With Florida’s inflation skyrocketing and bills soaring for groceries, insurance, mortgage rates, gas and more, everyone can stand to save a little money where they can.
And in honor of National Thrift Store Day (Thursday, Aug. 17), let’s go thrifting.
There are a lot of reasons to shop at thrift stores besides getting stuff cheap.
- You’re supporting local businesses.
- You help the environment by keeping more waste out of the trash and the ocean. In 2022, Goodwill Industries of Central Florida reported their donations kept over 20 million pounds of materials out of local landfills.
- When you re-use clothing, you reduce the demand for new items that use water and energy in their production, as well as the pesticides used to grow cotton.
- Many thrift stores benefit local charities and community-based programs. Some thrift stores provide job training and placement services. Some even make a point of hiring unhoused people or ex-felons to help them re-enter the workplace.
But mostly you’re probably looking for cheap or unique stuff. I certainly am.
When my wife and I were barely out of our teens and struggling, thrift stores helped us clothe our family and provide household necessities we couldn’t have otherwise afforded. As our income levels grew we thrifted for extras or specialty items, and then for fun. Decades later, we spend our weekends hitting our favorite places across Central Florida just looking for cool things.
We have bought thousands of articles of clothing, hundreds of books and toys, and dozens of pieces of furniture over the years. I’d guess maybe 30, 35% of the decorations in our house were bought new with the rest discovered on a shelf somewhere behind SeaWorld coffee cups and old Scrabble games. (I also bought a vintage Scrabble game.)
Florida is loaded with thrift and consignment stores. In 2021, according to the stats site Smartscrapers, Florida had 359 Goodwill locations, the second-most in the country. Wherever you go you can find the Salvation Army, Plato’s Closet, Habitat for Humanity, St. Vincent de Paul, and any number of local shops and church-affiliated centers.
The Lawn Love site analyzed the 200 biggest U.S. cities and their thrift store metrics — access, items available, thrifting-related Google searches — put Jacksonville at the 10th best city in the country for thrifting. (The #1 worst? Miramar. Who knew?)
Thrifting can mean ducking in to try to find the one thing you need, or it can mean hours of almost-meditative browsing as you let the universe offer you random surprises.
Whatever your process, here are some tips to make it easier.
1. Plan ahead
You don’t have to know ahead of time what you want — for some people, spontaneity and discovery is the point — but you should have an awareness of what you’re getting into to get the best deals.
- Know when your local place restocks. Larger places may restock continually but check with a staffer to find out when new stuff will hit the shelves.
- Beat the crowds. Shopping early in the day on weekdays (if possible) can help you avoid fighting through lots of other shoppers.
- Try thrifting in small towns. Thrift stores near high-income areas sound like a good idea (like taking your kids to the rich neighborhood to trick or treat) but prices tend to be higher and they usually get picked over quickly. Chains like Goodwill will ship merchandise to stores that don’t get a lot of donations.
- Know their specialties. Drive by all the places near you and get a sense of what each one specializes in. Many places (especially consignment stores) are clothes-only. Some, such as Habitat for Humanity, may focus on furniture and housing goods. Chain stores that have demonstrated higher sales in certain categories might get more of those sent to them. Maybe your local Goodwill has more books than others, or stuffed animals, or electronics.
2. Know what you’re seeing
Part of the joy of thrifting is finding valuable or vintage items tossed in with the plastic stuff. But you need to know what you have.
- Check the labels. If you think you might have found vintage clothing or shoes, use the Label Resource at the Vintage Fashion Guide site to compare the labels with the ones they have on file.
- Look for quality. Natural materials in clothing, linings in coats, hardwood furniture rather than veneer or plywood, woven labels instead of printed, all of these are signs you’re getting a better deal. If a shoe is made of 100% leather, it will usually have the words “Vero Cuoio” marked on the bottom.
- Look for dates. First-edition books can be more valuable, always check. I’ve even found several autographed copies over the years.
- Google it. A quick Google search can help you decide if what you have is worth the two bucks. If you can’t identify it at all, use the Google app’s Image Search to take a picture of it and find out.
- Check eBay. Does the item look valuable or collectible? Check eBay or other online sales or auction sites to see what other people are selling it for, and tap the “Completed Items” filter to see what people have actually paid for it.
3. Know what you’re buying
Remember, you’re buying used stuff. More to the point, you’re buying stuff someone else decided to get rid of, and sometimes there was a very good reason.
- Check electronics and electric items. Most places will have an outlet somewhere you can use to make sure the thing you want actually works. You might have to ask where it is. Hardcore shoppers will bring batteries with them to test items.
- Check for stains. If you can rub a wet finger across a suspicious stain on clothing and it fades, you can probably launder it. Otherwise, assume any stains you see are stains you’ll have to live with.
