Monday, February 13, 2012

The Art of Thrifting

I'm not a good thrift shopper - at least by comparison to other people who really make some awesome finds at yard sales and thrift stores. I'll never be the one who finds the original Davinci at some estate sale or discovers a pure silver tea set used by Martha Washington to serve the Adamses.

My finds are always a lot more mundane, and the first time I visited a thrift store, not only was I completely overwhelmed, but I came out with a bunch of junk I should never have brought home and only did so, because, well, it was cheap, right?

All of the original release Disney movies on VHS for (only) a $1 each?!? Score! Not!

Over the years, I've become much more careful and discerning when it comes to shopping at thrift stores, and while I may never really be good at it, I've discovered a few things that have helped me navigate through the aisles and not end up with someone else's cast-offs that will only be a future cast-off for me.

1. The first, and most important, art to thrifting is to know what one needs. It's okay to go in and browse (in fact, that's #2), but one can easily get overwhelmed and end up with a much higher total at the cash register than was intended, because the prices are $1 here and $1 there.

I have a list of things that I'm always on the look-out for, and a pretty good idea of the kinds of things I want brought into my house. Just about anything that's a non-electric kitchen hand tool, for instance, will go on the "consideration" list. I will pick up candles most of the time, when I see them, and I like to find interesting candle holders. Regular taper candles at the store cost between $1.50 and $2 each ... yes, for candles, and then, people turn around and donate them to Goodwill, where I get them for half price. But all candles are not created equal, and it's not "candles in general", but specific candles. I won't waste my money on tea lights or scented candles, but taper candles are a good deal ... and I even found two 100% bees wax candles once. It pays to look around a bit and take some time to pick up things and really look at them.

2. Which is point #2: Take time. When it comes to thrift store shopping, the mantra is "I'm just looking." Browsing is the key to good thrifting. When I know I'm going to go to Goodwill, I know I'm going to spend at least an hour just looking around, even if I go in for something specific. The last time I bought a new pair of jeans for myself was four or so years ago. I like a particular brand of jeans (Levis), and I need "long" ones, because I like them to hang below the tops of my shoes. It's a personal preference, but because I'm so particular, buying jeans at the thrift store is tough. I look, occasionally, but don't have much luck finding Levi's jeans in decent shape (I found the perfect pair once but they were stained, and I figure if I'm going to have stained jeans, I'd like to be the one to soil them ;). Unfortunately, I only have three pairs of jeans, and I wear them anytime I go out (when I'm home, I wear sweatpants), and so even with the limited wear, my jeans are starting to look a little threadbare in places, and one pair even has a little hole in the leg - great if one is a twenty-something college student - not so great for this *not* twenty year old, graying Grandmother :).

I spent forty-five minutes the other day looking at jeans and came home with two pairs, for which I paid half what it would have cost me for one new pair. With a couple of key strokes and ten minutes (and a couple of days of waiting), I could have had, delivered to my house, a new pair of Levi's in the exact color, exact style, and exact size that I need, but, because I'm willing to take the time to go to Goodwill and look, I saved a lot of money.

3. We occasionally go to Goodwill to "look", but most of the time, when we go, we have something specific in mind to buy. Not specific like, I'm going to find a pair of Levi's, but specific like we need a gray sweatshirt for a dance costume. On those times when we're there for something specific, we've occasionally been disappointed to find that they don't have what we're looking for. Usually our wants are generic enough that we can find something to serve the purpose, but sometimes, there's just no alternative, and at those times, we have to be willing to walk away empty handed. Being an impulse shopper at the thrift store is just as bad as impulse shopping at any other store, which is why #1 is know what you need.

4. Which is the final point, plan ahead. Being a thrift shopper means that finding that very particular item in a pinch may not happen, which means that one needs to plan a head just a little bit. I don't wait until the ice storm knocks out my power and I need candles. I buy them when I find them and keep them stored in a drawer for when I need them. Likewise, when I found the black wool pea coat in June of last year, I bought it, because I've always loved that style of coat, and I knew, living in Maine, winter would come back at some point, and I'd want a coat. I paid $7. Until now, I only like the coat, because I like that style, and I've never thought much about name brands. Mine is a Mario De Pinto, which is made in the USA, and while I can't find much online, it looks like it's a "vintage" coat and retails, new, for more than 10x what I paid, and used on Etsy for 3x what I paid. If I had waited until winter to buy a coat, I would have been limited by time, and the selection would have been a bit more limited, too. By knowing what I need, now and, especially, in the future, I was able to get a very good deal on something that has served me well, and is, as it turns out, a pretty good find.

I don't really like shopping, in general, and shopping as a hobby is not ever going to be a past-time that I relish. I'm not a yard sale kind of person, and the one time I went to an estate sale, the only things we came out with were candles and yarn ;). I've never been antiqueing, and most antique thing I own is probably my dual cassette player, which was a crappy, low-end item when I bought in the 1980s, but which has accompanied me across the continent and around the world and still plays ... or maybe the 1970s sewing machine that was given to me used, as a gift, and is still going strong (although the bobbin winder doesn't work, and I think it just needs a good cleaning/overhaul).

