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

Two women shop at a thrift store.
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Your first impression of a thrift store may go a little like this: a store full of used goods that nobody wants sprinkled with the occasional treasure. And while there is certainly that element in any thrift store, the reality is that these establishments have much to offer us. They’re good for the environment (sustainable), good for the wallet (usually budget-friendly) and good for the brain (it’s fun, and — dare we say — stimulating, to wander through a thrift store on the hunt).

But as you’re combing the aisles of your favorite thrift store, whether that’s Goodwill, Salvation Army or a local chain, you might have a Eureka moment. Could you combine your passion for thrifting with your obligation to give gifts for the holiday season? And yet — here comes another thought, a niggling doubt: Is giving secondhand against holiday etiquette?

Before we answer the question, let’s lead with some context. Goodwills and Salvation Armys have become a haven for young shoppers, vintage shoppers and even high-income shoppers. Yes, really: A 2022 survey from resale software company FloorFound discovered that about 86% of affluent shoppers — or those making more than $175,000 a year — had at least once in the past bought a resale item, a number 14 percentage points higher than the survey average.

In general, secondhand shopping is becoming more and more popular. Roughly 60% of American respondents to a 2023 Statista survey said they had purchased at least one secondhand item in the past year, up from 49% in 2019. The worldwide second-hand apparel market is estimated to hit $84 billion by 2030.

We say all this to say that perhaps it’s antiquated at this point to even think that buying secondhand could be against etiquette rules—which are themselves antiquated, but we digress.

Is It OK to Give Gifts From a Thrift Store?

Still, we acknowledge that some might say it’s a faux pas. A secondhand gift is generally harder to return—you won’t be able to exchange it for a bigger size or a different color. But it also has a unique asset: It’s one-of-a-kind.

A few years ago, we asked our Penny Hoarder readers what they thought about the practice of secondhand gifts. Their responses were varied. Some, like Danielle Abeyta, said she purchased four gifts from Goodwill for Christmas. Emotions were “mixed.”

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

Other readers had positive experiences, purchasing original art at thrift stores or gifts for their husband and children. The salient point, according to most readers, is to look for quality over price tag. Set some ground rules before browsing. Salvation Army recommends choosing gifts that seem like new or using an item there to structure a gift around, like books or a vintage candle-holder. Creativity can also jolt a regular secondhand object from ho-hum to amazing—who wouldn’t want a frame, for example, that their best friend painted themselves?

Austin, Texas-based writer Megan, of Mid-century Millennial, commonly buys secondhand gifts for the holiday season. But she also has some criteria—the items must not be damaged or with too many flaws, the receiver of the gift should find it “useful” and, if she needs to modify it in some way, she should already know how she will do that.

Megan is certainly not the only one to perform this ritual search.  The U.S. has more than 4,200 Goodwill stores, at least 1,200 Salvation Army thrift storesand countless thrift stores run by individual churches and charities. The thrift store business is a big one in the country—there are almost 29,000 total thrift stores in the United States, and the average store earns $300,000 per year in revenue. Thrift store shoppers save an average of almost $150 per month. 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 former 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. Big chain thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army do sometimes allow returns either for a refund or store credit, so all hope is not lost, but you likely won’t be able to exchange the item for something similar. And if your gift recipient isn’t a fan of thrift stores to begin with, a store credit may not do much good.

“It’s appropriate if the recipient is receiving something you know for sure is what they would be interested in,” said reader Terry Boblet in our community Facebook 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.”

If you think a vintage item might be well-received but you don’t want to take the risk, consider choosing an item of houseware. Clothes are more person-specific and can show more wear over time, but items like vintage glasses and dishes can last years and tend to be more uniform. Who wouldn’t appreciate a new set of beautiful dishes, even if they had been used befor

Cheap Christmas Gifts to Buy at Thrift Stores

OK, OK, you’ve heard our tips and now you just want a list. We get it. Here are some items that work well as Christmas gifts from 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.

Books: They’re so cheap at thrift stores, and there’s such a big selection. If you live in parts of the country with stores like Half Price Books, which are nearly all secondhand, you’re in luck.

Jewelry: Ditto. And in case your gift recipient hates the gift, just know that costume jewelry actually has resale value.

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.

Coffee table items: Mid-century millennial Megan likes to prepare coffee table accoutrements as holiday gifts. Think a decorative book, a glass tray or candle-holder and perhaps a candle (bought new).

Dishware: Thrift stores nationwide always have amazing sets of vintage and stylish dishware, from porcelain plates to champagne coupe glasses that will make a splash at your friend’s next party.

Plantware: Is that a word? Plants are all the rage these days, and if your gift is for a Millennial or Gen Z, then chances are they will love a new storage-holder for their favorite item: their plant babies.

Records: Records haven’t made as much of a stir as when hipsters were promising to bring them back, but they are great as both a musical object to play and a decoration. Thrift stores are full of them. Their aged quality may even work in their favor.

Joke mugs: Yes, an old mug may sound distasteful, but if it has a particularly clever caption on it or hearkens back to a family memory, it may actually conjure good vibes. Just make sure you wash it first.

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 the 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.

Our Conclusion

So let’s circle back: do we really think Christmas shopping at thrift stores is acceptable?

It’s a resounding yes. The world has changed since your mother was writing everyone thank-you notes, and a gift purchased at a thrift store is not just about saving money—it’s about saving the planet. More importantly, thrift stores are a growing industry, and people are actually seeking one-of-a-kind items that will decorate their home and person in a creative way. If you’re still feeling sheepish about going to a thrift store, make sure you find items that clean up well and focus on the recipient. If you really have someone in mind who offends easily, don’t buy them a thrift store gift.

But ultimately, holiday giving should be about one thing and one thing only: “It’s the thought that counts.”

Mike Brassfield (@mikebrassfield) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Freelancer Elizabeth Djinis contributed to this report.