bargain shopping at the thrift-o-rama

If there were a twelve-step group my husband would make me join. I admit, I'm a confirmed thrift store shopper. At least once a week you'll find me at one of my favorites (I have three that are my preferred shopping destinations, but I'll stop in at another one if it looks good), and I've always gotten some great deal that I want to share. Daddio can't really complain, though, since my love of the bargain keeps our clothing bill so, so low. I know, I know, if you're not like me you're probably thinking one (or more) of the following:
  • Thrift stores are dirty and smell awful (bad ones are...I skip those).
  • I would have to paw through so much stuff I'll never find what I'm looking for (the ones I like are really well-organized, and once you frequent one it's easy to get around).
  • All the stuff at thrift stores is worn out (patently untrue--think about the stuff you donate!).
  • I'm going to look like a hippie if I shop at the thrift store. Their stuff is so outdated (You can look like a hippie if you want to, but you could look like an old lady if you shop at Kohls).
  • I'm so not wearing someone else's old underwear (yeah, me neither, but you don't have to buy that there, for goodness' sakes!).
I used to think that way, but then I discovered a few universal truths:
  • Kid's clothes are really expensive and they outgrow them really fast, then people take them to the thrift store.
  • Nice people with good taste apparently give their clothes away soon after buying them, sometimes before they even cut the tags off.
  • I have more fun stuff to spend my money on than buying clothes.
  • I love shopping at thrift stores, and once I'm done with something I bought there I never feel guilty giving it back since it was so cheap. (like the board game we played to deal and I never want to see again)
  • The process of manufacturing a new item takes a ton of energy (from the fertilizer to grow the cotton, to the lights in the factory, to the gas to run the ship to carry the goods from overseas...) and buying used is a huge reduction in your carbon footprint. Recycling is good, reuse is better! (...and reduction is best of all!)
Consider this example. Let's say that you're very organized and wash clothes regularly (I'm not, and I don't, but let's just say), and your child has five outfits.

Let's say that you paid full price at Old Navy (nice, mid-priced example) for clothes for your two-year old: five bottoms @ $14.50 each, five tops @ $8.50 each, a sweater @ $14.50, and a winter jacket @ $ 29.50. That's about $160 (plus shoes and socks, tights, etc, and times two, since you need summer and winter clothes, and many people have more than one kid, so multiply that by the number of kids you have).

If you're a bargain-hunter you might shop clearance sales and get good deals at Target too: five bottoms @ $8 each, five tops @ $5 each, a sweater at $10, winter jacket @ $20. That's still $95 for just the basics.

If you're shopping at an average thrift store on a full-price day you'll spend even less: five bottoms (from the Gap, Old Navy, and Gymboree) average $2.50 each, five tops average $2 each, a sweater $4, Columbia winter jacket $7. That's less than $25, and you got really cute stuff...maybe better than you would've bought in the first place. Shop on a half-price day (often it's a Saturday) and you'll spend even less. (for example, just this morning I got a brand new pair of BCBG pants (w/ $110 tag) for $2.25 since it was a half-price day).

Keep in mind that I'm thinking 2 year old kid prices--clothes get about 50% more expensive at Old Navy once you hit "kid" sizes. Thrift store prices stay about the same.

Just FYI, there are certainly things that I will and won't buy at the thrift store, and specific things that I keep an eye out for year-round.

Won't usually buy:
  • Underwear (I mean, really!)
  • Swimsuits (see underwear, above).
  • Socks (I like cute socks).
  • Used shoes (I believe in buying really high-quality shoes with the money I've saved).
  • Stuff that doesn't look good, is stained, has holes, paint spots, is cheaply made, won't get worn, or seems overpriced. (don't forget to check zippers, buttons, elbows and knees!)
  • T-shirts for me (I just haven't had very good luck, and I kind of feel like it's icky).
Always looking for:
  • Winter gear, especially boots (since they get worn so little and are so expensive!).
  • A great bread machine (mine's okay, but I'd really like a Zojirushi).
  • Clothes up to two sizes bigger than my kids currently wear (each kid has a tub of clothes to grow into stored in their closet).
  • Cute pajamas (since they really get worn out...I often buy these new).
  • Really high-quality stuff. Most of what I buy is Gap, Gymboree, or Old Navy, with some Baby Lulu, Minibee, Tea Collection and Minibee thrown in.
  • Kids' books (people give away SO MANY new books. It's unbelievable).
  • Fun board games and great quality toys with all the pieces. (they run about $2.50 rather than $15-20, then you can return them as a donation when you want them out of your house).
So, how do you do it?

First, find a couple of thrift stores near you that you really like. They should be clean, smell good, and be in a decent neighborhood (since those are the folks donating). I prefer private thrift stores (as opposed to "Goodwill" or "Salvation Army") just because I seem to have the best luck there, but it's sort of up to what you have in your area. Prices can vary, local shop has bins of clothes (great stuff, too) for 33 cents per item, while another favorite runs about $1.50-$2/shirt, a little more for pants.

Next, figure out how it's organized. Are the clothes organized by size? Color? Season? How do you know what's on sale (often it's by tag color, e.g. red and blue tags are 50% off).

Then find stuff that you like. Check it over to make sure it doesn't have a hole or stain, that the zipper works, and that pants aren't especially worn in the knees. Know that you probably won't find a whole wardrobe on your first visit. I usually go every couple of weeks or at least once a month. I buy what looks good (based upon my rules, up above) and keep it until the kid grows into it, then I can reminisce about the great deal I got and think about how cute those pink velvet pants look on my five year old, or how my new, never-worn Banana Republic linen skirt from last spring was only $4.50 this spring. (as an aside, clothes from Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic have a little tag under the size tag that tells you when the item was available in the store, if that matters to you).

Finally, buy it and feel like you got an awesome deal. Take it home and wash it with some Oxy Clean and it'll usually come out looking brand new. Send me an email and tell me what you got. I'd love to hear :)

How do you shop? Are you a bargain shopper, or is it important to you to follow the trends? Or, like me, are you a confirmed thrift shopper?
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