17 Things This Expert Always Buys at Thrift Stores

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woman shopping at thrift store secondhand shop
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You know those bumper stickers that read “I brake for yard sales”? Well, mine says, “I brake for thrift stores.” And I do. Over the past three decades, I’ve thrift-shopped my way across the Midwest, Northeast and from L.A. to Seattle.

Thankfully, I’m too picky to be a hoarder. I buy only what I need or what I know I can sell for a profit online. And though every secondhand store is unique, there is a standard set of items I’m always on the lookout for.

Here are some things you too should always buy at thrift stores.

1. Jeans

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Hands-down, jeans are the best bargain in any thrift store.

Where I live, high-quality used jeans sell for less than $20 and sometimes less than $10. And although that may seem high for “pre-loved” denim, consider this: According to Statista, a consumer market research company, the average retail price of women’s jeans was $165 way back in pre-inflationary 2018.

Think all thrift store jeans are junk? Think again. There are loads of high-quality clothes in thrift stores if you know what to look for — which I outline in “11 Secrets To Finding Quality Clothing at Thrift Shops.”

2. Tools

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Tools are go-to items at thrift stores and something I always buy at estate sales. I’m not talking about circular saws and welding torches here, just basic tools everyone should have.

Since much of what gets donated is older, it’s easy to find used tools that are well-made and that have proven their worth over years of dedicated service.

Look for genuine made-in-America stuff, like your parents or grandparents had. And don’t let a little surface rust discourage you. With just the slightest TLC, most older tools can go for another generation or two.

3. Totes, trays and baskets

Happy woman holding a laundry basket
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Sure, Amazon sells countless products to organize your home. But, again, why pay retail?

Canvas totes are always on my thrift store shopping list. They’re handy for stowing items in the trunk of my car, packing for an overnight trip and shopping at garage sales and flea markets.

Trays and baskets are my other go-to storage items. Trays are perfect for displaying cologne, organizing TV remotes or storing craft supplies. Use baskets to store pet gear, pantry items and bath towels.

4. Holiday decorations

Father and child decorating a Christmas tree
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Psst … When you pay less for holiday decorations, you’ll have more money to spend on gifts.

Over the years, I’ve built a handsome collection of handmade Christmas tree ornaments — all purchased at thrift shops for about 50 cents apiece.

And, like clockwork every year, I find a box of brand-new holiday greeting cards for a dollar or two. (Sorry, retailers, but spending $6 to $12 a box just doesn’t work for me.)

But why stop there? Thrift stores sell artificial trees, tree skirts, wreaths and wrapping paper. Best of all, when you buy from charity-related shops, you’re helping to fund worthy causes. And that’s a good idea every season of the year.

5. Arts and crafts supplies

Man painting a picture.
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Thrift stores offer limitless options for artists and crafters.

Besides old canvases that can be painted over, I look for vintage photographs, wallpaper samples, fabric, yarn, pottery and silverware.

With a little inspiration, nearly everything in a thrift shop can be reimagined and repurposed. And since the raw materials are so inexpensive, you can let your creative spirit run wild.

6. Dishware

Vintage mug and bowl
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I’ll say it loud and proud: “I buy all my dishes at thrift stores.” Sure, nothing matches in the strictest sense, but that’s part of the fun.

Creative designers make an art form of setting tables with highly curated “mismatched” sets of dinnerware. You can copy this great look for pennies at a thrift store. Here’s how:

  • Choose a main color family (classic whites and creams, for example) and an accent color (let’s say navy blue).
  • Let your creativity take over, buying interesting pieces that fit within your chosen palette.
  • Each plate, bowl, cup and saucer is different, yet they all work together.

When a cup breaks, pick up a used, unique replacement. Stress level? Zero. Cost? Practically zero.

7. Perfume

Woman putting on perfume
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Although I’m not a big fan of perfume, many of my friends and family are. It’s a treat to find a bottle of Burberry or Dior mixed in with thrift stores’ standard fare of Avon and Charlie.

