Thrift Shop Like a Pro: Your Guide to Scoring Great Secondhand Clothing

A woman shops at a local consignment shop.
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Every first-time thrifter has that moment. You stumble on a thrilling designer find and realize thrift stores can be a treasure trove for your wardrobe. Other times, it feels like you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel and coming up with rejected clothing that sports frayed cuffs and broken zippers.

Getting to the good stuff while thrifting can be time-consuming but ultimately worth the effort, says Carolyn Becker, thrift fashion expert and senior manager of communications and community engagement at Goodwill of Greater Washington

“Years ago, I will never forget when I walked into my local Goodwill and found someone’s vintage designer clothing collection,” says Becker. “My heart literally skipped a beat! I still have all of the pieces. Chanel blazers, Yves Saint Laurent jackets … It was a thrift dream.”

Is Buying Secondhand Really Best for Your Budget?

Sustainable and recycled fashion is a movement that has picked up a lot of steam in recent years. According to a 2022 recommerce report, 272 million or 82% of Americans say they buy and/or sell pre-owned goods, including clothing.

When it comes to how much the average thrift shopper saves, Coupon Follow’s in-depth analysis estimated it’s about $150 a month or an average of $1,760 a year for those who lean into purchasing secondhand.

Considering selling thrift store clothes? Recommerce is a booming business. See our step-by-step guide to launching an online clothing resale shop.

In addition to being helpful for your budget, buying secondhand clothing also has multiple benefits for the climate from reducing waste to preventing pollution and labor exploitation caused by the fashion industry. And as Becker reminds us, the thrill of the find can be its own reward.

“I love meeting people new to thrifting because they get to have that first-time feeling of finding their first gem at the thrift store,” Becker says. “You never forget that emotion.”

A Guide to Scoring Trendy Thrift Store Clothing

For our step-by-step guide, professional thrifters provided the inside scoop on how to weed through the scary stuff and find gems for your closet or threads to flip online for a profit.

Step 1: Find a Thrift or Consignment Store

This sounds like an obvious first step, but it’s not as easy as pulling up Google and asking for “thrift stores near me.” There’s a science to picking the right store at the right time.

Location, Location, Location

One of the thrifting tricks of the trade is to research the average income in your area and go to a thrift store in the posher neighborhoods to find designer labels.

Conversely, if you want hip and trendy looks or children’s clothes, go to thrift stores in areas with younger families or stick to established neighborhoods with older residents to strike a vintage clothing or costume jewelry gold mine.

Choose Your Thrift Store Wisely

Look at listings for local thrift stores to discern their inventory and clientele. Some unique clothing thrift stores are actually consignment stores where the merchandise is more carefully curated but also more expensive.

It’s never a bad idea to hit up the basic thrift store circuit and then pop into the higher-end resale shops later. And pay attention to where your dollars are going, whether that’s to a worthy local business or a national nonprofit.

Becker says she’s been a longtime shopper at Goodwill because of the mission they support, even before she joined.

“I feel like my Goodwill finds are the best because they support the nonprofit’s mission of offering quality job training programs and career services to those in need,” she said.

Find Out When Thrift Stores Restock

Every thrift store has a schedule for processing donations and putting out new clothing on the shelves. Ask the staff to share the scoop on the best time to find new stuff. And like most things, Becker reminds new thrifters that patience and persistence pay off when you’re searching for handpicked trendy, recycled fashion.

“There is so much clothing in the secondhand sphere that there’s plenty to go around;” Becker insists. “In all of my experiences thrifting, however, you can’t just thrift once and expect to find a treasure trove. I go multiple times a week or month to ensure thrift success to score what I love and need.”

Step 2: Set Thrifting Boundaries

If you’ve come home from thrifting tired and sore with a mountain of stuff you can’t wear, you’re not alone. Here’s how to prepare for a thrift store trip to ensure you make the most of your budget and time.

