Thrift Store Clothing Spending Guide: How to Save Money & Buy Smart When Shopping Thrift Stores

by Sammy in 4 Comments — Updated January 3, 2024

I was 16 years old when I started shopping at thrift stores. I was a child of the over cultured, under-intellectually nourished MTV generation and had been reading fashion magazines since I was 12. Presumably, years of media saturation a la the ’90s had taught me the difference between “fashion” and “style” and how a thrift store could not only mine a bargain, but mine a warehouse of one-of-a-kind pieces that no one else in my suburban high school had … nor dared to wear.

But with a pocket of disposable income and an adolescent mind of easily-influenced fashion wants, my teenage thrifting habits couldn’t tell the difference between “trying” and “buying.” In other words, I would try everything and without so much as a second thought, buy everything, too.

In lieu of Monday’s post on how possessions can keep you from happiness, and my recent contemplation of how I can live my life simpler to be free of wants or needs, I decided to write today’s post not to encourage the act of thrift store shopping, but to encourage the habit of smart spending in general — and preferably at a thrift store!

Keep reading after the jump for my top pointers on how to enjoy your next thrifting experience without spending as much as you would at a department store. Read on for inspiration to buy what you truly want and need to live a happy, healthy and totally vintage life!

xx, SD

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

There’s an ocean-full of thrift stores across the United States — from independent and privately owned/franchised thrift stores like Value Village and Savers, to charitable institutions like Salvation Army & Goodwill.

Then there’s always tiny, back-alley church shops like this one, nationally or regionally organized religious-based stores like St. Vincent’s, your neighborhood’s annual yard sale or that weekly flea market in the town over.

I’ve linked enough: the options are plentiful, and all you have to do is Google or Yelp your way over to your nearest option and turn on your smart shopping powers. So how do you shop smart without spending … stupid?

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE STORE: Salvation Army

THE SMART SAVING TIP: Shop your prices wisely! Unlike other thrift stores I’ve encountered, Salvation Army reliably prices its clothing with a colored paper tag. You can’t miss the tag stapled to a sleeve or onto a tag. The dollar-saving benefit to these colored tags? Every day, a different tag “color” is 50 percent off. And at many Salvation Army Family Stores, one day a week is designated as “family day” when every tag color but ONE is 50 percent off. In other words: practically the entire store is on sale!

EXPERT NOTE: Call your nearest Salvation Army to get a “price check” on what day of the week is best to shop sales. Ask if shoes, purses, furniture and home decor are on sale — sometimes sale days only cover apparel. Also, two-piece suits and other garments are always priced to sell as one.

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE STORE: Goodwill

THE SMART SAVING TIP: Shop Goodwill sales before getting to the store … online! Your local Goodwill web site might list “sale days” for the month or on and near holidays or annual events. Use that day off from work on a 3-day weekend wisely and save up to 50 percent. Call your local store in advance of a holiday to see when the actual sale is taking place.

EXPERT NOTE: When I’m visiting thrift stores regularly, I’ll “scout out” what I want by hiding the pieces in middle of a rack away from the ends — where people tend to look most — and then return on a sale day to score them for a sale price.

I’ve even tucked pieces away in an area they aren’t normally merchandised — like putting blouses with the coats. It’s a risk worth taking: While a customer may find your hidden finds, a store associate won’t notice due to the high volume of clothing in the store itself.

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE SMART SAVING TIP: Thrifting with friends is like sharing a delectable, triple-layer fudge cake with your boyfriend … it just tastes so much better when shared, and sort of overwhelming when only enjoyed by yourself!

My friends pictured above — Leah, Andrea & Julia — are some of my best thrifting friends. We’ll spend two hours or more in a store shopping for ourselves and for each other. It makes the shopping experience so much more manageable when you know a friend is keeping her eye out for that Navajo-inspired vest you’re on the hunt to score.

EXPERT NOTE: Not only do you save time and brain space shopping with friends, but you inevitably save money, too. Present your top “picks” to them and ask them to list their top three. This will give you an idea of what to keep and what to eliminate. Having a second opinion always helps me recognize that I’m just “buying to buy.” When I put things back in a thrift store, I actually feel more appreciation for the finds that I’m actually buying!

