how to save money at the thrift store pt. 1: what to buy


I’ve heard people say lately that thrift stores have gotten so expensive that they’re not even worth shopping at any more. While I agree that thrift store prices have gone up quite a bit in the past few years, I still think they’re a great way to save money, and I’d say thrifting easily saves our family hundreds of dollars every year. I know one of the main frustrations with thrifting is that it can sometimes feel like you just don’t find anything, but if you go regularly, say once a month, and know what to look for, you can save a bundle. It helps to know what items you’re going to be able to save the most money on at the thrift store, so I’ve compiled a list of the things I almost always buy at the thrift store.

how to get great deals at the thrift store - what to buy to save money

1. Winter and snow gear. Outfitting just one child for winter can be super expensive, even if you’re shopping at discount stores like Walmart or K-Mart. Snowboots will be about $30, snow pants at least $20, and a good winter coat another $30. That’s at least $80 per child, not counting gloves and hats. Sure, you can get this stuff for less during winter clearance, but if you forgot to buy ahead and you’re heading into winter, all the gear can be a huge investment, especially for things that might not get tons of use. That’s why I always buy winter gear at the thrift store. I can usually find boots, snow pants, and winter coats for about $5 each, which is much less than they usually sell for even on clearance. So I figure I’m usually saving at least $60 per child on winter gear alone. (These boots were priced at $6 and $5)

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Anytime I’m at the thrift store I check for boots, snow pants, and coats, and I buy anything that looks good even if I don’t have a child in that size this year. Because styles for these items don’t really change, I can keep snow things for years if needed. If you don’t have room to stockpile, just keep an eye out for the sizes you need. I’ve found if you’re willing to hit up the thrift store a couple of times during summer and fall it’s not hard to round up everything you need in the right sizes. (This winter coat, which is quite a bit heavier than it looks, was priced at $5)

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2. Bags, backpacks, and lunch boxes. Supplies and prices of different items will vary from thrift store to thrift store, but I’ve had great luck buying purses, backpacks, and computer bags at my local stores. Since so many women love buying new purses and bags, lots of them end up at thrift stores hardly used. If you’re not worried about a name brand, it’s a great place to get gently used purses for under $10.

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You can also get great deals on nice backpacks and lunch packs if your kids aren’t too worried about having a character on them. I often find great quality, never used backpacks with a company logo on them – someone received it free from the company they work for and promptly donated it. My son picked one out a few years ago with a small health company logo on the front – it’s a great size with lots of extra pockets and has held up through two school years already – for $4! Since school started this week I hit up the thrift store and got 4 insulated lunch boxes for $1 each, meaning I spent $4 total instead of almost $50.

I’ve also found a couple of nice neoprene laptop bags/sleeves for $2 or $3, which is a savings of at least $15 on buying them new.

3. Kids’ shoes, specifically types that get grown out of before they get worn out, like church shoes, baby shoes, and summer sandals. I don’t buy our “main” shoes at thrift stores – we buy new for things like tennis shoes that will get worn over and over. But shoes that aren’t worn nearly as often, like church shoes, are a great buy at the thrift store. I have 4 boys and I don’t think I’ve ever purchased church shoes new for any of them (I know, I’ve just revealed that I’m embarrassingly cheap, but there you go). Plain black Sunday shoes run at least $20, even at Walmart, so when I find ones at the thrift store that are gently used for $6 instead, I always buy them.

I also bought my daughter’s shoes from the thrift store almost exclusively for her first few years. Babies’ feet grow so quickly that lots of tiny shoes are donated still in a great condition. You’ll find more for girls than boys, for obvious reasons :)

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Even shoes that look a little grungy can often be restored to like new condition with a toothbrush and toothpaste. I always wipe down the insides of shoes with a paper towel doused in rubbing alcohol to make sure everything’s clean.

