How Not to Thrift

thrift shopping

My love for That Mitchell and Webb Look has been well documented here on the blog, and over the years this BBC show has done some great bits about marketing, feminism, and style. I have mixed feelings about the content of the sketch itself, but love that they titled their parody of fashion makeover TV shows, “How What Not to Look Like.” Because, after all, “What Not to Wear” is an awkward phrase. AWKWARD, I say! So please consider the title of this post in the same fun-poking vein as Messrs Mitchell and Webb.

And now, on with the show!


Thrifting itself is tiring. There’s searching through the endless racks, hauling around potential purchases, trying them on, making decisions, considering your budget. Just about any type of shopping will make you a bit tired, but I feel like thrifting can be more sapping than most. Do not thrift when you’re tired.


Department stores, mall stores, and online shops are all relatively neat, organized, and orderly places to browse. (Most of them, anyway.) Thrift stores are generally large and echo-y. You won’t find size runs of anything. If you’re already overwhelmed by work, worry, stress, or virtually anything in your life, throwing yourself into an overwhelming shopping environment is just going to add to your burden. Do not thrift when you’re overwhelmed.

In need of something very specific

I’m a HUGE fan of thrifting for trends, basics, and wardrobe frosting. But turning to thrift stores when you need a pair of high-waisted, skinny-fit, size 00 pants is ill-advised. Heading to Goodwill to find a lined red floral miniskirt will likely frustrate you. I highly recommend online shopping if you’re in search of an item that has more than, say, two non-negotiable criteria. Do not thrift when you are in need of something very specific.

On a timeline

Popping into a thrift store for five minutes is a good idea if you’re just killing time between other activities and don’t actually plan to shop. It’ll work if you visit that same thrift store regularly, know where everything is, and can spot new inventory right away. But most thrift shopping is time-consuming and requires careful attention. If you’re in a shopping mood and swing by a secondhand store, but only have 20 minutes before you need to drive across town for a meeting, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Do not thrift when you’re on a timeline.

So when SHOULD you thrift? Ideally, when you’re relatively relaxed and feeling open to whatever the Thrift Goddesses have to offer up. When you’ve got at least an hour to browse and try on. When you’re feeling a little more creative than pragmatic, and when the bounty of the thrift store strikes you as exciting and invigorating. Actually, any two of these factors together should make for good thrifting conditions. Believe me, I encourage any and everyone to thrift as often as they can for basics and un-basics alike! But it’s important to know how NOT to thrift. Because a string of bad thrifting experiences under bad conditions can turn you off the practice for good.


Image courtesy ilovememphis.

Originally posted 2012-07-09 06:14:10.

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45 Responses to “How Not to Thrift”

  1. Vildy

    Here is my biggest tip: find the shop(s) where people are donating what you want to wear! You get to pick from the styles and colors you like. You find coordinating items. You find multiples in sizes and colors you like and want.
    Honestly, it’s a breeze and its like having your own team of Secret Santas stocking the shop for you.

  2. Vildy

    Bonus: if some of these places have Regulars and you become a Regular, the staff will hold out stuff they know you love and call you over and the shoppers tend to hold up garments from the rack and tell each other, Here, this is what you like. So you have even *more* stylists.

  3. La Rêveuse

    This is why I prefer our local consignment shop–Clothes Mentor. It may be a bit pricier, but the organization (and play corner for my kids) makes it so worth the extra money (which is still much less than retail.) Our is organized by item, size and color, so if I need black pants, I can find my options in moments. I’ve had great luck!

  4. jii

    How did you know? Yesterday I was searching for the perfect suitcase, and had been disappointed by the mall offerings.I was on a timeline, shopping for a specific item, so there you go. I entered the sacred halls of Goodwill, where I had found perfect furniture twice, still in use. First was the smell…it usually invigorated me, but I had to turn around and leave. The mildew smell, mixed with mold and desperation took me down. Fortunately, Target had exactly what I needed. Thrifting completely turned me off yesterday.

  5. Katharine

    I’ve thrifted under all four of those negative conditions… but only for stage costumes/props. And I usually do just fine with that, for some reason.

    For myself? No. And the tighter my style gets, the less satisfying thrifting is becoming on the whole; I come across something awesome every now and then, but that’s greatly outweighed by the many, many times I go through the entire store and don’t find anything that fits into my existing wardrobe.

  6. Anna

    I have often been guilty of shopping for a very specific far too many times, but I’ve gotten a lot better about it. I may still go in with a plan to focus on a particular item type (shirts) and maaaybe a few particular colors if I’m feeling lucky. But mostly it’s just going with the flow.

