Reader Request: Thrift Tips

how to thrift shop
Lovely reader N. sent me this question a while back:

I love the idea of thrift store shopping … But I need to know how to do it successfully. I like the stuff I see at thrift stores, but most of them don’t have a place to try things on and I have been burned on fit with no refunds/exchanges. Can you suggest ways to analyze an item without trying it on to see if it’s going to work? Are there ways to tell what items would be easier to alter (and therefore less costly to alter)?

I’ve shopped thrift since … well, since forever. I’ve never been squeamish about buying used garments, and the bargain hunter in me loves pulling treasure from other people’s trash. Here are some tips to address N’s concerns, and hopefully, yours, too!


Very few of us can successfully shop unknown brands, items from eras long past, or garments meant for our quirkyest body parts without trying them on. Although many thrift stores have cottoned on and offer shoppers a handful of dressing rooms, some expect you to make decisions sans privacy. For instance, here in the Twin Cities, the Unique Thrift chain typically offers one broom-closet-sized fitting room and many full-length mirrors scattered throughout the aisles. On any given trip, you’ll find folks in various states of undress squeezing themselves into potential purchases while scrutinizing themselves in narrow mirrors clamped to fixture ends.

Since few thrift stores accept returns or exchanges, you need to be sure. If not sure that whatever it is will actually fit you, at least sure that you’re not going to have a major coronary if you get it home and it doesn’t. But there are a few things you can do to prepare for shopping in a dressing room free-zone:

  • Layer: Wear a white or neutral cami under your blouse or sweater so you can try on cardigans, jackets, and anything that buttons or zips up easily and quickly.
  • Skirt: You can slip a pair of pants or another skirt underneath the skirt you wore in and no one will glimpse your bits. You can also slip a dress on overhead and get a good idea if it fits, even plastered over a skirt. If you’re in pants, which are typically bulky around the waist, gauging fit is much trickier.
  • Leggings: I will never concede that leggings can pass for pants, but since they are made from actual cloth and are completely opaque, they can serve as MAKESHIFT pants in a trying-crap-on-in-the-aisles situation. If you’re really worried about anyone getting a peek at your private bits, slap on some leggings underneath your skirt and you’ll be a paragon of modesty. Kinda.
  • Slip-on shoes: If you’re hunting for footwear, you’ll want easy access to your tootsies.


If you simply can’t stomach getting quasi-naked in the middle of a thrift store aisle, you can train yourself to eyeball items for decent fit. You’ll never be 100%, but a little practice can help hone your visual judgement. Pick out five perfectly-fitting tops from your own closet. Try to select from several categories of top, such as blouse, sweater, tee, cardigan, and/or jacket. Then pick out a top that is either very fitted or actually too small. Pick out a top that is either very boxy or actually too large. Set perfectly-fitting top number one on your bed, and place the too-small top next to it. Swap in perfectly-fitting top number two, three, etc. Then do the same thing with the perfectly-fitting tops and the too-large top. By the end of this drill, you should have a vague idea what a top that would fit you looks like. Repeat with skirts and pants. And just to reiterate: This ain’t foolproof, but it should help.


Measure your shoulder width, actual boobs, below boobs, narrowest part of waist, widest part of hips, and inseam. You can also measure garments that fit you perfectly – which is especially helpful if you prefer that your skirts and dresses hit your leg at a specific spot. Write your stats on a cheat sheet, bring your handy dandy tape measure shopping with you, and measure garments in the corresponding spots. If measuring flat, be sure to multiply by two. Now this method may seem like it should be foolproof, but it isn’t. You are unlikely to get completely accurate measurements with your tape, and factors such as garment age and spandex content may confound. Truly, the only foolproof method is to actually try the dang thing ON. But checking the numbers will get you in the ballpark, and is somewhat more accurate than eyeballing.


Everyone has their own rules about what should be avoided and embraced at thrift outlets. Some are more squeamish, or more crafty, or thrift for different purposes … but I think these guidelines will be helpful to a thrifting novice who is shopping for 100% wearable items:

  • Don’t buy anything damaged that you can’t mend yourself: Exceptions are gorgeous designer finds that can be salvaged with the help of a tailor … but these are few and far between.
  • Don’t buy anything stained: If it’s truly stained, that means permanent. So what’s the point?
  • Don’t buy anything from fast-fashion retailers: It’s only going to be a buck or two cheaper than new, and someone else has already worn it for much of its short life. I’m no brand snob, but I AM a quality snob. Something that has been made cheaply and worn for a while isn’t going to fare well in your wardrobe. Exceptions happen – especially for things like coats, accessories, and other durable goods. But generally speaking, thrifting fast fashion isn’t the best use of your money.
  • Don’t buy anything remotely intimate: Undies, socks, tights … even slips and mufflers are suspect. I am one of the least germophobic people I know, but even I have limits! Dry cleaning can help, but dry cleaning is expensive, so just be sure to figure that in.


