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How to Shop Thrift Stores to Get the Most Out of Your Money

Woman shopping for clothing in a thrift store
SpeedKingz/Shutterstock

Shopping at thrift stores offers you a great way to find bargains on the things you want and need, but not everything at the thrift store is a deal. It’s important to pay attention to your purchases, and these tips will help.

Why aren’t thrift stores always a bargain? Not every deal is a deal, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with clothing that has stains, products that don’t work, or even baby toys that were recalled. Here’s how to avoid that mess.

Time Your Visit

Just like regular stores have stocking days, sales, and busy and slow times, thrift stores do too. Knowing the rhythm of your local stores—when they process and shelve incoming materials and when they offer extra incentives like markdowns and buy X items and save Y percent type sales, goes a long way towards increasing your savings. Such a long way, in fact, that we’ve dug into the topic just by itself here.

Pay Attention to the Prices

Prices vary from one thrift store to another. It used to be that you could tell which resale shops were more expensive by the title “boutique” in their name. These days, however, some boutique stores have better deals than even Goodwill does.

Goodwill has taken some heat lately for their inflated prices on used and dollar store items. Sometimes the prices are higher than buying something new.

If you want to get the most out of your money shopping any thrift store, not just Goodwill, know the items you’re shopping for. Get to know brand names of clothing, pay attention to the things you generally shop for at big box stores and how much they run for new. You can also take your smartphone with you and do a little online investigating when you find an item you’re unsure about. If a product in front of you is $7 and in used-but-dubious condition and the brand new item is $9 on Amazon, it’s probably not worth it.

Always Inspect the Items

You need to look closely at everything you intend to buy when you’re thrifting. Each type of item you shop for comes with its own issues.

Here’s a look at some things you might thrift shop for and what you need to look at before you buy!

Clothing

When you’re shopping for used clothing, you need to inspect the items before you buy them. Make sure all of the zippers zip correctly. Check the crotch area of pants and the armpit area of shirts for holes and stains. Try clothing on before you purchase because some thrift stores don’t take returns.

Not only do you want to find clothing that is free of stains and rips, make sure that the price is right. You might find a $3 Walmart tank top for $3.99 at Goodwill. Do you really want to pay extra for a used shirt from last season?

Often you’ll find brand new items at thrift stores that still have the original store tags on them. This helps you know when you’re getting a deal, but don’t buy something just because it’s a bargain—you’re not saving money if you’re buying things you don’t need or want.

Electronics and Kitchen

You can find some great deals on electronics thrifting, but make sure you can try them out in-store. Of course, some things need more than just a plug to test, like toasters and microwaves. Check on the store’s return policy so you know you can bring something back if it doesn’t work.

Electronics cover kitchen items in some ways, so let’s lump them together here. Check dishes and cups for chips and cracks. If you have food allergies or Celiac disease, you may want to avoid used kitchenwares altogether to avoid any issues with cross-contamination.

Books

Brand new books can be pricy. Thrifting for books is a great way to build an affordable home library. There are things you want to pay attention to when it comes to thrift store books.

First, always flip through a book to make sure that there is no water damage, no missing pages, and to make sure that there is no writing or highlighting in the book (while not a big deal for some people, other’s side notes can be distracting). Then, smell the book. This sounds odd, but if you have allergies and have ever read a musty old book, you know it leads to tons of sneezing and an inability to finish reading a book you just spent hard-earned cash on.

Don’t buy books with water damage or mold on them. Do buy books with missing covers or missing dust covers, if you’re OK with that. If you find an autographed book, snatch it up. These make great collector’s items, and you might find out it’s worth something.

Toys and Games

It’s frustrating to buy a toy or a game and get it home to find out pieces are missing. It’s a used item, so you can’t contact the manufacturer. If it’s an old game or toy, you might not be able to find replacement parts to purchase.

Count cards and pieces, always open up boxes to make sure all of the parts are there. If the store tapes game boxes shut, take it up to the counter and ask if they can open it for you so you can make sure it isn’t missing any pieces. Most thrift stores don’t have time to have an employee check to make sure all the pieces are with every toy or game donated, and you can’t trust that someone donating the item didn’t donate it because it was missing that one piece.

Board and card games, like books, are another item that is pricy to buy brand new. If your family likes games, thrifting is a great way to get a collection of new games to play.

Movies and Music

Movie and music lovers can make a killing thrifting for entertainment. From vinyl records to CDs and VHS to BluRay, you can find it all in a thrift store. Prices vary, but they tend to all be an extreme discount over what you’d pay for a new copy.

Always check to make sure the CD or DVD is in the case. Some businesses keep the discs behind the counter (because of theft), so you’ll need to get the disc when you check out. While you’re checking to make sure the right movie or music is in the case, check for scratches. With VHS and cassettes, look at the ribbon to see that it doesn’t have wrinkles or folds in it.

A few superficial scratches are OK on DVDs, Blu-rays, and CDs, but gouges or discs with tons of scratches will affect play. Skip really scuffed up items.

All the Rest

You may buy home decor, paintings, sports equipment, and even craft supplies at the resale shop. When it comes to all things available to you, know the new prices. Check the items to make sure they are in good shape and still have some life in them.

If you can get the same thing for a buck more brand new, don’t buy it used. If the material you want to buy to make a pillow smells musty, don’t buy it. You may be in a hurry to grab stuff and check out, but when it comes to shopping at thrift stores, the best way to get your money’s worth is to look closely at everything for cracks, stains, and other issues.

Know What Not to Buy Used

There are certain things you shouldn’t buy at thrift stores for sanitary reasons. Undwear is at the top of that list. If they are new in a sealed package, then that’s OK (if it looks like the factory seal has never been broken). Bras, bathing suits and pajamas can go both ways—some people love to buy these items used, and others cringe at the thought.

Baby items are another thing that you need to use your discretion on. Look closely for stains (babies are quite messy). Check for recalls before you buy used baby swings, cribs, and strollers.

Skip the used pet items. Plenty of diseases can be spread from pets, and you don’t want your dog or cat to get sick because you bought them a used food dish or toy.


With a little careful examination and a keen eye for pricing, you can come away with some great thrift store bargains.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »

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