    I am very particular about when I go thrifting, though. It’s always early in the morning on a weekday (underemployment benefit!), particularly on or right after restock days if the store has them, and only if I am really truly in the right mood for it- I’ve found that if I don’t have my thrifting zen on then the whole exercise becomes frustrating no matter how good conditions are otherwise.
    I also like thrifting at places where the store culture is such that you can try things on in the aisles (does this happen outside the Austin TX bubble? I’m not sure). Sometimes people will load up entire carts and then camp out in dressing rooms forEVER. Even if there is an item limit, even if the store is horrendously busy. I realize that the wait for dressing rooms can be horrendous just about anywhere, but something about thrift store dressing room turnover seems so painfully slow (possibly it’s just that they tend to have far fewer rooms than, say, Macy’s). So being able to just try that shirt out where you’re standing is a huge blessing, in my opinion.

  7. Karen O

    Oooo – excellant advice!
    I’d add – avoid peak times if at all possible. Saturday afternoons can be fiercely busy with long lines for the dressing rooms and crowded aisles. Halloween, when people are looking for costumes, is another time to work around. My schedule lets me go in the late afternoon which is ideal, supper time is also less busy. I’m guessing that right after opening is good too, but haven’t tried it.

  8. Vildy

    I agree with Anna about wanting to try things on in the aisles if need be and when I used thrift stores where that was necessary, I did dress for it. The important advantage it gives you is that, like many retail stores, the lighting is awful and you can’t tell the colors correctly. Trying on in front of a mirror where there might be a window nearby is great! Also, I always take a small hand mirror with me to see the back view. One time recently I didn’t do this and bought a retail item, very comfortable silky floral blazer. Only when I got home did I check the back view and horrors, the multiple shaping seams were askew and even the hemline dipped some. I can sew but there was no fix for this and I had to take it back – in 92 degree heat, walking, since there was only one other in my size. If I’d only had the mirror with me.

  9. Laurel

    I actually like thrifting for a specific item, because I don’t get bogged down in all the selection. I can just go in, check the area for what I want, and if they don’t have it go on to the next thrift store.

    • Sal

      Good point! It can certainly cut down on thrifting time if you just do a quick check for a specific piece.

  10. Jen

    I am really bad about this. I don’t thrift often (or shop in TJ Max type stores) because I am usually a rushed shopper. I get overwhelmed by the selection, lack of organization, etc. and turn tail to leave. I don’t even do well with clearance racks! (that is what my husband does while I’m in the fitting room;). I’m going to take your advice, set aside some time when I have nothing on my agenda and just leisurely go about it. I would like to thrift more, so this could be a good starting off point for me!

  11. Lisa W.

    I agree with all of your suggestions, Sally! I’ve learned that I have about an hour to an hour and a half window before I hit the wall and cannot look at another thing, so know your own personal shopping limit. I have definitely learned to broaden my expectations when shopping for a specific item in a time crunch. In other words, don’t be SO specific, if you can help it! A cotton sundress can mean many possibilities, but a red cotton sundress with spaghetti straps just may not be in the cards. Determine what is most important, but be open to possibility. Also having enough time to visit all departments while thrifting is important because the unexpected find is often the best! You may strike out on sundresses, but find a great bag that will complete a different outfit that may be appropriate to the event you’re preparing for? Definitely helps to be well-rested and clear-thinking in order to make good decisions in the moment!

  12. sigourney

    Well, thrifting actually perks me up … I have an Oxfam store on my way home from work and often take a peek around to unwind. Buying not necessary and not the point really.

    When looking for an item, I keep it rather general and broad, like: looking for an interesting skirt today. Works very often and combines surprise and intention.

  13. Megan Mae

    I somewhat disagree with ‘looking for something specific’. Never look for something specific if you need it on an exact timeline, but I’ve spent two summers trying to thrift a yellow full skirt. Finally found one on Saturday. It took some doing, but keeping the shortlist alive and you’ll know when something’s right. Even better when it’s the right thing for $2.

    However that may only work for the serial thrifter. Newbie thrifters should not get bogged down by a list but let thrifting be a discovery.

  14. Trystan (the CorpGoth)

    I will thrift for a specific category, but not a specific item. This helps me keep from feeling overwhelmed, bec. the local thrift store is of the giganto thrift department store variety & has a jillion things. So I stick to just pants or just jackets or just shoes or just housewares or just books, you get the idea. Bec. there are *miles* of racks to sort thru, & if I attempted to look thru everything, I’d be exhausted! I’ll often pop in to look at for only candleholders or only pumps or only cardigans — not more specific, but not too broad.