I am not a huge fan of purchasing used clothes and then laying down to have them tailored, as the collective cost approaches buying new … but sometimes it’s worth it. Occasionally a nearly perfect item presents itself, and if it’s super high-quality, enlisting a professional’s help to make it completely perfect is a good investment. Here are my thoughts on altering thrifted goodies:

  • Avoid pleats: These make tailoring tricky, regardless of garment type.
  • Skirts over pants: Skirts are fairly simple constructions, generally speaking, and will be simpler to shorten, take in, or let out a skirt than a pair of pants.
  • Avoid embellishments: Anything that sports embroidery or embellishment of any kind near a seam is going to cause issues.
  • Dresses are costly: A good dress is hard to find and the right one will be worth the dough, but unless you merely want a hem taken up, getting a dress altered is going to be laborious and expensive.
  • Avoid coats: Tailoring a coat is VERY expensive. If it doesn’t fit in the shop, don’t bother.


Used clothing is sold at several levels, and you can adjust your price-range and quality-range by limiting yourself to stores that fit your personal parameters. Most large metro areas will offer thrifting at all of these levels, but you’ll have to do some legwork to discover which are which on your home turf.

No-frills: The bottom of the thrifting heap – sometimes literally – will put you in an unadorned space stocked with unsorted racks or bins of clothing, shoes, and accessories. You are left to your own devices to hunt and peck. Here in the Twin Cities, this means G-Too/Values By the Pound, a Goodwill outlet also affectionately referred to as “Diggers.” A dimly-lit warehouse where rejects and unsold merch from regular Goodwill stores goes to meet its final fate, Diggers features several person-high piles of stuff brought in by dumptruck. Clothing is sold by the pound. Not for the faint of heart, but fantastic for the scarce of money.

Slightly better: Racks are roughly organized by item type, but rarely by size or color. Stores at this level don’t typically feature fitting rooms, and the offerings are in any state from broken-in to ruined. Twin Citians, think Salvation Army on Central Ave.

Good: Slightly more accurate and helpful organization of merch and a possibility of fitting rooms, these stores offer slightly higher price points alongside their improved facilities and services. Fitting rooms are still a hit-or-miss by location, but you’ll find some brand new items sprinkled in among the oldies, and some bona-fide bargains … so it’s worth a trip. TC folks, I put Goodwill and Unique in this category.

Even Better: With guaranteed fitting rooms and stock organized by size and color, this is the level at which I thrift most comfortably and successfully. A few stained and torn items are mixed in, but merch is generally in great condition. Locals will find that ARC’s Value Village and Savers outlets fit this bill.

Best: Now, “best” in this context means no flaws or damage to speak of, reputable labels, and helpful staff … but it also means much higher prices. Consignment boutiques and upscale vintage stores fit into this category, and if you’re hunting for true bargains, you should aim a few levels down. But if you’re seeking covetable vintage (Via’s) or upscale labels at slightly lower prices (Turn Style), this is the level for you.

Related posts:

(Image courtesy Emily Allen)

Originally posted 2008-11-13 07:16:00.

Next Post
Previous Post

35 Responses to “Reader Request: Thrift Tips”

  1. Alison

    Sal, Thank you for this post! I’m going to Savers and possible Goodwill this weekend. I used to live in the Twin Cities and really miss Unique Thrift, what a great place. Now to plan my thrifting outfit so I can try things in a hurry, or in the aisle if I have to.

  2. Katie

    Great post – I couldn’t agree more!

    I found two Banana Republic skirts (looked brand new) and a matching business blazer/jacket at Goodwill. They fit PERFECT except for the skirts are a little long.

    I paid $3.00 per skirt and $1 for the jacket. Paid $4 each to have them each dry cleaned (ouch!) and $4 for each skirt to have them altered.

    At first I was despairing because of the additonal costs in buying these items, but all in all – I now have business clothes that could have cost me several hundred dollars for less than $30!

    I still say that’s a great deal – but you are right – the costs for tailoring and and dry cleaning add up!