And it happens more often than you might think. Most major department stores donate their perfume testers. Look for the telltale missing cap. (Caps are removed so used bottles can’t be returned as new.)

The best part? Many thrift shops aren’t familiar with high-end fragrance brands. Some bottles sell for $3 or $4 apiece.

8. One-of-a-kind items

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I’m always on the lookout for the weird and wonderful.

Kids pinch pots with wild glazes, threadbare silk rugs, a stack of black and white snapshots — these one-of-a-kind items make our homes unique. And they can all be found in thrift stores.

Some years ago, I stumbled upon a hand-painted image of a sleeping dog. It’s primitive but done with such care that I couldn’t pass it up. Today, that $4 find is one of my most treasured possessions.

The lesson? Thrift stores are filled with the humble and handmade. When you see something you love, buy it. Heck, turn 10 pinch pots into a windowsill herb garden. I did.

9. Books

Young man with stack of books.
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If you prefer to read books the old-fashioned way, check out your local thrift store. It’s the perfect place to find contemporary titles and out-of-print editions for a fraction of the retail price.

Pro tip: Thrift shops in or near college towns typically have better book selections. And at the end of each school year, the selection grows exponentially!

10. Vases and old jars

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I like to keep a healthy supply of antique vases and glass jars on hand. Filled with a simple bouquet of flowers and greenery from my local grocery store, they make a perfect hostess gift or anniversary present.

Vintage vases sell for $1 to $3 at most thrift stores. Old canning jars are even cheaper. I once bought five blue-green Atlas jars for $2.

11. Cloth napkins

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It’s time to rediscover the practicality of cloth napkins for everyday use. Not only do they eliminate the need for disposable napkins (a win for your budget and for the environment), they’re easy to keep clean. Just choose colors that can safely be washed with your other linens.

Most thrift shops sell napkins in bundles. Expect to pay a dollar or two for a set of four.

12. Office supplies

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A true Gen-Xer, I’m a little bit analog and a little bit digital. Thankfully, thrift stores have my analog supplies covered (sorry, Staples). I mean, where else can you buy a box of business-sized envelopes for 49 cents or a stack of legal pads for a dollar?

13. Packing and shipping materials

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When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I frequented Carton Service, an out-of-the-way warehouse that sold surplus packing, shipping and moving supplies. Essentially a secondhand store with a single product line, Carton Service was a lifesaver for my online resale business.

Though every city isn’t lucky enough to have a similar business, many thrift stores have begun selling used bubble-wrap, padded envelopes, labels, and related supplies. Compared to retail, the prices can’t be beat.

14. Lightbulbs

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It always shocks me how many donated lamps come complete with working lightbulbs attached. Many thrift stores sell these separately for 25-50 cents apiece.

Depending on wattage and shade, I use these bargain bulbs in closets, the garage and basement.

15. Pet gear

Dog holding leash in mouth
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Though it can be heartbreaking to consider why pet supplies end up in thrift stores, it’s heartwarming to put these items to good use. Over the years, I’ve found jackets, leashes, food and water bowls, and other items for my furry, four-legged friend.

Not a dog or cat person? You can find “pre-loved” items for all creatures great and small. Keep any eye out for aquariums, birdcages, and hamster and gerbil habitats.

16. Kitchen utensils

Woman with a whisk and mixing bowl
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Need a spatula? Whisk? Melon baller? Instead of spending $3 to $5 apiece for new kitchen essentials, buy used. My local thrift shop moves a surprising amount of high-quality aluminum and stainless steel utensils — each priced at 50 cents or a dollar.

17. Furniture

Dutch Boy Paints 2023 color of the year Rustic Greige
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Is anyone else tired of overpriced MDF furniture? I sure am. Especially considering how much vintage solid wood furniture is languishing in thrift stores.

Though finding just the right piece may take some patience, resale shops are loaded with nightstands, desks, coffee tables, and bar carts. Instead of buying new, scout around and slowly build a unique furniture collection you’re proud to own.

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