Six Things to Always Buy at the Thrift Store

Glassware finds at thrift stores

In a previous post, I shared that I have a personal list of things I will never buy at a thrift store, and encouraged you to create one of your own. Knowing that I’m just never going to purchase sheets, shoes, or swimwear gives me more time to hunt for treasures and bargains that I truly love! So today I want to detail six items I believe should always end up in your cart. Each is a household essential you that you will absolutely use, and will save you lots of money, over time.

Baskets-Thrift Store shopping tips

  1. Wicker Baskets. Yes, they seem to crawl out of the woodwork in the lead-up to Easter and spring, but they’re a staple in thrift stores all year long. Many stores have an entire aisle of shelves bursting with every size, shape, and color. I use baskets for home storage in nearly every room and closet of my home, and they make beautiful containers for plants, and for giving gifts. Make sure the one you pick has secure handles, no broken or loose weaving, and is strong/big enough for the use you have in mind. Normally priced between $3.00 and $6.00, it sure beats paying $89.00 for a laundry style basket from West Elm.Thrift Store Vases
  2. Vases. Again, you’ll find an astounding array on thrift store shelves—in glass, wood, metal, stone, and plastic (which I avoid). For just a few dollars each, you can afford a small collection that will work for all of your floral needs. I like to have a few bud vases, an oversized vase for large arrangements, and several clear glass cylinders on hand. If I’m giving a bouquet as a gift, I’ll look for something interesting and unusual that the recipient can keep, reuse, or donate. 
  3. Glassware. We break them. Our family and friends break them. They emerge from the dishwasher with chips or cracks and slip from our hands like oiled fish. But don’t stress about it, because your local thrift store is a goldmine of replacements. A nice set of four Marquis Waterford whiskey/old fashioned tumblers cost over $40.00 on Amazon, but I’ve found the same set for $4.00 at the thrift store. Whether I need extra flutes for a champagne toast, regular old water glasses, or a beautiful set of martini glasses to go with a bottle of nice vodka for a friend’s birthday, I can find them all at a price so low it doesn’t matter if they break.
  4. Picture Frames. It’s true that they’re often thrown together in a bin at the thrift store, and that many will have cracked glass and broken frames. But with some patience (be careful not to get cut) and digging, you’ll unearth some true beauties. Look for new ones in the original packaging, from stores like Pottery Barn, IKEA, and Michael’s. Many people receive lovely frames as gifts, only to donate them back because the style or size just doesn’t work. You can find brand new poster frames for a dorm room, shadow boxes for memorabilia or miniature frames to line a shelf or mantle.
  5. Serving platters. Every year as the holidays roll around, I’ll realize I need an extra platter for serving food. Or maybe two. So I head to the thrift store where a large, oval stoneware platter in a lovely shade of ivory is just waiting for me! Especially if it’s heavy and has no cracks or chips—and costs under $5.00—you can bet I’m going to bring it home. This is the time of year to find those amazing vintage ceramic Turkey platters with the turkey design or sweet china platters with a scalloped edge and delicate florals. I like to keep a small stack of interesting ones to use when I give baked goods as a gift. They’re so much more fun than paper or plastic, and the recipient doesn’t have to worry about returning it—it’s part of the package!Gift Wrap-Thrift Store shopping recommendations
  6. Gift Wrap. You might have guessed by now that I love giving gifts! So you won’t be surprised that I purchase my wrapping paper, bows, tags, and gift bags from the thrift store. When I can find a roll of designer paper for .99 cents that’s brand new and bears a price tag of $15.99, I have to stop myself from doing an embarrassing happy dance in the aisle. And if you want to avoid paper and the waste it creates, look for wooden boxes, fabric, or baskets (yep, baskets again!). 

I have dozens of more examples of items to always buy at the thrift store, which I’ll save and share in the future. But hopefully, these six ideas will get you thinking of more household essentials to look for when you’re cruising the thrift store with an empty cart.

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Are You Afraid of Thrift Stores?

Start By Shopping Thrift Stores One Section At A Time

As a deeply devoted thrift store shopper (for over three decades), I sometimes forget that lots of people actually hate the entire concept of buying used goods in a space that was once home to a run-down grocery store. Many a friend or acquaintance has admired a beautiful piece of art in my home, or the NTW (“new with tags”) designer dress I found for $9.99. They may compliment me on my taste or “good eye,” and even admire how much money I save by thrifting, but then admit that it’s “just not for me.” The reasons always vary, of course, but here are some of the most frequent comments I hear about thrift stores:

  • “It smells funky in there!”
  • “The fluorescent lighting is so garish and bright!”
  • “Everything’s probably dirty and full of germs!”
  • “There’s so much—stuff! How can you even find anything?”
  • “The music they play is so corny and ridiculous!”
  • “The people who shop there are just too weird!”

