The Golden Rules of Thrifting

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


26 Comments / Post A Comment

I would disagree with only the DIY rule. Sometimes its great to buy something a little off for little cost, and then customize it to your liking. It gives you license to make changes (small or more drastic) that you wouldn’t normally try on a piece that you bought new/full-price. For example: For Christmas I wanted a kick ass Christmas sweater. An easy thing to find in August at Goodwill, but near impossible/very expensive in December. So, I found a GIANT man sweater by Banana Republic (we’re talkin XXXL here)for $2, took it home, traced the outline of a sweater that fit me, sewed up the sides, cut off the excess and BOOOOM. While the shoulder seams are near my mid bicep, no one has caught on that it was an alteration.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Pim Robert@facebook Yep. Also, I do own a sewing machine and do sew. I have to hem/alter stuff I pay full-price for brand new, so I expect that I’ll also have to do it for thrifted items.

undinespragg (#867)

@Pim Robert@facebook Agreed. If you are at all handy with a sewing machine, or if you want to become handy, thrifting is a great way to get better at making alterations, which is an invaluable skill to have. I’ve gotten so that I can sometimes even skip trying certain things on, because I like the fabric and the general cut, the brand is a quality one, and I’m certain I can tweak to fit (this mostly just works with skirts and dresses). A few weeks ago I took a pair of wide-leg full-length chinos I never wear and turned them into skinny-leg capri-length pants that are great for summer. There is little that’s more satisfying than repurposing something you don’t wear anymore or a thrifted item that you love but doesn’t fit quite right.

liznieve (#37)

@Pim Robert@facebook
I suppose the only thing is that buying something with the intention of totally doing something with this later often means nothing gets done and the item is left taking up precious space in your 2 linear feet of closet, and you’re out $5 that could have totally bought an iced coffee and a pastry.

hopelessshade (#580)

@liznieve Shhh. Those things were only a couple of dollars and they’ll get altered eventually… >_>

Tatiana (#194)

I LOVE THRIFTING SO MUCH, so this article basically triggered my need to thrift this weekend. I agree with everything homegirl said, except #7 because I’m an avid sewer, but not everyone is! I can’t wait to listen to bad adult contemporary whilst digging for cheap treasure. Great article!

cryptolect (#1,135)

Love this; though my thrifting days are behind me, I am still an avid vintage shopper. (I pay more for the pieces that someone has picked out for me. These days, it’s extremely difficult to find what I like at thrift stores.)

I would, however, respectfully disagree with Rules 2 and 7. At least 50% of my closet is polyester from the 1960s/1970s, and it definitely lasts! And it looks good on me, or at least I feel like it does, which is mostly the same thing. I have also transformed $12 muumuus into flattering fitted sheaths with the help of a good tailor. It works! But sadly, those stains don’t ever come out.

Ugh. Unfortunately, thrifting is almost always a failure for tall ladies with big feet. Because when we find things that fit, we NEVER LET THEM GO. Until they literally fall apart.

Only things I can get at a thrift store are accessories and dishes. But I do have the most awesome cake plates from the 70s-ish that only cost me £1.50 for 6, so that’s good!

EvelynGarcia (#849)

@Kate Amann@twitter My feet are a wide US size 10 (line forms to left, boys) and I rarely find women’s shoes that fit at thrift shops, especially teeny narrow delicate vintage shoes. I have GREAT luck with men’s shoes though, especially with all the menswear looks right now. Oxfords, loafers, etc.

Gertrude (#1,436)

@Kate Amann@twitter As a tall lady, I disagree! I rarely find shoes, but I have tons of wonderful dresses and skirts — older stuff tends to run longer. Also, one of my major thrifting rules is BRING A BELT. As a curvy lady, I can usually find several oversized pieces that look great with a belt — and a few that, it turns out, look ridiculous.

@EvelynGarcia Yeah, my feet are US 12. I don’t even try. I live in retro-style men’s sneakers, so I always check for them, but never seem to find anything good. I won’t give up though!

@Gertrude I don’t really wear dresses and skirts, but perhaps I should start if it means I can get them cheap. I’d have to go for short sleeved or sleeveless though. And it seriously sucks not being able to buy a nice sweater because the sleeves are too short in an awkward, non-fashionable way. The belt rule is a good one though, I think even for shopping in general. I always find myself wondering if stuff would work with one, and I never have one.

Anyway, all clothes should be made longer! Short people can hem, tall people cannot add fabric. Ahh, the injustices of the world.

cliuless (#36)

the stain does come out sometimes! i got this amazing men’s buttondown for $1. it had a gross yellow sweatstain at the neck, but after a trip to the dry cleaner’s it was good as new.

