Back when I was a dorky, misunderstood teenager in Smalltown, Pennsylvania, I shopped at thrift stores to find the punk/ironic clothes our local mall didn’t carry. In grad school, I thrifted to find classy and vintage outfits I could never afford on a stipend. Now that I’m officially a grown adult with a good job (retirement plan and everything!), I thrift because I love it. And because I still can’t justify spending more than $25 on a shirt.
I developed my rules of thrifting because I’m actually a terrible shopper. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that in an article about shopping, but I believe in honesty between friends. Left to my own devices, I’d have a really bizarre wardrobe that would look like your crazy Aunt Sally’s circa 1970. (Actually, that sounds awesome.) In reality, nothing would fit or work together, and I’d sigh as I safety-pinned my pants shut and make plans to go thrifting again.
Behold: the golden rules of thrifting! If you are new to thrifting or haven’t had much success, these rules are for you. And I promise you will never spend more than $25 on a shirt.
Rule One: You have to love it.
If two hours spent speed-sorting through musty clothes in a garishly lit superstore while Matchbox 20 plays on the radio sounds like torture to you, then don’t do it. If you are the kind of person who goes on eBay and searches for tchotchkes with free shipping that cost under $5 on the regular (seriously—this is fun, and how I do Christmas stockings), then maybe thrifting is for you. You have to really need the deals, or really want those diamond-in-the-rough fancy vintage pieces, for thrifting to be worth it.
Rule Two: No polyester or stretchy plastics. Pay attention to materials!
In general, I avoid plastic-y blends like the plague. They don’t look good on anyone, even the models, and they certainly don’t hold up well over time. Always look at the tags and work on buying good, sturdy clothing made of cotton, wool, silk, or other natural fibers.
Rule Three: Know your brands.
While a great piece can be made by anyone, you know the brands that you like (or wish you had more of). This can have the added bonus of helping you with sizing, if you know what you wear in that brand. I constantly find pieces that are Target brand, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, and the Gap. My favorite brown pinstriped pants are Dockers that I got for $3. And especially if you are looking for basics (jeans, black work pants, long and short sleeved tees), go with a brand that you know you like and will last for a long time because of quality craftsmanship.
Rule Four: Try on everything. Ev-er-y-thing.
Yup, this is a pain. It is even more a pain if you are like me and fill up a cart with 30 items on the hectic 50% off days, when everyone camps out at the dressing rooms with their five children. But you must always, always try things on when you thrift. First of all, if you are a lady, you know that number sizes mean absolutely nothing. Secondly, that shirt that looked perfect on the hanger could fit you in all the wrong places and you won’t have the energy to return something that was $5. And finally, there are jerks like me who are short and get all of their pants hemmed, and forget, and then donate them (unless you are short too, in which case, I just saved you a $10 hem!).
Rule Five: Don’t go thrifting looking for anything specific.
If you go to the store and think “I need an off-white wool blend sweater with a ¾ sleeve in a medium” you will be very sad that day. Even going with a general goal of “I need dark jeans” could end in disappointment. Unless you are going to get clothes to paint your house in, in which case you should probably get those neon-orange overalls and the camo tank top, because when else will you be able to buy those things?
Keep your wants and needs in mind, but shop with an open mind. It’s more important to know your tastes and your fit, so you can be flexible when an awesome piece crosses your path. That vintage pencil skirt is a gift, don’t pass it up because you needed tank tops!
Rule Six: Shop in all sections. Except underwear.
Don’t buy used underwear, guys. But do try out all the sections in the store! When I was a skinny college student, I loved buying teen boys’ clothes because they fit, were simple, sturdy, and way cheaper than women’s clothing. I’ve found great, classic button-ups in the men’s section and I’m constantly on the lookout for small suit jackets that I can wear over tees. I don’t know if this works equally well for men in the women’s section, but I don’t know your life.
Rule Seven: No alterations. No DIY.
Just because Martha Stewart said it was easy doesn’t make it so. When was the last time you sewed something? Do you even own a sewing machine? If the answer is no, then you have no business “fixing” that perfect top with the little hole in the back, or altering that maxi dress to something more fitting. Trust me, just don’t do it. Your life will be better. On a related note—no, you won’t get that stain out.
Rule Eight: Be patient, but picky.
When I was a young thrifter, I’d spent tons of time looking at every shirt on the rack, trying to make it work with my wardrobe. Now I speed through those hangers like a pro. Yeah, I might miss a find or two, but the really good things always jump out at you. Know what you like and it will come to you. And if it doesn’t, you didn’t realize it was there anyway.
Rule Nine: Take a Claritin and wash your hands.
Old clothes are musty. And old hangers are greasy and dirty. It’s kind of gross, but you are an adult who can take a shower afterwards (while your new purchases go in the wash). My allergies always act up in the big stores, so I appreciate a good allergy pill and some tissues. Don’t let it get in the way of your thrifting joy.
Rule Ten: Give back.
Once those clothes have made the rounds in your wardrobe, and you’re spring cleaning, make sure you take a nice big box back to the donation center. If you’re lazy, Freecycle it! Give it a second, third, or even fourth life.
Those are my rules and they haven’t done me wrong yet. Have your own thrifting pointers? Let us know in the comments!
Holly Brown is an amateur penny-pincher working to give a good name to average people everywhere. She enjoys thrifting, dollar stores, and Craigslist much more than she should. Photo: Flickr/empracht