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE SMART SAVING TIP: Don’t shop to browse. Shop to shop specific! Browsing at a thrift store is like walking into a candy store without having dinner first. You’re going to be so hungry, that you overindulge and inevitably suffer from a tummy ache later. Have your cake and eat it too by arriving at a thrift store with a mission in mind: to shop a few trends that you’d rather thrift than buy new and full price.

Everything now was inspired by everything then. Sequins from the 80s, big shades from the 70s, fur influence from the 40s and “vests” from the 80s, and big prints from the 80s and early 90s — these are trends inspired by vintage pieces and designer pasts’ accessible  via a thrift store for less than the mall.

EXPERT NOTE: I live by my magazine subscriptions for inspiration. Buy an issue of your favorite fashion-influenced mag [I love Elle for high-fashion, Marie Claire for professional with sexy class fashion, Nylon for hipster/alternative fashion & Lucky for organized, easy-to-understand fashion!] and spend an hour ripping out your favorite “looks.” Then bring a few of those pages to the thrift store and see what pieces you can find to match the style on the magazine page.

Don’t think it can be done? Then you haven’t watched the latest episode of THRIFT WARS!

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE SMART SAVING TIP: If you don’t want to come home with too much, then it’s time to find the solution at the root of the problem: grabbing too much in the first place.

I’m guilty of the crime: I “ooh” and I “aah” everything my fingers touch. I grab a pair of jeans because they’re “cute” even though I hardly wear jeans. I ecstatically jump on a vintage fur coat tagged at a bargain price … because it’s currently summer. The highly addictive act of buying-to-buy is a tough one to break. We still want to shop, but overshopping is a whole other story.

When you’re attracted to a piece, ask yourself three things. If you can answer these three things, put the piece in your cart. If you can only answer one or two, put it back on the rack.

1.) Do I own something like this already?

2.) Can I wear this piece tomorrow? As in, is this a seasonal, functional piece?

3.) Would I die without this piece in my wardrobe?

OK, that last question is a little harsh … but it’s meant to remind you: Do you absolutely LOVE it, and will you feel happy, confident and free when wearing it?

EXPERT NOTE: If you’re struggling with the immediacy of analyzing each piece as you shop, try this tactic instead. After your cart is full, push aside some space on a rack and hang up everything you grabbed. Eliminate it by one third using the three questions above. You’ll have an easier time paring down because you’ll see all of your pieces before you. Hopefully, seeing everything at once will illustrate the necessity to “put some things back.”

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE SMART SAVING TIP: Much like the 3-question rule, I like to give myself the “one-try-on” rule when deciding whether a piece is right for my shopping cart. Avoid fitting room lines by trying on your piece in the aisle. Wear spandex and a T-shirt so that trying on a dress gives you a good idea of how it’d fit normally. If the piece doesn’t fit in the aisle, it’s probably not worth it to try in the changing room, either. I say red light that purchase and move onward!

EXPERT NOTE: Before shopping a new thrift store, scope out the scene for the nearest mirrors. That way, when you’re following my “one-try-on” rule, you can try pieces in front of a mirror without waiting for a fitting room.

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE SMART SAVING TIP: Forgo Target for decorative knick knacks, kitschy housewares and functional furniture. Your local thrift store has all of that for a third of the price! I’ve found some of my coolest glasses and mugs from the houseware section of my hometown Salvation Army. They’re conversation pieces that have me smiling over coffee at the crack of dawn — and only cost a quarter each.

EXPERT NOTE: Hit up your nearest thrift store soon after moving into a new apartment or home. Come armed with a list of needs (trash can, mugs, pots & pans) and a list of wants (clock, vases, candles, one-of-a-kind knick knacks) and see what the thrift store has to offer before ordering catalog or hitting up that strip mall Target.

If you’re in the market for a new couch, arrive with a backseat or a truck bed big enough to cart away your new love seat. Thrift stores do not delivery furniture, but store associates will help you life furniture from the store and into your appropriately-sized vehicle.

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE SMART SAVING TIP: Thrift stores are made of a few distinct compartments: the clothes, the shoes, the toys, the housewares, the furniture and the linens. But mixed in between these clean-and-clear compartments are some “fun” areas … like where you can find a Scooby Doo stuffed animal, a Southern-belle inspired wedding dress, a pair of platforms with 6-inch heels.

