Deciding on the best things to buy at a thrift store can be like a kid trying to make a decision at a candy store. You’ve got $5 and a big plastic bag just waiting to be filled to the brim — but you can’t decide what selection of sweets are going to satisfy that candy craving.
This analogy applies to thrift store shopping, too. While the selection at your favorite store satisfies any thrifter’s shopping craving, it’s not always what you want that matters most — but what you truly need.
That’s why it’s wise to practice smart shopping: You should thrift a store for goods that are going to get you the most thrift store savings and practical function when purchased used. Plus, they’ve got to be the goods that suit your personal style and tastes, or else you’re better off buying them new.
You’ve read my tips and tricks to what not to buy at a thrift store. When it comes down to the best purchases that will give you the greatest return on investment, here’s my personal list of the 10 things I always buy used!
Knowing how to thrift store shop isn’t just something you’re born with, but rather a skill that’s acquired over time with experience in the field of thrifting.
I wrote this article to share my own stories behind why these 10 things guarantee mega savings when bought a thrift store. But these are just my personal favorites — what items do you always buy used and would never buy new, whether for savings or other reasons?
Feel free to scroll through the post see my personal top 10 list for the must-buy things at a thrift store, or click any of the links below to be taken immediately to the text within the article!
BUY IT USED: Buying furniture at a thrift store is perhaps one of the most thrilling secondhand shopping experiences, and can also be acquired through flea markets, antique shows, yard sales and using online resources like Craig’s List for Sale section or for free goodies in the New York City area, joining (or starting your own!) Freecycle online sharing group.
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: Hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on how many pieces you buy and their buy-it-new cost.
For example, my friend Sabrina saved hundreds when she bought a dresser thrift store shopping used furniture at the Salvation Army with me last summer.
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO SHOP USED: Thrift stores only sell the most quality furniture pieces and present a large, but still manageable selection to shop. While thrifting the racks for high quality clothing can take hours to sift through before finding the treasure, thrifting a secondhand store for stylish furniture will take mere minutes
Even better for you, discounts are often applied to furniture at chain thrift stores like Salvation Army or Goodwill. If a piece isn’t selling, the store will mark down its price to quickly move it off the floor to make room for new merchandise.
BUY IT USED: Shopping stylish art for your home is easier at a thrift store because you can find a variety of pieces in one place versus the same genre of artists at a gallery. Plus, a great print can easily be repurposed and freshened up with a new frame, glass and mating.
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: Hundreds upon hundreds, even thousands of dollars saved!
The sky’s the limit when it comes to saving money on art because if you get lucky and score a collector’s piece, you can be the next success story on Antique Roadshow or find the right buyer who wants to pay for that treasure you thrifted amongst the trash.
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO SHOP USED: Last summer I spotted this Pablo Picasso print at the Goodwill store in my neighborhood. I was blown away that a Picasso print had been donated, and that Goodwill was selling it for a measly $50.
Whether it’s the perfect portrait of a tropical sunset for your beach home or a bonafide Picasso print worth buying for bragging and collector’s rights, there’s no reason to go “art shopping” at an expensive gallery when your local store is a gallery of high-class art for an even higher class of savings!
BUY IT USED: Plates and bowls as well as glasses, mugs or silverware are easy to buy at thrift stores because people normally donate the entire set rather than a piece or two.
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: $60+ savings for an entire set. The average set of casual dinner dishes (excluding glasses and silverware) retails for about $80, and if you want anything beyond simple white you’ll probably be paying more than that.
When I was on the Nate Show a few years ago, I purchased an entire set of fine china for $20 to use as decoration on a dining room wall. Cost per piece broke down to about $1.50 per plate!
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO BUY USED: I’m a chronic glass breaker! Whether they break in the dishwasher or I drop them on the ground, I’m that girl whose told “not to hold too many things at once” for fear of dropping. Guess that ends my future career as a waitress!
When you can easily break, chip or damage dishware, why invest in a gorgeous set that’s doomed for inevitable destruction anyway? I’d rather breathe easy knowing that I’m not breaking $40 next time I drop my favorite Mikasa plate!
BUY IT USED: Wiggle your bum into a hot pair of designer denim duds used at the thrift store rather than buy new at a much higher cost.
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: $40-$100, depending on your favorite brand and temperature toward wearing style with name panache.
Whether you’re a label snob or not, I’ve noticed that thrift stores don’t mark up designer denim like they would mark up a designer dress. That means with some luck and thrifting skills, you could score a $150 sold-as-new pair of Paper, Cloth & Denim jeans for $5.99!
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO BUY USED: Since denim is the #1 fashion staple in America, I personally believe that it’s the most frequently donated item to a thrift store. Especially with Americans’ diet obsession, many a pair of denim has been donated thanks to weight gain or loss.
This is all good news for thrifters, because as Americans we logically love wearing denim and owning multiple pairs of it — I personally own three pairs of jeans, and I hardly ever wear ’em!
BUY IT USED: Any fun, flirty party dress should never be bought new, because chances are you’re buying it to wear for one special occasion like a formal work event, holiday soiree or best friend’s country club wedding.
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: $50 – $500, depending on whether you score fast fashion, vintage or designer pieces.
Shopping dresses at consignment or buy-resale chains means the brand names are better than the average thrift store since people are attempting to co-sign their best pieces they no longer wear before donation.
The difference between thrifting and buying consignment breaks down to an average of $20 more per dress and in my opinion, adding a few extra dollars for a better selection of quality and style is worth it.