  3. La Belette Rouge

    Great post. I am sure that if I thrifted with you I could find lovely things. On my own I just get overwhelmed and head for the door.

  4. Always In Style

    Excellent post – and I’d like to add one of my tricks: wrapping a pair of slacks around your neck (the waistband I mean!) – if it’s too small it won’t fit.

    Works about 99.9% of the time, really!

  5. Sarah Von

    I’m a super compulsive virgo, so I’m inclined to keep a running list of things that I’m looking for. Otherwise, I tend to get overwhelmed by all the cheap clothes and forget what I’m really there for!

  6. kittyscreations

    Thank you so much for this post. I used to be an avid thrifter, but lately I have been shopping a lot at malls, and my bank account is showing it. This post is a good reminder of thrift store strategies, so hopefully it will get me thrifting again.

  7. Sal

    Always in Style: Hahaha, for really? I am TOTALLY trying that trick! Even just to make the other shoppers stare at me.

    Sarah Von: Oh girl, you KNOW I’ve got a list. Typed up, printed out, and cut to size, folded up in yon wallet.

  8. drwende

    Wonderful, wonderful post! You’ve said it all on the practical side.

    The only thing I’d add is that it’s important to thrift while in exactly the right mood. If you’re feeling down on yourself, it’s too easy to bring home crap… and if you’re feeling too universally gorgeous and wonderful, it’s also too easy to bring home crap. The key is to feel confident and adventurous, but realistic about your personal style and proportions.

  9. pretty face

    As someone who is absolutely hopeless at successful vintage shopping, I found this immensely useful. Thanks!

    (also – I have duly added you to my blogroll 😉 )

  10. Lacy

    My favorite trick is heading to the rich parts of town for my thrifting. Whatever Goodwill/Salvation Army/ARC is closest to the high end houses will likely have more of the high-end goods.

    This also works for whole towns. I’ve done incredibly well in Aspen, Vail, Santa Fe, and Taos because rich people give away great stuff! 🙂

    In that same vein, avoid thrift stores near colleges. In my experience, their stock will be picked over.

  11. Sharon Rose

    Hi sal-excellent post!! If you’ve thrifted forever, that makes you an expert for sure, especially when you do posts like this too!

    I too am a Quality snob-its the best piece of advice to give. With time and experience, shopping without trying on does get easier, but I do still make mistakes!!

  12. Molly

    I wanted to suggest starting at “even better” stores. (Here in Seattle, I’m thinking of Take 2 on 15th in Capitol Hill.) They’re organized like non-thrift stores (except sizes may be mixed, so you have to check), and they have dressing rooms, so they’re not at all intimidating and you can feel good about the fact that you’re not paying nearly full price for mall stuff.

    Also, one more “what not to buy”: any knits that feel stiff or are already pilling, no matter how upscale the label is. It’s not going to get any softer and is only going to pill more–so why pay for it? If the fabric feels bad, I pass them by immediately, which, by the way, narrows your choices and makes the experience even less overwhelming.

  13. Karen T

    I love thrifting. All of your tips are great. I would add that carving out a good chunk of time for thrifting carefully, along with bringing a list of things you definitely want to look for is helpful. Often times you get in there and get overwhelmed by the selection and get back home with stuff you don’t really need. Check your thrift haunts often if you can, because new stuff is added daily in most places. Also I have noticed, particularly in the Goodwill, when new stuff first hits the racks they leave them right in front, so check the fronts of all the racks first!! Another tip, don’t forget to check the put-away rack next to the dressing rooms, (if your store has them) I’ve found a lot of GREAT stuff that someone else has grabbed but didn’t work for them. Last but not least, get on the emailing lists for your thrift stores so you are kept up to date as far as sales. That great leather coat you saw on Monday just may be half off on Friday!

  14. Couture Allure Vintage Fashion

    I also try to have a list to remember what I need, but I also try to stay open to anything special that finds me. I tend to shop by color. Right now, I’m wearing a lot of green mixed with neutrals, so I gravitate towards green on the racks, and find that I can mix and match the various items I buy with things that are already in my closet.

    My best tip? Bring your iPod and use a playlist that you can shop by. The music they play in my local Savers is dreadful, and they’re always interrupting me with loud and unimportant announcements. Not to mention the noisy kids running around. With my own music, I can shop at a leisurely pace with better concentration.


