If you struggle with thrifting and are looking to get the most return on your time investment when you go, this post is for you! Below you’ll find My Ultimate Guide To Thrifting: Tips & Tricks For Scoring Beautiful Second Hand Home Decor that I’ve developed over a lifetime of being an avid second-hand shopper.
And while this post will focus mainly on home goods, nearly all these tips can be applied to clothes shopping as well.
This post is a big one, so feel free to jump to the section you’re most interested in:
– Table Of Contents –
Always Start By Mapping Out A Route
Thrift shopping can be time consuming, but there are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years to help maximize my outings!
Locate All Your Local Second-Hand Shops
The first thing you obviously need to start with is simply finding out where all the second-hand shops in your area are located. This can be a challenge since many are not labeled as “thrift stores”.
How I Find Thrift & Second-Hand Stores
- The internet really is magic. I always start by just typing “(city name) thrift stores” into Google. This *should* pull up a list of every place in town that has identified themselves as a second-hand shop. It will also show any store where a visitor has describe them as such.
- Local Bloggers
- If you want to save time figuring out which shops are worth your time, check and see if you have any local bloggers who have listed out their favorites.
- Always Be On The Lookout While Driving
- I ALWAYS have my eyes peeled for anything that looks like it might be a charity shop. I pay even closer attention if I’m driving in a part of town I don’t normally visit.
- Use Alternative Search Words: Here’s a few of the most common.
- Thrift Store
- Second-Hand Store
- Consignment Shop
- Charity Shop
- ReStore, Goodwill & Salvation Army (though these are actual brand names)
- Neighborhood Store
- Shop Second Hand Home Decor Online
- Facebook Marketplace – Stay tuned for a follow-up blog post on this resource!
- Craigslist may be dated, but you can find some gold here as this is what many older folks are more familiar with and tend to use more than these other sites.
- Goodwill Yep. You can shop Goodwill in your PJs right from home.
- Etsy To only see vintage goods, after you do your search, go to “All Filters -> Item Type -> Vintage”
- Ebay While eBay may be known as an online auction site, they now also offer a wide variety of ready to ship items for sale as well.
- Charish If you’re looking to snag a killer deal, this is probably not the site for you. However, it is a great place to find some really unique antique items!
- Estate Sales: While these are sort of in a category of their own, most thrifters consider them under the “thrifting” umbrella. So I’ll include how I source mine here as well.
*You may have noticed I left “antique shops” off this list as they, in my opinion, are not thrift shops. Second-hand shops for sure, but they fall outside of the “thrift” umbrella for me.
Plan To Hit Several Thrift Shops In One Area
The second thing you’ll want to do is to map out a route that will enable you to easily hit several stores in a single trip.
This is usually pretty easy to accomplish as *typically* thrift stores like to cluster together in certain areas of town.
I like to look these up ahead of time on a computer. I then plan out my day based on where each shop is located and what store makes sense to hit first, second, third, etc.
Small Towns Vs. Big Cities
If you want to score the best stuff at the best deals, head to the smallest towns near you. For starters, there are usually less people shopping at those stores, increasing your odds of finding a killer deal. But additionally, these are places that many families tend to settle down in for the long term. So often you will find more valuable antique items at thrift shops and antique stores in small towns for better prices than you would in the big city.
Big cities however are usually better for scoring great deals on modern goods and for having a larger turnover of merchandise on a regular basis.
Consider What Area of Town To Visit
The trick to thrifting in a bigger city is often to find the largest chain of thrift stores in town. Then go to the location that is on the outskirts of the city in an area with the smallest population. This is because most big thrift store chains have a linked donation hub. This hub then distributes merchandise to their various locations all around town. By visiting a less popular location, you are more likely to score a great find.
Another trick you can try is shopping thrift stores in the more affluent areas of town. Often these locations receive donations from the higher-income individuals who live in that neighborhood, the potential result being that you may be able to score more designer-made, high-end goods at these spots. Be prepared for the prices at these thrift stores to be higher though.
