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What to buy (and skip) in thrift stores

I've saved a bundle on clothes, housewares, office supplies and furniture. I draw the line at used undies, though.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 27, 2012 12:46PM
Image: Man handing cash to a woman (© Image Source/Getty Images)Some people consider thrift stores low-rent. Others tout the designer labels found for a song at charity shops.

If the idea truly bothers you, don't go in. But your mindset may be out of date. Along with sketchy T-shirts and weird ceramics, you'll find rare books, supercheap housewares and, yes, designer clothing.

Would I shop there myself?

You bet. Does it really matter where you get a cake pan or a kitchen chair? (Post continues after video.)

I've found canning jars for as little as 15 cents apiece. The clock radio that wakes me up with music cost me 99 cents. My down-filled Eddie Bauer winter coat was $14.99. I'm writing this while sitting in an office chair that I got for $2.50; adjacent to my desk is a $3 file cabinet.

Give it a try and you may also score some major bargains.

Do these clothes smell funny?

Clothing is a huge draw, but shop cautiously. Look hard at garments for stains, rips or missing buttons. Make sure zippers work easily; a balky zipper can become a major annoyance.

Try it on. No changing room? Before you gamble that it'll fit, check the return policy; some thrift shops won't give you your money back. Ask yourself if you'll really use the store credit before it expires.

That is, if you bother to return it at all. You might just hang it up in the "clothes to wear when I lose 5 pounds" section of the closet.

A few dollars here and a few dollars there add up. Oh, and consider donating some or all of that "lose 5 pounds" clothing. The de-cluttered life feels great and you might even get a tax write-off.


Creepy-crawly couches
Bedbugs are back, so some people won't buy mattresses or upholstered furniture secondhand.

Because I have back issues, I wouldn't buy a thrift-store mattress, and I don't need any more living room furniture. If I were buying, I'd examine anything very carefully. (Check out these icky pix from the Better Sleep Council.)


Fleas are also a potential issue. If a sofa or recliner shows signs of pet hair, you might be bringing home some little bloodsuckers. Getting rid of fleas is a labor-intensive process -- and if you miss a few, you'll have to do it again.

Some other good (or risky) deals

Appliances: The thrift store should provide a place to plug in that mixer or slow cooker. If you don't see an outlet, ask where to find one.

Try the clasps on necklaces and bracelets several times. Like cranky zippers, a tough-to-open fastener can become a real pain quickly.

You can get amazing deals, and not just on last year's best-sellers, but on rarer titles as well. Both make excellent frugal gifts. It's a total crapshoot, of course, depending on whose attic was cleaned out.


Bicycles: If you don't know anything about bikes, you might buy one that needs major repairs. There goes your price break.

The temptation to thrift-shop is strong since the instruments are expensive. But you might end up with a "PSO," or "piano-shaped object" -- i.e., one that's in such poor condition that it can't be used. Take along a keyboard-savvy pal.

Things that make you go 'eww'

Whether you're shopping at Nordstrom or a secondhand shop, you shouldn't buy anything that's not a good match.

Personally, I don't want my underwear to have a history. Which is silly, really, because I can wash and bleach the stuff at home -- and in fact, I once bought a secondhand bathing suit. But underwear is a personal "ewww" zone for me.

Respect your own "uh, no" feelings and don't buy anything you wouldn't actually wear/use/sleep on.

What will you buy (or not buy) at thrift stores? Any shopping tips to share?

More on MSN Money:

Mar 27, 2012 4:32PM

My husband recently purchased two men's suits from the Goodwill store.  He's been losing weight (85 lbs so far) and interviewing for jobs at the same time.  Every 6 months his interview suit gets to big.  Rather than spend hundreds on a suit that will be too big in a year or so, we bought suits from goodwill on their half-price day for $10.50 each!!  We plan on donating the now too big suits back to Goodwill for others to take advantage of.  Although, before we bought the suits we inspected them thouroughly for holes or tears.  Just to be safe we hung them outside for several hours in the sun before bringing them into the house, just in case any creepy crawlies were stowed away inside.

