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A Basic Guide to Thrift Store Shopping

A Basic Guide to Thrift Store Shopping

We live in expensive times. As prices go up and up and up (gas is hovering around $3.00 a gallon across the U.S., milk is expected to top $5.00 a gallon before the end of the year, and so on), even the normal discount stores are starting to feel a little pricey. For many of your basic household needs, you might well find a better deal at thrift stores (or charity shops in the U.K. and elsewhere).

Lots of people dislike thrift stores, for a number of reasons. Often people feel they are “above” thrift stores, that thrift stores carry nothing but junk, or that thrift stores are dark, dirty, and depressing. While there certainly are some pretty dismal thrift stores out there, most are fairly clean and well-organized stores that weed out the broken, filthy, and otherwise unusable before putting stock on the sales floor. And the customers come from all walks of life, from street-walking transvestites to trendy college kids to retired heiresses.

For two years in college, I worked in (and sometimes managed) thrift stores, and I’ve met examples of each of the kinds of people I just listed. One patron who invited me to his home to help pick up a donation turned out to be a retired Hollywood production designer, the walls of whose gigantic house were lined with photos of him standing with the stars of shows like Starsky and Hutch and Magnum, P.I..

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People shop at thrift stores for any number of reasons. Some are, as you’d imagine, poor parents and their families just trying to stretch their budget to cover all their needs; others, like the designer, are hobbyists seeking overlooked antiques and collectibles; still others make a business out of sorting through the records, books, and other stuff to find resalable goods; college kids seek out retro fashions and kitschy housewares; retirees seek out companionship and memories of past days; and so on. “Thrifting” is fun and it’s cheap — and it’s also a good deed, providing funds for various charities as well as keeping perfectly usable goods out of landfills and incinerators to provide a few more years of service.

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If you’re new to thrifting, here’s a few pointers to help you make the most of a visit to a thrift store near you.

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  • Be nice. The people who work in thrift stores are, as you can imagine, not usually paid very well. They may not be paid at all, as many thrift stores provide vocational training or rehabilitation services to people on some form of state aid. So be nice to them, just because it’s the right thing to do. If you frequent a particular thrift shop, you may even find that making yourself known and building relationships with the employees pays off with more than just good karma — if you have particular interests or needs, employees will often pull aside things that might interest you, or hold them behind the counter until you can get to the bank to pull out money.
  • Do the circuit. Thrift stores tend to cluster together in areas with high traffic and low rent. Make a day of visiting all the shops in an area. Since each of the major charities that runs thrift stores tends to appeal to a different kind of donor, each store will have a slightly different kind of stock, so take the grand tour and take it all in.
  • Know the specials. Many thrift stores run different kinds of specials, often offering discounts of 50%, 75%, or even more off their regular daily prices. In my area, one chain takes 50% off anything with a different color tag every week, another discounts anything dated over a month ago, and still another puts out a monthly calendar with different half-off items each day (like ‘anything with a zipper”, “anything plastic”, and so on). Your stores might have discounts on a day of the week, or for certain kinds of people (military and seniors are commonly offered discounts, and sometimes students as well). Ask what’s on sale when you walk in.
  • Know your charity. Some thrift stores are run for profit, so this doesn’t apply to them; for the rest, knowing who sponsors the store might provide valuable insight into what you’ll find there — or incentive to patronize (or not patronize) specific stores. Contrary to popular belief, most thrift stores do not exist to provide cheap goods for the poor — they exist to raise money to support their organization’s missions. Here’s what a few of the major thrift store operators support:
    1. Goodwill Industries: Provides vocational rehabilitation for the disabled.
    2. Salvation Army: Offers shelter, food, job training, and spiritual guidance to the poor.
    3. OxFam: Runs development efforts in Third World nations.

    Many thrift stores are also run by churches and veterans’ groups; their goals are usually pretty self-evident. The best thrift store I ever visited was run by the Friends of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City — the wall of fur coats was behind the grand piano, near the crystal chandeliers.

