5 Expert Tips for Better Thrift Store Shopping

secondhand shopping
Photo by gabriel12 / Shutterstock.com

In the hierarchy of frugal strategies, buying secondhand has always been one of my favorites.

I love the idea of dodging depreciation on everything from furniture to sweaters, and dishes to tools.

So, how can you buy better and smarter inside that bastion of frugality, the humble thrift store? It’s half art and half sport — and with the right frame of mind, you can master the game.

After about a quarter-century of avid thrifting — with the bargains prove it — here are my best strategies to land sweeter deals at any thrift shop:

1. Understand that each store is unique

Every secondhand store has its own distinct personality. Some seem to get better furniture, others pull in a better selection of books.

Respect and capitalize on the vibe of each store and use it to inform your shopping strategy.

2. Go with the flow

Understanding your local thrift and secondhand market is key to scoring the best items before anyone else.

On which days of the week do folks in your area typically have yard sales? Look for an influx of unsold yard sale items to hit secondhand-store shelves a day or two after those yard sales end.

Also, pay special attention to larger stores’ shipment and processing schedules. Learning which days and times your favorite thrift stores restock with fresh donations can keep you one step ahead of the competition.

3. Develop primary and secondary shopping patterns

Popular secondhand stores can be a bit chaotic. From the die-hard shoppers on a mission to merchandise in a constant state of disarray, thrift stores are an exercise in shopping endurance.

To keep my head about me, I like to give each store a quick once-over the moment I arrive. This primary search is my chance to gauge the general quality of the merchandise and see if there are any obvious treasures waiting to be plucked.

Once the primary search is over, I can relax and go deeper into each section of the store that interests me. During this secondary search, I focus on individual items. I thumb through books, try on a coat or two and compare prices. Here, the goal is to get granular and sift efficiently through the junk to find the gems.

Admittedly, I probably think about my strategy far more than the average thrifter. But the primary and secondary shopping approach takes a lot of the stress out of my thrifting experience. Shoppers who don’t pace themselves in this way tend to get overwhelmed.

4. Shop for tomorrow

It’s nearly impossible to find what you need at a thrift store on demand. Unlike department stores, the inventory in secondhand stores is generally inconsistent and unpredictable.

If your kid needs a white oxford shirt with a 15½-inch neck and 32-inch sleeves by tomorrow morning, you’d better beat a hasty path to Target. But if you know a week or two in advance, it’s entirely possible to find the perfect shirt for $3.

That’s why successful thrifting requires planning ahead and predicting with some level of accuracy what you and your family will need next month, next school year and next summer. Doing so ensures that the bargains you score today will be put to good use tomorrow.

5. Check and double-check for quality

Intoxicated by the heady mix of a finder’s high and bargain prices, it’s easy to gloss over an item’s flaws. Don’t let that happen.

Most thrift stores don’t allow returns or refunds. So, unless you’re a whiz with a sewing machine or a stain stick, pay attention to such details as split seams, missing buttons, stuck zippers or discoloration on clothing. Likewise, understand your handyman limitations on furniture, appliances, bicycles and other items.

Even the best bargain sours if it’s left to languish as an unfinished project on a to-do list. Focus on items in good, serviceable condition, or those with only minor defects that you’ll have the time, skill and motivation to address yourself.

For more thrifting tips, check out:

What’s your best thrift store find? Share it with us by commenting below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
5 Tax Breaks That Retirees Often Overlook
5 Tax Breaks That Retirees Often Overlook

Did you realize all these tax credits and deductions exist — or that they apply to retirees?

5 Surveys For Money Sites To Get Paid For Your Opinion
5 Surveys For Money Sites To Get Paid For Your Opinion

Yes, you can earn extra cash by taking online surveys. But some websites are better than others for this. Here are a few of our favorites.

11 Home Upgrades With the Best Payback in 2020
11 Home Upgrades With the Best Payback in 2020

The home remodeling projects that deliver the best bang for the buck tend to have one thing in common.

20 Generic Brands That Amazon Created
20 Generic Brands That Amazon Created

Amazon’s growing collection of private brands offers everything from toilet paper and coffee to motor oil and clothing.

14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare
14 Things That Are ‘Free’ With Medicare

These services could save you money and help prevent costly health problems.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It
If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

Whether you resell it for a big profit or add it to your own wardrobe, this type of clothing is a hidden steal.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free
3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again
9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds
Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds

Resolve to be clutter-free in 2021 with these secondhand purchases.

11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It
11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It

Seriously? Fibbing about the weather is a crime? This and other little-known legal traps await the unwary.

Is This Treatable Condition Causing Your High Blood Pressure?
Is This Treatable Condition Causing Your High Blood Pressure?

Researchers say too many doctors are overlooking this potential source of hypertension.

These 10 Postal Price Hikes Start Next Week
These 10 Postal Price Hikes Start Next Week

Starting on Jan. 24, the price of various mail and shipping services will rise.

13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free
13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free

There are many ways to get cheap or free services and goods after reaching a certain age.

Taking a Multivitamin? Here’s Why You Should Reconsider
Taking a Multivitamin? Here’s Why You Should Reconsider

A new study has bad news for the millions of Americans who spend money on multivitamins.

21 Items to Cut From Your Budget That You Won’t Even Miss
21 Items to Cut From Your Budget That You Won’t Even Miss

Start off the new year by implementing these small-but-smart savings strategies. They’ll soon add up.

Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore
Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore

Starting this month, your ISP no longer can bill you for this fee.

12 Diseases That Are Common in Seniors Who Get COVID-19
12 Diseases That Are Common in Seniors Who Get COVID-19

Seniors with these chronic conditions are more likely to be hospitalized due to the coronavirus, according to new Medicare data.

15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021
15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021

Follow these tips to save, so you’ll have money for things that really matter.

10 Cars You Are Most Likely to Keep for 15 Years
10 Cars You Are Most Likely to Keep for 15 Years

The cars that owners hold onto the longest have one thing in common, a new study shows.

This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia
This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia

Nearly half of U.S. residents may face this threat.

Prepare to Pay More for These 31 Drugs in 2021
Prepare to Pay More for These 31 Drugs in 2021

More than 700 prescription medications have seen price hikes so far this year. Here’s a look at the worst.

9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday
9 Deep Discounts Available on Amazon This Friday

These items are all steeply discounted — but the deals won’t last long.

5 States Lowering Taxes This Year and 2 Raising Them
5 States Lowering Taxes This Year and 2 Raising Them

State personal income tax rates, brackets and deductions just changed in these places.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.