The 5 Best Deals in Every Thrift Store

Photo: Orin Zebest

If you’re an avid thrift shopper like me, you know that every second-hand store has its own unique personality. Some stores are great for furniture, others for clothing; some seem to have the market cornered on books, and a few just seem to have older and more unique items than all the rest. But regardless of the personality of your favorite store, there are five standard items that you should always be on the lookout for in every thrift store. Here’s my not-so-scientific list of the top five items that offer the highest savings when compared to retail. (See also: 10 Things to Look for Every Time You Visit a Thrift Store)

1. Shoes

If you can get over the mental roadblock of buying used shoes, it’ll do wonders for your budget. With decent-quality leather shoes ranging anywhere from $65.00-$85.00 retail, scoring a gently used pair for $6.00 means you’re saving at least 90%. Focus on condition and pay special attention soles and heels wear; avoid wear patterns that might affect your stride. Give leather some TLC with mink oil or shoe polish.

2. Belts

When did a buckled strip of leather with some holes at one end become worth $32.00? I’m pretty picky and my wardrobe reflects it, but I haven’t paid more than $4.00 for a belt in years. Sure, sometimes you walk away empty-handed. But if you’re willing to look and wait for just the right item, you can find great deals on all kinds of leather accessories like belts, wallets, and purses too.

3. Jeans

When I was teenager, I saved for three months to buy a new pair of Guess jeans. I still remember the price back then ($40.00). Even in all their acid-washed glory that seemed like an outrageous sum. Today, that’s a bargain price for an off-brand. Thrift stores are great places take advantage of the growth spurts and fickle tastes of kids and pick up good-quality jeans for around $7.00. Deals on adult denim are easy to find too. It’s just takes a little patience, a few trips to the dressing room, and maybe a quick alteration.

4. Furniture

After you’ve been thrifting for a few years, strolling through most retail settings is like visiting a foreign land — you can appreciate the beauty, but you just don’t understand the locals. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced that in furniture stores. $219.00 for a nightstand and $389.00 for an accent chair? What language are they speaking? Last month I made a quick pit stop at a local charity’s thrift center and found a club chair and matching ottoman for $80.00. It was so new it still smelled like the furniture store that had donated it. All it needed was one small repair to the roping detail along the top edge of the ottoman. It took all of ten minutes to make it look showroom perfect.

Check your local thrift store for lamps, nightstands, coffee tables, and bed frames. They can usually be found in perfect or near-perfect condition. Items in rougher shape can become weekend projects and get a second life with a bit of sanding and varnish or paint. Often the sheer quality of older items makes them worthy candidates for a salvage project. Look for quality markers like solid wood construction and dove-tail joints.

5. Books

Even if you have an e-reader, sometimes it’s nice to hold a book in your hands. And thrift stores are treasure-troves of good used books. Retail prices for paperbacks range from $12.99-$14.00; at most thrift shops, they’re $.89-$2.99. That’s a minimum savings of around 75%. Thrift stores in college towns and larger cities seem to have the quickest turnover in books and the best selection. Grab some coffee and stroll through their stacks.

Successful thrifting is all about persistence, knowing what you need today, might need tomorrow, and seizing a good a deal when you find it. If you know the right categories to mine, thrift shopping can be a way to save some serious cash by avoiding retail prices on as much as you can whenever you can.

Do you focus on certain categories when you thrift shop? What’s the best deal you’ve ever scored second-hand?

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Guest's picture

I agree with you on MOST of those great deals....except the furniture! You were very fortunate to get that basically new furniture that had been donated by a furniture store and just needed a small repair. Most of the furniture I've seen in thrift shops appear to have lead very interesting lives! If you can run across a situation like you found, that's great, but for the most part....there are 2 things I won't buy at thrift shops...underwear & furniture!

Guest's picture
Not Sure

Used furniture - eww. Same story at ours. That and you need to be able to haul it away yourself.

Guest's picture
Not Sure

LP records. Got a turntable? Does it still work? Like the old stuff? You're in luck. I would occasionally go in and pick up a dozen or more classic rock albums in decent condition for a buck (or less) apiece. I even have a setup on an old computer in the attic where I can rip them to MP3. My iPod runneth over.

