Have you ever purchased second hand clothes from a thrift store for yourself? I grew up putting together thrifted Halloween costumes, but it wasn’t until college before a friend introduced me to the frugal treasure hunting that can be done at places like Goodwill and Value Village for dirt cheap everyday clothing.

I still remember the first time I found a pair of designer jeans in my size for $5 at the thrift store in college. It felt like winning the jackpot, especially since, as a broke college student, I didn’t exactly have the funds for anything remotely like new designer fashion.

Fast forward to today though, and I’m not buying any clothing these days, new or secondhand. It’s been more than two and a half years since I put a full stop on clothes buying for myself, and now I’m looking out to year three.

This ability to continue my shopping ban is a privileged one to be sure, and one I couldn’t do without the support of family, friends, and family friends who have passed me on their hand me downs, so I do own quite a bit of thrifted clothing – I’ve just skipped the middle step of having it donated first and repurchased by me.

A shirt I may have purchased (full price) last weekend if not for my shopping ban

I do, however, buy a few things for the kiddo every now and again, though most of his clothing is also secondhand, both purchased and gifted. Last winter, I found him a snow suit for ten dollars that should last him through this next year, and a second one to keep at my in-laws house for the days my mother in law watches him.

Children’s clothing is particularly lucrative to shop for at thrift stores because they grow so rapidly that hardly- or never-worn clothing ends up at those stores constantly. And then I’ve now tried out an online delivery option as well, which is pretty great also because thrifting simply takes time. It can be a lot of fun, but the time suck is real.

That all being said, I wanted to pass the rest of this post on today to my friend Sarah who writes over at Smile and Conquer (you may remember her as someone I wrote about coming to visit this past summer). She has a fabulous fashion sense, and every time I see her she looks awesome in whatever she’s wearing (I’ve been lucky enough to see her three times this past year thanks to Cents Positive and FinCon even though she lives in Edmonton, Canada).

She is also a pro thrifter at this point, and is able to source much of her wardrobe at second hand shops. At the point I finally do break this clothes buying ban of mine – it will have to happen at some point – I’m going to reread through her tips here so I can be ready to dip by toe back into clothes shopping with secondhand options first.

Clearly, thrifted fashion is significantly cheaper than even the new fast fashion options, but it’s also way superior when it comes to the environment. There’s a reason why “Reduce” comes before Recycle; the most sustainable choice is to not purchase – or make – a new item in the first place. The intersection of EcoFrugal choices is my favorite topic, and thrifted fashion definitely fits the bill. With that, I’m going to pass this off to Sarah with her tips on how best to shop for secondhand clothing.

Saving Money and the Environment through Thrifting

I am not a lifelong thrifter. In fact, up until the past few years, the only time I used to step foot in a thrift store was in search of a Halloween costume. One thing that was a regular occurrence though, was shopping.

Ever since I was a kid and would go back to school shopping with my mom, I’ve loved browsing, buying, and having new clothes. When I got my first job, the bulk of my paycheck would be spent at Winners. If I could give one piece of advice to fifteen-year-old me it would be to SPEND LESS MONEY ON CLOTHES! (Angela: Yep. Same. I even have a story about an expensive pair of jeans I worked to buy around that age.)

Flash forward a good few years, and I still enjoy shopping and having new things, but I’ve found that thrifting can scratch that itch in a much more frugal and sustainable way.

When I got interested in personal finance, I knew that my habit of buying clothes had to stop, or at least slow significantly. At the same time, I became more aware of the environmental impact of the fashion industry (specifically the fast fashion industry). It’s predicated that the average American will throw out 81 pounds of clothing a year. That’s 26 billion pounds in total. What the what now!? Those numbers are ridiculous, and they continue to grow.

Image credit: EPA

And that’s not the only issue within fashion. There is also the added waste that comes from fabricating, shipping, and selling clothing and the poor working conditions many workers must suffer. Sweatshops are notorious for paying workers next to nothing, violating labour rights, and having downright dangerous conditions. It’s not a great situation. There are things you can do to make fashion more sustainable and spur change in the industry.

The Secondhand Market

In a perfect world we would all follow in Angela’s footsteps and stop buying clothes. That’s a real game-changer! But for those of us who have less self-control and a desire to shop, you can make other positive changes. (Angela again: and to be honest, there’s a lot of privilege in my situation that allows me to keep this up – it’s not just about self control, and shopping can be a perfectly reasonable thing to do, with boundaries)

Instead of visiting your local mall when you need a shopping fix, try your local thrift store. You can find Goodwill and Value Village stores almost anywhere, and locally run operations are becoming more and more common. We could debate the pros and cons of the ‘big box’ thrift stores but we’re not going to. Not here. This is about small changes, not sweeping systematic change.

