10 Great Gifts From the Thrift Store

Holiday shopping doesn’t have to be an orgy of planet-destroying consumerism. There is a very easy way to lower your carbon footprint, support your local economy, save money, and give to charity all at the same time — buy second hand gifts from your local thrift store. (See also: 10 Gifts Ideas That Cost Almost Nothing)

Even if you don't have thrift stores in your neck of the woods, several thrift stores have gotten internet savvy. Goodwill has an auction site that is similar to eBay and features a well curated collection of designer handbags, jewelry, musical instrument, vintage housewares, etc. Even if you do have thrift stores in your area, check to see if they have an online presence. Many boutique thrift stores in my area also post their best merchandise on Etsy or eBay. You can purchase through their online storefronts for convenience, or just use their online stores to do a little shopping recon before making your purchases in person at the brick and mortar store. Most places don't advertise that they also post items online, so it pays to ask.

Because I love the thrill of the hunt, I go thrift shopping year around. This ensures that by November, I always have a stash of beautiful, second-hand gifts, ready to go. Since access to thrift stores and personal schedules vary, I’ve put together a list of standard items that are readily available at just about every thrift store regardless of the season or the location. I’ve discovered that shopping year around actually saves me time, as I usually stop in at thrift stores when I’m doing other errands, as opposed to blocking out several hours of concentrated craziness at the mall at the end of the year. (See also: 25 Gifts You Can Make Today)

1. Cashmere Sweaters

An upcycled cashmere sweater is still cashmere. Since I live in pricey Los Angeles, 100% cashmere sweaters cost a whopping $3.99 to $7.99 each at my local Goodwill store.

Be sure to check each sweater carefully for damage. Most of the time, I can find sweaters in pristine condition with just a little hunting. Less-than-mint sweaters can usually be refreshed with a new dye job or by replacing the buttons. Also, unlike a lot of luxury fibers, it’s actually better to hand-wash cashmere in cool water versus dry cleaning, as the process of dry cleaning strips the natural oils out of the cashmere yarn leaving it more prone to breakage or bug damage.

I use Eucalan, a fabric conditioner that is specifically designed for hand washing natural fibers, to clean everything from my vintage wool blankets to my “luxury jeans.” However, any mild baby shampoo will do the trick just fine. I do caution against using Woolite on dark clothes as it contains a powerful bleaching agent.

2. Knitted Items

Although I am a knitter and prefer to knit my own gifts, I’m always shocked by the availability of beautiful, handmade baby blankets, afghans and table clothes priced far below the original cost of the just the supplies.

3. Framed Art

I cannot remember the last time I bought a new picture frame. Most thrift stores stock a lot of framed art. Teach yourself to ignore the often hideous artwork and just look at the frames and matting. Keep a list of items you’d like to frame, along with their dimensions, in your phone or datebook for easy matchmaking. I prefer wood frames because they are easier to repair and repaint. (See also: How to Buy Art as Gifts)

4. Dinnerware

Every thrift store has a gigantic collection of random china. If you have an eye for color and design, you can put together a gorgeous shabby chic set of mismatched-but-coordinating vintage dinnerware. This project usually requires a few trips to the store because you are looking for multiple pieces.

I keep my eyes peeled for vintage plates, trays, and serving dishes that are in good condition and cost less than $2. Instead of buying plasticware at the grocery store or ugly take out containers, I used my thrifted dishes for food gifts. Bringing food to parties on a pretty, “sacrificial” plate saves your host time because your nicely presented gift can go directly on the table without replating. This also saves you time as you don’t have to worry about getting your serving dish back if you leave the party before the bitter end. It’s all the convenience of disposables, without all the trash.

5. Vases

Vases are another item that can be found in abundance at thrift stores. A beautiful $3 vase can turn a $7 bouquet you bought at the grocery store into a stunning host gift or housewarming gift. Thrift store vases are also a great way to cut down on the flower budget of your wedding or charity event.

6. Gift Baskets (the Basket Part, at Least)

Another thing I never buy new are baskets. Baskets make great reusable wrapping for all sorts of gifts. In addition to creating gift baskets full of smaller treats, you can also turn a basket into a stylish emergency kit for the car, attach it to your bike handlebars with zip ties for extra carrying capacity, or turn them into pet beds for your furry friends. Most thrift stores have a large collection of used baskets. Look for sturdy baskets that won’t break down with a little scrubbing with soap and water.

7. Awesome Books

Bibliophiles already know that thrift stores are a great source of inexpensive reading material. Unlike used bookstores however, the staff at most thrift stores do not have the bandwidth to research the value of every book they put out on the sales floor. Therefore, it’s still possible to find rare and valuable first editions of books shelved amongst the low-fat cookbooks and Tom Clancy hardbacks. (See also: 10 Unique Gifts for Booklovers)

Goodwill even operates brick-and-mortar bookstores around Southern California. Bookworms who do not live near a Goodwill bookstore, but would like to support the charity can shop online via Goodwill’s Amazon store.

