Share on Facebook

A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

14 Tips and Tricks to Scoring That Perfect Vintage Gem at Thrift Stores

The thrill of finding an amazing deal at a thrift store can be exhilarating—and it's easy, if you shop like these thrift shopper pros. Here are a few secrets they're letting out of the bag.


Location, location, location

Which neighborhoods have the best thrift and consignment store finds? According to Bethany Beldner, a thrift store shopper, whose Instagram account is followed by more than 36,000 people, wealthy neighborhoods near her definitely have a lot to offer, but prices are higher. “Depending on which thrift store you go to though, the store may increase the prices of nice items. Some thrift store employees are very knowledge when it comes to brands,” says Beldner.  Nikki Mateo of Los Angeles California, has a different thrifting experience in her area. “I’ve had better luck finding pieces in shoddy parts of a big city than in affluent suburbs. Probably because the former is more diverse, so you’ll get a lot of eclectic designer and costume pieces and unique furniture and decor over second-hand t-shirts from the Gap,” says Mateo. (Here’s how to master the art of frugality using these 56 effortless tips to save money!)

thriftJonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

Size matters

Many thrift and consignment stores, including Goodwill and Salvation Army, are well-established non-profit stores, that are known for supporting local shelters, food banks, job training, and ease of donating items and, in addition, donations are tax-deductible. All these factors contribute to a large inventory that’s constantly changing but there are certain items donation centers don’t want. For-profit thrift stores usually have stricter guidelines for the merchandise they accept and the price tag is generally higher because the store and consignor need to be paid. “In my experience, privately-owned thrift stores tend to be smaller and don’t offer as great of a selection because they’re not getting as constant of donations,” says Beldner. Fabulous finds can still be had, especially on higher-end clothes, handbags, and accessories.


Best seasons to shop

Back-to-school sales in July, white sales in January… there is always a better season to shop deals at retail stores. But what about thrift stores? “Thrift stores seem to be overflowing with donations, especially during the spring and summer months. Not only do garage sale leftovers usually get donated to Goodwill, but there is something about the warm weather that causes people to clean out their garages and declutter their homes. “During the winter months, I see less new inventory come in,” notes Beldner.


Get the inside scoop

Seasoned thrifters know the discounts are even better when you have the inside skinny. Sales and special promotions via store apps, newsletters, and text alerts give notice to deeper discounts. If you’re visiting a store for the first time, ask about the specials or look for signage. “Often thrift stores will have fliers posted in the store informing shoppers of upcoming sale days,” says Beldner. “Some stores will run sales daily and others are weekly.” For example, the Goodwill stores in the Chesapeake region in Maryland offer a 30 percent discount to all college students, teachers, and senior citizens every Wednesday. These are the other 13 things thrift stores and consignment shops won’t tell you!

thriftChristian Giaffrey/Shutterstock

Opposites attract

Most women wouldn’t browse the men’s rack for clothes, but Maria TenHave-Chapman always looks it over when she hits up her local Goodwill or Salvation Army store. “Clearly, the fit is a little different so you’ll have to know what works for you, but looking through all departments is definitely worth it. I’ve found some really good finds in the men’s department,” says TenHave-Chapman.


Vintage goods

If you like to rock an expensive look in your vintage threads, try antique stores. While not a typical thrift store, some carry vintage clothes alongside antiques. TenHave-Chapman loves to stroll the antique warehouse near her home for vintage clothes. “My best finds have been heavy winter coats from the 1950s with fur collars and silk linings.” If you’re looking for designer labels, but not sure the Chanel suit you just found is legit, try searching The Vintage Fashion Guild’s resource library for designer labels, furs, and fabrics. (Check out these 10 clever ways to save money that you haven’t thought of yet!)


