Is It OK to Buy Holiday Presents at a Thrift Store?

cheap christmas gifts
Samantha Dunscombe/The Penny Hoarder
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We’re all familiar with thrift stores. Long racks of used clothes. Shelves piled with random knickknacks and housewares. An endless assortment of secondhand picture frames. The occasional treasure that keeps thrifters coming back.

But in the thick of the holiday season, we hit on a question of etiquette: Is it acceptable to give someone a Christmas present you bought at a thrift store?

Let’s put on our Miss Manners hats and find out.

Is It OK to Give Gifts From a Thrift Store?

Some might say it’s a faux pas.

Your snooty Aunt Sadie might well turn up her nose at some previously owned doodad you unearthed at Goodwill. Others on your shopping list are probably more accustomed to receiving brand-new gifts accompanied by gift receipts.

“Last year I bought four gifts from Goodwill to give as Christmas gifts. There were some mixed emotions,” reader Danielle Abeyta wrote in our Facebook community group.

“Some people liked and appreciated the gifts, but a couple did not. They kind of looked down on it because of it being secondhand.”

But it turns out that many of our dedicated Penny Hoarders are totally OK with buying presents at thrift stores — within reason.

“I’ve given my kids and husband items I’ve purchased secondhand,” Tonya Williams said. “I think it depends on the gift. I’ve found the most amazing original art at thrift stores and would be thrilled if someone got me something they thought I would love.”

“If it looks tattered or used, of course I wouldn’t give it,” added Kathy Dion. “But if it’s something the person would like, I’d do it.”

If you ever hunt for gifts at your local thrift shop, you’re not alone. The U.S. has about 3,200 Goodwill stores, 1,200 Salvation Army family stores, nearly 400 St. Vincent de Paul Society stores and countless thrift stores run by individual churches and charities. Like any retail outlet, virtually all of them see higher traffic during the holiday season.

“We hear that ‘white elephant’ or ‘Secret Santa’ gifts are popular at Goodwill, as people are looking for unusual and fun gifts to find for friends, family and co-workers,” said Goodwill spokeswoman Lauren Lawson-Zilai.

Know Your Audience

The key, thrift shoppers say, is to know who you’re buying for. The better you know your target’s interests, the more likely you’ll find a gift that suits them.

Of course that’s always the case, but it’s even more important when buying at thrift stores. It’s tougher (and often, impossible) to return a gift to a thrift store than, say, Macy’s.

“It’s appropriate if the recipient is receiving something you know for sure is what they would be interested in,” Terry Boblet wrote in our community group. “I once gave a set of vintage cinnamon and sugar shakers from a thrift store to my boss. He liked 1950s vintage.”

“You have to know the giftee,” Julie P. Brusca added. “I bought a costume jewelry necklace at a resale shop for a girlfriend and she loved it. But I know she likes retro stuff. If someone prefers new items, I wouldn’t risk giving them something used and trying to play it off.”

Cheap Christmas Gifts to Buy at Thrift Stores

Toys: If the toy works, the kid won’t care about all the layers of plastic packaging it originally came in. Wipe it down with disinfectant wipes, stick it in a gift bag and you’re good to go.

DVDs and CDs: Check for scratches.

Books: They’re so cheap at thrift stores, and there’s such a big selection.

Jewelry: Ditto.

Clothes: This one’s tougher. You’d have to know the recipient’s size and taste. For the women on your list, make sure to check out the belts and scarves, too.

Purses and bags: You can find designer labels in surprisingly good condition.

Frames: Every thrift store everywhere has a huge selection of framed posters and artwork. Look for cool, unique frames. If you don’t like what’s inside the frame, ditch it and replace it with a family photo or a print by your loved one’s favorite artist.

Do’s and Don’ts

Finding thrift stores is a breeze. Nonprofits like Goodwill, the Salvation Army and the St. Vincent de Paul Society have store locators on their websites. Or, use to see thrift stores near you.

Here are some insider tips from a couple of my thrift-shopping friends and relatives:

  • Mornings are the best time to hit thrift stores because you get first pick of the items they put out overnight.
  • Location makes a difference. Thrift stores near wealthier areas tend to have nicer stuff.
  • Take your time looking through the racks. Thrift shops typically aren’t as strictly organized as regular retail stores.
  • Skip the used electronics. If you’re on a budget, you’re better off getting something new and cheap at Walmart or on Amazon.
  • If you ignore the previous tip and buy electronic gear, test it before leaving the store.
  • Inspect items closely before buying. Check for cracks, chips, holes, tears, stains or rust. Test drawers, zippers, buckles and snaps.

So, is thrift store Christmas shopping really acceptable?

It’s a fine line to walk. It’s a way to find unique and personal gifts, and make a connection. At the same time, you have to take care not to insult anyone on your Christmas list.

Reader Erin McElroy says it comes down to knowing your loved ones well: “I think it depends on the recipient. I love gently used items, but I have friends that would be offended.”

“But it is the thought that counts.”

Your Turn: Would you buy a Christmas present at a thrift store?

Mike Brassfield (@mikebrassfield) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. When he’s not working, he’s reading or being a dad. He can be reached at [email protected].