Guest's picture

I have to disagree on shoes, I don't want anyone else's foot problems to become mine. Feet mold the shoes they are in and each foot is different. Maybe if they were brand new with the original store tags still on them maybe but buying some else's ill fitting shoes can be more costly (and painful) in the long run.

Guest's picture

Over the past year, I've became a huge fan of thrift shopping. I remember one day walking into a newly opened larger thrift store, buying several pairs of very good pants for $6, and becoming absolutely hooked.

Unfortunately, aside from common household items and clothes, the thrift store doesn't really seem much good for anything else. The public library has a far better selection with books for sale and much cheaper ($0.25-$1.00 vs $4-$7 at thrift store) not to mention lending books for free. Furniture/home electronics/etc seem to be generally cheaper on Craigslist.

It might be easier if there is some method for finding good thrift stores, but the only way I've seen seem to be read the small amount of reviews available, pay a visit, and pray. Still, the fact that clothes and common household items are so cheap pretty much guarantee I'll be going there from now on.

Guest's picture

Shoes are usually not a good item to buy used. I have never seen shoes that don't have the previous owners foot shape stretched into them.
Since, I do extensive sewing, clothing alterations and repairs are easy.
I have put a lot of furniture together, making furniture repairs is an easy fix too. There are some pieces of furniture that are not worth it.
Be realistic about what you can do with the item before you buy it.

Guest's picture

Don't forget sweaters! I get all my belts at Thrift stores! When I am up in Seattle, (I am from Texas) I always forget how cool it is up I always end up with a new jacket from a Thrift store!

Kentin Waits's picture

Thanks for your comments. So many folks don't keep their shoes long enough for any re-shaping to take place. Typically (with a little luck) I can find amazing shoe deals -- shoes that are clean, and extremely gently used. Furniture (especially non-upholstered) can easily be cleaned and refurbished. Does anyone want to share their best thrift store find in either category?

Guest's picture

When my four year old daughter with the big personality informed me recently that her clothes aren't "rock star" enough, it was time for a trip to the thrift store. While we were there, she went like a laser to the shoe rack and found an almost-new pair of pink cowboy boots in her size. Her face was magical. And when she declared, "Now THESE are rock star!" the whole place could hear it. Best $5 I ever spent.

Guest's picture

sometimes the best shoes to get are the plastic clogs! they come in so many different colors. I like that they can be washed with soap and water, and dried with a towel. lol also the jelly sandals are the same. kids grow so fast until being able to get those colorful plastic clogs in so many sizes, even for adults are great. they don't really wear out so when they out grow them, you just donate them back to the thrift store and give someone else's growing kid a chance to skip through them. [smiling]

Guest's picture

I love thrift shopping. My favorite items to look for at the thrift store are Tshirts. I can never have enough. I've also browsed for furniture. But one point you make that I find fantastic and otherwise had not thought of is belts! What a great idea! Most of the time my belts don't even show. I just need them to keep my pants up around my waist and why should I have to pay so much for that?! Thanks for the article.

Guest's picture

I'm going to disagree on #1- Shoes. Granted, I've bought 2 pairs of shoes before at a thrift store in all the years I've gone, but rarely do I ever look in that section. Shoes are too problematic due to the fact that how the previous owner walked in them can greatly affect the wear of the shoe for the next person. And it does not take long for someone to "re-shape" or break in a shoe. Closely examine the bottom soles of shoes and you'll see what I'm talking about. The soles could possibly be replaced at a shoe repair shop, but you can't undo the reshaping of the insides. For people like me who suffer from chronic foot pain, it's safer to stick with new shoes. The 2 pairs of shoes I previously purchased at a thrift store were both surprisingly in nearly new condition. I doubt if either pair were wore more than once. Plus, the idea of wearing someone's old funky shoes really turns my stomach. Especially considering most of the shoes I see at second hand stores are either in poor condition and are extremely fugly.

