Thrift Store Treasure Hunting

I decided to take on the topic of thrift shore shopping for a few reasons:

First, I have noticed in conversations sometimes that some still have the belief that thrift shores are only full of your Grandma’s castoff sweaters from the 1970s, broken action figures, and Harlequin romance novels. However, I find many brand name clothing items for myself and my children, small appliances, great novels from current bestselling authors, toys that my children enjoy, and many more things which I will mention later, and all of these are at stores such as Goodwill–for pennies compared to what you would pay for them at full cost from a big box store or online. For example, in Kohl’s, I found Christmas dresses in my toddler daughter’s size “on sale” for 50% off of $56.00, which would make the sale price $28.00. However, at one of our local Goodwill stores, I found a holiday red velvet dress from Gap for $3.00. Or, for $13 and change, I was able to buy a Ralph Lauren Chaps shirt for my son, a Ralph Lauren dress for my daughter, plus three pairs of jeans for her, too (OshKosh, Levi, and Gymboree). Can you find those items and prices in one place anywhere else?

Second, I consider it a joy when I am able to help others save money. I was once one of those who were ashamed to step inside a thrift store. However, as I grew older and joined “the real world,” I realized that I could buy more brand name items with my money by utilizing these stores and buying second hand. I am someone who wants to live a frugal life, yet who enjoys having “things” sometimes and spoiling my family on occasion, and using the strategies that I will share with you allows me to stay within my budget while living a lifestyle I want to be accustomed to. If I can help others do the same thing, I find this fulfilling.

Third, thrift stores are now frequently becoming connected to local charities, and some will donate 100% of their profits to charity, after expenses like rent. Check within your own communities to see if there are any stores that are associated with a specific cause or non profit organization. In general, what happens within these stores is that community members donate items for free to the charity. The charity them sells them in a store, and after paying costs like rent and utilities, the profits stay within the organization. I have found thrift stores related to hospice care, animal rescues/shelters, women’s and homeless shelters, etc.

Fourth, buying items secondhand is a way to live a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s a different way to recycle. Whether you buy something to use directly or to repurpose into something new, you’re using something that has already been made and already has made a carbon footprint instead of buying something new which takes more fuel, more energy, creates more waste and pollution…you get the idea. 🙂

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Think of buying secondhand as a form of recycling….

So, are you ready to take a virtual thrift shop tour with me? 🙂 Let’s go!

My plan is to go department by department within a “traditional” thrift store (think Goodwill). As we go through each department, I will share strategies and tips for sorting and sifting through the many items you will encounter. If I miss anything, feel free to add information, ideas, suggestions, etc in the comments.

Women’s Department

Shirts and Blouses–As a rule, with some searching, you can do well in this area. However, one word of warning is that there will be a LOT of shirts, and you honestly can’t go through each and every one, or you’ll be overwhelmed, frustrated, and you’ll miss the diamond in the rough waiting for you. A word of advice for here and any other department–do a relatively quick glance and only pull any item that strikes your interest on first impression (prints, material, color, etc), rather than trying to look at each one. If you can get through the aisles quickly enough, you can always take a second round through them. For shirts, I tend to focus on brand (known quality), colors or prints I like, fit, and general style. The price here needs to be really good for me, though, because I sometimes can find comparable pricing on first-quality clearance racks at department stores. Here, I would focus more on finding items like professional work attire or brand name clothing where you would see a cost savings compared to buying at retail pricing. In the Women’s Department, I feel the best areas to save money are with Sweaters, Jackets/Blazers, Dresses, Coats, and, if needed, Maternity. We’ll discuss each of these subsections, plus why I don’t consider shopping for Intimates secondhand, shortly.

Sweaters–Look here for better brand names, as you will often find them. I have found Columbia Sportswear, Gap, Old Navy, LL Bean, Land’s End, Eddie Bauer, and a whole host of other favorites. The thing is, sweaters are expensive at retail price and even “on sale” at a traditional store. They are usually much pricier than, say, a t-shirt. So, when you buy a sweater secondhand, you will save more money on it than you would save buying said t-shirt second hand because it was already cheap to start with, make sense? Focus your browsing on colors and styles, then check sizes and brands.

Jackets/Blazers–Carries the same “shopping philosophy” for me that the Sweaters section possesses. Look here for cost savings. Blazers and jackets are even more expensive than sweaters, as a rule! 

Dresses follow the same pattern, also. Some might be dated, but many are not, and a lot are only worn once for one special occasion, and are then given away, which means you reap the savings, and you receive an item that is still in excellent condition.