@cliuless : Or if it’s machine-washable, which all shirts should be, you can just pre-treat those stains with Murphy’s Oil Soap scrubbed in lightly with an old toothbrush. Then chuck it in the wash, and you’re alllll set. Murphy’s is like voodoo on sweat stains.

That is my only household tip. You’re welcome!

sensiblecardigan (#1,440)

On the whole, I really like this article, except for this statement:

“I constantly find pieces that are Target brand, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, and the Gap.”

Feels like it goes against the very spirit/purpose of thrifting, i.e. to find unique pieces that are more interesting than what you can find it chain stores.

@sensiblecardigan Yeah, especially considering everything at the Gap eventually goes on sale anyways so you can probably buy those items new for about the same cost as what you pay used at a thrift shop. I’m sure opinions vary on this, but those brands seem like ‘fast fashion’ to me, ie. nothing I would ever pay full price for or buy used. They’re just not worth it. I’m thrifting for the fifty-year-old pair of deadstock leather shoes that are still in perfect shape…

allifer (#157)

@sensiblecardigan How about alternative purposes/spirits, like reusing instead of buying new or being able to find a work wardrobe on the cheap? And Deb, I’ve never gotten a Gap shirt for a dollar at a Gap.

Ellie (#62)

@sensiblecardigan I definitely get this, but my experience is that the “chain store” brand items you find in thrift stores are usually from longer ago enough so that they’re interesting. Most of my best or favorite pieces from those brands (Gap, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic) are hand-me-downs or bought used.

Megano! (#124)

I apply most of these rules to regular clothes shopping too! (#1,442)

This goes into all the reasons I am a terrible thrifter/vintage shopper. I love vintage clothes, but I hate the hunt. I like to go into a store and stand there going, “HAAAAAAALP.” Which is ironic, because I am a personal shopper. Literally.

But, yes, all these rules apply to regular shopping, especially when it comes to shoes. Men’s/boys shoes can be cool and cheaper than the women’s equivalent. Just size 1.5-2 sizes down and you’ll be OK.

But a caveat: DO NOT buy worn shoes. DO NOT. EVER. They’re already broken which means they’ll never break specifically for your foot and can cause foot/gait issues that will mess up your feet, legs and back. Agreed – my last few pairs of tennis shoes have been from the boys’ section. I really have no desire to have bright pink/purple workout shoes just because I am a lady.

@Koko Goldstein I KNOW, Why on earth is everything for ladies pink? Especially when it comes to gym stuff. Drives. Me. Insane.

I totally disagree with not trying on everything (that’s what mini measuring tapes are for) and no alterations and no DIY. (What? No. Never.)

I know what my body looks like and I know what clothes look good on it. Trying on clothes in thrift stores not only slows you down but can be such an enormous hassle because thrift store dressing rooms are so small and cramped and sometimes not at all private. Plus: I’ll try that wrinkled stained dress on at home after I’ve washed it, thanks. I have a mini measuring tape that I keep on me at all times to quickly measure the bust and waist of anything I’m interested in. If measurements are all I need for buying vintage on etsy, then it’s all I need for IRL shopping too.

And as for Rule 7, I’ve been buying and wearing vintage since I was 16 and I can’t even fathom not altering the clothes you get to fit. Do you seriously wait until that one magical item that fits you perfectly shows up before you buy clothes? Your clothes will not only look better on you if you take 10 minutes to fix a too-long hem but having the ability to alter your clothes means there’s so many more items you can buy. That two-sizes-too-large Lilly Pulitzer shift? Take it in 4″, lift the hem 6″, and you’ve turned a $4 find into what looks like an awesome $100 summer dress. Learning to sew was probably the best skill my mom ever taught me.

Oh and? “Rule Six: Shop in all sections. Except underwear.” I recently bought three packages of Spanx underwear, brand new, still in their packaging for $3/ea. (retail about $30 + tax) Shop in all sections, full stop.

Myrtle (#116)

I include resale shops such as “Play It Again Sports” in my thrifting sweeps, as it’s a great way to get gear for sports I want to try without buying new. I got my first rollerblade skates this way and my gorgeous figure (ice) skates (premium leather, so comfy) in a men’s size. They’re not so horribly, painfully narrow and they’re black, which I love.

sac875 (#6,576)

I love thrifting! Every store is a new adventure! I’ll take any thrift store or consignment shop but my regulars are Goodwill, Community Aid and a few “animal shelter” thrift stores where the proceeds help fave! I wanted to comment on your statement about buying silk and wool..these items contribute to animal cruelty..if you have a soft spot for animals and insects, etc one should agree. Being that I’m vegetarian and aspiring to be vegan, I read labels on everything, well about 9x out of 10 most times and I avoid fabric and materials that are animal derived so that would be: silk, wool, leather, suede, fur and down. I try not to contribute to cruelty where I can.
This book covers all you need to know on what to buy at thrift stores

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