Know What Different Stores Do Better
Every thrift store does certain things better than others. One may have great deals on clothes, but almost never get in any furniture. While another store may have tons of furniture, but their clothes are all priced exorbitantly. To save yourself time in the future, make a note of what each thrift store does best so you can maximize your time when you go out by only visiting the locations that you know will give you the best shot of finding what you’re after.
Additionally, every thrift store, even if they are part of the same chain, sets their own prices. So just because one location of a chain isn’t great, doesn’t mean they are all the same!
Develop Circuits & Go-To Routes
Chances are you don’t have ALL DAY to go thrifting. If you’re anything like me, you’ll only have time (and the mental bandwidth) to hit 3-4 (if that) on any given outing. That’s why it’s important to develop different routes and circuits.
For example, say I have a route of 4 shops that are all pretty close to one another that I hit one day, well the next time I go I’ll choose a different route with a different 4 shops on it.
That helps ensure I’m not going to waste my time by just seeing the same exact stuff every time I go. I also love not having to think about WHERE to go, and being able to just hop in the car and hit my predetermined route for the day.
Pick Your Day Carefully
Along with planning your route carefully, the day of the week you plan your trip for can also have a huge effect on the success of your thrift outing.
If you take nothing else from this entire guide, remember this: find out if your thrift store has a restock day! For me that’s Tuesday here in town. Several of my favorite thrift stores close to restock on Mondays. That means, when they open on Tuesday they have just put out all their fresh merchandise for that week. Be aware that if a thrift store DOES have a restock day, you want to go early. Often, people will line up outside the door on those mornings waiting to get in and see what’s new for the week.
Midweek Vs. Weekends
In general, I’ve found that midweek is usually better than shopping on a weekend. Monday -Wednesday mornings in particular are often best. The exception to this is if there is a sale day over a holiday weekend. Otherwise, when shopping on the weekend, the stores tend to be more crowded and picked over in my experience.
Just like asking if your store restocks on a certain day, I ALWAYS find out if a thrift shop has set mark-down days. These can vary wildly from store to store. Some might use a color-coded, price-tag system that offers different discounts for the different colors on a different day. Other’s might do 99-cent days where a certain type of good is only 99 cents that day. Some have senior-discount days, student-discount day, kid-clothes-mark-down days, home-goods-mark-down days or just general 50% off the entire store days weekly. FIND OUT!
Along with regularly scheduled weekly mark down days, many thrift stores also have dedicated sale days over things like holiday weekends where they mark down the entire store by 50%. Other times they might do a customer-appreciation event with special mark downs. Look around and see if you can find a calendar anywhere listing these types of upcoming sale events. If you don’t see one, ask an employee if they ever do them and if so when the next event will be.
Consider The Time Of Year
Another important factor in choosing WHEN to go thrifting is the time of year.
Take Advantage Of New-Year’s Resolutions
January and February are an EXCELLENT time of year for thrifting. At the start of a new year, people tend to clean and declutter after the holidays due to New-Year’s resolutions to “get organized”. Most thrift stores are bursting at the seams with great merchandise during this time of year.
Changing Seasons Means Folks Are Purging
Another factor to take into consideration is changing seasons. Usually this is when people are clearing out their closets and donating things that no longer fit them. This means your thrift shop may experience a surge of seasonal items people no longer want for the season you’re about to move into OR the season you just moved out of.
Score Better Deals On Out Of Season Items
Seasonal shopping can also be important when wanting to score a great deal on a specific item. For instance, the chance of you finding a great deal on a ski suit is way higher in the summertime (when no one else is looking for or cares about ski suits) and less likely when it’s winter time and people are all on the hunt for winter clothing.
Create An In-Store Plan Of Attack
One of the most common comments I hear from people in regards to thrifting is how overwhelming the process can be. These tips should help with that.
Create A List Of All The Things You’re Looking For
Nothing is more overwhelming than going into a thrift shop and looking for “whatever”. So for your mental health it’s important to have either a physical or mental list of what you’ll be looking for that day. I’ve seen some folks even create pinterest boards of items they need to help them stay on track.
