How to Find Treasures when Thrift Shopping

By L. Roberts on November 22, 2019

Shopping in college is hard. There’s no money, but there’s pressure to look cute at parties. You need all sorts of different outfits so you can “fit in” at the next mixer. You need oversized sweatshirts to wrap yourself up in when you have to trudge across campus to class at 8am, and about three dozen pairs of leggings so you can continue to wear the same outfit without having to do your laundry. But it gets tough when it comes to fashion in college. You want to look cute and you feel like you’re competing with all the sorority girls, but in reality, your level of motivation to do your hair and look cute is pretty low. You also don’t have $300 to spend at Target every weekend to keep up with the latest trends.

Because college students can barely pay for tuition or books, there’s definitely not any money left over for shopping on the weekends with your girlfriends. So if you learn anything from college, make sure it’s “how to shop when you’re on a budget at your local thrift store.”

There are several things you should do before you just embark on a thrift shopping journey. The first time you try to go thrift shopping, don’t set your expectations too high. This is truly a skill you have to perfect while you’re in college. So when you go thrift shopping for the first time, tell yourself it’s all about observation. Just look at what there is to offer. And make sure you cross off a couple of hours to investigate! Here are eleven rules to live by when you’re trying to find treasures as you thrift shop:


1. Always go with your friends.

Thrift shopping can be overwhelming. There are so many racks – so many things to choose from – that you might walk in and immediately feel completely overwhelmed. This is normal! There are reasons why department stores are set up the way that they’re set up. Think about TJ Maxx – the home goods section is usually in the back, right? So if you’re going there just to find some cute coffee mugs, you’re going to have to walk through the women’s section and the activewear, and past those always-too-cute shoes! Thrift stores are a little bit different, and you’re going to need the support of your friends to be able to sift through all the goodies that are hidden in the aisles.

Thrift shopping is truly a skill. You have to learn how to walk in and immediately envision “chunks” of the store – especially if it’s unorganized. Going to the thrift store is nothing like going to Target to look for a new outfit. You have to learn how to sift through tons of clothing, judging it quickly, and deciding on things that could potentially work with items you already have in your closet.

2. Schedule time to drive to several different thrift stores in various parts of town.

If there’s anything I can teach you about thrift shopping, it’s that they’re not all the same. In fact, they’re each very different. Whether you’re at Goodwill, or Bargain Hunt, or a hole-in-the-wall thrift store in your town, they each have something different to offer. You have to take each of them into consideration.

At Goodwill stores, their merchandise is a direct reflection of the donations they get from the community in which they are surrounded. I have had the best luck with Goodwill when I’ve driven to what’s considered the “nicer” part of town to look for items I need to perfect an outfit.

This isn’t to say that you won’t be able to find the perfect treasure in a lower-income part of town, but I will say that thrift stores are able to offer different merchandise based on what’s been donated and the part of town that they’re located in.

3. Make a mental list of things you’re looking for.

If you have this idea that you’re going to walk into thrift stores to simply “see what’s there,” you’re going to completely overwhelm yourself and waste a lot of time looking and then not feel productive.

You should approach thrift shopping with an idea of things you’re looking for. Your mental list shouldn’t be too long, nor should it be too specific. Tell yourself your goal today is to find some jeans that would look cute for an upcoming event. Focus on looking at several pairs of jeans, types of jeans, and styles of jeans and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t walk out with the perfect pair after the first thrift store you go into.

4. Give yourself a “cost per item” limit

The thing that always gets me about thrift shopping is that I think I’m going to save all kinds of money. But there are still ways for you to spend “too much money” at a thrift store if you don’t keep yourself in check. So before you walk in, give yourself a “cost per item” limit. How much do you want to spend on each thing? $2? $3?

You might not know how to set this limit prior to your first thrift shopping experience. That’s okay. When you and your friends decide to go thrift shopping for the first time, tell yourself that you’re simply going to observe. Take note of the kinds of items that are available at each store, and make a mental list of how much items are costing that you could allow yourself to like. The next time you and your friends go thrift shopping, you’ll have a better idea of what you can get and for how much money.