4. Lounge wear and sportswear. I get clothes of all types at thrift stores, but it can be a lot of work to search through the rows to find things that look good and fit right. However, when it comes to loungewear, the fit is usually easy and appearance isn’t quite as important, so it doesn’t take as long find items that work. Pajamas, especially flannel or fleece pj pants and t-shirts, are easy to find for just a few dollars, which delights my kids since they have an insane love for pjs. Same for sweatpants, hoodies, t-shirts and sports shorts.

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5. Toys. You can find LOTS of toys for babies and toddlers at the thrift store for jut a few dollars each, which is great because it means you can buy the toy, let the kids play with it for a few months, and then just donate it right back when they’re tired of it. Any plastic toys I buy get sprayed down with a bleach-based cleanser in the sink or tub, then rinsed and wiped 10 minutes later, just to make sure they’re clean. We don’t usually buy plush toys at the thrift store, but if we do the rule is that they have to go through the washer and dryer first. (This leapfrog drum was priced at 75 cents – we bought one just like it new a few years ago for about $18.)

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If you’re lucky, you can sometimes find bags of Legos or Megablocks for just a few dollars – those things are like gold! Don’t forget to check out the board games as well – we’ve purchased quite a few for around $3, instead of $20-$30 new

By buying items from just these 5 categories at the thrift store, you can save hundreds of dollars per year. Here are some other things I’ve had success saving money on at the thrift store:

  • frames: thrift stores sell photo frames (especially large sizes) for much less than you’d pay retail
  • pillows: pillow forms are quite expensive – you’ll find scores of throw pillows at the thrift store for $2 or $3 each. grab a few that look like they’ll go through your washing machine just fine, then add your own pillow covers
  • furniture: if you’re willing to refinish items, you can score amazing deals on furniture
  • fabric: if you sew, you should always check out the bedding aisle. Sheets give you yards and yards of fabric for just a few dolls each. I also buy men’s t-shirts (usually just a dollar or two each) and use the knit fabric for skirts, leggings, or tops for my daughter
  • all sorts of miscellaneous items such as luggage, filing cabinets, coolers, life jackets, bikes & trikes, etc.,

Now, all thrift stores aren’t created equal, and because inventory changes rapidly thrift store shopping can be frustrating – so I’ll be back next week with how to save money at the thrift store pt. 2: how to get the best deal on the things you want.

Let me know what you like to buy at the thrift store in the comments!

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Comments

  1. 1

    Lara says

    You’re right, we used to NEVER by from the Thrift store, now we do all the time. I buy all the kids winter coats there, and look for boots, although that can be difficult. I always spray the shoes/boots with Lysol and let them dry before use. On Saturday we went to look for me for a Maxi Dress (Or at least fabric to make one), I found one priced at $9.47, my Daughter got a whole outfit, Jeans, light sweater (Justice brand) and a tank, for $13.00 total, and my husband got a new pair of dress pants, a suit coat, a dress shirt and a new tie, that total was $30. Now that’s not all of it. This particular store puts out 50% off coupons several times throughout the year, this was one of those times, we couldn’t find ours, but decided to go anyway. The lady in front of us was buying something with a coupon that totaled $2.03, she told us to put ours on theirs, that saved us about $25, I told the lady that I would buy hers, because she easily saved us more than her $2.03. It’s a good buy.

  2. 2

    Kristie says

    I love thrift store shopping. Another thing to look for there is dinner ware. We have found whole sets of plates/cups/bowls for $4 or less. And I have a sister who found an entire set of silverware, matching pattern and everything for about that same $4 price. Way cheaper than buying brand new.
    I also like to get stuff the kids would use camping there. That way, if they destroy it, I don’t care.
    I have bought life jackets for $2 each, a huge savings.
    I do find that I am picky about which thrift stores I shop at. The DI by my house is lousy, overpriced and not very good condition for clothes/shoes. But the fabric they have there, not bad. I will go to savers for the clothes, the condition is usually better there.
    Thanks for posting this, you have some great tips!

