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The Experienced Shopper’s Guide to Secondhand Shopping

When I found out National Secondhand Wardrobe was a thing (August 25, 2022), I was intrigued. I’m not sure how much of my wardrobe has been purchased from our local thrift store, but I’d guess it’s over fifty-percent! So in honor of the day, I’ve decided to share some of my outfits and some tips for secondhand shopping.

Avoid impulse shopping

Sometimes we can all go a little crazy when we find a good deal, but items at second-hand thrift stores are “as is” and seldom returnable so it’s good to have a plan before you begin. 

When secondhand shopping for clothes, know your budget and stick to it. If you like, you can even do a little math and average out how much you hope to spend on each piece. But don’t let that budget and your price points keep you from trying on all the possibilities because your budget only comes into play at the end of your shopping trip. Right before check-out  you can hone in on the most loved, the most versatile, the best fitting and the best value, whichever are your priorities. I know that part is hard! If you’ve decided in advance what is most important to you, it will guarantee a successful trip. And fun! Don’t forget to have fun!

If you are really hoping to create an entire wardrobe, plan out in advance what pieces you need. You will want to pick a color palette, and stay very basic on several of your pieces. When you arrive, you may find that you have to adjust your color palette based on what is available. And keep in mind, it’s highly unlikely to find all your wardrobe in one trip to the thrift shop. Once you have some basic pieces in mind, then you are free to add some “fun” and colorful pieces. Try to lean into your color palette, which you may have adjusted as you shop, but don’t deny yourself budget items that “spark joy,” so to speak.

author wearing black lace chiffon shirt with floral skirt edged in black chiffon
Lace top – Apt. 9; skirt- Christopher & Banks

This skirt is something that I bought for love. But it sat, unworn, in my closet before I could find a top to match it. The chiffon edging didn’t seem right with most tops.

close up of lace chiffon shirt

But on another secondhand shopping trip, I spotted this black, lace chiffon shirt that was the perfect match for my skirt at home. The top can be worn with other pieces, but I only really wear this skirt with this shirt. Not sure how much I spent on the skirt, but for a low price, this can be a good decision based on love. At a higher price, I probably should have returned the skirt to the shelf.

Most likely you’ll be supplementing your wardrobe rather than starting entirely from scratch. You may want to scour your closet and dresser to remember what pieces you need to focus on purchasing.

When you arrive at the thrift store, start shopping for the items you have on your list. You can add a few things you see in the process, but stay focused on your goal until it’s completed. 

Try Before You Buy

Remember that items won’t be returnable, so you really want to try them on before you buy them. Sometimes the items have ended up secondhand because they fit oddly. You don’t have to try on every pair of jeans in your size, you just need to try on until you find a great fit at a great price. But you also don’t want to head to the fitting room with only three pairs of jeans in hand, if you’re hoping to buy two, and there are several more possibilities on the rack.

Avoid the fitting room when shopping with small children by dressing them in clothes that are small and fitting. This way you can try clothes on them in the aisle. My friend and I used to use this trick when taking our four young girls to the half-price sale. We’d dress them in swimsuits and shorts for the quick change! The girls loved secondhand shopping on sale day because we’d come home with bags and bags of clothes. We loved bypassing the lines at the fitting room.

author in burnt orange jacket over navy t-shirt with floral pant
jacket – Keren Hart; navy shirt – a.n.a; pants – Old Navy

Odd fits can also work in your favor! I love figured pants, but never buy them for myself because I’m short, and I don’t have the stick legs that they are made for. However, I saw this $5 pair of pants in the cast off from the fitting room. At $5 they were worth trying on! These pants are a size larger than what I typically wear, and I’m pretty sure what happened is that someone shrunk them in the wash. Since I have a very short leg, the shrinking in both directions actually created a perfect fit for me. The fact that navy is the background color also helps to slim the bright, wild floral.

On secondhand shopping for jeans

And speaking of pants, I think secondhand jeans are entirely the way to go! Assuming that your store has a large selection, which they often do, this is a great way to save money on brand-name jeans. I love that our consignment store has the brand name on the tags. Since I know some brands that fit me well and some that don’t, I can often glance at the tag sticking into the aisle, rather than elbow my way through a tight rack.

My approach is like this – I locate the rack with my approximate size. Then I eyeball the row for a short enough pant leg. I am short and mostly too lazy to hem! Especially jeans. When I find something that looks short, I look at the tag for the brand and price. If I think it could work, I pull the pair out to look at them. Since jeans are only wonderful if they fit exactly right, I do pretty much add all possibilities to my cart as I go. But if I have a stack of about ten, I head to the fitting room rather than completing any remaining racks.

author in colorful peasant blouse and wide leg cut-off jeans
shirt- Lauren Jeans Co. Ralph Lauren; jeans – Eddie Bauer

Since I do have short legs, I can sometimes steal a deal since my size doesn’t sell well. This pair of jeans was purchased from the 80% off clearance at my store. Less than $3! Funny thing, they have a cut hem that was the perfect length. And of course, the shirt was a thrift find as well.