Sure, you might not buy them, but they will distract you from your mission: to shop smart and to shop wise. We all have a little ADD thrift store shopper in us. Maintain a consciousness about what you are there to do, and you’ll be able to confidently and calmly step away from that Hannah Montana wig.

EXPERT NOTE: The best time to actually spend money “buying” thrift store fun is when a costume-friendly event or holiday is right around the corner. Think slutty sequin dress for a bachelorette party, a wedding gown for your Zombie bride Halloween costume, faux fur pimp jacket for the Jay-Z concert you miraculously scored tickets for.

You’ll still have fun playing in the store, and you’ll have more fun knowing that you’re actually going to wear the piece and share it’s conversational charisma with others, too.

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE SMART SAVING TIP: Your Goodwill may reward clothes donations with coupons and sale discounts. Check with your local store to see if such an incentive exists — but no worries if it doesn’t. All American taxpayers can get some money back from good ole’ Uncle Sam when filing a tax receipt for their donations.

EXPERT NOTE: You can automatically write off up to $500 without giving your accountant a donation tax receipt at all [but I don’t endorse doing that unless you’ve actually donated ;-)] If you happen to donate regularly like me, it’s to your benefit to request a tax receipt every time your bag hits the donation bin. The store associate should have them on hand, and should always sign them for you.

Vintage Tag History: Levi's, Banana Republic, Betsey Johnson, Abercrombie & Fitch and More

THE SMART SAVING TIP: It’s time to act your age! If you are a student or a senior citizen, your local thrift store might offer special discount days just for you. Always call in advance to inquire, or check your store’s web site for a calendar or listing of sale days. Thrift stores can be a lot like  movie matinees: if you just visit at the right time, you’re automatically going to save money.

EXPERT NOTE: Not currently enrolled in higher education or a subscriber of AARP or Medicare? No problem! Goodwill offers “Shop & Save” and frequent shopper discount cards for selective stores. My “Shop & Save” card from the Keystone Valley — the area of Pennsylvania where I am from — is shown above. The card cost a few dollars, but it’s value was daily, guaranteeing me discounts on select types of merchandise as promoted per store.


HEALTH: Why Thrift Shopping is an Addiction

ADVICE: 10 Risky Things Not to Buy at Thrift Stores

TIPS: 18 Tips for Buying Used Clothes

RISK: Avoiding Bed Bugs at the Thrift Store

VIDEO: Thrift Shopping the Goodwill Outlet

PLUS: The Complete Thrift Shopping Dictionary

4 thoughts on “Thrift Store Clothing Spending Guide: How to Save Money & Buy Smart When Shopping Thrift Stores”

  1. Thanks for the tips! I follow several of them already, especially the t-shirt and tights to try things on in the aisles, though I often shop opposite. For instance, I don’t usually go into a thrift store with a goal in mind. I shop the whole place, and if I find a great piece the day before a sale, I buy it and don’t agonize over saving $3 the next day. Off-season shopping also works for me (though more for winter-wear than summer clothes).

    I also don’t expect to keep things very long. I can wear a crazy blouse three or four times and be done with it. (My friends have high expectations of seeing me in new outfits!)

    It’s all about price-per-wear: buy a $4 blouse and wear it four times, it’s $1/wear. On the other hand, buy a $90 purse and carry it every day for two years, and it’s only 12¢/use. The mistake to avoid is buying a $90 purse and using it only on a few special occasions — say, five times, which makes it $18/use before it’s replaced by the next great purse.

    In that case, I want to be first at the thrift store when they put out that donated $90 purse for $6! My five carries will cost ME only $1.20 each!

  2. As an avid second hand shopper, these are some great tips that I follow regularly. So glad I found your blog…I’m a huge vintage, used, even out of the trash fan!

  3. What a great post!!

  4. Quick question!! :) I just bought a faux fur vintage coat, the picture is posted on my blog. ($6!!!!) It has the workers union tag on it, do those tags ever list the dates they were manufactured? I thought I saw one that did but my tag doesnt have the date. Just curious and since you seem to always have useful vintage info, I thought you might be able to help. Thank you, I hope to hear from you soon!


Leave a Comment