11 Ways to Earn Extra Cash From Thrift Stores

By Paul Michael on 16 February 2015 1 comment

As a single parent, I'm always looking for ways to save money. I've always loved thrift stores, and have found some great clothing, DVDs, books, collectibles, and pieces of furniture at my local shops. But things got really interesting six months ago when I came across an item that I didn't really want, but knew was valuable. It was a Coogi sweater; the kind worn by Bill Cosby in the 80s. Definitely not my style, but highly collectible and worth at least 10 times the $5.99 asking price. (See also: 5 Things You Can Sell on eBay That Make the Most Money)

I bought it, sold it on eBay, and since then I have turned my thrift store runs into a way of not just saving money — but making money. It's not a new concept. Many people make a good living from thrift stores, but I have a full time job and cannot dedicate all of my time to it. If you're selective, and follow these guidelines, I guarantee you will make an extra $200-$300 every month on eBay and Craigslist just by visiting a few thrift stores several times a week.

1. Always Have Your Smartphone on You

When I first started out, I had absolutely no clue what was valuable, and what was junk. I got lucky with the Coogi sweater, but I knew there were valuable items in the stores just hiding on the shelves. So, I took advantage of my smartphone. What you need to do is use eBay as a research tool. Here's how.

When you see an item you think may be valuable, grab your phone.

Go to eBay, do a search for it, and then refine it to look for SOLD ITEMS. (Never look at current listing prices; someone could be asking $800 for an old watch, but it doesn't mean they'll ever get that.)

Next, look at the sort order of prices from highest to lowest, including shipping. You now know what someone is willing to pay for that item. Also, do it in reverse order, from lowest to highest. This shows you what you may actually get, and if it's worth your time and money.

By using your smartphone in this way, you take almost 90% of the guesswork out of thrifting for profit.

2. Be Prepared to Take Your Time

My best finds have come from taking my time, and looking in each section carefully. To date, my most successful purchase was a beauty product that I bought for $6 and sold for $141. I found it nestled at the back of a shelf filled with old plastic cups and plates. You can sometimes do a quick 30-minute tour on your lunch break, if you have a store close to you, but you will almost certainly miss things.

If you want to make this a successful venture, get to know your local thrift stores well, and learn the layout. I always start in the electronics aisle, then go to toys, followed by sweaters, shirts, knick-knacks, and then books and media. That's just my routine, and it works for me. Have a plan, and scan the shelves and racks of clothes more than once. You will miss things if you just walk through in a hurry.

3. Know Your Best Bets

Over time, you will know what sells well, and what doesn't. For me, vintage sweaters, classic video games, Disney snow globes, and blank media (especially cassette tapes and computer disks) always sell quickly. You will probably have different best sellers, depending on your own level of expertise, and passion for selling the item. If you are in a rush, hunt for those items first.

4. Think About the Profit/Time/Work Scenario

If you see a product that costs $10 and will likely make $20, it's more of a risk than a product that will make the same but costs only $1. It's only a difference of $9, but the initial outlay is much smaller.

Similarly, if you see something that costs $40 but will easily sell for $100, your outlay is greater but your return is excellent. Sometimes, as I have so much to list, I will pass on items like the first one I mentioned. It takes time to photograph and list things, and it's often not worth the effort when you could be listing something that could make you a lot more money. But once again, if the initial spend was almost nothing, that changes the game a little.

5. Use the Color Coded System to Your Advantage

Every major thrift store, from Goodwill and Savers to ARC and The Salvation Army, has a color coded system. Every item has a price tag of a specific color, and each week, one color will be 50% off (the exception is Goodwill). If you shop wisely, you can pick up some valuable items for half-price — or even one dollar. Today, I picked up four beautiful framed posters for 99 cents each. They're big, and they would cost at least $20 each in the store. I have found video gaming systems, VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray players, speakers, suits, keyboards, and even wedding dresses for just 99 cents. These are no brainers. You can easily turn a profit from them.

6. Keep Track of Your Expenses and Profits

It's easy to think you're making money when you see the sales start rolling in from eBay or Craigslist. But if you buy 10 items and only sell one of them, are you losing money? Sometimes it's not the case. Buy 10 items for $25, sell only one of them for $50, and you're in profit whether you sell the others or not.

A simple spreadsheet (you can find free templates online) will help you. Just write down the item, what you paid, when you bought it, what it sold for, and how much it cost to ship (sometimes you may have to offer free shipping to get someone to bite). If you're always making money, you're good to go. If you buy too much, and aren't making your money back, you need to rethink your strategy.

7. Don't Forget Yourself and the Kids

Many times, you will get so focused on making money that you will forget the real reason you went to the thrift store in the first place. I have found a lot of awesome items for the home, the kids, and even myself. If you know you need something, keep a list and remember to check it before you go into the thrift store. You can even find new name-brand laundry detergents, socks, light bulbs, and gloves for a lot less than you'd pay in stores like Target or Walmart.

8. Examine and Test Everything

Thrift stores actually have a very generous return policy, usually 10 days for most items. If you don't have the chance to test something in store, do it as soon as you get home. It's not a great deal if it doesn't work (with a few notable exceptions), and you won't be able to turn a profit on a broken, torn, or stained item.

The major exceptions are vintage electronic items, and new high-end consoles. If someone has given them to a thrift store, they are most likely broken. Still, you can get a surprising amount of money for broken electronics. I recently paid $2.99 for an old Sony Walkman and sold it as-is for over $70. There are people willing to pay for them, and do the repairs themselves. I also found a PS3 for $10. Even broken, they sell for over $50 (usually they're stripped down for parts).

9. Old Doesn't Mean Expensive

It's easy to think that older item, especially something that looks antique, can be very valuable. This is when a smartphone is invaluable. Many times, you may see a 70s board game, or 50s kitchen gadget, and think it has to be collectible. Not so. They are often very common, and you could end up losing money.

10. Very Valuable Is Very Rare

You hear stories of people finding million dollar dishes, or long lost paintings that could set you up for life. The odds of finding these items like these are about the same as winning the lottery. Thrift stores have people who usually know what to look for. Obviously, things fall through the cracks, but don't depend on a big score. Solid silver or gold jewelry, utensils, or tea sets are almost impossible to find, too.

11. Don't Expect Miracles Immediately

It takes time to get to know your thrift stores, and how to navigate them. After a few months, you'll start getting a nose for valuable items, and also know what to avoid. Put the time and effort in, and you'll find that thrift stores are a lucrative way to save, and earn, money for you and your family. Good luck, and happy thrifting!

Do you earn money from your thrift store finds? What are your secrets?

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Guest's picture
Olivia

It's been a mixed bag. Got a small tramp art frame for 25 cents and sold it for $35 to a dealer. 13 cards of Victorian buttons purchased for $4 and cleared $68. But some very old dishes didn't move. People like dishwasher safe and microwaveable.