Scrutinize

When trying on your clothes selection, be mindful of why the item may have ended up in a second-hand store. Clothes that feel okay for one minute may be really annoying for all day. Can you sit in these clothes? Can you raise your arms? Does anything pinch? Do the zippers work? Are there stains? And this is a big one – is it cut well? Does that shirt or skirt hang a little wonky? Missing this signs has often ruined a great secondhand shopping experience.

On secondhand shopping for shoes

Shoes are another realm. Some people, like my husband, will never buy used shoes, and I get that. But I grew up really poor, and I also have a little bit of a shoe fetish. So having the perfect shoe for an outfit is a little more important to me than where it came from. I don’t have to have expensive shoes, but usually they do fit and wear better. On the flip-side, you can’t always knock cheap shoes. Back in the day, one of my best fitting, most complimented pair of clogs were from clearance at Payless.

As with the clothing you examine in the fitting room, good-fitting shoes are probably one of the most important pieces you can purchase. And that is one reason why secondhand shoes, broken in to fit someone else’s feet, can be problematic. Choose shoes that are unworn or lightly worn. Be prepared to try them on with footies or socks that you bring yourself. My trick is to wear the shoes around the store while I shop so that I can test if they are really comfortable for the long haul.

pair of Uggs boots with laces and fleece trim

I always get compliments on my Uggs that I purchased secondhand. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure I liked the tie strings on these. But I knew that they were quality, they were comfortable, and they were fifty-percent off. I’m thinking the ticket price was $24.99 so that meant $12.50 to me. No regrets on that purchase!

blue sneakers with white laces, Sperrys with mermaid pattern, and black slip-ons. Oh and a calico chicken

Here are some of my other secondhand shoes, my favorite being the blue and white sneaker! It looks more worn than I would purchase, but all that wear is from me over several years. The mermaid Sperrys were also a fun find on half-price day, and ended up costing me only $10. All my photos in this post are second hand shoes. These black slip-ons are super comfy and versatile.

More outfits and why I picked them

author with a smoke grey short jumpsuit
jumpsuit – Zenara

Did I mention I have short legs? Well I’m also long-waisted! And jumpsuits can be difficult for the long-waisted. So I bought this simply because it actually fit! (You can check out my post on sewing jumpsuits for long torsos here.)

author wearing an orange, zip-up American Eagle vest over navy t-shirt and jeggings
Eddie Bauer Travex vest; a.n.a navy t-shirt; American Eagle Hi Rise jegging

This vest was not something I was shopping for, but it was brand-new, good quality, and it fits me perfectly. It’s versatile because I can wear a long or short sleeve shirt of any neutral color under it. It looks especially nice with grey. And these jeggings are super comfy! The contrast between the light distress and the darker denim give the illusion of a longer and thinner leg. Plus my mermaid shoes are awesome!

author in knit red dress with elbow sleeve
Toad & Co

Love, love, love this basic red dress that fits me awesome! The flare skirt is good for most body shapes, and I adore the elbow sleeves. The boat neck is not best for me, but this secondhand scarf in the same color creates a better neckline.

red dress layered with patterned cardigan sweater over grey leggings and with Ugg boots
sweater- Rue 21; legging – Old Navy

And it’s basic enough to layer well. I love this look when others wear it, but I can hardly ever pull it off. I call it “Comfy Middle-aged Midwest Mom”. Probably not on the New York runway, but very popular here. This is a great cardigan, grey leggings, and of course, my comfy Uggs.

author wearing mulberry hooded sweatshirt with front pocket, denim shorts and mermaid Sperrys
sweatshirt – Athletic Works; denim shorts – Faded Glory

Yes, I am middle-aged. With this outfit, I’m breaking all the rules about wearing shorts after age 50. But what can I do? Again, the short legs mean short shorts look more appropriate. I bought this mulberry hooded sweatshirt because it is SO soft and cozy and was basically brand new. The mermaid shoes complete my “don’t dress your age” outfit.

author wearing button down patterned blue shirt with cream-colored cordoroy skirt and tall brown boots
shirt and skirt both from Gap

And last, but not least, you may not be able to tell this shirt is covered with dragonflies! And because I work at preschool and am young at heart, I bought it. Sometimes I forget how much I like button-down shirts so this was a fun purchase. It also looks great under a sweater. Here I’m wearing it with a stretchy corduroy skirt. Another nice, flare skirt shape, and the high-waist and tucked shirt make my leg longer and my torso shorter.

Know Thyself

In the end my best advice for secondhand shopping is actually Socrates’ proverb, “Know thyself.” 

Know why you are shopping. Fun? Adventure? To save money? 

Know what will make you the most happy about your experience. Walking away with a lot? Walking away with one good deal? Saving money? 

Know when you want to stop shopping. Do you want to see and try everything? Do you have a time, focus, or energy limit? And what would that limit be? If you are shopping with kids, be sure to plan around their meals and naps. 

Know how long you are willing to spend in line. Be mindful of that and check how the lines are looking during your shopping. 

Know if you have the grit needed for a sale day. This will depend on how hard-core-determined you are to find the best deal. And even mild shoppers can enjoy sale day, if they limit themselves to a time frame or a small number of items, and have something to do during the long line wait. I actually enjoy talking to complete strangers occasionally.

Hope this guide is helpful! Now get out there and save money on your new-to-you clothing! Happy shopping everyone.

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