how to thrift

i don’t mean to be presumptuous, but i consider myself a bit of a seasoned expert on the art of thrift store shopping (hereafter referred to as “thrifting,” a word not found in any dictionary). i’ve been doing it for well over a decade now. most of our home, and our bodies, are outfitted with thrift-store finds.

thrifting is wonderful for so many reasons. it saves money. it allows you to get a unique collection of things with which to beautify yourself and your home. it feels like treasure-hunting.

but the purpose of this post is not so much to sell you on why thrifting rocks. in fact, part of me would rather NOT sell it because i’m a little protective of my favorite thrift stores, and don’t want competition. but the fact is that we’re living in a depressed economy and lots of us can’t run right out to department stores and target to purchase the things we need for house and home. because of that — and because (cringe!) the thrifty “look” seems to be rising in popularity — i’ve been getting requests from people asking me how to “teach” them to thrift. so this is for those of you who’ve asked, as well as whomever else is reading.

Step 1. Prepare Your Mind. yes, you have to get your head in the game. it starts long before you actually walk through the door of a thrift store.

  • know your style — have inspiration boards, color palettes, and an ability to recognize something as “you” or “not-you”. this allows you to go in and sort through all the racks and shelves of things with a compass. it’s not like retail shopping, where you can pick a store/company whose style resonates with you and so you know that almost everything they sell in their store will be something you like. this is like ALL the retail stores of the past 3 or 4 decades piled up in one place. you have to know how to sort through that. and you can’t sort through it unless you have a vision of what you’re going for. if you’re shopping for things for a room in your house, you should already have a vision of the feel, style, and functionality you want in that space. if you’re shopping for clothes, you should know what kind of image you want to portray, and what you’re comfortable in or not comfortable in.
  • reduce the amount of ads and television you watch. if you are getting lots of exposure to shows/publications that would try to inform you of what the current/best styles are, you’re going to end up with a bar set so high — or just so differently — that you won’t be able to appreciate what’s right in front of you in the thrift store. don’t do things that keep you fixated on a pottery barn dream land because you probably won’t be able to make you house look quite like a pottery barn catalogue by shopping at thrift stores.  so keep your mind  uncluttered with things you’re “supposed” to want/need, and go with your gut, instead.
  • keep a running list of things you want or need. this list might be a mental list or actually on paper or your iPod. but the list will contain things like a small container to hold your chip clips in a drawer in your kitchen, a basket to store some smaller baby toys on a shelf, a binder for the papers that you’ve been meaning to organize, a chair for that empty corner of the living room, a black dress coat to wear to work in the winter, a throw blanket in an accent color to enliven your living room, etc. now, rather than running out to Target to buy all of those things…
  • be patient and wait for it! eventually most things on your list will appear, but you have to be able to delay gratification and know that the process of outfitting yourself or your home to exactly your taste will take months if not years. it’s a slow process, but that’s part of what makes it delicious. it’s like an ongoing game to find the next perfect piece for the artful landscape you are creating in your home, or the wardrobe that will feel, at last, like it’s really you.
  • map out area thrift stores and notice which ones tend to be the best places to find certain genres of things (e.g., one is best for linens, another for clothes, and another for second-hand furniture). i have a list of about 7 that i frequent, plus a handful of others i occasionally pop in on. and no, i’m not going to give you my list. find your own. 😉
Step 2. Go in Armed. 
  • bring your list with you. yes, jot down on a small piece of paper the items you’re hoping to find and keep it in your pocket. it’s your shopping list. only you may not be able to find everything on it during one shopping trip.
  • don’t buy it just because it’s cheap. it’s so tempting, particularly at first, to become so overwhelmed with happiness at a price tag that says .49 cents for a plate or $1.99 for a shirt, that you just want to purchase it all. but pause long enough to ask yourself if you really like it, or if it’s really just a rush because it’s such a good deal. if it’s not really for you, leave that great deal for someone else who will truly appreciate it.
  • be honest with yourself. ask yourself, “will I actually use/wear this in the next 3 or 6 months?” and “do i already have a purpose in mind for this?” and “do i gravitate toward this shirt? will i want to put it on when i wake up in the morning?”  if the answer to those questions is no, you should probably put it back down and walk away. otherwise you’ll end up with a house full of clutter and your house will look like a thrift store, too. thrift stores are awesome, but not as a decorating theme.
  • see potential, not just actuality. i have this sister-in-law (you know who you are) who is really crafty. when she shops at thrift stores, she is looking for raw materials for her projects. she’ll buy an old, ugly wool sweater so that she can cut it up, felt it, and turn it into a mug warmer or a diaper cover. she calls it repurposing and upcycling. i love it. it seems sort of in line with Kingdom values, too, i think. additionally, you have to sometimes take a minute with a thrift-store object in hand and begin to imagine what could be done with it if you altered it slightly — add a coat of paint? remove part of it? use it for something other than what it is intended for?
  • bring a bag/box of items you’re done with and donate them. this is how we keep the thrift store love going… AND it’s how we manage to maintain simplicity in our home and lives. if we only shopped and accumulated we’d essentially be doing the same thing that retail-shopping addicts do: becoming materialistic. so we have a box or bag around the house at all times into which we deposit items that we’ve suddenly realized we aren’t using anymore, are tired of, or that doesn’t fit any longer. and then we take the bag/box to the thrift store and donate it before we shop.
  • find out if the thrift store has discount days and take advantage of them. many thrift stores will have one day a week when everything is 50% off, or perhaps every Tuesday a certain color tag is discounted. so if you want even deeper discounts, intentionally shop on those days.

Step 3. Repeat. 

thrift often. you certainly shouldn’t feel compelled to buy something every time, but the turn-over is frequent, so keep stopping in to take a look.


may you be met with success!



10 thoughts on “how to thrift

  1. Brooker, this is such a great set of tips! I love it…and am ready to go forth and try again. Last week, I actually bought 3 pairs of dress pants and 3 pairs of jeans in my new, smaller size because I couldn’t justify buying new. I got them for the price of one pair of pants in a regular store! Hurray for thrifting! xo

    • I agree with your mom Brooke–this is a great read with such helpful ideas with wisdom and experience thrown into the mix. You know how Amanda loves thrifting and she keeps her eyes open for my sizes, too. ( haha- the spell check wants to change thrifting to “thriving”– pretty close!)

      Thanks for post!

      Love you!

  2. I love thrifting, too!

    (and is the word “thrifting” really absent from dictionaries? I had no idea!)

    These are good and practical tips. Though I’ve been thrifting for years, it’s only recently that I’ve started learning to thrift well and holding out for things that I really like rather than just settling for whatever I find in one trip.

  3. Pingback: Thrifted Vintage Sheets [and endless possibilities!] | If Only They Would Nap…

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