  • Know what you need. It pays to keep a running list of things you need or want. Thrift stores are great for kitchen wares, office supplies, sports equipment, books, and electronics (especially VCR’s, CD players, scanners, and CRT computer monitors). Furniture is also easily found, though it may take some looking to find furniture that is a) in good condition and b) attractive. A lot of people also find good clothes, although I personally find this too hard of a struggle to be worthwhile — clothes are rarely arranged by size, let along marked, and even when they are arranged somehow they quickly get tossed out of order (if you do buy clothes, make sure you launder or dry clean them before wearing them — most stores don’t). You probably won’t find exactly what you want the first time you walk in a thrift store — you have to think longer-term than that. But with patience it usually is possible to find just about anything — I recently managed to find a decent, working turntable, with a good needle, after looking for well over a year (and I paid $7).
  • Be creative. One of the fun things about thrifting is that you will see things that lend themselves to uses quite different from their original intended functions. A waste-basket can hold poster tubes, a suitcase can act as a coffee table, a record crate can be turned sideways to organize binders, etc. Keep your eyes (and mind) open for objects the might fill a need in an unusual and interesting way.
  • Have a use in mind. This is a warning: don’t get carried away. Be creative, be practical, but also be sure that you can actually use everything you pick up at thrift stores. Low prices and the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of the stock can lead to hasty purchases. Don’t shop for needs you might have, down the line — shop for things you can use immediately when you get it home.
  • Give back. Don’t forget to drop off the things you no longer use or need when you’re at the thrift store! Most of us have a pile of stuff to give away “someday” — old clothes, an unused piece of furniture, a box of books pulled from the shelf to make more room. When you’re heading to the thrift store, pack it up and take it with you.
  • Haggle. I don’t like to say this, because I hated when people bickered over prices with me when I worked in thrift stores. Don’t haggle for the sake of it — chances are you’re already getting a bargain, and stores aren’t under any huge pressure to move any particular item (unsold stock, especially clothes, is often sold to exporters who ship it overseas). But thrift store employees don’t have much to go by in pricing goods for sale, and they make mistakes — if something seems clearly overpriced, ask to speak with a manager (don’t put floor staff in an awkward position) and make a more reasonable offer.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave empty-handed. Thrifting isn’t like other shopping, where you go in with a list of what you want, get it, and go. Thrifting is a scavenger hunt, where you can hope and dream about the Ultimate Bargain but have to expect not to find it. Half the fun is in the looking — and in thinking up goofy uses for the unidentifiable products that someone, somewhere, once thought fit to spend good money on, or in making up back stories for the forlorn detritus of people’s lives, stuff marked “Bobby, 1st grade” and “Cheryl, love you forever, Dina”. Have fun and don’t worry if nothing strikes your fancy enough to take home with you.

Thrifting is obviously not the most efficient or productive way to shop, so think of it as part of your leisure activities (with occasional payoffs) — the time you spend hopping from store to store is what you do next action lists, priority quadrants, and time tracking to make time for. Take a day your next free weekend to explore the thrift stores in your area and see what you come up with!

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Last Updated on June 20, 2019

50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

50 Businesses You Can Start In Your Spare Time

Most people want a few more dollars in their wallets. But between an employer and family, the time most of us can devote to a second job is severely limited. Running a small side business can provide a few more options: you don’t have to show up at a set time and you can use skills you already have. Not all will be perfect for everyone, of course, and I’m sure that you’ll have a few ideas of your own after reading this list. If you’d like to share any other business ideas, please add them in the comments.

