The Thrift Store Tipping Point: When to Buy & When to Walk Away

updated Oct 13, 2022
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Part bargain seeking and part treasure hunting, shopping at your local thrift store is a great way to save money and find unique items that are otherwise unavailable in the current retail market. I’ve rounded up some tips for navigating the realm of thrifting and please leave your favorite tips in the comments!

5 Times to Buy:

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When the clothes are good quality in good condition.

One of my very favorite thrift store finds was a chocolate brown 100-percent cashmere sweater originally from the Burlington Arcade in London that I snagged for $2 at a thrift store in Chicago when I was 16 (I’m in my 30s and it’s still in excellent condition). Wool and cashmere sweaters, kids’ clothing, denim, vintage dresses, and quality brands in good condition are all an immediate “yes” in my book. And remember: sweaters and coats can be dry cleaned, and small snags and minor issues can be easily repaired.

(Image credit: Marisa Vitale)

When it’s well-made furniture.

This is especially true for hardwood pieces. A few tricks to know if a piece is well made: check the construction and look for dovetailing, mitering, tongue-in-groove, and mortise-and-tenon joints, all of which are signs of a well-made piece. Also look for a manufacturer’s label or tag (if you’re not familiar with the name, use your trusty phone to do some quick reconnaissance!). Don’t forget to look at the back—a quality wood casegood is solid all the way around. If the quality checks out and you like the look of the piece, snap it up because good quality secondhand furniture moves fast.

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

When it’s a leather situation.

New leather items are often an investment, so spotting a leather jacket, purse/wallet, belt, or furniture that you like at a thrift store is a real gem of a find. Do check for tears or larger structural damage, but otherwise leather is easy to clean and will last for years to come with style for miles.

(Image credit: Natalie Grasso)

When it’s great holiday decor.

Skip the overpriced stuff at big box stores and hit up local thrift stores, instead, which are often treasure troves for everything from vintage kitsch to vintage gorgeous. In my hunts, I’ve seen a giant lawn Santa, glittery ceramic pumpkin candle holders, hand-blown glass ornaments imported from Europe, unused vintage wrapping paper—all for a fraction of the price of brand new decorations. So go ahead and nab the old-school Christmas wrapping paper in July for $0.25.

(Image credit: Mackenzie Schieck)

When it’s a mirror, frame or lamp.

Thrift stores are great places to find a wide variety of unique styles, sizes and period models at a fraction of the cost of brand new pieces. Mirrors and frames are easy to gauge in terms of condition but lamps can be a little trickier. If you love a lamp model but the wiring seems iffy, rewiring a lamp is very straightforward, and mixing a vintage base with a new shade is a nice way to create original home decor.

5 Times to Walk Away

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When you’re not prepared to fix it.

It’s easy to fall for the potential of an item that could be great with some work. However, unless you’re really and truly prepared to put in the time, money and effort to fix up a diamond in the rough, it’s probably best you walk away from it, lest it become one more unfinished project in the nether world of unfinished projects.

(Image credit: Marcia Prentice)

When you are not comfortable sitting on it or it won’t work in your space.

Not all great deals are a great deal for us, and sometimes we have to walk away from the gem of a vintage chair that is uncomfortable or the mid-century console table that will consume a living room.

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When the upholstering is questionable or there is structural damage.

This can be more difficult than you’d think, especially if an item is basically in good shape, but stains or discolorations can sometimes spell worse issues (odors, insects, mold) that are impossible to remove, while tears and structural damage can be expensive to repair, so best to hold out unless you’re OK living with the issue or paying for repairs or reupholstering.

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

When you aren’t sure about the quality, durability or safety.

This is especially true for electronics, children’s and baby furniture or accessories, bicycle helmets, and previously self-assembled furniture. Thrift stores are return-free, warranty-free zones, so there’s no going back once you make a purchase.

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

When it’s cookware (except for cast iron or glass).

Cheap cookware is common at thrift stores and can seem like a good deal, but secondhand cookware can be a dicey proposition, primarily non-stick varieties, which can contain harmful chemicals that can leach into food.