Find what’s available to you and start there. And don’t worry if you don’t live in a big city. Often donations from large cities are redirected to smaller towns to spread out the supply a bit. I’ve been known to drag my boyfriend through small town thrift stores and have walked out with some gems.

The thing with thrift stores is they can be intimidating if you’re not prepared. I know the first few times I went (for real stuff, not a Halloween costume) I was completely overwhelmed. With the goal of inspiring a few of you to give secondhand shopping a shot (and keep more clothing out of the landfills), I’m sharing some of the tips I’ve picked up.

Practice Makes Better

The more you scan through racks of clothes the better you’ll be at picking out winners. When I’m browsing, I save time by looking for color and feeling for fabric. If something feels cheap then it probably is and orange isn’t suddenly going to become your color just because the shirt is only $2.

Before you head out on a thrifting mission take a look at your closet at home. What colors do you gravitate towards, what styles do you reach for the most often? Keep those things in mind when you’re scanning and find pieces that will fit with what you already own.

This goes for furniture and household goods as well. Even if you don’t know the brand name, you can often tell the quality of something by how it feels. Or use Google. I’ve often searched for a specific brand or done an image search to get more info on what I’m looking at.

Don’t Buy Something Thrifted You Wouldn’t Buy Full Price

The thing about thrifting, especially when you’re new at it, is how cheap things can be. Don’t let price sway you. You might think that $5 is an unbelievable deal, but if it’s not for something you love then it’s going to sit in your closet and haunt you.

This happens to me at regular stores when things are on sale, but even more so at thrift stores. For one, the prices are that much lower but there is also the fact that you can rarely return merchandise and it’s likely the only item of its kind in the store. I have often been tempted to buy something that doesn’t fit quite right. There’s no sizing up or sizing down; you just have to move on.

Thrift Stores Have Sales Too

Understanding the sales cycle of your favorite store can save you a lot of money. Unfortunately these will vary by store. I suggest checking websites and social media for sale notifications, sign up for email newsletters when available, or simply asking the sales associate on your next visit. There may also be general discounts available if you’re a student, senior, military, etc.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Goodwill and all women’s tops were 50% off. I walked out with three new shirts (and two bowls) for less than $15.

I know Goodwill uses color coded tags to track when inventory comes in and how long it’s been on the floor. Every week they will have a specific tag color on sale for 50% off to help clear out older merchandise.

Look For Brands You Already Like

There are two kinds of thrifters out there; those who are shopping for themselves, and those who are shopping for resale. There is money to be made in finding low price designer goods at thrift stores and reselling the items. Those people are usually on the look out for high end pieces (think Coach, Chanel, Kate Spade, etc.) Competition for such brands is steep so when you score, you’ll score big, but it won’t happen that often. If your goal is to build a secondhand wardrobe filled with designer pieces, then be prepared to shop regularly and have patience.

If instead you’re just looking to add a few new items to your wardrobe every season or so, then you don’t need to be looking for that once in a lifetime item. This is how I thrift. I almost always walk away with something, and it saves me a lot of money over buying new.

To get the most bang for my buck I’ll look for the brands I used to buy new. This includes brands like Gap, Old Navy, J. Crew, Anthropologie, Zara, etc. I know how these brands tend to fit and the quality level I can expect. It’s funny, when I’m browsing and something catches my eye, more often than not it is going to be one of these brands. What can I say, I know what I like!

Don’t Get Discouraged Shopping Secondhand

Thrifting ain’t easy. Ok, it’s not exactly hard but it can be time consuming and frustrating. You will have days when you hit the jackpot but you’ll also have days that are a total bust. The good thing is that inventory is constantly changing. Many of the bigger thrift stores are adding new merchandise every day of the week.

I’m never that disappointed if I don’t find anything, but I do get annoyed when I find something I love and it doesn’t fit. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re used to having a variety of sizes available. But your mindset will shift, and I find I’m better about letting things go now.

Because you never know what you’re going to find, it’s good to go in with an open mind. It can help to have an idea of what you want (like new work blouses) but not a specific need (like a long sleeve, white button up shirt with yellow stripes).

I hope you’ll give thrifting a chance. It’s a fantastic way to save money and is much better for the environment than buying new. And remember, when you’re done with an item, consider donating it back to continue the cycle. A lot of clothing is thrown out when it still has lots of life left!


32 thoughts on “A Guide to Secondhand Shopping: Save Money and the Environment Through Thrifting

  1. I’ve recently fallen in love with second hand items again. As a kid we always shopped second hand. Then as I got older I became a bit of a snob think t that I was better than second hand goods. I stayed away from thrift shops for years.

    Now with a new little one my eyes have been opened again. There are so many great items at thrift stores. Especially for kids. I’ve now bought tons of second hand stuff for her that still has the tags on.

