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?
Let me know by leaving some love in the comments below, or saying hello on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram!
WHAT TO BUY AT A THRIFT STORE
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!
#5: Party Dresses
#6: Children’s Clothes
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!
5.) Party Dresses
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.
6.) Children’s Clothes
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
34 Awesome Tips: How to Thrift Store Shop from Beginner to Pro
TIPS: 23 Tips for Buying Used Clothes
BASICS: The 5 Best Tips for Thrift Store Shopping from Destination Thrift
INSPECTION: Thrift Store Shopping Quality Goods
VIDEO: Thrift Shopping the Goodwill Outlet
PLUS: The Complete Thrift Shopping Dictionary
Great list, Sammy! I loved #7 – costumes are so much fun to thrift for! (Some of the pieces the thrifts pull for Halloween are kind of fun to wear year-round – just because an employee thought it was a costume doesn’t mean it can’t be fabulously styled for everyday ;)
I’m still hunting for #8 – a true designer piece. Not a ton of that where I live (central Illinois) but I am ever optimistic :)
Natalie! You are so very right about costumes. I’ve had some INFAMOUS moments thrifting for a character in a thrift store! Super fun and stimulating. I have high hopes for Central Illinois! Chicago influence, no? A designer dud I think are few and far between but still possible to find. I am sending good thrift energy your way, sister. xx
Okay, after some reflection, I should probably take back part of my statement… I *have* found a couple of higher-end designer things (in Peoria, IL*, no less!) but what I meant to say was *vintage* designer. I’m itching for a vintage piece with a great label! But thank you for the thrift energies, I can feel them working! haha
(*I’m a couple hours south of Chicago, so there could definitely be an influence here, but I’m hoping to get up north soon to see what the thrifts have in store for me there.)
Get up North! haha I love that statement! I say that about going to my homestate below New York … I’m heading “south” of the border! ;-) As for vintage designer, I think it’s definitely easier to come by so I will say a prayer to the vintage Gods for you. Let me know when they answer so we can rejoice! xx
Sammy, I’ve bought everything on your list!!! I love finding mid-century anything, it just goes so well with modern design. But coming across that kind of furniture or wall and table sculptures is a real steal.
And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in the children’s section and found new clothing with the tags on for a fraction of the price. And that goes for maternity wear for moms as well – maternity wear is expensive and you own it for such a short period of time, I recommend going thrifted all the way.
Something I’ve seen in mags that is so awesome for thrifting are mismatched white dishes, stacked on open shelves. The white unifies them, and the different textures add visual appeal. You can’t go wrong with all-white china.
hey Stephanie! I know you have definitely bought everything on my list ;-) I bet you could produce a top 50 list! As for maternity clothes, what a GREAT point. I think it depends on the store. The store (Salvation Army) we shot this article actually didn’t have a maternity clothes section … I think most would break that clothing away from the rest, correct? Or perhaps an expecting mother would shop the Plus Size section, although that is a bit depressing for some so I would never want to suggest it ;-(
Mismatched white dishes …. hmmm … I like the sound of this, almost like the art that can be created with different levels of candle sticks on a table or mismatched mugs with various sayings and photos on them.
Thank you for this very thoughtful comment!
Stephanie, that is a really great point about maternity clothes. Baby clothes are great to find at garage sales as well as thrift stores, and sometimes the moms sell their maternity clothes at those kind of garage sales.
Sammy, I usually find a maternity section in most stores, but sometimes they are mixed in (especially in smaller stores.) Sometimes I find maternity tops in the regular section that are only distinguishable as “maternity” by the label – styles like babydoll tops or empire waistlines that have been popular in recent years. They look so much like the non-maternity tops that either the staff put them in by mistake or shoppers stick them in the racks. (I’ve even bought a couple of shirts and later realized, I think this might be maternity… LOL) Even some non-maternity tops in those styles would work for moms-to-be before they get farther along, I think. So if there is no maternity section at your local store, if you have a lot of time and patience, you could look through the regular section and see what could work for you or if any maternity tops were mixed in.
And back to Stephanie, I LOVE the white dishes idea – I’ve seen that a lot, too. That principle also works for knicknacks (if you find a figurine that is kind of cute but an ugly color, you can spray paint it white and put it with other all-white objects and it looks very chic.) I’ve been re-reading Al Hoff’s book “Thrift Score” and actually just read the section on dishware – the author suggests shopping for dishes in a certain color palette and make a game of it. Every time you go to the thrift store, pick up a pink plate or a blue plate or whatever. If you find dishes that fit your color scheme better than the ones you bought early on, trade them in and redonate the ones that don’t fit as well. It sounds like fun!
Natalie thank you for communicating with Stephanie! ;-) You are two vintage lovers who I know would be good friends in “reality” life!
You definitely bring up good points about maternity clothing! Ah those baby doll tops of the early ’00s, definitely a hot trend for one summer with Daisy Duke shorts! Work for any expecting lady of any age now!
THANK YOU for name dropping the book Thrift Score … why have I never heard of that?! I am going to order it on Amazon now!
thanks for spreading the thrift love with this wonderful, thoughtful comment Natalie! Your attention shines! xx
Great post Sammy!
I love that lace number with the fringe under ‘costumes’. I want it! Hahaha
Awesome list. Thrift stores sometimes have the most excellent furniture and housewares!
Thanks so much Megan! ;-) That piece was an ’80s garment of Western inspired wear … meant to be worn by DAY! Not as a costume!!! I think that if you cut the skirt/dress part away from lace top and wore that as a jacket or shirt with high-waisted cut-offs, you’d be looking pretty fly!
I think that we should dress in costume for every holiday. Next up is the 4th … I want to DIY an American Flat into a dress or cape! God bless America’s thrift stores!
Yes yes and yes :D
Another one to that list for me is scarves.(btw, I drooled over that scarf too, what a find… and what a gift!) The Good Sammys near me sells scarves and shawls for $3.50 each, no matter how big bold and wonderful they are. I’ve walked out with massive armloads of them before because I just couldn’t say no to any of them, and at that price, why should I? Haha, my scarf collection is starting to look like my shoe collection. My partner says we’re going to need a room just for my wardrobe when he build out dream home, and I tend to think he’s right! (That’s what I’m hoping, anyway. What girl doesn’t want a private dressing room?)
Furniture is definately a favorite of mine. All my furniture is either thrifted or Ikea. (Ikea is my happy place. Second to thrift shops only because it sells big things :P) My other reliable source of furniture is the roadside collection that happens twice a year here. It is amazing what people will dump on the side of the road.
HEY KITT!! What a lovely comment to leave, thank you! And thank you for sharing your stories (and happy place, Ikea!) My first introduction to Ikea was in Philadelphia where I went to school. YES, it as gorgeous! It’s fun to play there! I agree with you about that dressing room. I want a room devoted to vintage collectibles!
Great post – I agree with all of your points. I can’t wait to get my own place and fill it with beautiful thrifted pieces!