    Basically, you need to know your local stores so you can manage your time vs. their selection 🙂

  15. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Agreed! If I have just ten minutes and want to have a quick recreational look, I’ll head for just the scarves or just the purses, and peruse the offerings there.

  16. Kelly

    In my area, it’s best not to hit the same shop too frequently, else it seems that there is never anything new. So I tend to rotate which ones I go to. I’m a successful thrifter – almost every day I wear some item that was thrifted! I have to say that my #1 rule is – never take dear husband with me! He haaaates it.

    • Laurel

      Oh good point! Definitely don’t go with someone who will easily get bored and want to leave. Another possible caveat: don’t go with a friend who wears the same size and has similar style. You might end up wanting the same item!

  17. alice

    Haha, more reasons why thrifting is not for me! I only buy clothes once i’ve identified the specific thing i want, so thrifting is usually just an exercise in frustration. while i really like the idea of buying used and not contribute to fashion waste, at this point the best strategy for me is to buy sparingly and wear things out.

  18. SE

    I have to agree with all these points, having made each and every mistake in my thrifting searches. Time is the big one for me- I keep thinking I can just run into the thrift store that is close to me for a quick look, but I end up empty-handed and feeling frustrated. So no more.
    On a different note- have you noticed prices have jumped? Or is it just my city’s (Seattle) Goodwill? Forever 21 dresses for $20? A blazer I was going to try on was $25! No way! The run-of-the-mill shirts are now $8. Are the other thrifts better priced?

    • Sal

      Zounds. Those are some steep prices! Here in the Twin Cities, I’ve found Goodwill to be among the highest priced, but nothing on that order! Have you tried Salvation Army or other charity shops besides Goodwill?

    • Mimi

      I hadn’t been thrifting for awhile until I went out with a friend the other day. We made the rounds of her four favorite shops in San Fran. Zounds! Prices really had gone up since the last time I’d been in. Shoes in fair condition were $20-$35. Shirts were $8.00 up to $20, and jackets were mostly $20 and up.

    • Shaye

      Where in Seattle? I don’t live in the area, but I happened to pop into a Goodwill in Bellevue a few months back when I was visiting and walked out with a pair of never-worn Sofft shoes for $13, which I thought a good price for that brand and condition.

      If you are shopping in expensive areas of Seattle, it might help to broaden your search to the outlying areas.

  19. Lyddiegal

    i have definitely gone thrifting for specific items – sometimes to maybe four or five stores in the same day, all the while trying to get the message to the thrift gods that i need to find this item like now, and could it please just materialize on the next rack.
    I have had varying degrees of success with this, though typically it isn’t until I’ve purchased it at a retail store that it then pops up in my thrift store.

  20. Celynne

    I was dropping off donations at a Value Village on Saturday and I had about half an hour to spare so I took the time to quickly – literally scanning with my eyes rather than my meticulous check-each-item process – go through dresses and summer tops. I tried on 3 things, and wound up coming home with a floor-length green velvet sleeveless dress… one which I had wished existed when I had on a previous trip tried on a green velvet Christmas dress and had me hankering for green velvet that wasn’t gaudy or made me look 12. Long story short, quick-burst thrifting can work if you’re already an avid thrifter and are able to keep an eye on time. The only time I can really think to avoid a thrift store is if it’s right before Halloween, or near the end of the month when a lot of people get their government checks (not that I dislike the folk, but the stores do tend to be a bit more packed at that time, seems to me).

  21. Practical Paralegalism

    Great post. I was hoping you were telling me to stop thrifting for a while 🙂 I really love to thrift, but for myself, I need the reminder to thrift thoughtfully. Thrifting when I had dropped two sizes, and realized there were colors other than black, gray and beige was a great way to get a new-to-me wardrobe fast, but when my closet got full and needed to be more carefully edited, then thrifting, well, almost became a problem. It is certainly a great way to while away an afternoon if you love clothes, but if you’re not already wearing what you do own, it can create a syndrome I like to call “Outfit Overload.”

    What can be fun if you just really have the bug is to make a list of the kinds of things your wardrobe really needs, and give yourself a strict budget (and make it cash so no plastic temptations). Stick to the list and the cash. Also, for every item you bring home, seriously think about removing something from your closet to donate or consign, especially if you have limited space.