As you get comfortable going and feel less overwhelmed, you can try expanding your list to include more items or even more general categories.
Pick Sections Of The Store To Shop
To limit the mental energy I’m outputting at each location, I always refer back to my mental list of what items I’m looking for. Then I only shop those sections of the store, ignoring the rest of the shop like it doesn’t even exist.
For example, just looking for “clothes” may be overwhelming. So try making it more specific to “work out clothes”. Enter the store, go directly to the area with the work out clothes and start looking there. If you have the mental energy to visit another section of the store after that, go for it. Otherwise always start by expending your mental energy on the specific thing you came for in the first place.
Your goal is to leave before you hit the “everything is starting to blur into one big blob” head space.
Your mental energy is a limited resource. So if you came to the thrift shop for new home decor, then stay in the home decor section. There is likely no reason that you need to go look at the sporting equipment right now. Doing so will only take away mental energy that you could spend looking for your primary objective (home decor) at the next stop on your list.
Set Time Limits Per Store If Needed
Another great tactic that works for many people is to set time limits for each shop you visit. These time constraints ensure you stay on task, prioritize your desired sections of the store, and preserve enough mental energy to hit all the stops on your list.
Other people (i.e. me) find any sort of time limit extremely stressful. I prefer to thrift on days when I don’t have any constraints on my time. That way I can feel free to wander and peruse at own pace.
You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you!
Try Shopping With A Set Amount Of Cash
If you struggle with buyers remorse, or saying no to items you know you don’t need just because they’re cheap. One method that works for many people is to bring along a set amount of cash to shop with.
You can also set metal budget limits per store before entering if needed.
Learn To Leave And Move On Immediately
Again, your time is precious, if you walk into a thrift shop and can tell right away it’s going to be a bust, don’t spend your time looking around when you could be moving on to a different shop.
For me this means walking in, doing an initial visual sweep of the store along with quick walk through and determining if *anything at all* catches my eye. If nothing stands out or peaks my curiosity, I leave and move on to the next place.
Mix Things Up
If possible, I always try to include an antique store, or consignment shop on my route. Just to switch things up mentally as I’m going from place to place.
Tips & Tricks For Finding The Good Stuff and Deciding What To Actually Buy
Alright, now that we know where we’re going and have a plan for what to do when we walk in the store to protect our mental health, here are my tricks for finding the good stuff and deciding what to buy and what to leave behind.
Do An Initial Browse By Color, Shape, Material & Texture
Every time I enter a thrift shop, I make a beeline to my desired section of the store and do an initial scan for my preferred materials, shapes and textures.
For me, that means scanning for things like: Brass, Marble/Stone, Iron, Crystal, Old Wood, Leather & Silver. This strategy helps keep your brain from getting overwhelmed by all the visual clutter.
Don’t Be Afraid To Move Stuff Around & Dig
If you want to find the really good stuff you have to be willing to dig, because chances are, if it was sitting right on top front and center, someone else probably snagged it already. Often, the good stuff is buried in the back behind a pile of things no one wanted.
Pick things up. Move them around. Do what you have to do to see what’s buried in the back.
Walk Both Ways Down An Aisle
This trick never fails to amaze me. If you really want to make sure you don’t miss anything at a location, walk past the items from both directions. It is AMAZING the different things you will see when you approach an aisle or booth or table from the opposite direction than the first time you scanned it from.
I always carry a small measuring tape with me so I can ensure the piece I’m buying will fit in my car and into the spot I want it to go in my house. I can also quickly check if a clothing item will fit my waist without having to try it on first.
Having a bit of cash on hand is a good idea as well. Many thrift stores have a minimum sale amount you have to meet before they will allow you to make a purchase with a credit/debit card. Having a bit of cash with you helps this from becoming a problem.
If I am shopping for clothing, I always wear tight fitting leggings and a tight fitting tank top as a base since many thrift stores don’t have dressing rooms.