8. Records

As a DJ with a radio show, I am constantly on the hunt for interesting vinyl. While the record selection at most thrift stores tends to be savaged by flocks of collectors, it is still possible to find gems in the record bins. Have your friends give you a list of artists or albums they are searching for. For example, I’m on a constant quest for inexpensive copies of Nirvana’s single for the song "Sliver" because there is a photograph of my husband on the back cover.

9. Dress-Up Bin

One of my favorite playthings as a kid was the dress-up bin that my mother kept stocked with ridiculous clothes, hats, and wigs she found at thrift stores. For under $20, kids can be outfitted for hours of play. The dress-up bin is also a great resource for last minute costumes for school plays, parties, and other events.

10. Costume Jewelry

Costume jewelry is literally a mixed bag in a lot of thrift stores, as stores will pack handfuls of random jewelry pieces into plastic baggies. Often, the jewelry will need an extremely minor repair — a rhinestone glued back in or a clasp replaced. If you have good hand-eye coordination, even the most broken pieces can be cannibalized for their parts and reused to make other pieces of jewelry. There are many free YouTube instructionals about how to create wire wrap links or restring pearls. Look at Anthropologie or on Etsy for inspiration for how to mix and match vintage jewelry to stunning effect. (See also: 10 Awesome Sites to Shop for Affordable, Cool Jewelry)

One of my favorite pieces of jewelry is a brooch that is made of mismatched rhinestone jewelry that was originally owned by Lucille Ball. After Lucille passed away, her family auctioned off her enormous jewelry collection and raised millions of dollars for charity.

There were boxes of broken costume jewelry leftover after the Christie’s auction — single earrings, shoe clips, loose beads, etc…Instead of dumping these pieces, the Lucille Ball estate hired a professional jewelry designer to create one-of-a-kind jewelry that was marginally affordable to us little folk. I bought my brooch at a charity function for $45, but you could achieve the same look for far less.

For everyone who is faint of heart when it comes to crafting, most thrift stores have racks of costume jewelry. Bring a magnifying glass with you to inspect for damage and look at labels. Goodwill's website is a great place to find high-end costume jewelry as well as gold and silver pieces at below market pricing.

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Guest's picture

A few years back my roommate and I did "A Thrift Store Christmas". Honestly, I got and gave some of the coolest and most thoughtful gifts in my adult Christmas history that year. I absolutely loved this article - especially the tip about a "sacrificial" plate. I really love thrift store kitchen/diningware and I always lose a plate or two at Christmas due to pot luck parties. Why not make it a super cute plate that costs less than a dollar? Great advice!

Max Wong's picture

Thanks Sara!

I love your "Thrift Store Christmas" idea. That's a good idea for office Secret Santa parties.

People actually love the "Sacrificial Plate" as a gift idea. It's easy to match to people's personalities, decor, and interest. For example, I just found THE CUTEST vintage aluminum serving tray at a garage sale over the weekend for $1. It has pirate ships and whales on the handles. We're sending that as a wedding gift along with a bunch of mixed CDs of sea shanties to a friend who is a huge Moby Dick fan.

Guest's picture

Loved this article! Since I live in Florida, I don't come across cashmere very often. What I do fine is 100% wool coats that I upcycle into the cutest thick blankets for camping from all the snowbirds that come down here. I pick up plates and glass serveing bowls when I see them as we go to ALOT of potlucks & parties though out the year. I can leave the event when ever I feel & not worry about getting the plate back.
I've also used this to bring food for a sick friend, funerals, and post baby dinners.
We have even picked up crystal platters and used them (filled with culinary delights!) as a wedding present which was raved about!

Max Wong's picture

Your camping blankets sound amazing. I've added a satin edge to old wool blankets to make them cuter, but I bow down to your crafty superiority.

Guest's picture

I have looked for high-end neckties through out the year, then packaged them in a giftbox for my husband. He loved the ties & I loved the savings! ( I spent $10 and got over $240 retail)
Sometimes I find items brand new items as gifts...such as a new Pepsi sweatshirt for a friend that collect everything Pepsi, and new baby outfits as shower gifts.
Glass/crystal plates are great to fill with homemade baked items for fundraisers. They sell for WAY MORE than regular plates & are snapped right up.
I find tons of small gift items to fill the boxs for the Soldiers we've adopted overseas as anything from America is greatly appreciated by them.

Max Wong's picture

I've never considered the added value of thrifted plates to bake sale/silent auction fundraisers! That's an excellent tip that I will pass along to my local grade school.

Guest's picture

Picture frames are a good idea and even if they need some touch-ups thats really easy to do. Thrift stores are a a lot of fun to look around in because you never know what you're going to find. Good idea about baskets and serving trays too to bring to parties- no use in spending a ton of money on those kinds of things.

Guest's picture

Only pieces of a gift. Like a Christmas glass to make into a candle.

Guest's picture

Shopping for gifts don't really have to be expensive. We just have to spare a little extra time to shop around the thrift stores and bring out the creative side of us.

Guest's picture

I used two of these recommended thrift items, a basket and dish ware to put together a wedding gift last month. I found a full cappucino set at the thrift store for $5, paired it with a beautiful woven basket and wrapped it all up in a bow.