Thrift shopping, especially at a company like Goodwill, appeals to me on so many levels, though. Goodwill, at its foundation, is a service organization - providing jobs for people who might, otherwise, have a hard time finding paid work. In addition, most of the items (and to be clear, I don't buy the "new" remaindered items that Goodwill also carries) are donated, used items that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

It is among those items that I find most of my treasures: Levi's jeans for $8, used picture frames for a buck, a sherpa-lined suede coat for $8, 100% beeswax candles 2/$1, books for $1 each, hand-operated coffee grinder $4.99, flannel fabric $4.99 for more than six yards, a cheese bell complete with the original wooden plate for $4.99, 100% cashmere sweater (because my friend, Margaret, says every woman should have one) for $4.99, the 75% wool Mario De Pinto black pea coat for $7.99 ... and many other items that are useful for someone interested in thriving in a low-energy future.

It's no secret - because I'll tell anyone who will listen - that I don't shop at Wal-Mart, neither would I buy Wal-Mart brands second-hand at my local thrift store. The appeal of shopping at Wal-Mart is that the sticker price makes us feel "rich" - like we can afford to have several of this one item (like who needs ten pairs of jeans?!?), and the result is that by being surrounded with all of our "stuff" we can believe ourselves wealthy.

I think most of us have a lot more than we need, and the full shelves at Goodwill speak volumes about our over-cluttered lives. If there are so many people getting rid of so much, even in - especially in - this economy, we have a long way to go before we're truly destitute. In spite of assertions to the contrary, we don't need to shop at Wal-Mart to save money. There is a great deal of money to be saved by shopping second-hand.

It is a choice - one we all have the opportunity to make, even those of us who feel like we're limited by our financial situation or our geographical location -, and I've chosen to be a conscious shopper. When it's new, it's usually from a local vendor, and when it's not a local vendor, it's usually not new.

In the end, buying second-hand is not just good for our wallets, it's also good for the planet.

And by saving lots of money on things like clothes and other "clutter-making" household items, I have a lot more money to spend on good, local food ... which I do ;).


  1. Or you can come just live in Northern New Jersey where the Goodwills and thrift stores in general are hard to find, and the Walmarts are too far to drive to. ;-)

  2. You know, Kaye, a consignment thrift store is just a fancy name for a Pawn shop. I've never spent time in northern New Jersey, but I'm betting that there are pawn shops on every other corner. You won't, necessarily, find general merchandise deals there, but you'll find all kinds of deals on fairly valuable things, like jewelry, some kitchen gadgets, really high-end coats (like leather and fur), and other stuff like that.

    Another "second-hand" store that might be in your area, where you can find some cool deals is a military surplus store. Don't scoff. The military has some awesome gadgets, and very cool and useful items like 100% WOOL blankets. I've even found socks and underwear (not second hand, but military surplus), and if you don't mind a little camo, there are even clothes for kids at some of them.

    You may not have very many Goodwill or Salvation Army stores, but I'll bet you have dozens of second-hand stores all over the place. They just have different names ... and bars on the windows ;).

  3. I concur that thrift store shopping needs to be planned, not impulse buying.

    Having said that, the Goodwill Stores within 50 miles of here have had anything worth more than $1 pulled and sent elsewhere...

    I do much better at yard sales, assuming I can find one devoid of children's clothing and their plastic toys.

  4. Now I want to go thrift store shopping with you. I always walk in and feel totally overwhelmed. The kids clothes i buy almost exclusively at LL Bean (local store/company) because they last through at least 3 or 4 kids, esp if I'm willing to patch Max's knees (that's the case with any pants he owns). I'd like to go with you and learn.

  5. I've also had good luck at thrift stores run by other non-profits like those that support our local hospitals. My other "rule" is if I'm even slightly interested in something, I put it in my basket until the end of the shopping trip. I found a great denim jacket with all the Disney characters embroidered on the back because I saw a woman put it back on the rack. I watched her return to the rack because she had changed her mind and I had already scooped it up. Reminds me, I need to go shopping for some knitting supplies...thanks. SJ in Vancouver

  6. @ Hope - please refer back to the first sentence ;). If you're hoping to go shopping with me for educational purposes, I'm definitely *not* the best choice. The only reason it seems like I find good deals is because I know what I'm looking for - for myself - and not because I actually know what I'm doing. I think it's all a matter of personal taste, and not really something that I could teach to other people :).

    That said, it would be fun just to go - and even though I hate shopping, browsing the Goodwill store or the indoor flea market can be fun ;).

  7. One thing we do in our family, is keep a running list of things we might need from the Goodwill. It is on the fridge so anyone can grab it before they go.

    Then, when we are at the goodwill, we look specifically for those items. But, bc. they are not 'need it now' items, it doesn't matter if we can't find them on this trip.

    For example, I buy canning jars at goodwill when I find the size and kind I like. I know I will use them in the future (I give away a lot of canned goods as gifts).

    I always check out the china/glass section also. After years of looking but never buying, I found three plates and a serving bowl that matched a set of dessert/coffee china I received as a wedding gift. For $2 I expanded that set so I can serve my fruit course with it.

    Last week I found a terrarium for a niece who has been coveting one. I spent four dollars for the exact terrarium sold at her local gardening shop for $70. A lucky find and she loved putting it together....


  8. Now I feel good about my purchase of a de Pinto long 100% wool coat... I was looking for a bread machine at a thrift store and ran across a sale - all the clothing you could stuff into a 30 gal. garbage bag. Ended up with the dePinto plus great coat for hubby , 3 cute hoodies for grandchildren and 5 darling women's blazers, some with tags and extra buttons attached ALL this for $8. I am still in shock!!! BUT NO BREAD MAKER. LOL