Do you perhaps share these sentiments? If so, let me gently point out that big shopping malls have the very same issues. They smell like bad pizza and strong perfume, the lighting is harsh, the music is bad, the amount of stuff is overwhelming, and the other shoppers are totally weird. Oh, and the part about germs? Don’t even think about the biohazards of touching an escalator railing or putting your bare feet on the scary carpet in dressing rooms!

Maybe we’re just completely acclimated to shopping malls, and so familiar with the environment that nothing feels scary or outside our comfort zone. If you’ve never (or rarely) shopped in a thrift store, I can see why you might have preconceived ideas and maybe just a little bit of fear. Sometimes, the best way to conquer fear is through “exposure therapy,” which means allowing yourself to experience something new in very small bites until familiarity wraps a protective forcefield around you. So, if you’re intrigued by thrifting, and get the financial and environmental benefits, here are five ideas that may help you get started.

Thrift Stores Can Be Overwhelming

5 things to help you start shopping thrift stores

  1. If you like the “small bite” approach, decide you’ll make a quick stop (no more than fifteen minutes) at your local shop and explore just one area of the store. Maybe you’re interested in books, tableware, or lamps, but have no desire to look at toys, furniture, tools, or jewelry. Simply follow the signs to your chosen category and begin to narrow your focus. If you’re in front of shelves of books, for instance, pick out a recent hardback novel and flip through the pages. Is the cover in good shape? Is it free of pencil marks and highlighted passages? Does it have that addictive smell of paper and ink, rather than cigarette smoke or a damp basement somewhere in Ohio? Is it a book you’d actually like to read, for only a fraction of the retail price? Then go for it! Take it home and congratulate yourself on being a conscious consumer! And when you’re finished, pass the book on to a friend, who may pass it to another friend. 
  2. If the smell of the store bothers you, remind yourself how stuffy and sweaty your local gym is or the closet in your home with all the mucked-up winter boots and old shoes. So many places we frequent during daily life have very specific and individual smells. I’m thinking of the dust and grease of the car repair shop, the strong scent of animals at the veterinarian’s office or the whiff of slightly rancid oil at your favorite burger place. Remember that odors are temporary and unlikely to cause you any lasting harm.  And keep in mind that anything you purchase from a thrift store can (and should!) be cleaned the minute you get it home. Wash or dry clean all pieces of clothing and run plates and glassware through the dishwasher. Large items like a barely used camping tent can be left to air out in the sun and then sprayed with a product like Febreze, leaving it fresh and ready to go.Brand New or Almost New Thrift Store Finds
  3. Just to add some perspective, if you’re out thrifting and find something you like, use your cell phone to log onto eBay, Etsy, or Poshmark and do some quick research. You may be astonished to find that a set of six retro cocktail glasses from the 1960s priced at $1.99 each is selling online for $100.00 or that a good-as-new leather handbag from a brand you don’t know is actually available at Nordstrom for three times the thrift store price. How happy do you feel about your thrifted item now?
  4. Know that it’s a false assumption that thrift store shoppers are either old and lonely, poor and sad. Some of the wealthiest people I know love thrifting, for the thrill of the hunt and to find a bargain. And many shops develop a near cult following of young, hip creatives who are committed to reusing and upcycling as part of a sustainable lifestyle. I’ve had dozens of fascinating conversations at thrift stores, with diverse people from every walk of life. I once helped an art professor on crutches unearth some framed vintage illustrations for his office and discussed the merits of Hawaiian shirts with three teenage girls. I’ve laughed hysterically with a Nigerian family over an entire shelf of tacky, holiday snowglobes and bumped into a neighbor searching for plates to match her mother’s wedding china.Thrift Store Deals Sewing Patterns
  5. Finally, know that it’s perfectly acceptable to embrace the thrifting experience while maintaining your own personal list of “not for me” items. For instance, my list contains the Three Ss, which means I never purchase sheets, shoes, or swimwear. We all have our limits when it comes to pre-owned goods and those are mine! In a future blog, I’ll definitely talk about the things one should always buy at a thrift store, but for now, let me leave you with some wise words from talented actor Orlando Bloom:

“The best way to look stylish on a budget is to try second-hand, bargain hunting and vintage.”