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Second-Hand Shopping: How to Save at Thrift Stores and Consignment Shops


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Over the past two years, my husband and I have spent less than $400 per year on clothing. Our secret? We buy most of our clothes secondhand.

And clothing is just the tip of the iceberg. We prefer to shop secondhand whenever possible for nearly everything we buy — furniture, books, tools, even materials for home repair. No matter what we need, we always check out secondhand sources like thrift stores, yard sales, and Craigslist before resorting to buying new.

Shopping that way isn’t just good for our budget. With each great find, we’re saving money and helping the environment. And with the right shopping strategies, you can do the same.


Where to Shop Secondhand

There are many kinds of secondhand stores specializing in different types of goods. On top of that, there’s a wide variety of apps for buying and selling used stuff, both in your local area and across the country. 


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With so many options, it’s possible to pick up almost anything secondhand if you know where to look.

Thrift Stores

There are two primary kinds of thrift shops: for-profit and nonprofit. For-profit thrift stores, like other retailers, are in business to make a profit. 

For-profit thrift store chains include Savers (known as Value Village in the Northwest), Red White and Blue, MyUnique.com, Plato’s Closet, and Once Upon a Child. Chains like these often focus on higher-quality merchandise that’s more likely to sell.

Nonprofit thrift stores are run by charitable organizations like Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. In my experience, these stores usually charge lower prices than for-profit ones. For instance, at a local church thrift shop, I’ve bought T-shirts for $1 and jeans for $2. However, a lot of the garments on the racks are worn or damaged.

The most common item sold at thrift stores is clothing. However, most stores sell other types of goods as well. Nearly every thrift shop I’ve ever been to had at least a shelf or two loaded with dishware, little knick-knacks, and household goods like pots and pans. Depending on the store, you may also find books, videos, toys, games, and even furniture.

Consignment Shops

Like thrift stores, consignment shops typically specialize in clothing. But they operate on a different business model. 

At thrift stores, people can either donate their garments or sell them to the store at a low price. At consignment shops, people give their garments to the store in exchange for a cut of the sale price.

Along with clothes, consignment stores sometimes sell small furniture and home decor. They generally deal in higher-quality merchandise than thrift stores, making them an excellent place to buy designer clothing on a budget. However, their prices are typically higher than most thrift shops’.

Goodwill Outlets

At the opposite end of the price scale for secondhand goods are Goodwill Outlet Stores

These are locations where Goodwill unloads all the merchandise that hasn’t sold in its retail stores. After they’ve been on the shelves a specified length of time, local Goodwill staff ships them to an outlet location to be sold by the pound to thrifty buyers.

Goodwill Outlet Stores aren’t like ordinary thrift shops, where merchandise is sorted onto racks or shelves by type, size, and color. Instead, everything’s usually just piled into huge bins you can rummage through. 

They’re not the best place to hunt for something specific. But they’re a fantastic place to find cheap goods you can resell online as a side hustle.

Vintage Stores

Vintage clothing stores deal in the garments and accessories of past decades. Some focus on garb from a specific era, such as the 1960s, while others offer clothing spanning a wide range of periods. But everything in the store is at least 20 years old. 

Unlike thrift stores, vintage stores typically feature rare goods that command a higher price tag. They often focus on well-known brand names, including retired brands like Gunne Sax. 

Vintage stores charge a lot more than thrift stores. But shop wisely. In some cases, their garments cost more than brand-new ones sold at regular retail stores, though you can find few-of-a-kind garments for less than high-end designer duds. 

For women’s clothes, one thing to watch out for when shopping vintage is the sizing. Women’s clothing sizes have changed over the years, so your size in vintage clothing is likely several sizes larger than in modern clothes. 

Antique Stores

Antique stores take vintage to the next level. They sell goods from bygone eras, including furniture, home decor, clothing, and jewelry. While the merchandise in vintage stores can be as little as 20 years old, antique stores deal primarily in goods that are at least 100 years old.

Like vintage stores, antique stores aren’t usually a good place to shop if your main goal is to save money. But you can find some unique pieces that are cheaper than buying new high-end goods if you know how.

