A few years ago, I legitimately wouldn’t have dreamed of buying something secondhand. However, over the past few years thrifting quickly became a favorite hobby. I’ve learned I can spend a fraction of my old clothing budget to have a lot more variety in my closet. These days at least half of my clothes—and most of my favorite pieces—are secondhand. In fact, thrifting is typically the first way I’ll try to source a new item, and I finally decided it was time to develop this thrifting guide to share what I’ve learned over the past couple of years.
In the last decade thrifting and vintage shopping has really gotten an image overhaul. As the ethical and environmental problems posed by fast fashion have become more widely discussed, the humble, once overlooked (or even looked down-upon) secondhand store has become not only an acceptable place to find cheap alternatives to mall staples like H&M and Zara, but actually downright trendy.
Thrift shopping can be incredibly daunting!
I get it: the stores aren’t as organized as you’re probably used to. The mash up of brands means you might have trouble with sizing. And let’s face it, a lot of people in more curated thrift shops can be really intimidating. You might also have trouble with the idea of owning clothes that aren’t brand new.
I think we both know that’s a symptom of Western capitalist consumerism though, and I’m gonna need you to check that at the door real quick before we get started. All you’ve needed is a trusty thrifting guide like this one! Thrifting is cool! Thrifting is good for the environment! It allows you to breathe new life into clothes that are in perfectly good condition but would otherwise be sent to landfill!
I really do understand all the hang ups because I used to be the same way. And when you think about all of the ads that are pushed on us and the pressure to never wear the same outfit twice, who wouldn’t want to prioritize getting the latest fast fashion over taking the time to invest in slow fashion?
It’s hard to shift our mindsets on this. I’m definitely guilty of still becoming obsessed with the latest looks from big name stores. I think it will take me time to ever fully remove myself from that world, but that’s exactly why it’s so important to me to take little steps where I can. If you can master the art of thrift, you’ll be able to make leaps and bounds.
So with that in mind, this thrifting guide has all of the lifesaving tips that turned me into a confident and successful secondhand shopper. I think it will help you become a thrifting success story too.
1. Don’t be grossed out or intimidated!
Alright, alright: easier said than done, I know. But let’s walk through this one together.
Is it gross to wear second-hand clothes?
Short answer: no! Okay, so maybe if you’re a total germaphobe this won’t go over so easily with you. But thrift stores really are much cleaner than you may fear! Most examine their clothes pretty extensively when it’s donated, and throw out anything that smells bad or is visibly damaged or stained.
Obviously there are some exceptions to this, but that’s when your own good sense comes into play. If you’re browsing a thrift store and you find more than one item of clothing that feels suspicious, just leave! Most people will wash their clothes before donating them, and unwashed clothes probably won’t make the cut.
Think about it this way. Thrift stores know that they’re battling a reputation of second-hand things being dirty or weird, so to sell something that might contaminate their reputation, or worse, the rest of the merchandise, would be a very poor business decision. I’ve personally never tried on clothes at a thrift store that seem dirty. Besides, I just make sure to wash anything I buy before wearing. But frankly, you shouldn’t need a thrifting guide to tell you to do that. You should wash clothes from any store before wearing them!
I promise you are cool enough.
I 100% understand the anxiety that can rush through you if you’ve ever been to a thrift shop populated with people that you deem way too cool for you. It’s like walking into a bar that seems to only have friends and couples together, and you’re alone and don’t know what to do with your hands.
As for what to do with your hands, we’ll get there in a minute; as for the mindset, though, just know that you are very likely the only person paying attention to you. Nobody who goes to thrift shops is looking down on other people in thrift shops. I mean let’s be honest, we’re all here putting on clothes that were owned before. Who are we to judge? If anything, people are probably just stressed you’ll find some absolute gem before they do.
Just remember that you’re all there to support a small business, take care of the environment, and be kind to your budget. There can actually be a lot of camaraderie in the whole experience! Some of my favorite thrifting moments have involved being told by complete strangers in the dressing room that my butt does look good in those jeans!
2. Allow for the time commitment
If you’re new to thrifting and it’s something you struggle to enjoy or find results with, do not—I repeat DO NOT—begin your journey by popping into a thrift shop randomly hoping to find a basic white shirt on your lunch break and being upset when they have no white shirts or there are none in your size. Accept that this is inherently different than mall shopping, and instead of resisting this reality, lean in.
The next big tip in my thrifting guide is to make an afternoon of it! Anyone who already loves to shop knows how to make it into a full day activity. I’ve found the downside of day-long mall shopping trips is that you can start to feel like a total failure if you’re not finding anything. In this tender state, I’ve been guilty of the classic combination of buying things I don’t want or need to fill the emotional void and blaming myself and my body for not looking good in any of the lackluster haul and then returning all of it and starting from square one. Anyone else?
Thrifting requires you to change your perspective a bit.
Due to the very nature of thrifting clothes, it can be harder to find things that fit well or are exactly what you had imagined. As a result, you can begin to take any personal value judgements out of the equation.
I’m roughly a UK size 16, US size 14. And trust me, there are still days where I can’t find any jeans that fit. But it’s liberating to realize it has nothing to do with clothes not being made for me. Rather, it’s usually just because this particularly shop just didn’t have that size in stock lately.
Now maybe that’s because mid-sizes are the most common and thus in quite high demand. And maybe women are less likely to give up clothes when they know it’s so hard to find things that fit right when mainstream fashion doesn’t cater to bodies that are larger than a size 6???? But I digress—clearly I do have feelings about the subject. Point is, it’s not the thrift shop’s fault.
No button ups that fit your style? Not your fault either, just depends what was donated! The beauty of this mindset is that you don’t have to wait until next season to find something you like. Or that “works for your body. ” Unlike high street shops, thrift shops get all types of clothes donated every day. Plus, you can always just pop over to another store and they’ll have a completely different selection.