- Check all the parts. Games, puzzles, tool sets, sets of silverware, the part of the tripod that screws into the camera (nearly always missing), check as well as you can to make sure it’s all there. You probably won’t want to count all 5,000 puzzle pieces while you’re standing there, but be aware when you’re putting it together that it may be more frustrating than usual.
Note that even if you have to buy a missing part for an expensive item like, say, a battery for a high-end drill, it still may be dramatically cheaper than buying it new.
4. Save big bucks on clothing
Clothing may be the number one reason people go to thrift stores. Here’s how to make it count.
- Check more than just your size. Vintage clothing runs several sizes smaller than modern fashions, some modern clothing is not sized for actual humans, and items aren’t always returned to the right rack anyway.
- Dress appropriately. Not every thrift store has a dressing room. Goodwills across the country are removing theirs because of a rise in theft, graffiti and drug use. Or there may be a dressing room and a very long line. Wear tight or layered clothing you can try things on top of. Sometimes, you just gotta try on the shirt standing in the aisle.
- Dress to match your needs. Looking for a top to match that skirt? Wear the skirt when you go to make sure you remember the colors correctly.
- Shop off-season. Look for winter coats any time besides the winter, especially the spring when people are cleaning out their closets.
- Stock up on kids’ clothes. Every parent or guardian knows how fast kids go through clothes and shoes by outgrowing them or just destroying them. You can keep up with them by grabbing the basics here.
- Look for single-use items. If you desperately need something you’re only going to wear once and don’t want to spend a lot on it… I think you know where I’m going with this. If you’re on a tight budget, this also includes wedding dresses.
- Get it tailored (or do it yourself). A great way to jazz up your thrift store purchases is to buy a little larger and then have it taken in to fit you. Tailoring rates are almost always cheaper than people think they will be. And if you’re good with a needle or sewing machine, thrift stores suddenly become a warehouse of opportunity.
- Make traveling easier. Want to reduce your luggage when you travel? Pack light and hit a thrift store when you get there for t-shirts, shorts and whatever else you’ll need. Way cheaper than carry-on and checked-luggage fees, the airport is a lot more manageable when you can breeze through it with a backpack, and you can donate them back before you come home.
- Get your souvenirs. As long as you’re on vacation… T-shirts and gifts from theme parks and area attractions are much, much cheaper when you get them second- or third-hand.
5. Repair and repurpose
When you see broken, worn or shabby items in a thrift store, especially furniture, look at what they could become. Refinishing an item can give you a bright, bold new showpiece for your home and sometimes it’s as easy as tightening screws, sanding, and restaining or repainting that old coffee table you wrestled into your car.
Need some fabric for a project? A dress, curtain, sheet or blanket might have high-quality fabric at a much cheaper price than buying it at JOANN.
6. Save more money with discounts and loyalty programs
Every week, the colors change at Goodwill and items marked with that color are 50% off the already low price. Other thrift stores, even locally-owned ones, often do the same. A well-timed visit can save you a bundle, although you always run the risk of someone less thrifty than you buying the item you had your eye on before it gets marked down.
Many thrift stores also offer loyalty programs that earn you points and money off future purchases. Some offer seasonal coupons near peak shopping times, or special sales on Black Friday. And watch for discounts for seniors, first responders, teachers, students or the military.
7. Don’t want to fight the crowds? Go online
A lot of thrift stores have gone online. You’ll have to pay postage, but suddenly your range has expanded worldwide. Prices will probably run a little higher than they might if you found the item locally.
You can shop ShopGoodwill.com or try online-only resale places like Swap, ThreadUp, DePop, Poshmark, Mercari, even Facebook Marketplace. ThriftBooks offers a massive selection of used books.
8. Get into the right mindset
However you thrift, some tips can help everybody.
- Sell/donate before you buy. You can help keep a handle on your habit by clearing out your closets of your own unnecessary items before you add more.
- Scan the whole store first. Go ahead and walk around to see if anything catches your eye before you get down to serious searching.
- If you might want it, put it in the cart. There is little more annoying than deciding you do want something after all, only to see an empty place where it was. You can put it back later.
- Don’t impulse buy. Yes, it’s all cheap, but even cheap stuff you don’t need adds up quickly.
- Bring a tape measure. If you’re looking for the right thing to fill that space in your house or on your walls, you will wish you had a tape measure with you. In a pinch, the Measure app on your iPhone works pretty well.
- Keep a shopping list. Add a note or doc to your phone with certain things you’re looking for. Picture frame sizes you need. Clothing pieces you’re missing. Books or movies or games you wanted. You’ll thank yourself later.
- Shop often. Thrifting is less like shopping at Target and more like hunting for seashells. Go regularly to increase your chances of spotting treasures.
C. A. Bridges is a Digital Producer for the USA TODAY Network, working with multiple newsrooms across Florida. Local journalists work hard to keep you informed about the things you care about, and you can support them by subscribing to your local news organization. Read more articles by Chris here and follow him on Twitter at @cabridges
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