Thrift Shopping: Poppin’ Tags 101

I’ve been shopping at thrift stores since middle school, but only in my post-25 years (now approaching a decade gone by – eep!) did I really start to find my thrifting groove. It’s knowing when I’m in the right mood to commit to a thrift store trip, it’s a vibe I get when I’m in a thrift store, it’s an eye and a pace and a touch I’ve come to master. If you’re already a seasoned thrifter, these basics are old hat for you, even if buying old hats skeeves you out. But maybe you’re not experienced, and you just read my seven good reasons or four OK reasons to start thrifting. If you’re open to the idea but not sure you can navigate thrift stores and be successful in your shopping trips – bam – you’re my target audience right now. So let’s get more thrifted fashion in your closet and more money in your wallet!

Don’t depart from your style (unless you’re looking for a makeover)
There have been times when I’ve been tempted by a piece way outside my normal wardrobe range (once, it was high quality leggings that looked like molten silver!). But as I stand in the aisle, holding this offbeat item, I have to think – am I actually going to wear this? Granted, if it costs $2.99, you might be fine with buying it and wearing it once. However, if you are also trying to live a more minimalist life, then you don’t want to go gobbling up one-time pieces that will clutter up your closet. Go into a thrifting trip as if you’re going into a department store – keep an eye out for things that will fit seamlessly into your existing wardrobe. But if you want a total style reboot, then go crazy, my friend!

Be prepared, or be prepared to be miserable
Thrifting is predictably unpredictable. You’re at the mercy of the people in your community and what and when they decide to donate. Good finds are even harder to come by in very small communities where there’s a limited pool of clothing donors, so you may have to wait for longer periods between shopping trips. Wear a cross-body bag so you’re not pulling up purse straps every few minutes while plowing through racks. Bring a reusable shopping bag so you don’t have to wrestle a shopping cart down cramped aisles. Make sure you’re not hungry or thirsty – thrifting takes time. That said, plan out some time for your trip and expect to be there for a couple hours OR, plan to just go through one section (pants and jeans) and come back another day for another section. I’ve also had success going in looking for a particular THING (a black t-shirt).

Look for special deal days
My Goodwill has two “colors-of-the-week” each week, decided at random, and items with tags of those colors are 50% off all week. It’s a great little perk if something you’re eyeing happens to have the right color tag; this has often tipped the scales for me to buy something I might not have bought otherwise. But then one day a week, the game changes. Color-of-the-week items are only $1 on Sundays! Instead of a thoughtful, thorough shopping trip, you can whirl in and just cruise the racks looking for that color to pop out at you. I recently found tops by J. Crew, Oscar de la Renta, and Nally & Millie for $1 each – bananas! Goodwill also has senior days and student discounts.

Don’t buy JUST because it’s cheap
So after I told you to go in and wildly grab anything that’s $1, I’m going to tell you to think very carefully before you get to the register. Adding clutter to your home/life isn’t a good idea even if it’s cheap, so make sure you want the item itself and not just the deal.

Whether you’re considering a vintage Pyrex baking dish or a chambray shirt dress, you need to look over every square millimeter. I’m often surprised at how GOOD a condition most items are in, and I wonder what the donor was thinking getting rid of them. But sometimes you find one or more flaws, and then you have to be very thoughtful about whether or not you want to buy the item. Missing buttons can be replaced, small holes along seams can be repaired, and most gummy residue can be removed from household items, but deal-breakers for me include:

  • Stains: I have to assume that the stain is the reason the owner donated the item, therefore I won’t be able to get it out myself. Unless you’re buying something for a costume, or play clothes for a kid, put back stained items!
  • Straight-up holes/major snags: Unlike tears along a seam, a straight-up hole is much harder to repair without being noticeable. And except for maybe knitting geniuses, most of us don’t know how to reign in a nasty sweaty pull/snag.
  • Sharpie: For some unknown, nonsense reason, sometimes the store writes the price of the item right on the item in permanent marker. And not like on the bottom or anything, but in the most conspicuous places. I’m not a stain removal wizard as you might have picked up, so usually I don’t even bother thinking about whether or not it’s removable – back on the shelf it goes.
  • Fit issues: Don’t let a low price trick you into buying something that doesn’t fit nicely. But if you’re comfortable with a sewing machine, a whole new world opens up to you. Instead of shopping the size tags, you can shop for colors, prints, and textiles, and then edit and tailor when you get home.  I can turn flared jeans to skinnies, take in the sides of a shirt a tad, and hem pants and skirts. But I can’t add two sizes to a dress or put a zipper in where there is none, so sometimes these items go back on the rack.

If something is worn, stained, ripped, pilled – just put it back on the rack.  The idea of thrift shopping is NOT to look like you’ve been thrift shopping.


Don’t pay too much attention to size tags, and try everything on
Especially when it comes to older/vintage pieces, size tags are extremely unreliable. A size 8 skirt from the 80s might be impossible to zip up on a modern-day size 8 body. The reasons are murky and disturbing and fascinating, and what it boils down to is that you have to try an item on, regardless of what the tag says, if you think it remotely appears to be your size. The exception are clearly modern/current brands like those you’d spot at Target. My strategy is to grab what interests me, and take tons of things into the dressing room to see what sticks. Here is where my heart has been broken by too-small designer pencil skirts, or lifted up on eagles’ wings by an off-size sweater that actually fits me perfectly. You never know until you try…on.

Here are some other good articles I found with some additional thrifting tips: Thrifting 101 (don’t bring your SmartCar to buy a sofa) and 10 Tools for Thrift Shopping Success (yasssss to the smartphone tip!).

Do you have a tip you don’t see mentioned here?



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