  1. Selling collectibles — From antique books to teddy bears, there are plenty of opportunities to buy and sell collectibles. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the collectible of your choice but if you choose something that you’ve been collecting for a while, you’ve got a head start.
  2. Locating apartments — It can take time to sort through apartment listings, but you can make some money by finding the perfect apartment for a renter.
  3. Baby proofing — New parents often prefer to bring in an expert to make sure their home is safe for a new baby.
  4. Calligraphic writing — If you’ve got elegant handwriting, you can pick up gigs writing or addressing wedding invitations, holiday cards and more.
  5. Selling coupons — Search on eBay for coupons right now and you’ll see thousands of listings for coupons. It’s just a matter of clipping and listing what you find in your Sunday newspaper.
  6. Pet training — A surprising number of people don’t know where to start in training a pet. Even teaching Rover simple commands like ‘Sit’ and ‘Stay’ can bring in a few dollars.
  7. Running errands — A wide variety of people want to outsource their errands, from those folks who aren’t able to leave their homes easily to those who have a busy schedule.
  8. Researching family trees — Amateur genealogists often call in experts, especially to handle research that has to be done in person in a far off place. If you’re willing to go to a local church and copy a few records, you can handle many family tree research requests.
  9. Supplying firewood — The prerequisite for selling firewood is having a source of wood; if you’ve got some land where you can cut down a few trees, you’ve got a head start.
  10. Hauling — As more people trade in their SUVs for compact cars, hauling is becoming more important: people have to rent a truck or hire a hauler for even small loads.
  11. Image consulting — Image consultants provide a wide variety of services, ranging from offering advice on appearance to teaching etiquette.
  12. Menu planning — For many people, the trip up in eating home-cooked or healthy meals is knowing what to prepare. Meal planners set a schedule to solve certain dietary problems.
  13. Microfarming — Cultivating food and flowers on small plots of land allows you to sell produce easily.
  14. Offering notary public services — Notary publics can witness and authenticate documents: a service needed for all sorts of official documents.
  15. Teaching music — If you’re skilled with a musical instrument, you can earn money by offering lessons.
  16. Mystery shopping — Mystery shoppers check the conditions and service at a store and report back to the store’s higher-ups.
  17. Offering research services — Just by reading up on a topic and compiling a report on it can earn you money.
  18. Personal shopping — Personal shoppers typically select gifts, apparel and other products for clients, helping them save time.
  19. Pet breeding — Purebred pets can be quite value, especially if you can verify their pedigree.
  20. Removing snow — During the winter months, shoveling walks can still be a reliable way to earn money. You might be asked to take care of the driveway too.
  21. Utility auditing — As people become environmentally-concious, they want to know just how efficient their homes are. With some simple testing, you can tell them.
  22. Offering web hosting services — Providing server space can be lucrative, particularly if you can provide tech support to your clients.
  23. Cutting lawns — An old standby, cutting lawns and other landscaping services can provide a second income in the summer.
  24. Auctioning items on eBay — Want to get rid of all your old stuff? Stick it up on eBay and auction it off.
  25. Babysitting — Child care of all kinds, from babysitting to nannying, can offer constant opportunities.
  26. Freelance writing — If you’ve got the skills to write clearly, you can sell your pen for everything from blogs to advertising copy.
  27. Selling blog and website themes — Do a little designing on the side? Customers that don’t want to pay full price for a website will often pay for a template or theme.
  28. Offering computer help — Particularly with people new to computers, you can earn money by providing in-home computer help.
  29. Designing websites — It may require a little skilled effort, but designing websites remains a reliable source of income.
  30. Selling stock photography — For shutterbugs, an easy way to put a photography collection to work is to post it to a stock photography site.
  31. Freelance designing — Check with local businesses: you can provide brochures, business cards and other design work and get paid a good fee.
  32. Tutoring — Math and languages reamin the easiest subjects to find tutoring gigs for, but there is demand for other fields as well.
  33. Housesitting / petsitting — Stopping in to check on a house or pet can earn you some money, and maybe even a place to stay.
  34. Building niche websites — If you can put together a site on a very specific topic, you can put targeted ads on it and make money quickly.
  35. Translating — The variety of translating work available is huge: written word, on the spot and more is easy to find even on a part-time basis.
  36. Creating custom crafts — No matter what kind of crafts you make, there’s likely a market for it. Etsy remains one of the easiest places to sell crafts.
  37. Setting up a wi-fi hotspot — With a little bit of equipment, you can set up a wi-fi hotspot and charge your neighbors for the access they’ve been ‘borrowing.’
  38. Selling an e-book — You can write an e-book about almost anything and put it up for sale online.
  39. Affiliate marketing — If you’re willing to market other companies’ products, you can earn a cut of the sales.
  40. Renting out your spare room — From looking for a long-term roommate to listing your guest room on couch surfing sites, that spare room can make you money.
  41. Offering handy man services — Handling small household tasks can provide you with plenty of work, although you’ll probably be expected to have your own tools.
  42. Teaching an online class — Share your expertise through a website, an online seminar or variety of other methods.
  43. Building furniture — For those with the skill to create handmade furniture, selling their creations is often just a matter of advertising.
  44. Providing personal chef services — Personal chefs prepare meals ahead of time for customers, leaving their customers with a full freezer and no mess.
  45. Event planning — From planning corporate events to bar mitzvahs, an event planning business can require plenty of work and offer plenty of pay.
  46. Installing home safety products — Particularly as Baby Boomers age, people able to install handrails and other home safety products are in demand.
  47. Altering / tailoring — If your sewing skills are up to par, altering garments is coming back as people try to stretch more wear out of their clothing.
  48. Offering in-home beauty services — Hair cuts, makeup and other beauty services that can be performed at home have a growing demand.
  49. Business coaching — Helping others to establish and develop their businesses can provide many opportunities to earn money.
  50. Writing resumes — Writing resumes can provide a reliable income, especially if you can put a polish on a client’s credentials.

There are plenty of offers that claim to provide you with the opportunity to make thousands of dollars a week. Unfortunately, none of these businesses will provide that sort of income, but they aren’t scams either. They were chosen because they all require a minimum investment to get started — some require nothing more than a flyer advertising your business. Even better, if you do enjoy any of these businesses, there is a potential with most of them to continue to expand — perhaps even to the point of going full time.

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Featured photo credit: Omar Prestwich via unsplash.com

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