Mar 28, 2012 12:18AM
A pair of Lee jeans for $2.00 and a couple of name brand skirts that I wear to work for $1.00.  These buys work for me - literally!
Mar 30, 2012 9:24AM
High School reunion weekend (30+ years ago)....two somewhat formal evenings, one of which required 'cocktail' attire.  Community Aid (Harrisburg, PA area) has 1/2 price Wednesday as well.  Picked up two really nice outfits for $15.  Looked really good, and didn't come close to breaking the bank.  Stepdaughters family lost all of their winter clothes in a flash flood last September. I was able to outfit a family of 4 with everything (4 outfits each) plus winter coats for less than $100.  I make candles for friends and family.  Picking up really unusual mugs or containers for $1 or less each keeps the costs way down.  Most thrift stores are run by charities; the money you spend is going to a good cause, the money you save is priceless!
Mar 27, 2012 7:20PM
Tomorrow, Wednesday, is half price day at my Salvation Army. This is where I purchase my "work clothes" ..t-shirts and shorts to work on rentals with. Just bought name brand cargo shorts $ still had the price tag from the original store on it. These are great...plenty of pockets and who cares if you get paint or stain on them...they were $2.
Mar 28, 2012 10:05AM
I buy all of my clothes second hand. It is less expensive, you can see how the garment will hold up to wear and tear, and I have a better opportunity of finding clothes made from better fibers - cotton, silk, linen as compared to polyester. 
Coincidentally, I went shopping last evening for some new-to-me summer clothes. I got a pair of linen blend pants, a pair of cotton trousers that still had their Calvin Klein price tag on them, and a very attractive blouse. Cost me $31 including tax.
We have several pretty good 2nd hand stores in the area - the local one is a Hospice store where we've found some good bargains. We purchased a matching full-size red/cream plaid comforter, pillow shams, bed skirt and sheet set for $25. I usually find some really nice polo shirts for my husband's work (found an Eddie Bauer and Lands End last week for $2.50 each). The neighboring town also has a hospice and I purchased a full/queen size electric blanket for $7 and a mattress pad for $5. The Habitat for Humanity Restore is pretty good too - we purchased a Buck Stove fireplace insert with blower and thermostat for $125 in July! There were no other takers! They also have paint supplies, paneling, furniture (they've been kind of slim pickins on the furniture lately), building materials of all sorts, books (some are outdated but some are good deals because I haven't read them and they're usually $1 for hardcovers). I am always proudest and most pleased with items I get a good deal on - you can always pay more but why?!  :)
Mar 28, 2012 3:10PM
I may would draw the line at underwear but all i've ever seen in the stores I frequent is the occasional unopened package of a plastic bagged brand.  Have bought the occassional bra but i've got a thing for old fasioned lingerie and slips & nighties from the 50's-60's are best finds.

Shoes however, are my ick factor.  Not saying I've never bought used shoes but it has to be a super deal on a pair that doesn't look worn (with tags are great) but I just don"t like putting my toes where there are already toe marks.

Apr 9, 2012 3:01PM

As a child, my family depended on thrift stores because we could not afford to buy things 'new.'  As an adult, I still like getting something wonderful for less money but I also love the thrill of the search.  Here are a few things I always look for in thrift stores:

1. CD's - I love music and listen to it in my car all the time.  I have purchased many CD's from thrift stores and have always been happy with them.  A couple of tips: open the case to make sure that the CD is actually IN there, that it matches the cover, and that the back of the CD is scratch-free.  Some thrift stores only put the cases on the shelf but keep the actual discs behind the counter.  When you take the case up to the check-out, they will give you the CD that goes with it.

2. Dishes and kitchen items - There are endless supplies of cute plates (great for a gift of cookies to someone, or to add to your "Shabby Chic" unmatched china set), candle holders, pots and pans (Note: the non-stick surfaced pots and pans are usually pretty thrashed, but the Pyrex or CorningWare ones can be like new!), and decorative china pieces.  I have scored beautiful china plates from England, France and Germany, to name just a few.  I've found Blue Willow, Limoges, transferware, lustreware, and crystal.  If you love teacups and saucers, this is a great place to add to your collection. 

3. The baggie wall - Most thrift stores have a wall that has various baggies filled with smaller odds and ends hanging on it.  This can be a real treasure trove, plus it's just fun to see some of the stuff that is up there.  I once found s huge set of vintage sterling silver flatware hanging in a baggie.  I bought it for $9.99! 

