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6 Thrifting Tips for Shopping on a Budget


Budget confession: I used to have a bad Nordstrom habit. Needless to say, I had no interest in thrifting tips back in those days. Although I had a solid income in my 20’s, the money seemed to flow in one hand and out the other. Poof! I blamed my lack of funds on my “love for fashion.” Years into wondering where my money was going, it was time to confront a hard truth: My clothes spending was getting the best of me. Can you relate?

Thrifting tips saved my budget. Image is of a woman with shopping bags in one hand and an oversized credit card in the other.
My love of fashion was blowing my budget.

When it comes to style, I’ve always identified with the sentiment “I just have expensive taste.” As a YNABer, I can see the truth now—I just didn’t have clear priorities, and I was using my love for fashion as an excuse for overspending. So, in the first chapter of my budgeting journey, I made a pact with myself: I shall never buy clothing at full price ever again. 

After stumbling through haute-couture-induced financial challenges for years and ending up in the land of freedom called Budgeting, I’ve come to an amazing realization. You can be both frugal and fancy. You can save money and fuel your love for fashion. You can scratch your shopping itch and not go into debt.

In the early days of my “never buying at full price again” pact, I would simply wait for clothes to go on sale…at Nordstrom. Let’s just say that strategy didn’t solve my financial problem. Then, I discovered a new love: thrift shopping. With some time and effort, I could usually find the same quality items and brand name clothing, with the added rush of going on a treasure hunt. 

Inspired to spend the bare minimum (without going bare), I gave more consideration to the secondhand clothing concept. It opened up a whole new world of variety. As I asked around, I was surprised by how many people I know who regularly shop at consignment and thrift stores—and not out of necessity, either—they love it!

Consider the benefits:

  • There are more options (which is appealing if you have unique taste or you’re not feeling the latest trends).
  • There’s less risk if you stain, snag, tear or otherwise damage your duds.
  • You feel more triumphant if you find something that you love, and the price tag is ridiculously low!
  • You might find an elusive retired style of, say, Lululemon leggings that would be the perfect complement to your athleisure lineup.
  • You could score an otherwise-not-in-your-price-range brand. Perhaps an Hermes bag?
  • If you’re raising a rapidly-growing human (a young child), thrifting is a big money-saver.
  • You can avoid the fast fashion industry, which comes with ethical and eco-friendly perks.

Plus, you know, you save a lot of money! Kelly, a teacher at YNAB, said, “I remember the first time I took home an entire bag of clothes for $20. I couldn’t believe how much stuff you could buy for so little. It was an incredible feeling.”

An entire bag of clothes for $20? Tell me more …

Thrifting Tips: How to Thrift Like a Pro

One of the biggest reasons that I haven’t ever tried shopping secondhand? Fear of the unknown. But, like with budgeting, having an open mind, being prepared, and managing expectations can go a long way to help you overcome your hesitations.

I grilled a few of my coworkers who claimed ‘well-seasoned’ and ‘expert-level’ mastery of secondhand shopping, with wardrobes ranging from 40 to 90 percent thrifted (imagine all of the dollars saved!).

Here are their best thrifting tips:

1 – Don’t Shop on an Empty Stomach

Yep, this one’s not just for grocery shopping. As Jen, a YNAB customer support representative, said, “Always go after a good meal, and always bring a snack! I wear out quickly when shopping, and then it’s hard to make good decisions.”

Faness, another YNAB customer support representative, agrees on the importance of being fueled. When she goes shopping with her family, she says, “We can easily hop between several stores, and the hanger [hunger + anger] sets in if we don’t stop for a sandwich. It also gives you some time to recoup between stores. Thrifting is basically like hiking, but instead of mountain views you get discounts. Just like taking a trek, be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring water.”

2 – Shop with Friends

If you can, make it a party and bring friends or family with you to the store. It’s helpful to have someone to guard the dressing room, assist with hard-to-reach zippers, and give feedback.

Faness said, “Bringing company is good for a number of reasons—everything you think is cute, is not cute. I can’t tell you how many leopard-print, fuzzy-material shoes I’ve had to pry away from my mother. We’ve also steered each other away from buying items too similar to things we already have. You really don’t need the same shirt in reverse colors and, nine times out of ten, velvet should stay right where you found it.”

3 – Get to Know Your Thrift Shops 

This sound piece of advice would have never occurred to me, but it just makes sense. Erin, a teacher at YNAB, wisely advises, “Get to know your local thrift store. Personally, I don’t worry about half-price or colored-tag days, but if they had a $1-an-item day, I’d be all over that. Sign up for mailing lists so you get notified about sales.”

In addition to scouting sales, it also helps to know the layout of your stores. Kelly enjoys her local Goodwill store because, “… they hang all their clothing by size so I can quickly flip through all the tops and bottoms without rifling through all of the racks. Their stock changes frequently, too, so I stop by every few weeks to see what’s new.”

When she needs something more specific, Kelly heads to Ragstock, her favorite consignment shop.