Make a List and Set a Budget

Take a walk through your closet and note what you need. Decide how much you have to spend and try to stick to your budget. Note which special fashion garments you might be willing to go over budget for and by how much.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

When you start thrifting, the adage that time is money will hit close to home. In fact, Becker confesses this is one of the components of thrifting clothes that can be especially frustrating for first-timers. However, she says don’t despair because practice makes perfect.

“I think a significant barrier to thrifting is the time/search component — and I get it. Time is one of the most valuable things that everyone has. Thus, I tell those new to thrifting that it gets much easier with time and when you develop that thrift muscle, you can search any thrift store more quickly and efficiently.”

Bring Company (and Snacks)

You know how you shouldn’t go grocery shopping hungry? Well, you shouldn’t go thrifting hungry either. You’ll get cranky and sluggish and start second-guessing every pick you pull off the rack.

Professional thrifters might be able to breeze in and out, but there’s nothing wrong with the casual thrifter making an afternoon excursion out of it. Have some lunch, invite friends and make it an event worth remembering and laughing about later.

Step 3: Thrift Shop Like a Pro

Professional thrifters know the secret sauce to catching secondhand clothing steals, so follow these expert pointers as you fill up your cart.

Shop Out of Season

Items that are in season often have sections that look picked over, so skip them in favor of clothing you can squirrel away in your closet and pull out later. Don’t overlook selections of sandals or sundresses in fall or sweaters and boots in the summer.

For those who stumble into it, there’s big money to be made in a side hustle selling sneakers. Check out how to get started with our tips on reselling shoes.

Look Over Clothing Carefully

Excited about a thrift store find only to get it home and discover a hidden stain or a broken zipper? It’s happened to everyone. This is why it’s imperative to look over your items like pricey vintage dresses or vintage denim carefully before you hit the checkout.

Try It on for Size

Thrift store clothing is usually just a few dollars, so it can be tempting to grab a handful and eyeball it for size. A great thrift store will have a dressing room, so you should take the time to try things on if you’re thrifting in person. Some of the clothing landing on resale shelves has affordable prices because it’s made from cheaper fabrics or has fit issues right off the rack.

Ask Yourself Hard Questions

Because thrift store clothing is cheaper, it can be easy to talk yourself into just one more. One more pair of sweatpants. One more faux leather jacket. But if you’re shopping for yourself, don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. If you already have three gray cardigans, it’s probably time to pass on a fourth no matter how attractive the price.

Step 4: Caring for Thrift Store Threads

Once you get your thrift store finds home, it’s time to air them out and take stock of any minor repairs that need to be made. Give your new secondhand duds a wash according to the label instructions, resew loose buttons or do a little ironing as needed.

However, the misconception that thrift store clothing is in need of major rehab is usually a misplaced concern.

“One thing that puzzles me sometimes is when people say that shoes at thrift stores will give you fungus,” says Becker. “I’m sure it’s happened maybe once or twice in the grand scheme of time, but in all of my experiences, I have never seen, heard of or had this happen to me. That said, donor tip: Do not donate worn out and unusable shoes!”

Online Thrift Shops and Popular Thrift Store Apps

While most of the professional thrifting tips here focus on in-person shopping, the same advice applies to great online thrift stores. Start with known brands like Goodwill that have a cheap online thrift store for bargain hunters.

Looking for vintage fashion? Branch out and search some of the best online thrift stores with big clothing inventories from all over the country or overseas.

If you want affordable online thrift stores, think eBay or Facebook Marketplace where you can buy or sell gently used items from the comfort of your couch.

For those looking for a designer online thrift store, explore Poshmark, which feels like a luxury garage sale online. Other online thrift shops that stock known fashion labels include ThredUp and Thrifted.

No matter how you decide to thrift, it’s clear that there is a wealth of clothing finds waiting to be discovered. And if you’re willing to invest a little time and effort, thrift store threads pay dividends.

Kaz Weida is a senior writer with The Penny Hoarder.