College cast-offs

No one wants to haul dorm room essentials like lamps, bean bag chairs, and futons home after the semester ends. That’s good news for deal seekers. “If you live in a college town, be sure to hit them when the semesters end,” says Melissa McNeese, of New York City, who lives near three college campuses. “The thrift stores get a ton of stuff as the semester’s end. I got a great multi-head floor lamp a few years back for cheap,” she says.

thriftArmin Staudt/Shutterstock

Look past imperfections

“Sometimes, the really pristine pieces aren’t the true gems,” says Mateo. “It can be a really beautiful shelf that needs refinishing. Or a lovely skirt that needs to be re-hemmed. Just know your limits, and stick to projects that you know you can do,” says Mateo. Some stores may not realize something is damaged so don’t be afraid to haggle a bit and ask for discount. They’ll probably give you one so they can move the item out.


Get touchy-feely

If you see Mateo in a thrift store, you’re likely to find her touching everything she passes. This process is one of her styling secrets.”Ignore the brands. Ignore the sizes, which are never accurate anyway. It’s all about the material,” says Mateo. “If the fabric feels good and luxurious, pick up the item and analyze it further. This is how you find hidden gems,” suggest Mateo. She searches for silks, cashmere, merino wool, linen, and high-quality cottons, but passes on synthetics or fabrics past their prime. (Here are the seven places you can donate your old stuff!)


Thrift store vultures

You him and haw, and finally put the vase back on the shelf. Then, minutes later, you decide you do want the cobalt vase after all, but someone scooped it up! “Never walk away from something you love. When in doubt, put it in your cart or take the sales ticket until you make your final decision,” urges Serena Appiah of “There will be ‘thrift store vultures’ waiting for you to walk away from that amazing find! With the item in your cart or the sales ticket in your pocket, you have more time to decide if the item should come home with you or not.”

thriftSTUDIO GRAND OUEST/Shutterstock

Buy for parts

Thrift shops are a gold mine for Pinterest projects. “Sometimes you may only want the solid wood legs to use for another project. Or maybe you buy an old sewing cabinet to use its solid oak folding top,” says Appiah. “Look at each piece and see what you can salvage, especially for unique parts and features.” (Check out these eye-opening truths about how charities actually spend your money!)

Furniture finds

Score! The cozy sofa you’ve been looking for is in the perfect color at the right price. But will it fit in your house? “Before buying furniture, it’s a good idea to measure the width of your doors, the width of your ‘turns’ and if the furniture is going to a second floor, figure out if it will fit in a stairwell,” says Barney Daley, owner, Value Thrift Shop. Daley also suggests keeping your style and color scheme in mind. You may think the adorable chintz fabric ottoman will fit right in with your living room furniture but it may clash with the colors once you bring it home. “Take a photo of your space and the colors of your walls and carpeting to make sure your new furniture will also fit the decor,” suggest Daley.

thriftSTUDIO GRAND OUEST/Shutterstock

Don’t bring bugs home

Furniture and other fabric-covered items may look clean but tiny pests hiding in the fibers cancels out a thrift store find in a hurry. “The state of Pennsylvania requires upholstery, pillows, stuffed animals, and other fabric items be treated with a special disinfectant to rid of any pests or germs, says Daley. Your state may not institute the same rule though. “Do not bring used furniture into your home until it has been treated or ask the seller to treat it prior to leaving the thrift store,” says Daley. His Value Thrift Shop store uses Sterifab, which you can order online or find at a home improvement center to eradicate bed bugs and other pests.

thriftCabeca de Marmore/Shutterstock

First-time thrifters

The first time shopping at a thrift store can be disappointing for some. Sometimes the store can have a funky odor or the racks of oversize 1980s sweaters and mom jeans put you off from the start. You may even walk out empty-handed the first time, but don’t let it discourage you. “Having an open mind is definitely key. Keep your first couple trips short and sweet and stick to one or two sections of a thrift store to see what you can find,” notes Beldner. “Whether you want to add clothing pieces to your wardrobe, household items to your new home, or are looking for a new piece of furniture that needs a little love, the thrill of not knowing what you’re going to find is guaranteed to keep you coming back!” exclaims Beldner. (Don’t miss these 32 sneaky ways that retailers use to trick you into spending more money!)

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer who writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, Family Handyman and Taste of Home, among other outlets. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.