  15. Trinity

    Ah! Great post. I was going to mention having a list, but that has been said. Also, as others mentioned, thrifting in upscale towns can yield better goods. In the Twin Cities, I have found that the suburban thrift stores are better than the ones in Minneapolis. I suspect it is partly due to who is donating and partly due to the volume and type of shopper frequenting those locations.
    Also, my definition of “thrifting” includes garage sales and all of your tips work for that environment too.

  16. enc

    Oh BOY is this post chock-full of great info! I never knew half this stuff, and as a result was intimidated by thrift shopping. Not anymore.

  17. lopi

    I know you didn’t mean to, but this is just rubbing in my face the fact that Greece doesn’t have any thrift stores. One of my first posts was me whining about it and trying to explain it:
    But the next time I’m travelling abroad, I’m definitely going to put those amazing tips in good use!

  18. momo

    Excellent tips! I’m OK at eyeballing, but I’m going to do the measurement thing as well.
    higher end consignment shops where I’ve found great stuff because they weed out stains and damaged stuff:
    Fashion Ave near 50th and France, Rodeo Drive in St Louis Park, Elite Repeat in St Paul. Everyday People in Uptown is for 20-somethings, good for jeans.

  19. Miss Karen

    I’m going to print this post out and study it hard before my next thrifting adventure. I’m the worst op shopper in the world and can never get it together. Thank you for doing this post!

  20. The Queen of Fifty Cents

    Sounds like most of you are only looking at thrift stores. If you live in an area where yard/ garage/estate sales happen, these can be a terrific source. Virtually all of my clothing comes from yard sales, and I’m talking designer and vintage for fifty cents to five bucks. I never used to look at clothes b/c I’m a large woman and figured there wouldn’t be anything in my size, but was I ever wrong! I don’t find stuff every week, but I’ve built a terrific wardrobe this way. Remember, a lot of stuff goes to the thrift stores AFTER a person has sold the best stuff at their yard sale!

  21. Anonymous

    Another blogger I follow just posted several entries about thrifting, coincidentally! She is a college student from D.C. who ventured out to Unique Thrift Store recently. Here is a link to her post on what to wear when thrift stores don’t have dressing rooms. She has a pretty smart system, especially with the jumper.

  22. K.Line

    As always, your suggestions are so well-considered and intelligent. I’d love to go thrift shopping with you!

  23. Yet Another Heather

    This is a great post- such good tips. I wish I lived in the Twin Cities! I used to live in Greensboro NC where there was a great thrift store, and I have yet to find its equivalent in Nashville. But then I haven’t really put the time into it, so you have given me a good quest for the weekend. Thank you!

  24. fleur_delicious

    a tip on tailoring: sometimes you can get the most difficult part done for free!

    A friend of mine had a bias dress that gapped over the top of the butt. She took it in to be tailored. The guy pinned it, then when she asked how much it would cost to have it done, the price he quoted was $20-ish, which was nearly what she’d paid for the dress (yay for clearance at ross!!!). So, she said, “wait. I can’t afford that much, I’m sorry. I’ll have to take it home and figure out how to do it myself.” The guy was so nice, he let her take it home all pinned and ready to go.

    She brought it to me in this condition, and all I had to do was adjust one of the pins slightly (it wasn’t quite symmetrical) and sew a seam for her. It literally took 10 minutes.

    So I’m thinking, maybe IF one has a friend that sews, and IF one is upfront with the tailor from the first minute, and just asks to have something pinned, and offers to pay a few bucks for the pinning process … wouldn’t this be a great way to cut tailoring costs?

    that’s my big idea.

  25. Make Do Style

    Hm I think you’ve got to try on, although anything bigger is easy to alter down, the other way is a no no! Your tips should help the stipping to underwear scardy cats!

  26. The Seeker

    What a great post Sal. I think one can print it and it’s like a tips book to be around when thrifting.
    I would love if I could thrift one day with you, so cool 😉
    Unfortunatly I can’t thrift, people here don’t sell things like that and we have no shops doing that 🙁
    Pity, because probably many people would have some good pieces.

    You’re so kind to me, my dear, thank you so much for your comments.


  27. Songy

    These are great tips. yes, you’re right. You don’t save much buying used target stuff.

    Too bad that we don’t have places like ARC’s or Savers!!!

  28. Accidental housewife

    I love this post. I am a Vintage Vixen and came to your site via Deanna Raybourn. You forgot to mention estate sales. I one time got an actual in perfect shape mink stole for $10 at an estate sale in Hollyweird. I also have gotten Bob Mackey, Dior and was this close to getting a Chanel but some witch beat me to it.

    Anyway I’m adding you to my daily reads.