  22. Mary Walker

    Every thrift shop has its own experience too. I’ve found one shop that I’m particularly happy with and I try to return as often as my mood and cash flow allows. Thanks for the great advice that cements my current beliefs.

  23. Barb Ballenger

    For the last eight years I have shopped almost exclusively in thrift shops. That’s where I get 95 percent of the clothes for my entire family. It’s our way of living in resistance to a garment industry that keeps churning out an unsustainable flow of cheap clothing that depends on low-paid laborers and harms the environment.

    There are other ways to resist cheap fashion addiction to be sure — buy things that are locally and beautifully made, buy a few great pieces from a few great companies. I’m all for that. But I also love the hidden-treasure feel of a thrift shop. And I love inexpensive clothes — just not at the expense of sweat shop laborers.

    That said, it ain’t a perfect world and I can’t always find everything we want at the thrifts — especially when it comes to my kids’ tastes and needs. So our rule is that the thrift shop is the first stop. Then if we can’t find it there — shorts that an 11-year-old will wear for example — we head to a retail store. As a result, we do less impulse buying in retail shops, take some time in our decisions, and have great talks about where clothing comes from.

  24. Viktoria

    I love thrifting. I feel so much more comfortable with a piece that´s been worn and washed and has already proven it´s level of quality. I think that to be a successful thrifter you have to have an open mind and be prepare to try new things. And being a bit clever with a needle&thread is not a bad thing. And knowing how to launder.

  25. Terri

    Lots of great comments here. I avoid thrifting on sale days as it’s too often a mad house and I will not physically fight with other shoppers over garments. And while there have been times, I’ve walked out empty-handed, there have been plenty of times I’ve hit the jackpot too.

  26. Anne

    Some of my best finds have been when I am tired and overwhelmed. I find thrifting relaxing and calming. But I do have a “thrift list” of items I can quickly scan for and try on in the aisles. For example, I am always looking for interesting knee length skirts, fitted jackets, scarves and belts in specific colors.

    I live in a small college town where all the thrift stores are manned by volunteers. Saturday afternons are often good times to look because that’s when the most volunteers are sorting, pricing and stocking.

    I agree that eBay is the best place to thrift for specific items. I have several saved searches to find those one of a kind items. Thrift store shopping is more like a scavenger hunt!

  27. Shaye

    I’ve done all of them, and would again! I actually find thrifting pretty therapeutic, so I’ve definitely gone when feeling overwhelmed to try to zen out. (Only in the evenings when it’s not busy, though.) And I agree with the comment above that you can thrift for a specific item as long as you aren’t on a timeline. If you need a red pencil skirt next week, it’s probably going to be a bust, but if you would just generally like to have one, it can save mucho $$ to keep searching.

    As for thrifting on a timeline, I’ve popped into thrift stores to kill time, rather than wait half an hour wherever I needed to be. The key here is to identify one or two things you want to look at – like scarves and jewelry, or skirts and belts – and go specifically for those sections. Nothing you like, still time to kill? Pick one more section. Find a skirt you want to try on? Get in line right away!

    I think the key if thrifting under less than ideal conditions is to view it as a treasure hunt, and walking out of the store empty-handed as simply money saved. 🙂

  28. elizabeth

    Wow. After long long experience and multiple attempts at thrifting for my actual wardrobe I have failed miserably. Even if I start out well-rested, energetic, inspired, and in a creative mood, I always leave depressed, tired, overwhelmed and in need of an ice cream sundae. Nothing I like ever fits me. I never like anything that does fit me.

    And if I buy anything, I get it home and realize I don’t actually like it; I just liked it better than anything else in the store and felt like I “should” buy it because it was so cheap and “well, this one fit” and “why not!” I can use one of these things anyway and “i don’t want to waste the trip!”

    So, I guess the one tip that is absolutely necessary for me is to be just as exacting in your purchase standards as if you were paying for it new.

  29. Angela

    Add me to the list of folks who actually enjoy thrifting when feeling overwhelmed. They don’t call it “retail therapy” for nothing! Combing the racks in search of beautiful treasure often gives my worried mind a welcome break.

    I’m getting better at thrifting under time constraints, too. Like others have commented, going into the store with the intention of limiting myself to one or two sections (for me it’s usually scarves, shoes, or neckties) is getting easier for me. Sometimes I’ll go thrifting at 7:30 or 8:00 at night, just to keep myself from whiling away too many hours at the store. 😉

  30. Kristine

    Great tips! I’d also add, thrift only when you’re willing to accept something amazing or nothing at all. My worst finds were things that I could thought could pass because they were just a little faded, a little cheap looking or a little too small. It was always money wasted. My best finds were nearly new or clearly vintage, natural fibers like wool or silk and higher quality. Sure, the great finds happen less often but those are the only thrifts that are worthwhile.