4. Clothing and shoes - I totally agree with not purchasing second-hand underwear (YUCK!), but I have found some GREAT clothes at thrift stores.  In this department, it's really all about location, location, location and timing.  If your thrift store is near a more well-to-do area of town, the clothes will usually be nicer.  Also, if you shop at key times, you're more likely to find some great stuff.  Shopping in the spring, when holiday parties and proms are over with, will often yield lots of formal and party-wear: gowns, wraps, suits and the like.  Shopping at the beginning of the year, when everyone is trying to keep their new year's resolution to clean out their closets and be more organized, can lead to some great finds.  Shopping at the end of any season can lead to some deals on clothing for that season.  If you live in an area where is it very hot up until the end of November (as I do), finding summer clothes when most people have moved on to sweaters and boots is great!  Also, DO check out the shoes.  If you are squeamish about them, just be sure to try them on with socks and to spray them with disinfectant before you wear them. 

5. Books and office supplies - The books are usually a STEAL!  You can find hard-cover, soft-cover, older titles, newer titles, vintage books, children's books, and a huge variety of topics.  If you need desk trays, staplers, drawer organizers, hole punchers, or other office supplies, check a thrift store before you pay full retail.

Of course, there ARE things I would NOT buy at a thrift store.  As the author of the article mentioned, I would not buy stuffed furniture, mattesses, or anything that might be hiding bugs.  I would not buy underwear or even bras or swimwear.  I would not buy wooden cutting boards because I am not sure of what might have seeped into the wood when the previous owner was using them. 

Apr 6, 2012 9:26PM

Clothese and books can have bedbugs too--pretty much anything can have bedbugs.  Before you bring something into your home from a thrift shop, if it is something like a book, put it in a dark-colored trash bag or dark-colored, sealed Rubbermaid-like container, and leave it in a car that is in the hot sun.  Leave it for a couple of days--this means clothes, everything.


You can also put things on the rack in your dryer--set the dryer on high for about an hour--that probably will kill the bedbugs.  If you do want to use Craigslist or a thrift store bargain in furniture--and it doesn't have to be upholstered to have bedbugs--it is good if you have a small area in your garage or a detached building in which you can put a space heater or two, an osciallating fan, and a couple of other fans (the air has to be moving) and crank the space up to about 130 degrees for a few hours.  The University of Florida designed one that you can break down (they built it out of foam board) and can sanitize things in.


Honestly--you can get bedbugs from a brand new mattress or sofa from a well-known store (been there, done that).  If the company carries away mattresses when delivering them, the bedbugs can get from the old mattresses onto the covers of the new ones and then can be carried into your home on the plastic or on the clothes of the delivery people.  I would never buy another piece of furniture without putting it in either a separate space and heating it, or without building one of the breakdownable spaces and baking the object.  It's in excess of $2K to have your house treated (well) for bedbugs--it just is not worth it to take the risk. 

Apr 9, 2012 1:16PM
We have a wonderful Salvation Army that I frequent on occasion. I often head over there in search of clothes for my 9 month old daughter. Since babies grow so fast, I find lots of items that still have the tags on! And at .99 a pop, you can't go wrong! Even if she outgrows it in a month!
Apr 9, 2012 5:07PM
Being something of thrift store maven, I can say one thing with certainty. Since the economy went south donations are WAAAYY down, yet demand is WAAAYYY up.Result? thrift stores all over the country are raising prices, sometimes to the point where you might as well hit the sales at Target or JC Penney. But even thrift stores have sales, so look for them
Apr 9, 2012 12:19PM

I love thrift and consignment stores especially since  i lost nearly 70 lbs. As I am writing this, I am wearing an entire outfit...Italian woven leather slides..never worn included  all purchased at a consignment store. If you shop somewhere where the owner is selective and knows her "stuff, you can do very well. Entire outfit cost less than 200.00. Designer jacket, pants, designer shell, Italian leather slides and jewelery including a high end heavy silver link toggle clasp neckchain and silver pin on jacket lapel. 3 ct diamond bracelet also purchased at "hock" shop...big bucks but actually only a few dollars over wholesale. If you aren't a snob, are willing to look and explore off the "beaten path", you can do very well. People think "I'm rich". I think it is funny.