I also always have a trusty bottle of hand sanitizer in the car I can use after each stop.
And finally, always ensure your phone is fully charged before you go. Google is going to be your best friend while you’re out and about, so you want to make sure you’ve got the juice you need to last your entire trip.
If You Even *Maybe* Like A Thing, Set It In Your Cart
Thrift stores can be overwhelming, and sometimes it’s hard to know in the moment what to buy and what to leave behind. So my trick for this is that if I’m *maybe even considering possibly buying something* it goes in the cart. Because there is nothing worse than deciding, yes you want it, going back to grab it, and having it not be there anymore.
I do the same thing at estate sales. If I am considering something, into my arms it goes while I continue to look around.
Walk Around With Your Selections Before Buying Them
Second-hand shopping can be very addictive because of the adrenaline rush you get when finding a good deal on an expensive or rare item. HOWEVER, sometimes that hit of happy feels leads us to purchase things we neither want or need simply because “It’s such a good deal!” Here’s my trick for this.
Like I said above, I *always* throw anything I am considering into my cart, or basket or arms. Then I walk around. Even if I’ve finished shopping, I’ll move to a different section of the store and browse for a bit. Anything to KILL TIME. This helps me distance my body from the endorfin hit of my *great find*. That way I can go back and reconsider everything in my cart with a less-biased brain.
My 9 Important Questions I Ask Myself
Once some time has passed since my initial find, I will look over all the items in my cart and ask the following questions:
- Did I love this before I saw how much it cost?
- Is this something I had on my list of items I need?
- Can I, in this moment, tell you EXACTLY where it will go in my house?
- Is it a high-quality item? (More on this in a sec!)
- Is it *exactly* what I was looking for or am I just buying something to buy something?
- If I’m unsure it will work for my needs, could I resell it for what I’m about to pay?
- Does it need to be repaired or fixed?
- Could I make some decent money selling it to someone else?
- If the answer is YES to 6, 7, or 8, I then ask myself “WILL I ACTUALLY DO THAT!?”
I won’t lie, it takes A LOT of very honest soul searching to answer some of those questions and there are times when it is physically painful to walk away from an item, but you have to learn to trust yourself and the process you create if you want to do this more often.
Different people have different views on haggling, but here’s my personal 2 cents on the topic.
If an item is damaged, in any way, I ask about a discount. If an item has been at a shop for a while and hasn’t sold, I give them an offer to see if they’ll take it. Otherwise, I personally don’t like to haggle. Especially since most of these places are donating the proceeds to charity.
Most estate sales (if run by a professional company) will not allow haggling or offers until the last day. Even then it’s typically only the last hour of the last day. However, if a private individual is running the sale, chances are you’ll be able to haggle a bit more.
Developing Your Eye
The final piece of the puzzle you need when second-hand shopping is developing a good eye. Like a lot of things in life, this is a learned skill that you will develop over time with practice. Here are a few good ways to start training yourself on what to look for.
How To Tell If Something Is A High-Quality Item
While having an in-depth knowledge of makers marks, brand names and manufacturing history is obviously the most *reliable* way to quickly know the quality/value of an item. There are a few other low-level techniques you can employ that require none of that knowledge.
Is It Heavy?
The first is how heavy is the item? *Most of the time* if an item weighs a lot, it’s worth more money because more material was used in its creation (vs cheaper items that use cheap fillers or empty space inside an item to cut down on costs.
The exception to this rule is glassware & china. When buying glassware and china, the thinner and lighter the item, the higher quality. This is because it takes much more skill to create something thin and delicate out of those materials without breaking them than it does their thicker counterparts.
How Was It Constructed?
When looking at furniture, you want to examine how the piece was put together. Look at the joints on the drawers. Are they made with interwoven dovetail joints, or are they just flat boards screwed together? A lot of people will assume a piece with veneer is low quality, but that is only the case in items made after the 1950s when veneer shifted from something that was a skilled craft to something manufacturers started using to make cheap furniture appear more expensive. So joinery and weight are still going to be better indicators.