Coats–Once, at a local Goodwill, someone had donated BRAND NEW North Face jackets–four of them–tags still on them (some worth a few hundred dollars), and they were listed for $10 a piece. I was so upset that I wasn’t an “X-Small” or I would have bought them on the spot. (I suppose I could have resold them, but I don’t have the motivation, and that seems wrong to me anyway.) Why pay $200 for a brand new Columbia parka when the local thrift shop might have them for $5? (This happens ALL OF THE TIME.)  You can also find nice dress coats and wool ones, too. I highly recommend starting here for coats for your family before you head to a “real” store.

Maternity–I’m not going to lie. It’s really touch and go whether or not a thrift store even has this section, and whether it is amply stocked. I do recommend looking at a traditional store in addition to the thrift shop. However, when these clothes are available, your savings are significant, as maternity clothes pricing is an outrage, in my opinion, considering you’ll only wear them a short amount of time.

Intimates–I know some people who buy underwear and bras at thrift stores, but I happen to like to know where my undies come from, thanks. True, many shops launder their goods before they are placed on the sales floor, but…I know of a certain big box store in my region who had a pubic lice outbreak that stemmed from their Intimates department–and those clothes were brand new. Maybe it’s wrong of me, but there’s an ick factor here. Practically speaking, I don’t want someone else’s worn out bra…let’s be honest. You are better off buying higher quality items in a regular store.

Men’s Department

The men’s department, for me, has similar rules to what I use for the women’s sections. Buying basic shirts won’t save you much money in the long run compared to buying them on sale in a conventional store. However, one perk to buying shirts in the men’s department is that you can find “collectible” t-shirts frequently–vintage sports team shirts, t-shirts with funny sayings, some that commemorate events, places, television shows, movies, etc. I often enjoy looking for those items myself.

Buying suits second-hand will save you a fair amount of money, and buying coats and jackets here will as well, for the same reasons I listed when discussing the women’s section. Consider fit and style, and try on items before purchase, checking to see if they can be altered if they don’t fit quite right.

One thing I want to mention is buying ties–I have found so many designer ties at places like Goodwill. These are ties that might retail for $50 or more because they have a specific name on the tag, yet they will run for $3-4 at a thrift store. If your husband/significant other wears a lot of formal business wear, be sure to check out the ties.

Children’s Section

Buying clothing here is a must. I am someone who prefers buying certain brand names in clothing for my children. This isn’t because I am a snob, but because these particular brands LAST. And the beauty of this is that if they last, chances are, they will be handed down or given away in reasonable condition. This is where thrift shops can help you, as you can find these brands for only a few dollars (maybe even less) per item for your child. Or, if you’re looking for play clothes, and aren’t feeling as particular about the condition they are in, you can find cheap sweatpants, leggings, t-shirts, etc. for $1-2 a piece–why pay full price for play clothes, honestly?

Speaking of clothing, I have noticed during the holidays that outfits for children for Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc. are EXPENSIVE. I have seen formal dresses for TODDLERS selling at stores like Sears (a basic department store) for $40-50. For a toddler. I’m sorry, but that is obscene. If your little ones are anything like mine, they will have that frilly, sequined dress destroyed in two seconds flat. And if it lasts, they will be so uncomfortable  in it, or it is so difficult to wash/launder, or they will wear it once, and that’s it because it’s simply just too formal. I often find holiday outfits at thrift stores–you can find formal dresses, dress up clothing (for pretend), Christmas shirts and pants and ties for little boys, Halloween costumes, etc. I found my two year old’s Christmas dress this year at a Goodwill.

Shoes are hit or miss for me. It’s worth a look, as you can find pricey shoes and good brands for cheap when you come across them, but in my experience, shoes are one of those things in thrift stores that you “happen into.” You can’t just go in expecting to find the right pair and brand of tennis shoes. (These same rules apply for ANY size of shoes–whether they are for children or adults.)

Toys are another hit or miss section. You CAN find great deals here, but a few words of caution:

1) Make sure the toy works, if you are able to test it.

2) Ensure all parts are there.

3) Check to see if it can be easily cleaned or repaired, if needed.

4) Avoid buying secondhand stuffed animals, unless you’re looking for a specific collectible item. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s one toy that I prefer to buy brand new or receive as a hand me down from someone we trust.


Yes, by all means, buy books here! I buy a good 90% of my books from thrift stores. I see absolutely no reason to pay $30 for a bestseller when it will end up at Goodwill or Salvation Army for .25 to $1 in a few months. You will be surprised at the popular authors that are frequently available. I have also found autographed copies of novels, collector’s sets, and older editions, as well.

