How to Thrift Like a Boss


Like a well-worn flannel or a perfect cup of espresso, Northwesterners love a good thrift shop.  I know I do!  Over half the decor in my house has been rescued from a thrift store or garage sale.  I enjoy thrift shopping for a couple of reasons.  First, I love recycling.  I seriously love recycling.  I get a thrill out of not wasting.  Second, thrift stores tend to benefit community causes instead of lining the pockets of corporations.  Third, they fit into my budget!

However, between the funky smells, sometimes dubious clientele, and multi-colored sticker discount pricing, thrifting can be kind of intimidating for the newbie.

Come with me and we’ll thrift together today.  I’ll show you the ropes!

1. Become a regular.

Because thrift stores depend on the community for donations, their inventory is not stable.

This was a good day!  I found a burlap lamp shade, three small wreaths, a candelabra, and a vintage cutting board!
This was a good day! I found a burlap lamp shade, three small wreaths, a candelabra, and a vintage cutting board!

This is a beautiful thing for you, thrift shopping newbie!  There will be days when you find several one-of-a-kind treasures and days when you find nothing.  Don’t get discouraged.  Becoming a regular will do two things: sharpen your eye to spot good deals (it sounds silly, but it’s true!) and expose you to wide selection. There are two thrift stores in town that I frequent.  Both are on my way home from work, so I swing by for a quick perusal once every two weeks.  About half the time, I leave with nothing.  That’s okay.  It’s a good (and cheap!) stress reliever after work and there’s always next week to find something cool!

2. Learn to see things in a new context.

OwlWhen you go into a thrift store, it’s easy to miss the few diamonds among the junk, but you’ve got to train your imagination to see an individual item away from the thrift store.  You need to be able to imagine it within the context of your home.  How could you use it?  What purpose could it serve?  This was difficult for me when I first started thrifting.  Let’s take this little owl as an example. On the shelf, he’s easy to overlook. What do you do with an owl that has pine cones for eyebrows and a slight dusting of sparkly snow on it? Donate it to the thrift store, apparently! But, as part of a fall or winter vignette?  So cute! This little guy came home with me. I named him Gary.  I’m sure you’ll be seeing him again! By the way, I just saw an almost identical owl at Jo-Ann Fabric.  It was $10.99.  I paid $3.99.  That’s how it’s done, folks!

3. Consider form and function, not color. 

One Sunday, many years ago, my pastor sang a little jingle that went like this: I can see you / in the future / and you look much better than you look right now. I don’t really remember the context of the jingle, but the prinMirrorciple applies to thrift shopping too.  Don’t get distracted by things that can easily change like color.  Focus on form and function.  You can always make it “look much better than it looks right now!” I’ll give you a few examples here:

First, consider this mirror. The form is really beautiful.  I love that classical/Gothic look with ornate details. However, the color is dull and really outdated.  A quick coat of chalk paint and maybe a tiny brush of gilding wax would bring it back to life.  It could be so pretty on a small vanity!

Second, take a gander at these pieces of art.  The form is great.  To me, the silver color is appealing too. A thrifting newbie might be tempted to get distracted by the prints inside the frames, but don’t!

At $5 a piece, this would be an awfully cheap way to start a gallery wall!
At $5 a piece, this would be an awfully inexpensive way to start a gallery wall! Just swap out the prints!

It’s so easy to pop the print out and put your own picture or print.  New frames are expensive!  Almost exclusively, I buy thrift store frames.

4. Look at everything twice.

My thrift store strategy usually goes like this: I do one fairly quick perusal of the store, starting in the home decor or furniture section and then (if I have time), I do one very thorough round of the departments I want to shop. My rationale is that thrift stores tend to be so cluttered that it’s difficult to differentiate trash from treasures all at once.  I tend to change my focus and perspective on the second time through.  If I had been looking for practical things, I’ll switch it up and look for decorative things or vice versa.  If I had my living room in mind during my first time through, I’ll think about the bathrooms or bedrooms.

Look at the goodies I would have missed had I not looked at everything twice:

This wreath would be adorable for Valentine's Day (minus the ribbon!).

Though it did not come home with me, this wreath would be adorable for Valentine’s Day (minus the ribbon!).

This chicken wire basket came home with me!  It is currently holding my great grandma's wooden spools in my craft room.

This chicken wire basket came home with me! It is currently holding my great grandma’s wooden spools in my craft room.

5. Don’t overlook the underrated departments.

Did you know most thrift stores have a craft and office supplies section?  What about a fabric section? A hardware section?  You want to become friends with these underrated departments!  You may have to dig through bins of craft supplies to find gems, but they can be found!  I hate paying full price for craft supplies, so when I see something that strikes my fancy, I scoop it up.  I’m not sure what I’ll do with the little number plaques, but I’m sure I’ll think of something! They’re awfully cute!