Flea Markets

A flea market, also known as a swap meet, is a big open-air market where lots of vendors set up booths to sell secondhand wares. Furniture and home decor are the most common goods sold at flea markets, but you can find a vast array of other stuff as well, from clothing to musical instruments. 

Flea markets vary widely in size, selection, and prices. Some markets are vast tent cities covering acres of ground, while others are merely a dozen or so booths set up in a warehouse. Depending on the market, you may also find vendors selling new or handmade wares, such as artwork.

Reuse Centers

If you’re seeking materials for a home remodeling project, check out reuse centers such as Habitat for Humanity ReStores. They carry furniture, appliances, and building materials like lumber, tile, and paint for around half the retail price. 

Some supplies have been torn out of demolished or renovated buildings, while others are left over from building projects.

Architectural salvage stores are similar to reuse centers, but they skew a bit higher-end. They specialize in antique furniture and fixtures you can’t find in a typical home center, such as carved woodwork and vintage lighting fixtures. 

They’re a fantastic place to look if you’re renovating a period home and want to find materials that match its original style.

Specialty Secondhand Stores

There are many other kinds of secondhand stores that focus on specific types of goods. For instance, used bookstores sell secondhand paperback and hardcover books at prices that can often beat Amazon’s. Used record stores deal in secondhand vinyl LPs, and some offer CDs as well.

Online Resale Sites & Apps

There’s a huge variety of websites and apps devoted to connecting sellers of secondhand merchandise with buyers. You can find an online secondhand market for almost anything you want to buy.

Clothing

If you can’t find the right garment in the right size at your local thrift store, try shopping online thrift stores and consignment stores like ThredUp and Swap.com. These sites offer a more extensive selection and make it easy to search for exactly what you want. 

Some online resale sites specialize in specific types of clothing. For instance, Tradesy, Poshmark, and The RealReal deal in designer clothes at prices up to 70% off retail, while Stillwhite provides a market for used wedding dresses.

The biggest downside of shopping at online thrift stores is that you can’t try on clothes before buying. You have to rely on the description and measurements provided by the seller. Most sites accept returns, but you usually have to pay a shipping or restocking fee. 

Furniture

You can find vintage furniture, home decor, and artwork online through Chairish. This site focuses on high-end appointments costing hundreds or thousands of dollars, so it’s more useful for finding unique pieces than for saving money. 

There are several ways to search listings on Chairish. You can look for a particular category, such as rugs or rocking chairs, or a particular style, such as art deco or midcentury modern. 

You can also narrow your choices by price and by location. And with the Chairish app, you can get a preview of how a piece will look in your home before buying. And once you choose, you can have purchases shipped to your home or arrange a pickup with a local seller.

Electronics

It’s hard to be sure used electronics work. But you can eliminate any purchase risk by choosing certified refurbished. The manufacturer or a reseller has thoroughly repaired them to ensure they work like new for a fraction of the cost. They even come with warranties.

Good sites for buying refurbished gadgets include Back Market, Decluttr, and Gazelle. You can also buy refurbished electronics directly from manufacturers like Samsung and Apple and retail sites like Amazon Warehouse.

Another site worth checking out is Swappa. While Swappa doesn’t technically refurbish the devices it lists, it reviews them to ensure they’re functional and meet company standards.

Books

There are several good sites for buying books secondhand. You can find used copies of many volumes at online booksellers like Amazon and Alibris, and ThriftBooks deals in used books specifically. 

You can also swap your old books for new books from other users at PaperBackSwap and BookMooch.

To save money on textbooks, look to sites like Amazon, eCampus.com, CampusBooks, and Chegg. You can buy textbooks for up to 90% off the cover price and resell them when you complete the course to recover part of the cost.

Everything Else

Practically anything is available on eBay, including clothing, household goods, art, electronics, toys, and office equipment. It’s also a fantastic place to look for rare vintage finds. But eBay sellers also stock new goods, so check the listing before adding it to your cart.

