How to Thrift Like an Expert

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Editor’s Note: Readers, meet Meggie Maas, vintage and thrift shopper extraordinaire, and recent thrifting partner to Kate. Meggie will be writing for W&D on all things related to buying secondhand. She has a wealth of knowledge on the topic, and if you have ideas for specific content you’d like to see from her, please let us know in the comments!


I started my thrifting career like so many: looking for old, ironic t-shirts in college. Then, a friend introduced me to the art of garage sale shopping. We made a trip to her hometown for a citywide sale, finding tiny bud vases for the windowsills in our apartment, macramé plant hangers and printed skirts from the ‘70s, and interesting oil paintings of cats. We didn’t have any cats at the time, but it fit the aesthetic. Thrifting and buying secondhand became a big part of our friendship and began to shape my personal style.

I’ve also gleaned many thrifting skills from my mom and sister. We used to meet weekly at the Bloomington Savers (RIP) on senior day. (Thanks for all the discounted goods, mom!) I bought most of my clothes and home decor secondhand. I found all the place settings at my wedding at a thrift store. I’ve shopped at thrift stores professionally for shops and sets for plays. I’ve looked to thrift stores for friends’ work wardrobes when they’ve started new jobs, and I’ve found loads of birthday and baby shower gifts at thrift stores. (If you want to win the next baby shower you’re invited to, bring a teeny, tiny Levi’s jean jacket and some vintage kids’ records. It’s a sure bet.)

I feel good about buying clothes in a way that doesn’t contribute to fast fashion. I like the unique style that develops when I reimagine things from past decades in a fresh way. I like the story of new and old in our home, side by side.

Over the years, thrifting has become more than a hobby or an extra source of income. I feel good about buying clothes in a way that doesn’t contribute to fast fashion. I like the unique style that develops when I reimagine things from past decades in a fresh way. I like the story of new and old in our home, side by side. I feel good knowing that I’m doing my part to keep things out of landfills. But, this post isn’t about all that. It’s about how to incorporate thrifting into your own life.

What to Do Before You Go

Keep a list of things you’re looking for.

I keep a list on my phone of some items I’m looking for. Currently on my list are things like: enamelware, colorful art for our bare walls (I love vintage paint by numbers paintings), blazers, vintage Levis (always), extra pajamas for my 17-month-old, and a welcome mat for our front door that isn’t Christmas themed. Some of the items on my list are for myself and some are for friends who’ve requested I shop for them. (If you hone your thrifting skills, people in your life will notice and ask you to search for them.)

The extra fun thing about thrifting is: you never know exactly what you’ll find! . . . Look around! There are gems! Sometimes there are literal gems! If you’re hyper-focused on one thing, you might miss the silk kimono of your dreams.

While I have this list and I look for these specific things, I also think it is hugely important to be open to whatever the thrifting gods have in (the) store for you that day. The extra fun thing about thrifting is: you never know exactly what you’ll find! You (mostly) know what you’ll get when you go to Target or Madewell. The thrifts are different. Your perfect pair of Frye motorcycle boots might be waiting for you inside! A gorgeous vintage coat you can wear to brunch and to your friend’s winter wedding might be hiding out in there. Look around! There are gems! Sometimes there are literal gems! If you’re hyper-focused on one thing, you might miss the silk kimono of your dreams.

Eat a snack and make sure you’re hydrated.

That said, thrifts can be overwhelming. The lighting is fluorescent. There is often Christian rock playing at high volume, which is great if you’re into it and weird if you’re not. They can have a musty odor. Thrifting isn’t for the faint of heart. Before you dive in, I highly suggest eating something in your car. I keep Luna bars in my glove box and I rarely go anywhere without a can of bubbly water. Smells, sounds, and light are more likely to overwhelm me if I have an empty stomach. If I’m hydrated and have something in my belly and am also, best case scenario, caffeinated, I’m going to live my best thrifting life.

Find a go-to thrift store that works best for you.

Finally, location is key. Find a thrift nearby. Go a few times. Get to know it! I’ve talked to many new thrifters who say something like, “There’s a Goodwill by me, but it sucks.” I’m here to tell you it doesn’t. You just haven’t looked hard enough.

Did you know Goodwills have 50% off kids’ clothes on Thursdays? Did you know I have found so much cute kids’ vintage mixed in with all that Target deadstock? Did you know I get most of it for $1.00 an item? Wherever you thrift, make it convenient. If your favorite thrift is in Blaine and you live in South Minneapolis, you’re not likely to tack that random stop onto your quick list of errands.

Try a routine to get the most out of your thrifting experience. Every few weeks, stop at the thrift you pass on your way home from work. Drive to Elk River (there are lots of thrifts in Elk River) every other month with your best bud, then go get Mexican at the strip mall across 169. (Truly, my ideal friend date.) It takes some of the pressure off if you don’t have to find everything in a single trip.

How to Navigate a Thrift Store

Focus only on the targeted sections where the items on your list will be found.

You’ve got your list in hand, so you’ll want to head to the primary sections covered on that list, being open to things that might pique your interest along the way. The thrift store can seem massive, but you’ll break it into chunks. Don’t get lost in the book section unless you came for books. Don’t look through blankets and bedding unless you’re there for that. You’re moving to targeted sections, not meandering through the whole store. I often start with homeware and art because I’m able to swiftly walk through those aisles and then I’ll head to kid’s clothes, which requires more digging.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Ask a clerk on your way in if there are any deals that day. There often are. Maybe pink tags are 75% off. Maybe winter stuff is on supersale. It’s nice to know before you start shopping. If it’s a new thrift, ask if they have a bathroom and where it is.

Always grab a cart.

It’s hard to shop when your arms are full. Throw things you’re considering in the cart as you go and make final decisions when you’re ready to check out. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, park your cart by the dressing rooms and go outside for a couple of breaths.

Bring earbuds.

Try earbuds for tuning out the hubbub around you.

Lastly, try setting a timer.

When I’m shopping, I often give myself an hour. When the timer goes off I can reorient myself. Sometimes my sense of time can wander when I’m in a huge, yellow-lit warehouse looking for treasures. A timer keeps me from shopping too long, getting too tired, and perhaps buying things I don’t actually want because I’m confused and hangry.

What to Do When You Get Home

Each thrifter has their own practices for cleaning and storing items. When I get home, I typically throw everything that can be washed into the washing machine. Thrift stores often spray their clothes with strong-scented deodorizers, like Febreeze, or they simply smell musty. I’ve found adding white vinegar to my wash helps knock out the smell and makes my new (to me) feel really clean.

Each thrifter has their own practices for cleaning and storing items. . . . The important thing is to quickly wash your items and start to incorporate them into your life.

For books and shoes, I’ll spray and wipe them down with diluted rubbing alcohol and a few drops of lemon essential oil. The important thing is to quickly wash your items and start to incorporate them into your life. Sometimes the washing can seem daunting (but it doesn’t need to be), which can lead to a bag of things remaining in a closet or in the trunk of your car for months. And that’s no fun.

With those tips and tricks, I’ll wish you luck on your thrifting adventure. Give yourself a high-five for trying something new (!!) and get ready to enjoy the thrill of scoring things cheaply and sustainably.

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