I'm not sure what I'll do with these numbers, but I know I'll think of something!

My tip in the fabric/textiles section is to steer clear of bedding and bath textiles.  Fabric in the raw can be a great deal.  I bought some really pretty blue fabric recently that I’m going to turn into drapes.  There were 6 yards of upholstery fabric in the bundle for $8.00.

Curtains can also be a winner.  You can use them as-is or turn them into slipcovers for pillows!

I probably don’t have to tell you this, but run any fabric you purchase at a thrift store through the washing machine before using it!

6. Learn to spot a good deal and reject the bad ones.

Just because it’s cheap (even at a thrift store!) doesn’t mean it’s a good deal.  I’m pretty sure I learned that the hard way a few times! For example, I never buy a lone table lamp.  Its mate is not coming back. It doesn’t matter how cute or cheap the lamp is.

The same thing would go for this trio of chairs.  ChairsThey’d be beautiful with a new coat of paint and a bit of new upholstery, but three is an awkward number for chairs. If you were going for a mismatched look, you could buy one or two of them, but three will end up being a bad deal.

The reverse can also be true.  With a little bit of knowledge, you can find fantastic deals when items have been priced by someone who doesn’t see the value in an item.  For example, my future brother-in-law, who is a chef, once found a $100+ kitchen knife for $1.99!

7. Inspect your items carefully.

This is one my sister-in-law, my own thrift shop guru, reminded me about today.  Most people donate to a thrift store because they perceive there is something wrong with whatever they’re donating. Most thrift stores allow only very limited returns.  Therefore, it behooves you to check your items carefully before purchasing them.  Sometimes, a little blemish is easy to fix: a dot of superglue here or a tiny stitch there.  However, be realistic about your repair capabilities. Chris once bought me a very cute little side table, but it was so cracked and warped that it took a minor miracle and me bringing in the big guns (my dad!) to even get it to the point that I could paint it.  The time I spent with Dad notwithstanding, that project wasn’t really worth it.  The bottom line: if it’s an electronic, plug it in.  If it’s made of fabric, check for stains.  If it’s a piece of furniture, check how much it wobbles.

8. Know your measurements.

When I’m looking for something that needs to be a specific size, I put the measurements in my phone.  For example, I’ve been looking for a little stand for my bathroom on which I can keep toiletries (and decor, obviously!). Tailor's Tape I keep a tailor’s tape in my purse so that if I spot a possibility, I can check the dimensions. In fact, I found one when I was doing research for this blog post!

It turned out to be the correct size (you can see the tailor’s tape on the top of it!) but was way too wobbly.  Because I was following my advice in #7, I left it behind.  The right stand will come along eventually!

9. Look for things that are meaningful to you.

There were certain Danish words used around my house when I was growing up; one of which was hyggelig.  Hyggelig doesn’t really have a direct translation to English, but it’s essentially a cozy, warm, inviting atmosphere where you want to curl up with a hot chocolate and enjoy the people you love.  Obviously, what really makes a home hyggelig is the people in it, but you can help that atmosphere grow by keeping an eye out for items that have a story and a personal connection to you.

CopenhagenTake this picture as an example.  It’s a print of a painting of Nyhavn, a waterfront district in Copenhagen, by Danish painter Mads Stage. I have stood in the exact place depicted in the picture.

Sometimes at a thrift store, you’ll find a vase that looks just like the one you broke at your grandma’s house.  Other times, you might find a map of a favorite vacation destination that can be framed.

Stories like that — even if you’re the only one who knows them — create a cozy, personal, lived-in feel.

10. Embrace the extra discount days.

A lot of thrift stores will have extra savings days on certain items or for certain people: teachers, students, military, seniors, etc.  One of the thrift stores I frequent has a couple days each month when different departments are on sale.  These can often be a great time to snag a great deal. It’s worth it to ask a clerk if the store offers any discounts.  Many thrift stores keep a calendar of discount days near the register.

DeskI passed on this desk at $40 one Thursday afternoon and questioned my decision the rest of the evening.

The next day, Chris stopped by the thrift store to look for a life vest (which he did not find) and came home with the desk!  Unbeknownst to me, that Friday was a 1/2 price furniture day!  I wasn’t sure about the desk for $40, but for $20, it makes a terrific sewing station!

(If you’re thinking this sewing station looks too neat to be real, you’re right.  I just spent 3 hours cleaning my entire craft room and sewing area. It will probably never look this good again).

Thrift shopping can be a lot of fun, but it does take a bit of practice.  You will probably make a couple of mistakes and regrettable purchases along the way, but look on the bright side: you’re helping your community and the planet in the process.

What are your favorite thrift store finds?  I’d love you to share! Post a picture!


Washi Tape clip art by Teacher Karma.

Copyright: Best Coast Living, 2015


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