Personal Finance

8 Insider Tips to Snag the Best Thrift Store Finds

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Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on Living on the Cheap.

Thrift store shopping has long been a necessity for those with limited resources, but these days it’s embraced by people of all economic levels who love the thrill of the hunt. Not only is thrifting a dependable way to save money, but it’s fun. Where else can you find a Liz Claiborne skirt (new, with tags) hanging next to one from Wal-Mart, for the same price?

If you have ever enjoyed treasure hunts, it’s time to give thrift store shopping a chance. Here are some shopping tips to get started, including what to buy when thrifting and our best, insider thrift store hacks.

1. Have a plan but don’t stick to it

Couple shopping for used furniture
Iakov Filimonov /

The No. 1 smart shopping tip is to know which items you need and focus on those areas of the store. If you need khakis and a jacket, don’t forget to look for them. A plan can make a thrift store visit feel less overwhelming.

But sticking to a plan at a thrift shop is missing the point. If you have blinders on, how will you notice the Ann Taylor dress for crazy cheap or the affordable painting that would look perfect above the piano? The best thrift store finds are often surprises. If you have a strict household budget, consider giving yourself a dollar amount limit for impulse buys.

One plan to stick to, however, is buying only clothes that fit. Even the best deal on your favorite brand isn’t a good deal if the item will just stay in the closet and never be worn.

2. Buy artwork for the frames

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This sounds like crazy advice because the most popular genre in thrift stores seems to be Creepy Clowns. But wait. Look at the frames. Even the most laughable painting may be in a perfectly respectable frame. The framed picture at a thrift store will often cost far less than the price of a picture frame at a conventional store. It’s a brilliant thrift store hack to buy art in order to throw it away and reuse the frame.

Before you head out on your thrifting mission, take an assessment of photographs and other pictures you’d like to frame. Then bring a tape measure with you to see if any of the frames are the right size. Remember, you can also repaint frames that are in good condition but aren’t the color you need for your decor scheme.

I confess that I also have a secret fantasy of finding a lost Van Gogh painting or an original copy of the Declaration of Independence tucked behind a cross-stitched girl with balloon. You never know.

3. Shop the sales

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As if the prices aren’t low enough, many thrift stores have regularly scheduled sales. Many Salvation Army stores have a half-price day, and Goodwill Retail Stores often have a discounted day for senior citizens. Ask at your local thrift shop if it has sale days for everyone or for select professionals, such as teachers and service workers.

4. Get new stuff

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That’s right. Not everything at thrift stores is used. Retail stores like Target regularly donate unsold goods or products in damaged packaging to thrift stores. Ask the sales clerk if those donations arrive on a particular day of the week, and plan your shopping trips for those times.

5. Pick the right day to shop

Man shopping secondhand
Caftor /

Know that your shopping experience will not be the same each day of the week. Saturdays tend to be the busiest, and a late afternoon trip might find the store picked over. Mondays and Tuesdays can be good for getting first dibs on the yard sale rejects brought in on Sunday afternoons. Learn which days the store marks down items that have been in the store the longest, and shop that day to snag newly discounted items.

6. Think ‘potential’

Thrift store shopping
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A top thrift shopping tip is to look at clothes, table cloths, bed sheets and other linens as fabric, especially if you’re a crafter. A dress in a style you would never wear might be made with a gorgeous fabric that would cost far more to buy in a fabric store. Or it might be worth buying a cheap yet ugly sweater for its buttons. Is that table really beat up or does it just need to be refinished? Could that skirt be tailored to be a stunner? Think about what your purchase could become with some TLC.

7. Teach your children well

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Use the thrift store shopping experience to teach your kids about the value of a dollar and how to be creative. Give them each a few dollars and let them explore what they can buy for that amount. Later, give them the same amount in a conventional retail store so they can see the difference. Encourage them to find unusual, funky clothes and to mix and match. Or see what fun finds they can uncover in the toy or accessory sections.

This is the biggest money-saving tip of all because you might end up with a teenager who puts together unique outfits from a thrift store rather than one who insists on shopping at Hollister or Neiman Marcus.

8. Bring your camera and have fun

man taking a photograph
Dean Drobot /

Thrift store shopping doesn’t have to be just about saving money. Take some time to look at the oddities on the knick-knack shelf. I’m not saying you should purchase the pig sitting on the ear of corn or the Buddha piggy bank that talks when you drop in a coin. (Although I’m not saying you shouldn’t.) But take a look and imagine for just a moment the stories behind these objects. Perhaps you want to post to a social media page devoted to crazy thrift store finds. Happy hunting!

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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