Variety is not the enemy—it’s your best friend.
Since you never know what you’ll find, you might come across a hidden gem or two you didn’t even know you were looking for. Once you get out of your head, it can actually be fun to just browse thrift stores in whatever awkward 15-30 minutes gaps of time you have to kill sometimes. They’re like weird little museums that are constantly changing their exhibit, and you never know what you might find.
3. Pick the right shops
Know what you need in the moment! Are you desperate to save some coin? Do you really want some trendy pieces? Are you just looking for some basics? Maybe you need homeware or books as well? As you start to thrift more often, you’ll know which stores to hit for what items and hopefully you won’t even need my thrifting guide any longer! But keep the following in mind while starting out.
In the beginning it might actually be great to frequent ~trendy~ shops.
You know the ones. They’re well curated. Sometimes they stock reworked or even new items. And the prices are confusing because they can be nearly the same as your neighborhood Topshop. If you’re still battling with any of the issues mentioned above, starting here can serve as a bit of a taster. The trendier shops will have a significantly more organized shop floor, which often means much more stock to begin with as well.
Also, depending on the store, many of the items will be reworked to be more modern. You’ll see a lot of crop tops, mini skirts, or co-ords made out of old men’s shirts, etc.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with these stores! Even though they can get expensive, they’re still much more sustainable than a “regular” store and the inventory is guaranteed to be more unique. They’re not all hyper-expensive either. There’s definitely a scale for curated shop prices, and it just takes practice to know what is cheap where. Mid to low price-range stores do exist! And they can often be the sweet spot.
Regardless, I know that I’ve paid a premium for certain sweaters or jeans before, either because it was too difficult to find them elsewhere or I just fell in love with the item—and I don’t regret it.
When it’s time to graduate to charity shops:
Once you’ve gotten your footing, it’s time to try a charity shop or two (you know, your Goodwills and Oxfams). The world of $1 books and $3 shirts. It’s always significantly harder to find success in these stores, but truly so rewarding when you do. I would say that overall, though, do what feels right and don’t feel bad about it.
If you keep trying charity shops and they stress you out, stop for a while! Or find different ones in other neighborhoods (the worst kept secret in the world of thrifting is to go to the rich neighborhoods). Remember that at the end of the day this is meant to be something that is improving your life, not causing you anxiety—so let that be the guide.
4. Even when browsing, have a loose guide
If you are organised enough to have clear ideas of specific items you want in your wardrobe: first of all, hats off to you, and second of all, use that. This is perfect because you know exactly what to skip over while browsing; if it isn’t that item then keep it moving.
If you’re more like me and go shopping armed with general and vague ideas of what you want out of your wardrobe but ultimately couldn’t articulate that if your life depended on it, but could probably (maybe) point at it if it was in a line up? Well this portion of my thrifting guide is for you!
Take some time to get acquainted with your closet: what colors are you drawn to? Are you happy with that? What colors are missing? Do you want those? What textures and materials are you drawn to? What textures and materials would you like to try? Do you like patterns? Are you strictly neutral? Are there brands you want to find, especially high end ones?
Understanding what you’re drawn to and what you want, and more importantly, understanding what repels you and what you will never buy, can help expedite the process. Instead of having to look at every item individually you’ll only have to look at certain colors, and then that gets paired down even more if you can eliminate fabrics or cuts, and then all that’s left is size. This processing technique can be great if you get easily overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and apparent lawlessness of a thrift store interior.
5. Wear an outfit that easily lends itself to outfit creation
Unlike at Zara, you may not find a nice pair of jeans to try on with the top you just found, or vice versa, meaning if you’re wearing a dress you may have a hard time envisioning single items as part of a whole outfit—just imagine yourself in the dressing room with your potential new top on, and you’re standing there in your underwear. It doesn’t really sell it.
I like to wear either a classic pair of Levi’s or some black skinny jeans with a fitted top and a sweater over it (weather allowing). I also like to wear a pair of sneakers, or even better my Birkenstocks. Boots and tights make taking your pants off into the absolute worst chore known to mankind. In general I think this rule applies to all shopping experiences because it makes things a lot easier, but especially when thrifting.
6. Try online if you’re still not feeling the in person experience
I’ll be honest, I don’t have a lot of direct experience buying secondhand clothing online, primarily because I have a lot of trouble with fit, usually around the chest. However, if you generally have pretty good results with fit, I think this is a great option. Try websites like Thredup, or my personal favorite, eBay.
This can be a great option if you’re someone who is mostly concerned with getting a good deal, because a lot of these websites will show you the original price of the item, meaning they have to mark it down. Also, if you’re really savvy you can check super frequently for the exact items from a brand that you want, and snag them as soon as they hit the site. Thrifting guide bonus: This works exceptionally well for furniture too.
7. Have fun!
Now that you’re armed with the secrets of my foolproof thrifting guide, live a little! This isn’t the military!
Don’t shy away from sections you might never step into in a regular store: you’d be surprised what you can find in the men’s section. If you’re crafty, or maybe just bold, try a DIY or a thrift flip. Instead of paying a premium for the reworked items at the trendy store, buy a tacky shirt for $2 at the charity shop and see if you can reimagine it yourself. Let yourself consider styles or accessories you might not normally want to buy or commit to.
Get a vintage silk scarf, try some weird sunglasses, buy that grandma sweater! What’s the worst thing that happens? You don’t like it and you never wear it? As if we’ve never done that at a regular store before.
Like all rules, these are made to be broken and adapted to fit your lifestyle and creativity. Anytime we start a new hobby there’s a learning curve. I hope that my thrifting guide will help you get to the other side quicker, but ultimately remember that there is no right or wrong way, only the one that works for you!