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO BUY USED: While this isn’t your wedding dress we’re talking about here, I still believe those wear-one-time pieces should always be thrifted so that you don’t feel guilty if it sits in your closet unworn for the next year.
I use the simple equation of ROSI: Return on Style Investment to decide how much to spend on a dress. If you wear the dress once and it cost you $150, that one wear cost you $150 alone!
For the best ROSI, grab a secondhand dress and know that broken down by wear, you’re getting your money’s worth.
BUY IT USED: Shop secondhand clothing for a great selection of children’s styles that allow you to dress your children with the trends in mind, but also without concern that if they grow out of or ruin their clothing, it’s not going to break the bank to buy them some new pieces at the thrift store!
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: Over the course of a child’s “growing period,” at least a grand. With children growing, peeing, pooping, ripping and generally wrecking clothing on the regular, wardrobe shopping for the kids can takeover the entire family’s clothing budget.
I remember growing 6 inches within a two-month window in the 6th grade. My pants were as high as my ankles and I had nothing to wear!
I wish my mom had known about thrifting for children’s clothes, because I would have gladly loved an introduction to my Salvation Army at such a young age.
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO BUY USED: While you may care what your child looks like, chances are they don’t even notice! That’s why secondhand fashion is better than new, because the appreciation levels by the wearer are all the same regardless of how much you paid for it.
While you may love your daughter in a Diane von Fursternberg dress from Gap Kids, she’s not feeling any bolder and brighter wearing a little girl wrap. She just wants to run and play and chances are, get that dress dirty on the playground!
BUY IT USED: Halloween costumes or any other play-up holiday/celebratory wear (think bachelorette bashes, ’80s prom parties or Hawaiian luaus!) should be purchased at a thrift store for both financial savings and creative styling inspiration.
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: An entire ready-to-wear look — depending on the quality and creativity of it — can save you up to $50 when bought used.
I’ve seen some awesome costumes in Halloween’s past that looked like they were pretty pennies sold at the local Party City, but are more reasonably priced at the thrift store.
If you’re just grabbing a few small accessories and a bustier to channel Madonna circa 1984, you’re going to save at least a decent dinner out on the town (approximately $20) shopping that look secondhand versus the costume shop equivalency.
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO BUY USED: Because thrift stores often buy out-of-season stock in bulk from mainstream stores, you can luck out and sometimes find new-in-the-box costumes that although new, are still sold for a lot less than retail price.
Plus, thrift stores have gotten so savvy that once October 1st rolls around, you can find a rack full of “suggested” costume pieces pulled from the store’s more avant garde fashion or overdone vintage selection.
BUY IT USED: The process of discovering one-of-a-kind designer pieces is the true diamond in the rough treasure hunt that makes every thrifter’s dreams come true. So when you spot a designer dud that fits, flatters and functions in your wardrobe, don’t just walk to the cash register with that gem — run!!
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: Depending on the designer, hundreds of dollars.
I personally don’t buy anything new that’s of designer equivalency because I just can’t afford it and even if I could, why would I when I could donate money saved to a non-profit organization (like my personal fav She’s the First) or to help plant new trees in the rainforest?
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO BUY USED: I’m not a designer snob when it comes to buying new, but when I spy a really great Hermes scarf, Christian Dior jacket or Frye boots at a thrift store, I start to drool!
The time I thrifted an all-silk vintage Hermes silk scarf is one of my favorite moments in thrifting history. When I had the chance to meet style icon Wendy of Wendy’s Lookbook, I gifted her the silk scarf (a $.50 thrift score!) as a token of my appreciation.
She styled it into a great look on her site and graciously linked back to me — now that’s what I call spreading the love!
BUY IT USED: Since us ladies like to own multiple variations of a purse, bag, backpack, clutch, wallet — you name it! — it’s smart to shop secondhand when in the mood for a purchase that’s only adding to an already large and varied personal selection.
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: Lucky enough to find a vintage Coach? You’re saving hundreds.
Just looking for a cool Michael Kors or no-name brand with sensible style? You’re saving anywhere from $20 to $75 per purse.
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO BUY USED: Count your purses right now. Seriously — do it!
Chances are you have at least 5, and if you’re like me, you actually own 10!
Women own multiple purses because we prefer to style our outfits to match. Since we prefer owning multiple styles, it’s smart to satisfy our habitualized purse craving via secondhand sources. Maybe we can even buy two while we’re at it!
BUY IT USED: Big belts, tiny belts and everything-in-between belts are available by the dozens at a thrift store near you, just dying for a chance to wrap themselves around your waist!
SECONDHAND SAVINGS POTENTIAL: A good leather belt costs about $30 at The Gap.
Average price of belts, no matter their material, at a thrift store? About $1-$3 each.
With savings averaging anywhere from $29 to $27 against The Gap example, you’re saving almost as much as the cost of a new belt itself when you buy one used!
WHY IT’S SMARTER TO BUY USED: Next to purses and denim, the selection and variety of belts at a thrift store has something for everyone. From leather to pleather; shiny to distressed and black, white, brown, bright, sparkly and studded, every style personality is represented in the belt department.
Finding a large selection of belts at a thrift store makes sense because like denim, people grow in and out of belts. So when the jeans get donated, so do the belts that once fit them, too. You might as well thrift a belt everytime you thrift a pair of jeans!
All photos for this article were taken at a Salvation Army Family Store in New York City.
MORE THRIFT STORE SHOPPING
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PLUS: The Complete Thrift Shopping Dictionary