Another good marketplace for all kinds of secondhand goods is Mercari. Like eBay, it offers both new and used goods in a wide range of categories. For oversize merchandise that’s too heavy to ship economically, such as furniture, you can use Mercari Local.

Local Listings

You probably already know about Craigslist, a marketplace for secondhand goods of all kinds from sellers in your local area. However, there are several other peer-to-peer marketplaces for local sales, including Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and 5Miles.

Users can buy and sell almost anything through these sites. But what’s available through your local group depends on where you live and can vary daily. Prices also vary widely depending on the item and the location. 

One nice perk of buying local is being able to see the merchandise in person before handing over your money.

Pawnshops

A pawnshop is a store where people can trade their high-value goods for quick cash. The store pays only a fraction of their value, but it gives the borrower the right to reclaim their belongings within a month for a fee. If they don’t, the merchandise goes up for sale.

Pawnshops are an excellent place to find higher-end items. Jewelry, electronics, bicycles, firearms, power tools, and musical instruments all show up on their shelves. 

The prices on the tag aren’t always that much cheaper than retail. However, it’s usually possible to haggle. And pawnbrokers are more willing to offer you a good price if you pay in cash.

Yard & Garage Sales

Yard-sale shopping is a hit-or-miss proposition. You can find all kinds of stuff at great prices — typically no more than one-third of what you’d pay for a similar new item. However, the selection and pricing vary widely from sale to sale. 

The downside is that you can never be sure of finding exactly what you want at any given sale. But if you visit enough sales, you’re almost certain to find something interesting at a reasonable price.


Tips for Secondhand Shopping

Going to a resale shop or yard sale isn’t like shopping in a department store. You can’t decide what exact item you want to buy down to the model number and color. 

Think of secondhand shopping more like a treasure hunt. On some trips, you may search the shelves for an hour and find nothing useful. But the occasions when you strike it rich — finding the perfect sweater for $5 or a great end table for $10 — make it all worthwhile.

Moreover, there are ways to improve your chances of finding treasure. By adapting your shopping strategies and behaviors, you can find the best values and make the most of your shopping excursion.

1. Choose the Right Store

Just like a real treasure hunt, a successful thrifting excursion starts with knowing where to look. If you’re looking for brand-name clothing, a consignment shop is probably the best place to search. If you want the lowest prices on kids’ clothes for back-to-school, you’re better off shopping at a nonprofit thrift store or yard sale. 

For books, try a secondhand bookstore. For jewelry, try a pawnshop. And for home furnishings, consider flea markets, antique stores, and reuse centers.

The location can also affect the selection. Stores in wealthier parts of town tend to carry higher-end merchandise, while shops in working-class neighborhoods are more likely to have rock-bottom prices.

If the stores in your neighborhood don’t carry the kinds of goods you’re looking for, try branching out to other parts of town. Ask friends about secondhand stores in their area, or do an online search to see what’s available. Then check online reviews to learn more about what each store has to offer.

2. Know Your Local Store

You can shop more efficiently when you’re familiar with your local secondhand options and their policies. Useful things to know include:

  • Store Layout. If you know how the store is organized, you can go straight to the section that carries your size or the type of goods you’re looking for. That saves you time on every shopping trip.
  • Return Policies. At many secondhand stores, all sales are final, even if an item is defective. If your store doesn’t accept returns, it’s good to know that upfront so you can be extra careful about what you buy.
  • Sale Schedule. Some resale shops have end-of-season clearance sales. Others sometimes give you a flat rate to fill up an entire bag. Some, like Goodwill, regularly mark down the oldest wares. By learning when and how sales work, you can show up on the right day to score the best deals.
  • Delivery Schedule. Some stores always receive or put out new merchandise on a specific day and time, such as Monday mornings. Learning when new goods show up lets you get there before other shoppers have picked them over.
  • Available Discounts. Some shops reduce their prices for older people, students, or military members and first responders. Others offer a discount when you buy a lot at once. Always ask about discounts so you get the price you’re entitled to.