  31. Nancy

    This is probably a dumb question, but could someone please tell me what specifically defines thrifting/a thrift store (as opposed to any shop that sells “pre-worn” clothing, whether consignment or not)? Is it the well-known names? (Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc.) We have a chain of consignment stores in the Boston area called A Second Time Around, and their prices are quite high. A $25 blazer would not be that big a deal. But even my local Goodwill has, on average, lots of things in the $10-15 or even up to $20 range, higher being for items like coats.

    Also I have friends in other parts of the country who are even able to return thrifted items, the way you do at a regular store. No way would that ever happen where I live!

    My own personal suggestion for thrifting/buying second-hand? (Based on experience.) Don’t get sucked in to a feeling of anxiety or pressure to buy anything. It’s tough when you’re at a high-end consignment store and KNOW that this is the one and only item you will see there. And for me–only somewhat knowledgeable on designer brands–I’ve been swayed by needing to make spot decisions (and being tired, as well), and have thus paid quite a lot of money on a designer crossbody bag, for example, that was really cute and in new condition…but the price was truly not much different from what it would have cost new! Sigh.

    • Sal

      Not a dumb question at all! Generally, thrift stores are associated with charity organizations. The clothing comes from donations, so prices are lower and they aim to sell merchandise quickly and permanently, so MOST of them don’t accept returns. (Some do! And some will take exchanges.)

      Consignment and resale shops are often privately owned, pickier about what they take/sell, and more expensive.

  32. Laurie

    Sal, Im in your area and frequent the Unique Thrift Stores (one is on 42nd & Winnetka Ave N, the other I go to is on 37th Ave (Cty rd D) near Silver Lake Road. They have recently hugely expanded both stores and the layout is nice and pretty well-organized. I think you’d really like them, if you’re not already familiar with those shops 🙂

  33. Heather

    So Sal, what are your favorite Twin Cities thrift stores? I used to love the Ragstock on University for finding vintage costume pieces, but I haven’t found one to replace it since it closed. I’ve had some good luck at Goodwill for regular clothes but they are a bit pricey for average clothes.

    • Sal

      My fave actual thrift store is Valu Thrift out in the Sun Ray shopping center. Fabulous for off-kilter vintage finds at rock-bottom prices, but I’ve also nabbed old-but-in-great-shape Coach purses for under $20. I really love Rewind Vintage in NE for vintage vintage, as well as Mighty Swell. ARC’s Value Village is my home base for non-vintage stuff and is generally cheaper than Goodwill. (Richfield and Brookyln Center are my favorites, but I hit New Hope, too.) And Savers in Columbia Heights is fabulous for undervalued finds.

      Hmmm, maybe it’s time for a post!

      • Heather

        Thanks Sal! I always drive past Sun-Ray but can never figure out how to get there from the freeway, lol! Guess I’ll try a bit harder!

  34. Jenny- Adventures Along the Way

    I think I must just have great thrift store luck. Today I went to a thrift store looking for zip-off pants for an upcoming trip, and I came home with zip-off pants that fit as well as the back-up option I had been thinking of buying from a store. Not my preferred color, but I could dye them darker perhaps. (And I came home with a few other things too.) Anyhow, all that to say, I often go in with very specific ideas of holes in my wardrobe (tunic, zip-off pants, zip-up jacket, black dressy top, skirt appropriate for an interview, etc.) and find them. But I rarely go in with specific color and style requirements. But….I also have trips where I go and don’t find a thing. So it can go either way, but that’s part of the fun to me. I do think I had much better success (and much lower prices) in my former city though, so location is definitely a factor.

  35. Ellie

    Could someone explain what a “thrift store” is to a non-American?

    Are they a charity shop, where people donate their unwanted items, and these are sold on to raise money for charity? Or are they like a dress agency, where a shop sells your clothing (typically designer) on your behalf, and splits the income with you?

    Or an outlet, selling end of line/out of seaon new goods?

    Or something else?

    • Sal

      Ellie – most thrift stores are charity shops. You donate, the organization sells the used goods and donates money to a charity. The other model you describe is called a consignment store here in the States – a store that sells gently used clothing on your behalf, and you divide the profits.