Household Items

Furniture–Secondhand furniture is a great way to save money. If you have little ones or animals, and they are anything like mine, they will pee, throw up, wipe hands, wipe noses, paint, draw, shed, and a million other things on your furniture. If you have kids or pets, to me, it seems silly to buy brand new furniture with the knowledge that it will become stained, scratched, or hairy within 24 hours of purchase. Save money and buy desks, chairs, tables, couches, nightstands, etc secondhand. Check for condition, and if something is slightly damaged, assess whether it can easily be repaired with some paint, a marker, or five minutes with a hammer and nails.

Small Electrics–Sometimes, you can find great deals on kitchen electrics here, as well as televisions (older style), vintage computers, DVD players, etc. Many might be older styles or models, but could be in great working condition. Sometimes, if someone has a duplicate waffle iron, for example, and never gets to the store to return it, they will donate it brand new and in the original box. I see things similar to this all the time. One word of caution–if it costs more than a couple dollars, ask the cashier about the return policy. Often, thrift stores will allow returns of electrics if they are not in working condition, but make sure because *some* stores have goods as final sale.

Kitchen Utensils, Pots and Pans, and Glassware–I bought my best skillets secondhand for a $1 a piece. That being said, use discretion with these items. Check for condition, whether the pans and pots are warped or cracked, and consider favorite brands when browsing.

Bedding–Avoid buying a mattress here, unless you can guarantee it is brand new. Buy blankets and sheets at your own discretion. Launder anything you purchase.


Consider buying CDs and movies at second hand stores. I find a lot of “old school” favorites at the local Goodwill that I can’t find anywhere else. You’d be surprised what you can find, and the neat thing here is that a lot of music and movie have gone out of print if you want a hard copy version of something. See if you can find it at a thrift store before you buy the MP3.


Assume all jewelry is “fake.” Sure, real gold and jewels do come through secondhand shops on occasion, but traditionally, what you see is costume jewelry. However, if you’re fine with that (and I am), you can find some neat vintage jewelry here.

Do you shop at thrift stores? What are your strategies? What have been your best finds?

3 thoughts on “Thrift Store Treasure Hunting

  1. I am nuts for shopping at thrift stores (op shops here). I have to admit that I tend to stay away from clothing for the most part, preferring to pick up home decor, books and wooden/plastic toys for a fraction of the price. That said, I will often buy clothes for the kids from op shops, just because they grow out of it So Darn Quickly! You pay $30 for a pair of jeans that gets worn half a dozen times before a new pair is needed. Craziness!

  2. We absolutely shop thrift stores, and consignment stores just as the season is changing and buy for the next year ahead. Local consignment shops like Plato’s Closet have a 20.00/bag sale twice a year. My oldest two completely racked up on high end name brand clothing for 40.00 + sales tax total. They each got one grocery bag to cram full. We walked out with over 80 pieces of clothing. As for shopping for home goods, well in November I found a brand new treadmill that was a couple of years old (but not used) at The Salvation Army. They plugged it in, let us test it and it was perfect. I asked if they would take 50.00 for it and they said no problem. We came home, looked online and found that treadmill was originally 499.00. STEAL! In December I bought a mint condition/extremely clean and working chest freezer. They received it the day before and plugged it up on the floor. The freezer was cold and tstat read correctly. I offered them 50.00 for that and they loaded it right up. Same day I bought and awesome (but used) bread machine with all hardware, instructions and additional bread machine recipes for $5.00. Just last week I went in there to look for a blender, and although they did not have one I was able to pick-up an electric carving knife/bread knife for 3.99, still in packaging with original blade sleeves. When I worked full-time and made good money we had a lifestyle of convenience – eating out, shopping for sport, etc. Within the last year I became a fulltime stay at home mom (without choice) and that had a HUGE impact on our financial situation. Now that I’m home I feel like God has put me here on purpose. Frugal living isn’t really an option for us but I have embraced it, appreciated the challenge and love that fact that it’s absolutely wasteful to live any other way!

    By the way, all of those above items were on a wish list that I wanted to make our family more sustainable, in an on-grid world obviously. Thrift store shopping has been such a blessing in our lives. In fact, when we ask the kids “do you want to go do this activity today?” they always say “no, we want to go thrift shop shopping.” Love your post! It’s completely brilliant!!!

  3. Thanks for the great guide. I like shopping thrift stores for sweaters and housewares as well. I have a couple of wool and cashmere sweaters from Gap and LL Bean that I purchased for $2-$3. I also purchased a model sail boat from Good Will for $5 dollars that I use as wall art in our nautical themed bedroom.

    I usually have trouble finding clothes and equipment for sports at thrift shops and consignment stores. I usually supplement what I can’t find in local stores by purchasing used equipment on ebay. We outfitted everything we needed for a hiking trip in Yellow Stone used (except for bear spray!) — binoculars and hiking boots included! It was fun foraging for what we needed in the months running up to our trip.

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