My Top 10 Tips & Secrets From 30 Years of Thrift Shopping

Helpful thrift shopping tips you’ll learn: 

  • Where to find the good stuff. 
  • How to find balance.
  • What to keep in mind.

I had just moved out of my parent’s house. I rented a little farmhouse with my best friends. We each paid a whopping $100 a month to live on farmland surrounded by cows, fields, and lakes. I purchased my first car (a pumpkin-orange 1976 Chevette) and forced myself to learn how to drive a stick shift by taking my friend to a Whitney Housten concert. Seattle hills, traffic, me, hubbub, stick shift… not my most brilliant moment; but, I had no choice but to learn. I’m every woman.

I’ll never forget it. One sunny Saturday in 1987, I drove up to my first garage sale at a neighbor’s farmhouse. I bought three old, decorative honey jars. And I was hooked. I was a thrifter. This year is my 30th anniversary of being a thrift shopper. Ouch. I’ve learned a few lessons on the way and I’m sharing them with you. So, here’s My Top 10 Tips & Secrets From 30 Years of Thrift Shopping Because I love you.

I love old buttons and spools.

1. Know your style. Why do you thrift? I love finding small vintage things, old costume jewelry for craft projects, clean baskets which make storage pretty, name brand items, unique dishes & silverware for my photography, and my favorite – vintage books.

Keep an eye out for lamps, a large mirror, or anything else your home is craving. If you have patience, it will show up. Embrace mix and match. As you grow up, your style will too. Just replace and renew as you see fit. The nice thing about sticking with the classics, though, is they will never go out of style.

2. Location. Location. Location. Like name-brand things or even never-been-used finds? Keep your eyes open for the fancy pants neighborhood garage sales. You know the ones, the ones where you take your kids trick or treating. Go to the snobbiest area in town and sniff out their thrift stores too. Need a rake, an old trunk, a trailer hitch? Go to a barn sale.  Need baby stuff? Go to nice suburban neighborhoods. There’s even a website so you can see if there’s a thrift store in your nearest fancy pants area.

3. Get over the stigma. Everyone can benefit from thrifting. After all, simple household items are the best finds… plain dishes, silverware, basic photo frames, baskets, material.

I once found a brand new, tags-still-on Disney sweatshirt with all the Winnie the Pooh characters embroidered on the front. My kids used to list them off and laugh when they were toddlers while we grocery shopped. I still have the sweatshirt. Had I gone to a regular retail store to get one, I would’ve passed on the $69 price tag but for $24.99, I wore that sweatshirt until it looked as dreary as Eeyore (he’s my fav). It is well-loved because it became a source of joy and one of my fondest memories with my liddles who aren’t so little anymore.

4. You can spoil children with garage sale toys. I learned this one the hard way. I found too many good deals. Soon my kid’s bedroom floors were covered with toys and you know what they wanted more than anything? The next toy. Don’t let this happen to you. Decide an approximate number of toys you will allow your kids to own and stick to it. Teach your kids about giving to charity. They must feel the pain of decisions and the joy of giving while they are young or, well, I’ll be honest. You could end up with little Bratty McBrattersons for the low, low price of three bucks.

Also, shop with your kids, not in spite of your kids. If they’re cranky, go to a park instead. If they’d be more comfortable at home, let them stay with dad. Never lose sight of what is most important. They don’t need another action figure. They need you.

5. Always Google when in doubt. Before there was Google, we had to guess or try to remember the retail price for things. Now, I can put something in my cart, look at the Google to find what it goes for; and, put it back if it’s not a reasonable price or smile and keep walking with my new find if it’s a great deal. Recently, I found a set of cake pans which sell for about $15 or less new. The thrift store was asking $21 for them used. Ummmmm no. Also, don’t buy gimmicks. It doesn’t take a bunch of small appliances to be a great cook or keep an efficient home. Sometimes you just gotta remember there’s a reason there are three back massagers from the home shopping network on the thrift store shelf.

6. Find a deal on a new thing. Discard at least one old thing. Every time you find a new thing you simply must have, follow through with giving at least one or more old thing/s away. Some thrift stores have discount cards and you can earn a percentage off your next purchase when you bring something to give at their donation drop-off center.

7.  Be a good person. When thrift shopping, it usually supports a charity. I learned the phrase “poppin’ tags” from Macklemore’s song Thrift Shop and I use the phrase often; but, I’ve also learned that in real life it means to rip the tags off or switch tags on used items so you can get it for cheap or walk out with it. You know, so basically, theft. Stay classy. Stay honest. I know Macklemore would and we will too.

Be respectful and kind. Park in designated areas. Drive slowly no matter how talented you think you are. Don’t block driveways, mailboxes, or fire hydrants. Watch for people.

When garage saling, you can barter for better prices and trade with neighbors at community sales. But keep in mind, being stingy will never be forgotten.

I’ve been through some subtle and ugly situations before. Once, my garage was opened to the public accidentally while I was working inside. When I came back out, a man had a notebook and was hiding pages of valuable baseball cards my son had received from his grandfather who had just passed away. Had the folder not been slightly see-thru, the man would’ve walked away paying a quarter. Thankfully, I was able to let him know they were not for sale. I will never forget.

On the other hand, I sold a textbook on eBay years ago. I didn’t know the value of the book and sold it for a few dollars. When the payment came in the mail, the customer included a note letting me know the real value of the book was about $45 and he wrote a check for the additional amount. I will never forget.

8. Sprucing up is easy. Remove price stickers from items by soaking in warm, soapy water for about 5 minutes. Rub the sticker off with your fingers in seconds. You can find silver and brass polish at grocery stores to remove tarnish. Many stains can be removed by soaking clothes in water with Oxy Clean for several hours. There are some things that may not be worth the fuss, though, so do your research. For instance, by the time you get done paying for the shipping and other fees to repair a Longaberger basket, it can get pretty pricey and simply not be worth the expense.

Watch closely as I magically turn this cloth napkin into a basket liner. Tada!

Sprucing up also brings learning opportunities. Strip a table. Sand a bench. Repurpose a birdcage to be a light fixture. Such a great way to teach your kids creativity, hard work, and the proper way to accomplish stuff. Also, YouTube wasn’t around when I started thrifting, so how cool is it you can look up pretty much how to do anything now? Lucky you.

9. Don’t be careless. Just like normal retail shopping, try it on before you leave the store. Make sure you have all the working parts to appliances. Look for cracks, stains, rips, etc.

10. Pretty and practical. I’ve heard it said, “Don’t keep anything that is not beautiful to you or practical.” This would actually rule number one on my list. I prefer an item to be both practical and beautiful at the same time. For instance, when I find a bag of buttons, I only buy them if they include some antiques, are reasonably priced, and if some can be put into use if a button falls off a sweater. I store them in a big jar so they are pretty and practical. Need a button? Golly, um, I only have about 492 here. What can I say, It’s a gift.

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