Hints for thrift store success

This evening while the kids were at vacation Bible school I took an hour to wander a thrift store near our church.  I’ve heard people say that they never find good things at thrift stores, but I find something good at least 75% of the time and it is not because I’m lucky.  Four simple ideas have a great deal to do with that success, and with those ideas in mind I think that anyone can become a successful thrift store shopper.

Have several possible items in mind

If, for example, you walk into a thrift store looking for an oval mirror with a white frame, you may be disappointed.   But if you walk in with a list of possibilities to look for, you will increase your odds of a successful hunt.  Or make it even broader–think of a household/wardrobe problem you want to solve, and walk through the store visualizing different items as a solution to that problem.  Just one example: organization in a pantry could be provided using anything from baskets to shelves to crates to jars to wire racks.

Remember that material is everywhere

Sure, you can often find remnants of fabric at thrift stores — they’re usually hanging in with bed sheets.  But remember that in a thrift store you are literally surrounded by fabric.  Sheets, curtains, even large-size and extra-large items of clothing can be used as material for sewing projects.

Be willing to dig

People have the idea sometimes that clothing at the thrift store is out of date and worn out.  In my (admittedly persnickety) opinion, 70% of the clothing in a thrift store is not what I’d buy for my family, even dirt cheap.  But that other 30%?  It ranges from very acceptable all the way to beautiful.  And remember– the average thrift store contains thousands of items of clothing.  So if you’re serious about saving money on clothing, don’t give up after you’ve thumbed through half a dozen shirts.   The next one may be just the gem you’re looking for!

Use your imagination: would you like it in white?

Things can often be transformed with paint or other fixes.  That garish gold picture frame may look wonderful spray-painted lime green.  A wild 60’s lamp might be stunning with a lamp-shade redo.  Instead of only seeing what’s in front of you, imagine the possibilities.  Be realistic: if you don’t like to sew, don’t buy an item that will take hours of sewing machine time.  But if a fix is quick and affordable, give it a try.



So how did my trip go today?  Well, today I went to the store hoping for:

-a casual knit skirt to wear with t-shirts– something in a solid color.  I was open to buying a men’s t-shirt to convert to a skirt, but I also planned to check the women’s clothing for something ready-made.

–baskets or containers that might help me organize a closet–ideally several the same size, maybe ones that I could line with fabric.

— fabric for various sewing projects I’m brewing– maybe flannel, preferably something soft and neutral-colored.

— shirts for my teenage daughters, just because.

–also possibly two t-shirts the same color as each other so I could cut up one to add ‘ruffle’ flowers to the other.


I spent $50, which was a bit more than I intended to spend, but for that I got:

– a pair of shorts for my 13 yo daughter ($4)

– a small wire basket for organizing bathroom items ($1)

– a black picture frame for my teen daughters’ room. ($1)

– a crisp pink pillowcase perfect for my little girls’ room. ($1)

-5 shirts to divide between my teen daughters and me. ($4 each)  My favorite was a magenta blouse with ruffles at the neckline very much like the idea I wanted to DIY.  Except already done.

-8 matching chrome wire baskets (about 6 inches wide and 12 inches long each) that I think I might spray-paint black and line with lime green fabric for my teenage daughters’ bedroom makeover. ($0.69/each)

– almost-full rolls of orange and yellow twine that will be great drawstrings for duffle bags or gift bags.  ($1 each–I bought similar twine last Christmas for $5 for a roll)

– A little Rubbermaid container full of Christmas ‘jingle-bells’ for $0.99.

–a rectangular tin container that painted white will make a ‘pocket’ like this for the side of a desk or dresser. ($1)

-pale blue striped knit fabric (a yard for $1) and pale yellow knit fabric for various sewing projects. The yellow came in the form of a very large, long nightgown.  With that one ($3) nightgown, I could make a knit skirt (or two), a dozen or more burp cloths for a baby, or even the inner layer of a double-sided baby blanket.

– a fun turquoise mesh closet organizer that I’m going to put in my little girls’ closet for socks, undies, swimsuits, etc.  I almost passed it by because it was wadded up.   But when I took a minute to pry the packing tape off, I discovered it had multiple compartments and was in excellent shape. ($3)

— a brown jersey knit skirt — exactly the casual skirt I was hoping to find. No sewing needed. ($2)

I’m really happy that I found so many of the things that I was looking for.  I’m especially excited to work on the wire baskets.  The chrome is definitely getting a paint job, maybe black.  I am picturing lining them with a fabric like this, or possibly even doing something with chicken wire, like this.  Should be fun!


  1. I completely agree with you Mary. I think many time people limit themselves by expecting to find exactly what they are looking for as if they were at Target or Walmart. You have to use your imagination and sometimes your creative skills to get the perfect thing.
    I would say that 90% of the time I am looking for something I find it.

  2. Love love love thrift stores! I wrote a similar post on my experiences and tips for thrift store shopping (http://the-north-forty.com/2011/04/20/second-hand-treasures/). Being open-minded is definitely the most important part when you walk through those doors. Patience is key if you are looking for something specific. There are items that I look for every week and, while I may never find them at a thrift store, I’m am still patiently going to keep looking. Great post Mary!

  3. I hope you update us later with how the baskets turned out!

  4. I agree!! I find awesome deals at thrift stores. I recently scored a top designer casual jacket for a $1. It would have cost a couple of hundred dollars brand new.
    I find if you do frequent visits(I go once a week)you will have better luck and the staff will get to know you. Once they know you, they will tell you about new stuff or sometimes even hold it for you.

  5. I work for “a large thrift store based organization” and I love your tips – open-mindedness is key (and makes it more fun LOL)

    I think It’s funny when someone holds up a shirt and asks “do you have this in blue”

  6. Heather says:

    love thrift stores! I bought two of those mesh organizers at a garage sale for $.50 apiece at a garage sale earlier this summer- a fun find! Thanks for your ideas!

  7. I was thrilled to find a kid tough digital camera this week- My son had asked for one that very day and It works and it was 2 bucks! Only its pink but he told me he didnt care- before i bought it if it was girly;)

  8. He’s 5 and he was yearning for one after he saw his 3 yr old sisiter liking her digital camera- hello kitty from a garage sale. he asked for one and then said I dont care if its girly;)

  9. I love thrift stores, especially ones located in wealthy areas. It’s amazing what people get rid of. I figured out I can dress my family and myself with better quality clothes, that I purchased at Goodwill, then if I would have purchased something at the local Mass Merchandiser. I just purchased, for my teen, 2 pairs of Aeropostale jeans, which are usually ridiculous in price, for $4.00 each. And they were in mint condition…so I say win-win!

  10. Kaycee Fisher says:

    The only time I’ve bought clothing at a/the thrift store was a few years back. I needed/wanted some tank tops to wear around the house. The average, plain tank top at Target, Wal*Mart, etc. was $10 or so. Ridiculous. I went to the thrift shop nearest our home and I was able to buy 5 tank tops (all in different colors) 2 of which still had the original tags on them. My cost? $7 and change. I wash ALL clothing before wearing it (regardless of where it’s been bought) so no worries.

  11. While I have shopped numerous thrift stores over the years and found various treasures, I think in recent years their pricing has gotten a little out of hand. I can go to Kohl’s and on sale find a lovely shirt for any woman or girl to wear for $1.50; with the cheapest ones at local thrift store in the $3-$5 range these days. You really have to watch the prices.
    Though I have found many treasures at thrift stores and the recent being a beautiful shot glass chess game for $9. A collector of shot glasses, this was a huge find. I have to say though that the biggest money-saving find in any thrift store has to be the books. You can’t go wrong there.