There are several ways to get the inside scoop. If they have a contact list, sign up to receive email or text alerts about sales and special deals. You can also follow the store on social media.

But perhaps the best way to know what’s going on is to make friends with the staff. Take a little extra time to chat and get to know them instead of just bustling out with your purchases. 

If they know and like you, they’re more likely to let you in on secrets other customers don’t know. They may even be willing to set stuff aside for you or at least give you a heads up if they know what you’re looking for.

3. Join the Loyalty Program

Some secondhand stores, such as certain Goodwill and Habitat ReStore branches, offer customer loyalty programs. Members earn points they can cash in for coupons or discounts.

If your local thrift store or resale shop has a loyalty program, it’s definitely worth signing up for it. In fact, if you shop at multiple stores that all have loyalty programs, there’s no reason not to sign up for all of them. It costs nothing, and it allows you to earn rewards every time you shop.

4. Use Teamwork

It isn’t always easy to find what you want at resale stores. Racks and shelves can be disorganized, and the selection changes frequently. If you’re not in the right place at the right time, you could miss out on the exact product you’re looking for.

That’s why it helps to have a partner — or several — in your thrifting endeavors. Let your friends know what’s on your shopping list, including details like the brands you like or the size you need, and learn the same about each of them.

That way, whenever you hit the secondhand store, you can shop for each other. If one of you finds something that’s on a friend’s wish list, you can text them a photo to let them know where to find it. They can come in for a quick look or ask you to pick it up for them. 

Another perk of teamwork is that it gives you a fresh perspective. Sometimes, your friends alert you to finds that aren’t on your list — perhaps even things you wouldn’t have thought to buy for yourself. But as soon as you see them, you realize they’re perfect for you.

5. Inspect Merchandise Carefully

Since most secondhand goods are sold as is, you have to scrutinize them before you buy. If you’re buying clothing, check it for rips, stains, odors, or missing buttons. Minor damage isn’t necessarily a deal breaker since you may be able to repair it. But you should take the problems into account when deciding how much you’re willing to pay.

When buying furniture, the most important thing to check is whether it’s sturdy and well made. Examine all the joints to see if they feel secure, and open drawers to see if they glide effortlessly. Sit in chairs to check their comfort. Basically, test it out the way you’d use it in your own home.

With anything that runs on electricity, it’s essential to plug it in and test its function. Check the power button and all controls, and ensure all the accessories and attachments are included and work. If possible, put the item to a full test right there in the store — for instance, put a record on the turntable you want to see how it plays.

6. Only Buy What You’ll Use

If you’re new to secondhand shopping, it’s easy to be bowled over by the amazingly low prices. You can end up loading up a cart with stuff you don’t need just because the prices are so irresistible. 

Then, you get it all home and realize you have no use for a slow cooker, you’re never going to wear a bright-orange sweater, and those jeans are so tight you can’t sit down in them.

Keep your needs and your preferences firmly in mind while you shop. Consider the clothes in your closet and the furnishings in your home, and think about which colors and styles you love the most. Focus on those, and don’t be tempted by “bargains” that aren’t right for you.

Likewise, be careful about falling for clothing that doesn’t quite fit. If you find a slightly too-big garment you love, a tailor may be able to take it in for you. But if it’s too small, don’t buy it hoping to lose weight. Chances are it will just sit in your closet making you unhappy every time you see it. 

If you’re trying to lose weight, wait until you’re down a size before hitting the resale shops. That way, you can try on everything. And since prices are so low, you can pick up a whole new wardrobe for your smaller size without blowing your budget.

7. Shop Out of Season

If you’re shopping for clothing, you can sometimes find better deals on off-season clothes. If you’re shopping for shorts in summer or sweaters in winter, you’re competing with other secondhand shoppers looking for the same garments. The merchandise at thrift shops and yard sales is picked over, and anything you find is likely to be more expensive or less desirable.

To save money, switch it up and look for cool-weather clothes in summer and warm-weather clothes in winter. You’ll have more pieces to choose from, and they’ll probably be cheaper.