What Is It Made Out Of?
It goes without saying that something made out of plastic is probably worth less than something made out of solid wood or metal. But be careful, because it pays to know your materials since something made out of “Bakelite” for example (an early type of plastic made around the beginning of the 1900s) could easily be mistaken for modern plastic, when in fact it may be worth hundreds of dollars. So it pays to know your materials and their value!
Was It Made By Hand Or By A Machine?
A final indicator of quality is hand workmanship vs something machine made. So, for instance, a painting that has no texture to it was probably digitally printed on the canvas, vs a hand-painted painting would show brush strokes and more texture on the surface of the work. Same goes for china that looks like the design was printed on vs hand painted. If you can tell a human hand was involved in making something, it’s usually worth more.
Pay Attention To What You See In Antique Stores
A great way to develop your eye for quality merchandise is to visit antique stores and pay attention to what items look like, what they feel like when you handle them and then what the seller in charging for said item.
Most of the time, antique dealers have access to evaluation website that help them price their goods and items they sell. You might not have access to those sites but you do have access to their merchandise they have priced. Paying attention to what you see and what they charge can help you better identify quality items in the wild.
Google Is Your Friend
One of the blessings of the digital age is that it’s usually pretty easy to evaluate an item in store using just your phone and a quick google search. I do this two ways.
If the item has a manufacturer’s label (so I know the brand name), I will do a normal google search using the brand name as a key word and a few describing features. I’ll then click over to the “shopping” tab and browse the results. Typically there will be a charish, ebay or etsy listing for a similar item that will help tell me its value.
If an item *doesn’t* have a brand name on it, I’ll try a google image search instead and look for an item closest in appearance to the one I’m currently evaluating.
If you can’t find *anything* remotely similar to your item, that may be an indicator that it is in fact rare and therefore more valuable.
Seeing The Style In The Visual Chaos
Finally, along with developing your eye for quality is developing your eye for style in the midst of visual chaos.
It can be hard to imagine what the lamp you find sitting amongst a pile of randomness would look like cleaned up and in a properly designed room. Here’s my thoughts on how to help with that.
First of all, move the item you think might possibly have potential. Get it away from the visual clutter it’s currently hanging out in and put it somewhere with a neutral backdrop so you can see it on its own. If you’re still having problems picturing it in your space, try these tricks:
Tricks For Visualizing An Item Elsewhere When You Can’t Do It In Your Head
- If possible find something else in the store that is made out of a materiel you have in your home (a similar wood tone or color or metal possibly) and set it next to that.
- Bring samples from home of the items in the room you are designing (color chips, fabric swatches, etc) and hold them up to your item to see what they look like together.
- Photograph the item in the store with your phone on a plain neutral backdrop and then overlay that photo on top of a picture of the room you are considering it for with an app like canva or even the photo sticker option inside instagram stories.
- If using IG, you don’t have to post a story story slide to do this. Just open your app, pretend to make a story slide using a picture of the room you are designing. Then tap the stickers button, tap add a photo, then select the thrift store pic you just snapped. This should overlay your photo on top of the image of your room so you can see how they look together.
The bottom line for why some people score such good deals when thrifting and some don’t is that you have to GO. ALL. THE. TIME. Most of the time you will find absolutely nothing, but then every once in a while you will strike gold, but you typically don’t find the gold unless you are there often enough to see it before someone else snags it first.
Be Ok Leaving With Nothing
Along with going all the time, the second biggest rule when thrifting is being ok leaving with nothing, and knowing when to move on.
Your time and money are precious, so you don’t want to waste it. You need to get comfortable with saying goodbye, leaving empty handed and moving on. Resist the urge to buy something just to buy something. There is really great stuff out there I promise, and you don’t want to spend your potentially limited funds on something that you don’t truly connect with just to buy *something* so you didn’t “waste a trip”.
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Hopefully this post helps get you started on your thrifting adventure! Be sure and subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss out on more great thrifting tips and tricks! What thrifting topics should I cover next? Let me know in the comments below!