4 – Shop Like You’re on a Treasure Hunt

One of the perks of secondhand clothing is that you can always find something unique. The downside is that you can only find one of something, and it may take a bit of digging. But when you find a special piece, it’s worth the hunt!

Jen recalls “I remember visiting this bright little thrift store in Bradenton, Florida when I was in college. I found a necklace there that had fairy charms, glass beads and bells, and it twinkled when I moved. I wore it until it fell apart. I loved that it had a history, and it felt pre-loved.”

And Faness said, “I could write a Christmas list of my amazing finds over the years, but my favorite was actually something I picked up for my husband. It was an Abercrombie & Fitch jacket…for $7. Later on, when we removed the vest lining, we found the tag still attached—the retail value was $149.99. Thank you, Goodwill, for providing fashion-forward styles on a budget.”

Of course, every shopping trip won’t be fruitful. Don’t be discouraged if you wind up empty-handed. Kelly said, “I’ve left with nothing, sometimes, and other times I leave with bags of clothing.”

5 – Know Your Options

Local Stores

If you’re searching for something specific, vintage stores or consignment boutiques are your best bet. You’ll pay more than you would at a thrift store—but still less than new!—and the merchandise is typically better curated, more on-trend and easier to skim.

Jen said, “My favorite place is a local consignment boutique called Rococo. They have designer items, and everything is really well-organized. They also curate their clothes well, and I can usually get in and out with what I need quickly—I go there, especially if I’m looking for a particular item, like a red shirt or a knee-length skirt to fill in a gap in my wardrobe. I tend to go to the less-organized thrift stores when I just want to shop and find a gem.”

It’s also good to consider the location of your store. Chrissy, a YNAB customer support representative, said, “My best thrifting tip for finding a great secondhand store is location, location, location! It’s harder to find great deals at a high-traffic store, and donations are often higher-quality in nicer areas. Also, if you find a Goodwill near a Target, they often get the Target items that couldn’t be sold, so you’ll find brand-new items from Target at Goodwill!”

Online Thrift Stores

There are a ton of online secondhand stores, but ThredUp was a clear winner among the people I talked to. Jen said, “I mostly shop ThredUp—they’re easy to use, and their customer service is responsive. I tried Mercari and, occasionally, have bought from eBay, but they’re not as reliable. I like getting a big box of clothes from ThredUp, then returning what I don’t want for free.”

Chrissy has shopped at The Real Real, Poshmark, ThredUp and Schoola, and she likes the latter two options because, she says, “You aren’t interacting with one specific buyer—there’s a central clearinghouse that goes through the clothes and photographs them. I’m most loyal to ThredUp because of the combination of ease-of-use, prices and quality.”

Chrissy also mentioned ThredUp’s broad selection of clothing, the frequent promo codes in their app and their subscription box service. She said, “They send you FIFTEEN items. It’s way more items than Stitch Fix, Trunk Club, etc., and the secondhand prices are way more reasonable. I also felt like they hit the mark way more closely on my style than other services I’ve tried.”

6 – Proudly Own Your Decision

If you’re caught up in the status-boost of name brands or being on the bleeding edge of trends, your ego might suffer in a secondhand store. That’s when a dose of reality is helpful. The thing is, it’s totally OK to prioritize clothing—even expensive clothing—in your budget!

… but, if you’re honest, wouldn’t it be far more rewarding to be done paying off your debt? Or to take that trip around the world? With a little thrifting, you can find secondhand clothing that looks and feels great (and hang on to all of those extra dollars!).

Kelly said, “When I was younger, I was a little embarrassed to be a thrifter, and, even now, I feel a little strange because I can technically afford to buy new clothes. However, I’ve realized that buying used clothing is much more environmentally friendly than fast fashion, it’s far more affordable, and it affords me the luxury of cycling through clothes without guilt. I frequently drop off a bag of my outgrown or out-loved clothes back at my local thrift store and run inside to see what’s new.”

So, About My New Wardrobe

It’s nice to know that you don’t have to spend a fortune, or much at all, to completely overhaul your closet. Isn’t that such a liberating thought? It was for this reformed mall rat.

And, I couldn’t believe the deals!

  • Erin found a $150 L.L. Bean jacket for $10!
  • Kelly scored four new Eddie Bauer tank tops for just $2 each.
  • Emily found a chic vintage Prada blazer for $23.
  • Jen found a stunning red dress, her go-to black trench coat (that goes with everything!), and a cherished Lucky brand bag, all well below retail.
  • And Chrissy’s daughter picked out an adorable Hanna Andersson winter coat that was only $4!

Get More From Your Thrift Store Finds

If your soul sings every time you take home a fancy bag with a pair of shiny new shoes nestled inside, I’m not saying that you should give that up (provided it’s in your budget). But, if you’ve been looking to optimize your spending, maybe thrift store shopping can help. Is there a specific item of clothing—like pants for work, clothes for camping or casual tops—that you’d love to spend less cash on?

Get creative! Try mixing and matching new and secondhand shopping in a way that suits your actual style. I mean, more money in your pocket is a good look, don’t you think?

The best thrifting tip is to stick to your budget. Don’t have one? Try YNAB for free for 34 days!

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