This strategy doesn’t work everywhere. For instance, some thrift shops and consignment stores rotate their selections, displaying only season-appropriate clothes.

However, you can still improve your odds of finding good clothes by shopping around the start of the season. In September, when the cool-weather clothes have just appeared on thrift-store shelves, you’ll see everything they have. Wait until February, and you’ll be left with other shoppers’ dregs.

8. Avoid Big Names

When shopping at antique stores, you’re likely to pay more if you focus on big-name manufacturers. For example, an authentic Thomas Chippendale sofa is likely to cost more than a sofa of comparable age and quality from a maker who’s less well-known.

Likewise, at vintage stores and consignment shops, designer clothes and well-known brands are likely to have higher price tags than similar styles from no-name brands. By choosing a knockoff, you can get the look you want for less.

9. Give In to Impulse Buys

Most of the time, impulse buying is a bad idea. If you see something you like but don’t need, it makes more sense to skip it. Often, after taking a few days to think about it, you decide you don’t want it. And if you still want it, you can always go back and buy it.

But at the resale store, you can’t count on today’s great deal to be there tomorrow. These shops usually only have one of each item in stock, so if you leave something behind, someone else could buy it before you have a chance to come back.

That means getting the best values when secondhand shopping sometimes means giving in to impulse purchases. If you see something you love and know you’ll use and the price is right, grab it while you have the chance. 

Even if you end up deciding you don’t love it, you’ve only lost a few bucks. That’s better than spending the next several years searching the stores for that one perfect item you missed out on. And if you decide you don’t want it, you can resell it to recover the money you spent.

10. Negotiate

At many secondhand stores and nearly all pawnshops and yard sales, it’s possible to negotiate a better price than the one you see on the tag. That’s particularly true with oversized items like furniture or appliances. If they’ve been sitting unsold for a while, the manager may decide they’d rather free up the floor space than hold out.

However, stores that allow haggling don’t always advertise it. The only way to find out for sure is to try it. For example, if you’re buying $13 worth of goods, ask if they’d accept $10 for all of it. The worst they can do is say no, and if they do, you haven’t lost anything.

Note that in some establishments, only the owner or manager has the authority to change the prices. If a clerk says no, you can try asking to speak to a manager. But if they’re not available, don’t press the issue. But if you find yourself dealing with a different person on your next visit, try again. You might get a different answer next time.

11. Be Patient

When you shop secondhand, you can’t be sure you’ll find what you’re looking for. Sometimes, you have to walk out empty-handed because there wasn’t a single pair of pants in your size or a single chair that was comfortable to sit in.

Experiences like that can be frustrating, but you shouldn’t let them sour you on thrifting in general. For every frustrating trip, there’s another when you magically seem to find everything on your list — or something amazing you weren’t even looking for.

The key to making this resale magic happen is to give yourself as many opportunities as possible. Stop by your local thrift shop often, whenever you’re in the neighborhood. That gives you more chances to see new goods as they arrive and grab that special piece before it disappears. And hit the brakes for every yard sale you see.

It also helps to keep an open mind. Don’t get stuck on a specific idea of what you want, such as “navy blue L.L. bean turtleneck with whale pattern.” 

Instead, think in general terms about what you need, such as “turtleneck shirts.” That frees you up to consider more goods and find something that wouldn’t have been on your radar otherwise.


Final Word

The thrill of finding bargains at the resale shop can be intoxicating. But it’s best not to get carried away. 

It’s not a good idea to buy used every time. For example, used bike helmets and car seats may present safety hazards. In these cases, stick to brand-new items.

But for many things, secondhand shopping is an easy way to save money. It’s a particularly smart move for people who want to choose sustainable clothing but can’t afford eco-conscious brands. By making your local thrift store your first stop for clothes shopping, you can keep your wardrobe green while sticking to a budget.

If you want to take your secondhand shopping skills to the next level, expand your searches to include secondhand goods that cost nothing at all. By visiting free stores, swap parties, and websites like Freecycle and the Buy Nothing Project, you can get new-to-you stuff for no money at all.

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Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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