  3. 3

    Kathy says

    Just bought five bags of real Legos the other day at a thrift shop and everyone is having fun with them. They even had lego guys which would have costs more for one or two than what I paid for the whole bag. What a score!!!

  4. 4

    Alexandra says

    I am so jealous, those stores look enormous! Back in England there are lots of charity shops, but they are all small. I try and hit the good ones when we go to visit family, our children have worked out that their pocket money will go a lot further there on books and games too. Here in France such a thing seems not to exist much, everyone assumes they can sell on their stuff, giving it away rarely happens.

    • 5

      CTY says

      I’m wondering if the lack of large thrift stores across the pond is because Americans just seem to buy, buy, buy. So many people I know have a “disposable” mentality when it comes to items they buy. It is really sad.
      But shopping at thrifts stores really is a WIN/WIN. We get deep discounts on items and non-profit organizations raise funds and employ many.

        • 7

          says

          The cost of living is so great in the UK I think people don’t spend as much on fun things or junk so they have less to give away to Charity Shops. I did go to a few super fun and cheap Jumble sales while in the UK that made up for the lack of big Charity Shops!!

  5. 8

    Amanda says

    I love thrift store shopping! I just happened upon a keurig vue! I got it for $2.43!!!!! All it’s missing is the water reservoir top! It brews beautifully! I try to go at least once a month! They run so many sales!!! I’m gonna make a trip in a couple of weeks for fabric and winter clothes for my 1 year old!

  6. 9

    says

    I love thrifting! And we have a Goodwill Outlet a mile away, we pay per pound! So I have a difficult time going to the regular Goodwill store and paying full price when I can go to the outlet and pay 89 cents per pound for clothes and shoes. It’s been great for all that snow gear….I’ve accumulated quite an allotment of snow pants and boots for my 4 kids. Cleats is another great thing I can find. And my 3 year old daughter has always had quite an assortment of cute shoes. I also find lots of vintage sheets that I’ve used for many sewing projects. The last few years I’ve thrifted more because of our very small budget, if it ever increases, I don’t know that I could ever go back to shopping in a department store or mall. Thanks for sharing your thrifting secrets!

  7. 10

    Christina says

    I love thrift shops. I go a couple times a month. Like Kristie, I buy dinnerware and cookware there all the time. I have two kids in their 20′s who are setting up their own homes. I look for Corningware and Pyrex as I know those brands last. I’ve found matching Corelle dishes, a full set of matching silverware and cooking utensils for my daughter. I’m working on stuff for my son (sticking to the unbreakable stuff). I’ve even got matching bakeware for all three of us. My daughter is thrilled to have the same loaf pan as my mom and I have. (It’s the small things.)

    I pre-shop for Disney trips at thrift shops too. So many people buy souvenirs on their vacations and never use / wear them. It’s a tradition I started when the kids were little. I’d pick up stuff in advance and give it to them each day of the trip. That way each day they’d have something new and I’d save $$ not having to buy a lot at the park. My daughter and I shop together for it now. We find Disney stuff with the tags still on them all the time.

    I buy clothes there for myself sometimes too. Although, you need to pick only certain thrift shops for that as many don’t always have nice stuff. I delight in telling my co-workers when they compliment my outfit that it was from a thrift shop. I look like a million bucks but I only spent $20.

  8. 11

    dannyscotland says

    I find that the very large thrift store near me usually doesn’t have a good stock of toys because it gets picked over very quickly, but one day I was wandering through with my daughter and found three American Girl dolls marked less than $4 each! I couldn’t believe our luck! And they were American Girl, not knock offs. That was probably my best find ever. I’ve gotten jeans for much less than I’d pay for retail, we buy tons and tons of books there (my daughters LOVE books), and I always walk through the housewares section. You just never know what you’re going to find!

  9. 12

    Janice says

    In the summer months, I prefer to go to yard sales. More often than not the prices are much better than the thrift stores.