5. Go through sections you might not be immediately attracted to.

When you go to Target, you probably have to tell yourself not to walk through the baby aisle, the electronics, or the home goods if you’re looking for a bathing suit. Walking through aisles that you don’t need anything from is how you leave Target and charging $300 to your credit card. But with thrift shopping, it’s a little bit different.

You have to be willing to go through clothes in sections that you might not be initially attracted to. This is where you have the greatest chance of finding a “treasure.” It’s when you’re not really looking for anything that you come across something that’s truly awesome – that you have no idea how you’ll live without.


6. Ask around about thrift shops from friends.

You might think you’re doing a good job by Google searching “thrift shops near me,” but the reality is that the best thrift shops are kept secret and are only advertised via word of mouth. One of the best ways to find the best thrift shops is to ask around about where your girlfriends in college shop. Upperclassmen will know about places that are cheap, but have the best kind of clothing. And if there’s a thrift store on campus, which is the best, then that’ll really be a jackpot.

When I was in undergrad, there was a Goodwill that opened right around the corner from all the dorms. When I needed an ugly Christmas sweater a few hours before an event, it was the perfect place to look. These are the kinds of places you want to find when you’re in college. It’ll come in handy when you’re in a pinch.

7. Make it a weekly occurrence

Because thrift stores are mostly dependent on donations, their inventory can change at a moment’s notice. Something you weren’t able to find when you were there one day might be on the floor the day after, so you have to continue to go thrift shopping with your girlfriends on a regular basis.

My suggestion is to schedule a weekly time that you and your ladies can get together and go on a shopping trip. While you’re in college, you definitely need time away from your studies, and going thrift shopping with friends is one of the best ways to relieve stress. Schedule time for you and your friends to get together and make sure you’re frequenting the best thrift shops.

8. Be willing to leave your comfort zone.

Sometimes thrift shopping can take you out of your comfort zone. You might be looking for a cute pair of jeans, but the things you’re going to find at Goodwill are likely going to be soccer mom jeans that have been donated. You’re a bit limited in style, size, and overall availability. You will have to learn how to shop out of your comfort zone and make items work that might not be your first choice. But that’s one of the coolest things about adding thrift shopping to your regular shopping routine.

9. Ask friends for fashion advice.

A part of going to college is learning to be who you are, and learning to leave behind the idea of who everyone thinks you ought to be. When you leave your comfort zone and you start holding up items that are a little out of your style, ask your friends for their opinions! Chances are, something that you think might be borderline strange will be super cute to your friends. You’ll learn to be confident in the items that you’re drawn to, and you’ll start truly developing your own style.

When you come away from college, having made thrift shopping a “thing” in your friend group, you’ll be proud of your wardrobe, and you’ll feel ready for “adulthood.” Once you’re confident in your own style, you’ll be more confident in yourself.

10. Don’t limit yourself

The one thing about thrift shopping is that you can’t pigeon-hole yourself into looking for the exactly pink top you saw at a department store. You aren’t going to be able to hone in on one specific item and expect to take it home for a few dollars. Give yourself the opportunity to have a productive and successful shopping trip with your girls by setting your expectations low and being happy when you find something that’s halfway decent.

11. Know which aisles you should avoid.


I don’t know about you, but I think it’s a little ridiculous to look for everyday shoes in a thrift store. If you’re going to be on your feet all day, you need shoes that will support you, not worn-out sneakers that someone else has worn through their twelve-hour shifts and then donated for someone else to wear. It’s definitely up to you as to what you want to look for at a thrift store and what you don’t, but my suggestion would be to stick to items that you know you can get some more “wear” out of. Shoes aren’t always in the best shape to have a second life, if you know what I mean.

Thrift shopping isn’t easy. You have to be ready for all kinds of disappointed because there’s no possible way that you’re going to find the exact perfect thing that you were looking for. But the more open you are when you enter the situation, the more likely it is that you’re going to be happy with the items you come home with. Remember that you need to keep going thrift shopping on a regular basis. Trying it once and deciding that it’s not for you doesn’t allow anyone to find treasures when thrift shopping. You have to give different stores and different parts of town a chance. Talking to your friends in college about the best places to thrift shop, taking your girlfriends with you, and stepping out of your comfort zone are all ways that you can make sure you have a successful shopping experience.

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