    I’ve also realized that I’m not above shopping second hand. Now that I’m older I can really appreciate the environmental impact. It may take longer sometimes but whenever I’m shopping for anything now my first instinct is to try and find it second hand.

    Love all the tips you provided. Will apply them next time I’m looking for something.

    1. It’s funny how much the narrative becomes that you’re “too good” for secondhand clothing. When you really get down to it, that makes no sense – new clothing is more expensive, both financially and for the environment. Love flipping the script and focusing on the positive instead.

  2. 81 pounds? Who seriously has that many clothes to throw out every year?

    I am all in on the thrift store shopping these days. Although, I haven’t actually purchased new clothing in about a year (less so an official “ban” and more so a natural product of becoming more frugal minded these past few years.) However, I just made a packing list for our trek up Kilimanjaro in January and am definitely going to have to get some warmer clothing. Hoping the local thrift stores can come to the rescue on this one. Thanks for the tips Sarah!

    1. I think you’d be shocked at what is “normal” outside of the personal finance community.

      And at least our local shops have been some seriously great boons for kids winter clothing. Not sure about the adult stuff though. Maybe you could borrow from friends too if it’s for a single trip?

  3. Whenever I make a donation to the Salvation Army I stop in the store and see what’s there. Every once in a while I bite on something. For outdoor sports specific gear I peruse Craigslist to try to find used stuff sometimes too.

  4. Great post and Great Tips! I have very little patience for shopping at thrift stores most of the time – I do better if I’m looking for a kitchen item because it’s so specific and I don’t have to sift through piles of clothes. On a rare occasion if I’m looking for something specific, I’ll spend some time searching. I’m a big fan of Thredup.com – I purchased 90% of my kiddo’s school clothes for the year from there. Her middle school has a dress code – khaki bottoms, white, maroon or grey polos… I could have gotten everything at Old Navy or Children’s Place new but it just felt better buying used.

    1. I hear you on not wanting to sift through piles of clothes. If I have the time it can be fun, but often it just feels like a barrier to getting it done.

  5. Our consignment shop in town is AMAZING and has a constant stream of “new” inventory due to the college nearby. No need to pay $40 for a branded t-shirt for football games, I got mine for $3 🙂 They have a huge vintage, western, and costume section too, including a whole rack of adult onesies. I love it.

  6. when i was in college i had lunch with the governor of connecticut in my $4 thrift store jacket. the best stuff i bought was before the rest of the world figured out what treasures you could find.

  7. Nice post! I grew up on thrift store clothes and hand-me-downs, so I’m no stranger to the thrift stores. I love your point about “don’t buy second hand what you wouldn’t buy new” (paraphrasing) It’s so true, if you’re not careful you end up with a lot of junk that you thought was a good deal, when in fact the only good deal is the items you use all the time!

  8. I don’t do a whole lot of shopping at thrift stores but we do we find some gems for our kiddos. Their are a good selection of onesies and toys sometimes. We do a lot donations to Goodwill and Salvation Army and to do more when BwC grows out of his clothes.

    1. Check around and see if there are other places to send your had me downs too – around here we have charities that focus on low income and homeless families who really need it the most.

  9. 100% corporations and governments need to make faster shifts to protecting our environment but all these little things we as consumers do make a huge impact. So yes focus on the first two Rs, Reduce and Reuse as a way to combat the waste we see in North America. Thanks for these low impact focused posts for those who may have not made the mindful switch yet to better understand their daily lives have a chance to add to a better future.

    1. Exactly – it is time to do all the things, right now. We are out of time to go slow.

  10. I love thrifting so this was a delight! I once got a gucci laptop bag for $50 at our local thrift shop in high school. It’s also great for unloading old stuff that doesn’t fit or when decluttering your closet you can sell it to the thrift store for $$!

  11. Oops, not sure if my previous comment went through, will do it again! 🙂
    I am not much of a thrifter but I like consignment shops, and garage sales, and clothes swaps! I find the stuffed racks at thrift stores kind of overwhelming, but it is a great way to save the environment but not buying fast fashion like Forever 21 (which is going bankrupt anyway).
    I have a few clothes from garage sales and clothes swaps that I have worn a lot!

    1. Funny, I find I way prefer thrift stores to garage sales. It really does depend on the store though.

  12. Thanks for sharing these great tips on shopping at thrift stores! It’s a win win for our pockets and our environment to reuse clothes and other household things (when we need them).

    A big plus is the thrill of discovering absolute bargains, like the time my hubby chanced upon New office pants in his size! Another advantage is that pre-loved clothing can be thinner and more comfortable than new. It’s such a nice feeling to find some bargain-priced soft, cool cotton tops for summer!

    1. Such a bigger thrill to find those pieces at a thrift store than paying full price too!

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