Spring is my favorite season. Not because the days are longer, because the sun is out, or because I can finally stop wearing eight layers of clothing when I go outside to get the mail. Spring is my favorite season because of shopping at my favorite thrift stores.

If you are a novice thrift shopper, the correlation between spring weather and great sales might not be apparent, but it is there. Every year, the promise of warmer weather sends spring cleaners to their closets, where they grab handfuls of items and box them up to be taken to the nearest thrift store, else they be cursed and turned into stone when the sun sets.

Or whatever. I have no idea what spring cleaners do. I am a spring shopper.

More specifically, I am a thrift shopper on a spring pilgrimage, searching for cheap clothing to build a wardrobe I could never otherwise afford. And by heeding these simple tips, you can be, too.

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1. Scout your local thrift stores.

If you live in an area with more than one thrift store, make sure that you visit it before you decide to spend a day shopping. While most thrift stores are created equal, the type of merchandise in each will vary. For example, most chain thrift shops like Goodwill and Savers have clothing from major department stores, while independent thrift shops are more likely to carry vintage and rare pieces. Scouting before you plan a big shopping day is a great way to get to know stores in your area and to help eliminate stores that don’t match your personal tastes.

2. Know your brands.

I don’t mean this in a snobbish, “only buy a Michael Kors bag” way. I mean know which stuff comes from Kohl’s and which comes from Wal-Mart. The only reason it matters is because your great deal might actually not be that great depending on the original retailer. For example, Faded Glory (a Wal-Mart brand) sells for $1-5 during clearance events at Wal-Mart stores, so your great priced thrifted t-shirt might actually be a ripoff. Whereas Daisy Fuentes jeans retail around $50 and are worth your money at a thrift store. Additionally, the quality of the clothing depends heavily on the original retailer. Clothes from Wal-Mart are cheap but they don’t last, especially if someone else has worn them before you.

3. Pay attention to clearance events at non-thrift stores that you like.

Chances are if it goes on clearance at a major retailer, the bulk unsold merchandise will end up at your local thrift stores within a few weeks. This is especially true with Target and Goodwill. If you loved something at Target and it didn’t sell well in stores, there is a huge chance that your local Goodwill has it for a great price because they received all of the overstock. When you go to thrift stores, look for groupings of identical items on the racks–they are usually the cheapest because of the sheer volume that the store has received.

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4. Get to know tag sale schedules.

Most thrift stores have rotational tag sale events where items with a certain color price tag are an additional percent off on specific days. If you have a few days to peruse the store, go the night before a tag sale, right as they are about to close. That way, you can see if you can find anything you like that will go on sale the next day. Then, if you get there right away in the morning, you can get the item for a discounted price.

5. Shop on weekdays.

Find newer, nicer items by going to thrift stores on their slower weekdays. If you go after a big tag sale day, there will be new items on the floor the next morning because of the volume of purchases the previous day. Same with busy weekends.

6. Shop early.

If you don’t have time to shop on weekdays (completely understandable), try to go early in the morning. New items go out daily, and going at the end of the night leaves you with picked over shelves. It’s as easy as that.

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7. Set a spending limit for yourself.

With so many discount items around you, it can be easy to get carried away and overspend. One way to combat this is to set a spending limit. Before you enter the store, decide how much you are willing to spend on your shopping trip. To ensure you stick to it, pay with cash. Alternatively, set a limit for how much you want to spend on any one item. My general one-item thrifting rule is to never buy anything that costs more than $10 to ensure that a frugal shopping trip stays frugal.

8. Try things on.

If you don’t feel comfortable trying on used clothing in the store, wear tight fitting tank or bike shorts beneath your clothing and try it on over that to get a good sense of if the item will fit you. Items come from many stores over many decades, so sizing is never accurate. Don’t write off a piece you love because the label doesn’t match your typical sizing.

9. Buy pieces, not outfits.

Don’t say no to that great hot pink skirt because you have no idea what you would wear it with. If it’s within your budget and you really love it, trust that you will find something to go with it later on. Take a picture of it when you get home or make a note of what you would buy to wear with it so you can complete the outfit at a later date. Remember to look for accessories to tie everything together.

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10. Be practical.

It seems like common sense, but if you find an item you really love, check it thoroughly for stains or rips first. Some things can be repaired or are worth it even with a small flaw, and some you can find with a gaping hole that could never be fixed. You don’t want to get home and be disappointed. That being said . . .

11. Have faith in your ability to salvage.

Don’t be afraid to buy “project” pieces. Save the skirt from an otherwise outdated strapless dress by tearing out the stitching at the waistline and wearing a belt with it. Turn too short, but otherwise great fitting, jeans into cropped shorts. Look closely at furniture and ask yourself if you could make it a statement piece with a fresh coat of paint. You are much craftier than you think you are.

12.  Know the store’s return policies.

Before you pay, make sure that you fully understand how (and if) you can return items. Most thrift stores have a very short return policy, and some only offer in-store credit or have no return policy at all. Be smart–keep your receipts, keep the tags on, and if you do want to return an item, bring it back as soon as possible. If the policy is unclear, ask a sales associate for clarification. Don’t let return policies sour your thrifting experience.

13. Don’t get discouraged.

Finally, I think it’s important to remember that a bad shopping trip is just that—one trip. It doesn’t mean that you won’t find something again in a week, you just didn’t find it that day. Nothing is wrong with you, you are not bad at thrift shopping, and not every trip will be like that. Try again in a few weeks or at a different store. Don’t give up! You deserve cute things at a cheap price, and through smart thrifting it is possible to get them.

What are your thrifting tips?

photos via Becky


Becky is a recent graduate from Winona State University, where she majored in English. She lives in Minnesota. Her weaknesses include berry white mochas, the clearance section at Target, Deadliest Catch, and library book sales.  She eagerly awaits the day where she finds out that she has ties to various European monarchies and inherits millions of dollars. Until then, she teaches.

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