Thrifting is fun and rewarding, but it takes some work. Sometimes, people want to get on the thrifting train, but feel as if it doesn’t work for them or they aren’t good at it. Like anything, though, it takes practice! Successful thrifting and sustainable living are not one-off activities. Rather, they are long-term goals that take patience and persistence to develop.
The tips in this ultimate guide will help preserve the environment and go easy on your wallet and closet—plus, they are feasible for the long term. If you are curious about how to become “a thrifter,” read on.
Mindset shift: good thrifting takes time
(Beacon’s Closet, Manhattan)
Develop a habit of thrifting regularly
Thrifting briefly but regularly, such as a couple of times a month, will bring you more successes than thrifting occasionally as a shopping spree. Thrift stores carry all kinds of clothes—from gorgeous vintage dresses to unremarkable T-shirts, Lululemon running tops to bold eighties blazers, sleek wool coats to macramé seventies belts—and there is only one of each item. You never know exactly what you’re going to find at a thrift store, because thrift and vintage stores never know what they are going to get from those who donate or sell.
Thrifting regularly is not about constantly consuming, but about practicality, because it will usually take you a little longer to find exactly what you want. A local thrift store may carry black skirts in abundance, but it could take a few trips before you score one in your size and the fabric you prefer. (Avoid buying anything, even at a thrift store, that only fulfills part of what you’re looking for. Nobody needs another pretty-but-scratchy shirt hanging in the back of the closet!)
(Beth Jones, thrifting queen of @bjonesstyle.)
Find a convenient thrift store.
Thrifting feels more like a fruitless slog when you’ve driven 15 minutes to a shop and spend 30 minutes browsing with no luck. That is a disappointing hour! However, a thrift run that doesn’t turn up what you like is much less frustrating when it’s only taken a brief 10 to 15 minutes out of your day. That’s why brief, convenient thrifting is the best strategy.
Thrifting regularly is most practical when you’ve found a thrift store you like on your way to work or near the gym, so it’s easy for you to just pop in once every week or two and quickly scan for new items. Thrift stores don’t always move things that fast. If you stop by once a week you will see a lot of items you’ve seen before. This means you can spend five to ten minutes circling the room to check for fabrics or colors you like, and then continue with your errands for the day. Additionally, you can shave off more time the more familiar you are with the shop. When you get to know what they stock, for instance, you can make decisions about things like skipping the housewares or shoe aisle because that’s not their strong suit.
(L Train Vintage in New York.)
Plan for the long game.
It takes longer to find what you want in thrift stores, so successful thrifting means advance planning. If you want most of your items for the year to be secondhand, you will need to plan out what you want and start shopping in the previous season, three to five months ahead of time.
Make a list of those items you want and what colors, styles, and fabrics you would wear. Once you develop an eye by thrifting regularly at a good shop or two, you’ll start making some fabulous finds.
For summer dresses, start looking in March or April; conversely, for sweaters, start in July or August. Depending on the thrift store, there may not be as many things on display, but that section won’t be picked over, either.
When you’re buying an item in advance, you also need to make sure you actually wear it. Create a system so that you remember that you bought a dress in December for your event in February. You can even write a reminder on your calendar under the event info!
(L Train Vintage.)
It’s not you: find a good thrift-shop match.
Visit a few different thrift shops in your area to find one that fits what you are looking for in terms of price and selection. Don’t assume that thrifting isn’t for you if you’ve visited one or two and it didn’t work out. Some thrift stores are just bad—or bad for you! Once you start exploring different ones, you’ll see that their merchandise and organization can vary. Some thrift shops focus on T-shirts, nineties puffer jackets, sweat suits, and jeans. If you’re looking for vintage or workwear, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad thrifter or that thrifting doesn’t work—it just means that this particular store doesn’t carry what you want and is not a good match for you.
If you’re on the hunt for workwear, evening clothes, or high-quality basics, look for thrift stores in or (sometimes even better) near upscale areas that are more likely to have those high-quality cast-offs. Thrift shops near upscale areas can be best, because city-center thrifting is much more expensive. In New York City, Housing Works charges $20 for silk button-up blouses. That’s still a deal compared to the retail price, but those would be on the $8-for-anything rack at a Goodwill in the suburbs. So rather than shopping in Manhattan or Los Angeles, try thrifting someplace just outside, like Jersey City or San Gabriel Valley, where people donate high-end items but the retail rents aren’t as high.
Strategy: make your list and trust the process
(Another Man’s Treasure, Jersey City.)
Know what you’re looking for and what works on you.
After you’ve made your plan for the next year or season, keep a list with you of things you’re interested in. Maybe you’re on the lookout for a white skirt, brown sandals, and a yellow purse. Stick to your plan to explore these sections, but also keep your eyes open for clothes that you like in general—things that are your style. This could be specific items, or just favorite colors, fabrics, styles, silhouettes, decades, etc. Maybe you will buy up almost anything turquoise (that’s me), or maybe you have a collection of sheath dresses. Just keep those ideas in the back of your head. Scanning for items on your list is when you may find the perfect 1970s prairie dress of your dreams!
Know what doesn’t work for you.
As you thrift and develop your style, you’ll find that some things are harder to find and other things just don’t work as well on you. These are items and sections you can block off when thrifting to save yourself time. For example, I need a size 9–10 shoe, but rarely do I look in shoe sections when thrifting, because I know that in my area, a size 9–10 shoe is just hard to come by. If I turned over every single shoe in Goodwill, could I find something the right size? Yes! But it’s not worth the time to shuffle through that many shoes, and besides, I’m not on the market for just any type of shoe that fits.
Similarly, you may know that, for whatever reason, burgundy isn’t your color. You’ve tried it a few times, and it just doesn’t work. Don’t bother trying it on anymore! It’s not worth the time to find that one-in-a-million burgundy blouse that complements your skin the way you wish it would. Pass!
(Housing Works, New York.)
It’s all about scanning!
Sorting through every item in a thrift store takes a long time. In a regular retail store, items are organized on the racks into a series of smaller and smaller chunks. Pants, shirts, sweaters are sorted, then shirts are sorted into blouses or tees, and even those blouses are organized by style, color, and sometimes size. This makes it a lot faster to shop because you’re not looking at each individual item.
With thrifting, you have to learn how to block out the chunks you’re not interested in. Know the thrift store’s weak points and what doesn’t work for you, and don’t look at anything in those categories either. Focus mainly on what you’re looking for, and be open to any surprises that might work for you.
When NOT to thrift.
Surprise clothing needs make thrifting a lot harder! Say you need new trousers for work ASAP. You could find these in a thrift store, but you could also find three pairs in every size but yours. If you have enough time, it’s nice to look just in case, but this is the kind of thrift trip that is more likely to end in disappointment.
Thrifting is also a lot harder when there aren’t any shops close by or when you have a lot of responsibilities. As I said, thrifting takes time! If you have a full-time job and two toddlers, thrifting may not be as feasible for you in this season in life—and that’s okay! There are other ways to save money, reduce waste, and protect the environment until there is more time (or a closer thrift store) for you to explore.