5 Expert Tips for Better Thrift Store Shopping

Denver, Colorado - Mariel West, 26, who is pregnant with her first child, shops for baby clothes at a resale shop.
Jim West/Alamy
By Kentin Waits

In the hierarchy of frugal strategies, buying secondhand has always been one of my favorites.

I love the idea of dodging depreciation on everything from furniture to sweaters, and from dishes to tools.

So how can you buy better and smarter inside that bastion of frugality, the humble thrift store? It's half art and half sport -- and with the right frame of mind, you can master the game.

After 25 years of avid thrifting -- with the bargains and bruises to prove it -- here are my top five strategies to land sweeter deals at any thrift shop:

1. Understand that each store is unique. If you're an experienced thrift shopper, you know that every secondhand store has its own distinct personality. Some seem to get better furniture, others pull in a better selection of books.

Respect and capitalize on the vibe of each store and use it to inform your shopping strategy.

2. Go with the flow. Understanding your local thrift and secondhand market is key to scoring the best items before anyone else.

Which days of the week do folks in your area typically have yard sales? Look for an influx of unsold yard sale items to hit the shelves a day or two after those sales close.

Also, pay special attention to larger stores' shipment and processing schedules. Learning which days and times your favorite thrift stores restock with fresh donations can keep you one step ahead of the competition.

3. Develop primary and secondary shopping patterns. Popular secondhand stores can be a bit chaotic. From the die-hard shoppers on a mission to merchandise in a constant state of disarray, thrift stores are an exercise in shopping endurance.

To keep my head about me, I like to give each store a quick once-over the moment I arrive. This primary search is my chance to gauge the general quality of the merchandise and see if there are any obvious treasures waiting to be plucked.

Once the primary search is over, I can relax and go deeper into each section of the store that interests me. During this secondary search, I focus on individual items. I thumb through books, try on a coat or two, and compare prices. Here, the goal is to get granular and sift efficiently through the junk to find the gems.

Admittedly, I probably think about my strategy far more than the average thrifter. But the primary and secondary shopping approach takes a lot of the stress out of my thrifting experience. Shoppers who don't pace themselves in this way tend to get overwhelmed.

4. Shop for tomorrow ... every day. It's nearly impossible to find what you need at a thrift store on demand. Unlike department stores, the inventory in secondhand stores is inconsistent, unpredictable and completely random.

If your kid needs a white oxford shirt with a 15½-inch neck and 32-inch sleeves by tomorrow morning, you'd better beat a hasty path to Target. But if you know a week or two in advance, it's entirely possible to find the perfect shirt for $3.

That's why successful thrifting requires planning ahead and predicting with some level of accuracy what you and your family will need next month, next school year and next summer. Doing so ensures that the bargains you score today will be put to good use tomorrow.

5. Check and double-check for quality. Intoxicated by the heady mix of a finder's high and bargain prices, it's easy to gloss over an item's flaws. Don't let that happen.

Most thrift stores don't allow returns or refunds, so unless you're a whiz with a sewing machine or a stain stick, pay attention to such details as split seams, missing buttons, stuck zippers or discoloration on clothing. Likewise, understand your handyman limitations on furniture, appliances, bicycles and other items.

Even the best bargain sours if it's left to languish as an unfinished project on a to-do list. Focus on items in good, serviceable condition, or those with only minor defects that you'll have the time, skill and motivation to address yourself.

What's your best thrift store find? Share your thoughts in our Forums. It's a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

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