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A Guide To Finding The Best Deals At Thrift Stores

Looking to save money? Shopping at thrift stores is a time-honored way to score great merchandise and a great bargain. Furniture, home goods, kids clothes, and books are excellent items to focus on as you begin thrifting. But does it feel like when you go into thrift stores, either everything is overpriced or the merchandise available isn’t worth having? There’s a learning curve when beginning to thrift. The following tips can help you save major money while finding great stuff at thrift stores.

Get Out of the City

Thrifting has experienced a rise in popularity, so while bargain-hunters have always had to contend with each other, now, they also have to compete with hipsters and resellers (people who buy at thrift stores and resell on the Internet at a high markup) for quality thrift scores. What to do? Get away from the hipsters and resellers! The time-honored thrifting advice was that the best thrift stores were located near wealthy suburbs and city neighborhoods. Now, the smart move is to leave trendy areas in your rearview mirror and focus on out-of-the-way thrift stores. These stores will have less competition and usually offer lower prices.

Forget About the Weekend

The other way to avoid lots of competition? Stay out of thrift stores on the weekend. Experienced thrift-store shoppers will tell you that midweek is the best time to go. So go on your lunch break or after work. The stores will be less crowded, which makes your chances of finding a designer dress or a great lamp much higher. It also makes thrift-shopping a more pleasurable (and less stressful!) experience.

Embrace Technology

Technology is a thrift-shopper’s best friend.

  • If your local thrift store offers an app, download it. If they have an email newsletter, sign up for it. These are great ways to score coupons and advance information about upcoming sales.
  • Search for sites that sell discounted gift cards to national thrift store chains.
  • Research clothing labels to puzzle out if the item you’re holding is a gem or a reject from the local discount store.

Dress Appropriately

The perfect outfit for thrift-shopping is layers with comfortable shoes. Leggings and a tank topped with a cardigan will allow you to try on skirts, dresses, coats, and tops without having to seek out a dressing room (which can be hard to find or require finding an employee to assist you in many thrift stores). A cross-body bag will keep your shopping essentials safe and your hands free for shopping. Also, only wear clothes that can take a beating: If you find the perfect armchair, chances are good that you’re the one who will be loading it into your car.

Go Alone

The thrift shopper who moves the fastest and scores the best deals travels alone. Children and spouses can distract you from your shopping goals and slow down your trip. The only exception is that if you have a savvy thrift-shopper in your life, you can tag-team your efforts. If you share what you’re looking for with your shopping partner, each of you can keep an eye out for the other’s list as you shop.

Shop Frequently …

Hit up your favorite thrift stores as often as you can. This way, you’ll learn the rhythm of the store, like when they restock and when they mark down items. True treasures don’t last at most thrift stores, so frequent shopping ups your chances of buying new-in-the-box gourmet cookware or a fancy leather laptop bag. It also allows you to learn the layout of the store and lets you focus on the best-stocked sections.

… But Only Stay for a Short Time

No one should spend more than 45 minutes in a thrift store, and if you’re visiting a store frequently, that amount of time is much too high. The longer you’re in a thrift store, the less discerning you will be. After all, if you’ve looked at a lot of junk all day, an item of middling quality will start to look like an absolute treasure. Develop a targeted routine that allows you to focus and get in and out quickly.

Learn Each Thrift Store’s Strengths

Some thrift store guides will tell you that each chain has its strengths and weaknesses. But really, each store in a thrift store chain usually excels in some categories and rarely has great finds in others. A chain’s store on the west side of town might have fantastic furniture and home goods, while the store on the east side is always stocked with great kids’ clothes and the store in the northern suburbs has a great selection of books and women’s evening wear. So try the different stores in each neighborhood, and soon, you’ll know where to head when your son outgrows his jacket or you need a dress for your college roommate’s wedding!

Be Friendly

Be patient, be kind, and be courteous. This will make thrift-shopping more pleasant for you and everyone around you. It also pays dividends. Being friendly to the thrift store staff can net you information about restocking days, how they markdown prices, and when they’ve just gotten in an estate full of mid-century furniture that will hit the floor tomorrow.

Be Skeptical of Sizes

Clothing sizes have changed a lot over the years. Research has shown that a size 16 in 1958 would have had a 28.5-inch waist but a 36-inch waist in 2011. How does this impact thrifting? If you’re looking for size 12 work clothes and find a treasure trove from the 1970s and 1980s, they probably won’t fit a modern size 12. It’s important to note that women’s sizes are never standard, though, so a J.Crew size 12 and a Marc Jacobs size 12 from the same year might not have the same fit, either. Knowing your measurements and thrifting with a small tape measure on hand can save lots of heartaches and ill-fitting clothing!

Buy Opposite-Season Goods

On that first gloriously warm day of spring, put sweaters, jackets, coats, and scarves on your shopping list. When July Fourth weekend is coming up, start focusing on Christmas and Halloween decor. On a crisp fall day, make a list of clothes you’ll need for spring. Thrift-shoppers are like most humans and put off buying warm clothes until the weather turns cold, and most can’t bear the thought of buying Santas when it’s hot outside. Shopping for the opposite season cuts down on the competition and lets you score great merchandise you can put aside for later.

Learn to Spot Quality

Here’s a sad truth about thrift stores: The price many thrift shops charge for a shirt isn’t far off from what a discount store charges for clearance merchandise. Price isn’t always the most important thing, though: You need to focus on value. You might spend the same amount of money as you would at a discount store, but designer shoes, sturdy old furniture, or well-made clothes from the thrift shop will last much longer than cheaply made equivalents.

Test, Test, Test

Thrift stores are amazing places to score small kitchen appliances. So many people are given bread-makers, slow-cookers, toaster ovens, blenders, mixers, countertop fryers, and pressure cookers but never actually use them. If you want or need one, watch your favorite thrift store; it’s likely that one will pop up at a super-affordable price. However, make sure it works before you leave the store! Find an outlet and plug it in. Check the cord for any fraying and the appliance for any smells as it warms up. Also, check whether the thrift store has any sort of return policy on electronics, just in case.

Keep an Eye Out for Brand-New Stuff

New items in thrift stores fall into three broad categories. People donate new items (usually still sporting the original store’s price tag) because it was a gift or they just never bothered to return it. Stores sometimes donate new stock that didn’t sell, even at clearance prices. And some thrift stores have actually begun stocking new items like socks and mattresses to offer their clientele a one-stop shopping experience. The people who donate new-with-tags items provide the biggest treasures, but the other new items in your thrift store shouldn’t be ignored.

Ask for Discounts on Broken or Incomplete Items

Go over each item you’re thinking of buying very carefully. Look for stains, rips, tears, holes, burns, wobbliness, and cracks (depending on the type of item). And don’t forget to smell the items. If you want something but it’s slightly damaged, speak to a manager and ask for a discount. It doesn’t always work, but most managers would rather sell an item to you and make some money off of it than end up throwing it away and making no profit. It never hurts to ask!

Thrifting is an excellent way to cut corners on spending, but if it’s not making ends meet and you find yourself in need of emergency funds, there are also a variety of personal loan options that can be applied for.

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