Apr 9, 2012 12:51PM
I love shopping thrift stores!  I look for never been worn better clothing brands with the tags still on them; those are the best buys. 
Apr 9, 2012 12:32PM

I love hunting for vintage stuff. Years ago I scored a The Cure t shirt for like 25c. I wore that thing until it fell apart. I've found a 1950 teapot in mint condition, again I paid less than a dollar for it. I also check stores for halloween costume ideas (last year I needed a jackie-o dress and fake pearls for The Birds costume). I like vintage Pyrex, Mid Century stuff, etc.

Apr 9, 2012 2:14PM

I check thrift stores and good will mostly for comforters for my dogs crates.  But I always look around.   I have found many good tools at a fraction of the cost of new.  My best deals have

been clothes.  I bought a Helly Hansen men's water proof light weight jacket for $7 with the

new tags still on it.  Retail was $59.   I also purchased a little used Blue Wool Brookes Bros.

Blazer for $10.   New $150.00.  

Apr 9, 2012 2:40PM
Your post goes to show how uninformed you are and how narrow minded.  We are the poor and the socially conscious.  We believe in recycling the goods of past owners and bygone eras.  Everyone who patronizes the second hand shops has the same opportunity to find a good deal or a bargain at these places.  If someone who is poor doesn't do it, it's because they are lazy and would rather hold their hand out for a debit card from the government than stretch the dollar they earned to go a little further by buying second hand items. Your comments implies that people who shop at these stores are somehow depriving the poor of their chance.  Are you playing the victim?  If we find good things, it's because we work at it and make an effort.  If you don't, it's because you don't bother.  I would rather wear a designer dress that somebody wore before me than purchase a new dress at KMart for the same price.  You sound like you would rather beg and shop at Nordstrom.  One day the tap will get turned off, and that dress you bought at Nordstrom had better be well made because it might have to last you the rest of your life. Knowing how to shop second hand is to shopping what knowing how to fish is to feeding yourself. 

Apr 9, 2012 2:30PM
I have purchased very nice authentic Louis Vuitton, Coach, Kate Spade, etc. bags and designer clothing at thrift stores.  Don't turn up your nose at thrift stores just because you haven't found anything.   Not all areas have nice merchandise. Some towns have thrift stores brimming with beautiful goods, while others smell bad and have only the lowest quality and all of it is past its useful life.   My advice:  Be picky.   Purchase only the things you adore and are sure you will use or wear and plan to have everything cleaned.  Look for the best quality and materials like cashmere sweaters and crocodile belts.  Pass on anything that doesn't look new or nearly new.  Faded, pilled, worn, or pulled out of shape is not a good look for vintage clothing.  Think of thrifting as a treasure hunt. 
Apr 9, 2012 10:53AM
I do hair for a living and there's nothing worse than spending good money on a nice outfit only to ruin it with bleach or haircolor. So I go to a thrift store to find nice things and if I ruin them, hey, I only spent like $3 or $4 on them. It hurts way less.
Apr 9, 2012 11:48AM
love thrift stores.  we have a wonderful goodwill in an upper crust part of st. louis.  buy expensive brand purses there and expensive clothes complete with store tags on them.  cookbooks, which i collect and antique kitchen stuff.  depression glass and vintage bowls.    bought my new granddaughter a schwinn tricycle for 20 dollars.  gotta love these places but as the article states check your new purchase over before the purchase
Apr 2, 2012 11:58AM
Amazing deals can be found at thrift stores.  Recently a nephew purchased 2 new dress shirts (in original packing) at Goodwill for $20.00 each.  He checked the manufacturer labels on the internet and learned the retail price was $495.00 for each shirt.  Now I truly believe that was one heck of a great deal ... and he just bought them because he liked the feel of the fabric, LOL !  Personally, I've purchases a lot of brand new clothes with price stickers still in place from various thrift stores.  I buy kitchen items, rugs, towels, sheets, home decor items, and books for super cheap prices.  But my favorite finds are new purses!!!  I'm VERY picky about my purse so finding a new purse with a super cheap price, just makes my day!!  I wash everything, other than the books, so I never feel like I'm dealing with someone else's "stuff". 
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.