I LOVE shopping at thrift stores. For me, it's like a treasure hunt. Plus, it's a low-cost way to have some retail therapy, if you are so inclined. But many people complain that they can never find what they're looking for at thrift stores. Still others seem to find too much, and end up spending just as much or more than they would have at a retail store, with the added headache of buying more than they need or have space for. Here are some guidelines to make your thrift store shopping more cost effective--and more fun.
1. Know what you want.
I'm not saying you should go in with a detailed list. But you should have a general idea of what sort of things you are shopping for, just like you would if you were shopping at yard sales. Do you need baby things, household items, coffee mugs, small appliances? Even a small thrift store can have thousands or even tens of thousands of items, and sometimes their organization is lacking. Knowing what types of things you want can make your shopping much more enjoyable.
2. Know how many, what brands, or what sizes.
If you want curtains for your living room, then you should know how many windows and what sizes, as well as what colors. This may seem obvious, but I can't count the number of times I've been standing in a thrift store looking at something, and found myself wondering if it was the right size or color to fit the need I had. Brands are especially important if you're looking for replacement items or to add to a set--if your coffee pot has a broken carafe, then you might be able to find a replacement for super cheap at a thrift store, but only if you know what brand or size you are looking for. Most thrift stores do not allow returns, so it's good to know before buying if you have an actual use for the item.
3. Have a thrift store tool kit.
This does not need to be elaborate. Personally, I like to have a notebook in my purse (with sizes and colors of things I know I'm looking for, and the general price of that item in a retail store or online) as well as a cheap measuring tape (the type a seamstress uses is more versatile, and allows you to measure clothing if the size tags are missing). I also use my cell phone a LOT when thrift shopping, most often for calling family and friends when I find a deal on something that I don't want or need but I think they might.
4. Know how much things cost.
I just spoke to a fellow thrift store shopper this morning who scored insulated curtains at Goodwill last week for all but one window in her house. Her husband nearly hit the ceiling when she told him she had spent almost $40 on 'used curtains'. He calmed down quickly when she pointed out that buying similar curtains for the one remaining window would cost them $80 new. He is now encouraging her to continue looking for a matching set at thrift stores :D. Of course, on the other side of that coin is the multitude of people who buy something at a thrift store assuming the price is good, only to find out later that they could have bought the item new for a similar price. Before buying, know how much the item is worth, and calculate how much it is worth to you--an $80 pair of jeans that don't fit for $20 are not nearly as good of a deal as a pair that do fit for $30. You should also know how much that item sells for second hand, if possible. There is no reason to pay $1 each for coffee mugs if three other stores in the same town sell them for $0.25.
5. Know what your needs are.
It is not a bargain to spend $50 on $500 worth of items you will never use--you still spent $50. Before buying an item, consider how you will use it, how you will store it, and what you will do with it when you are done with it. If the answer to any of those questions is "I don't know", then you should probably not buy.
6. Inspect items before buying.
If it has a zipper, zip and unzip a few times. Check pockets--both for random 'extras' and for holes or tears. If it has a door or drawer, open and close it a few times. Check buttons to be sure they are securely attached. If the item has multiple pieces, make sure they are all there. If there are pieces missing or the item is damaged, ask yourself if it's an easy fix. If so, and you're willing to fix it, then use the damage to negotiate an even further discount. I frequently buy board games for my boys second hand. If the game has a few pieces missing and we already own it, I will sometimes buy it anyway for a quarter, maybe fifty cents, and use the pieces as 'extras', assuming that with three boys in the house, we'll lose pieces eventually. However, I will not buy clothing with damaged zippers--it's just too much effort to repair them. Be sure to mentally calculate the time, effort, and materials it will take to repair the item and make sure it's worth it before buying.