    One needs to check out all their thrift stores in town. We have a big DI and the selection is great, but the prices aren’t. But we have a small store called the Mustard seed, which does quarter sales on clothes every so often. Too many people have no idea about that store, but to find clothes that cheap, well I buy them for the buttons, or the fabric, so I’m not concerned about the sizes!

    One of the best things that I shop for at a thrift store is wool. At the thrift store you have clothes with tags, so you know if it is 100 percent. Buying wool at the fabric store is expensive and boring, their choices of patterns are limited. I love wool skirts to cut up for sewing projects, along with wool sweaters. I also keep an eye out for canning jars. This time of year they cost more than they do in the winter months. And dishes, we have a collection of dishes for parties, I hate paper so I have been collecting one of a kind fun ones. Oh and books!

  10. 13

    Sherry says

    I began shopping at thrift stores out of necessity, but now I do it because it’s just smart. A few weeks ago I found a gorgeous evening gown for my college student for $6.99! She looked stunning in it!

  11. 14

    Ginny says

    I love looking for books at the thrift store. Depending on what you’re looking for, you can find great deals.

  12. 15

    says

    We buy crockery from charity shop, also sheets for sewing. And I often find little trousers or jumpers for the boys. I was once lucky and got three co-or donating designer clothes in my size! Think they must have been donated by the same person- I live in them!

  13. 17

    says

    I love this blog post, there is a thrift store across the street where I live and they have the most amazing deals on many different items. Clothing is sold at 50 cents and higher name brand labels sell at the most 3.00, some items found with tags never worn; and great deals on coats, belts and hats. There are furniture items that sell for 30.00 or less and on Wednesdays all furniture slashed 50% off.

  14. 18

    Mary says

    When our income was limited by my husband’s cancer, we followed our daughter’s advice and started looking in thrift stores. She had been shopping in thrifts for years, always proud of her savings and unique style. My husband and I found it to be therapeutic. We’d find things that reminded us of our childhood and kooky things that would make us laugh. Our favorite store is Savers. We have found small appliances, PJ pants for him, books, furniture, picture frames and clothing for me. My sweet husband has since died but I still frequent thrift shops. Recently I found a 1/2 off sale at a Savers and was able to get new casual pants for $2 a pair! I’ve gotten compliments on them, too!

  15. 19

    Karin from Birmingham says

    When my children became adults and left home, I found I needed smaller cookware for 1, so I buy Pyrex and Corning Ware for cents on the dollar at charity thrift stores. A good scrub with baking soda and the pieces come out looking brand new. Although I wasn’t shopping for clothes, I rently ran across a brand-name, sleeveless linen summer dress with chiffon ruffle trim at the Salvation Army thrift store. It was marked $4.99, but rang up for $2.50 because I happened to hit a “women’s clothing 1/2 off day.” Have gotten many compliments on that dress. I just love it!

  16. 20

    Kristy says

    I LOVE Thrift Store shopping! I ahve a closet full of Ralph Lauren that I’ve gotten from thrift stores. One of our local thrift stores is associated with our town hospital an every year in Sept. they have a 4 day rummage sale at our county fairgrounds. The best part is that on the last day you buy garbage bags from them at 2/$5 and you can fill them with ANYTHING that’s left. We always bring 2 vehicles that day.

  17. 22

    says

    When I buy new clothes, I nearly always get them at the thrift store. I usually buy sheets there, too, since those are so expensive, and a trip through the washer on hot gets them clean. And currently I have canning jars on my list of stuff to look for at the thrift store. We recently moved and I haven’t been impressed with the nearest thrift store, but there’s another one not too far away that I need to check out. I do miss the one in our old town, since it had a great selection and was pretty tidy.

  18. 23

    lexie says

    I buy cloths for me (female) esp. jeans that i can make into capris or shorts. I buy my kids toys, clothing for everyday, I buy home decor, it’s easy to re-purpose or change/make new. I also have found dishes and bake ware. I am currently finding mismatched plates to replace my thrifted set of dishes I have now. :)

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