing new. Amazon is a good place to check prices and reviews while you’re out and about.

Shop On the Best Days

Certain days are better for thrift shopping than others. After long weekends and holidays, there tends to be more items, but you should befriend the store staff and find out when the best days are for shopping. Don’t forget to check out senior discount days . . . bring along your elderly neighbor or grandmother and have them check out for you to get the discount.

Plan Ahead for Holidays

This tip is not for everyone, but if you tend to be very short of money, keep an eye out for like new finds throughout the year. Toys, books, etc. can be kept tucked away for Christmas and birthdays. You’ll save money and can often find some rare items this way.

Look Through Every Rack

Can’t see anything worth buying? Roll up your sleeves and dig in. A pro tip from someone who used to work at Salvation Army says that there’s often a gem or two hidden in the racks, but it can take a bit to find them. Sometimes, you’ll find that perfect dress hidden in the middle of all those hideous ’80’s shirts. This takes time and dedication, though, so leave the kids with someone so you don’t have to deal with them running around as you search.


Found the perfect pair of pants, but the button is missing? Small tears, dirty spots and missing buttons can be fixed fairly easily, but they give you leverage at the checkout counter. Show the salesperson the issue and ask for a discount. You won’t always get it, but it’s worth a try . . . then go home and do a little mending and you’ll have amazing clothes for a fraction of the price of retail.

With these tips, you can end up with some really amazing deals for those ever growing children, without breaking the bank!

What NOT to Buy at a Thrift Store

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There are a few things you should never buy in a thrift store. In some cases, it is just not worth the risk and you’ll end up paying more in the long run.

Mattresses. This is one of those things you just need to buy new. There are too many reports of bedbugs hiding in used mattresses and someone else’s mattress may have some unwelcome things in it. It’s very difficult to properly clean and disinfect a mattress.

Upholstered furniture. Again, there is a risk of bedbugs and you just can’t get this stuff clean. It’s also prone to mold and unpleasant smells that you might not even notice until you get the item home.

Car seats. You have no way of telling what the history of the car seat is . . . and since car seats need to be replaced after even minor collisions, it’s just too dangerous to do this. When it comes to your child’s safety, paying for a new car seat is well worth the investment.

Bike helmets. Like car seats, bike helmets are only good for one impact and purchasing a used one could mean you’re buying a faulty helmet. Stay away from these when you shop thrift stores!

Cribs. Often, you’ll find cribs and baby items that have been recalled in the thrift shops. Be very, very careful with purchasing any kind of baby equipment second hand, but cribs are best left alone completely. You can’t tell if the crib is up to the latest safety standards and it isn’t worth risking your child’s well being.

Other Thrifty Tips

Keep in mind that the clothes and items purchased at the thrift shop are not usually washed. Before you or your kids wear anything you’ve bought, wash and dry it, preferably on hot. This should get rid of anything icky in the fabric. For solid items like toys, you can wash with disinfectant, alcohol or diluted bleach. Be sure to rinse well before you hand it over to your kiddos.

It also helps to shop thrift stores with an open mind. That little kid’s chair might look ratty and scratched, but with a quick sanding and a new paint job, it could be really cute. What can you do to freshen items up? A little paint goes a long way and even clothing can be re-dyed to give it a whole new look. This is how to shop thrift stores . . . with a creative eye!

For those who enjoy sewing, like I do, sheets and tablecloths can be wonderful sources of fabric. When I need curtains for my house, I just find some nice sheets for a buck or two and sew them into custom window treatments. It’s cheap and fast and you’ll get some really unique designs, too. It’s amazing what you can find when you shop thrift stores.

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