I agree with the rest of the list. I've found amazing deals on furniture priced for only a few bucks. Great books for a couple of cents; it all comes down to where you shop. One store might be good for one thing but bad for another. That's why you need to have a couple of different second hand stores you can hit up to search for great finds across all categories.

Guest's picture

I agree about the belts and the books. I don't know how comfortable I'd be with lounging on a couch each night that I had no idea where it came from. Shoes are on the fence for me. Another good thing you could get at thrift stores are sunglasses and jewelry like necklaces, rings or bracelets.

Guest's picture

Those are some good tips. The key for me is to be patient and wait for the right things to show up at the thrift store. I also keep an eye on Craigslist for furniture and other used goods. The thrift store was also a great place to buy ties. My job required me to wear a tie and I found some funny and classy ties at the thrift store.

Guest's picture
Lisa B.

I have to search thrift stores high and low, but at least once a year I find a pair of brand new, fancy European comfort shoes for a few bucks. Those usually retail $100 at least.
I also love buying vinyl records, books, and household items. Furniture is often hit or miss, but if I look long and hard enough I find great deals. I'm afraid of couches or other cushiony items from thrift stores though. Oh, and one more thing that's great to find at thrift stores - art! The picture frame section at Goodwill is literally a gold mine.

Guest's picture

I also disagree with pre-worn shoes. Even if slightly worn. Any short-term savings could mean foot, knee, or low-back problems in the long-term from wearing shoes partially formed to another foot.

Guest's picture

I make my living scouring thrift stores and yard sales and church sales for "Gently Used" items and reselling them. I have scored "designer" items galore- inc Coach Bags--have one listed right now!--and many other name brands like that. I have found diamond decorated watches at thrift stores and also yard sales!

My kids and grand kids hardly ever wore a "new" from the store item and now are as avid as I am about this.

One of the "best" scores was a pair of vintage denim jeans with the Monty Wards tags still on 'em. Cost me $3 and I sold 'em for over $400.

You have to educate yourself to the good the bad and the ugly just as with any other form of acquisitions. I keep up with sports brands and fashion brands even tho I could care less about either for me. But I am HAPPY to sell them to people who DO care!

Shoes---some years ago there was a woman who was running one of the first Frugal Living dealies--I think she was some sort of Coupon Queen--and she actually posted a comment about how she consulted with a MD about getting used shoes for her kids. I don't mean trashed--just "Gently used and outgrown" as we say it. And the MD was fine with it. So--it has to do with your personal level of care and also the CONDITION. I see many many new shoes with stickers still on them--for some reason people seem to think OH I will wear these SOMEDAY and don't return them when they get home and find they are too small or don't natch their outfit. I have gotten Gucci loafers--that retail for OVER $500---. -at thrift stores--UNUSED. Course--ya also gotta know where to SHOP.

I am lucky enough to live near a very wealthy retirement and sporting area and so get great deals on estate settlements when the executor or relative has no time or inclination to find out WHAT these things COULD be worth. They get the tax deduction and I get the bargains--and when you buy from me everyone is HAPPY!!!!

Guest's picture

I'm leery about furniture these days with the bed bug epidemic seemingly everywhere.

Nevertheless my sister lives in Phoenix AZ and there are great thrift stores there. She has gotten great pieces of furniture, lamps, chairs, tables, yard furniture, you name it.
Pictures, frames, antiques, wallets, purses and shoes; all in excellent shape. I only wish there were such choices here on Long Island, NY - the few places I've gone into seem to have a lot of junk.

Guest's picture

What I have found that works for shoes, is to spray them inside HEAVILY with Lysol disinfectant spray, (or generic brand), and let them dry overnight. For white sneakers, wash in bleach, baking soda, and hot water in washing machine, letting them soak for about ten minutes, then letting them dry outside in the sun.

Guest's picture

I found a pair of quality shoes that fit me well and are in excellent condition. $2.99! I recently found several other pairs that I wish fit me. Sure, many of the shoes are battered and unappealing and those I wouldn't buy. You've got to hunt out the good ones.
Only in a wealthy society can people afford to be so squeamish. That said, I'm not out to convert anyone. I'm happy not to have the competition!

Guest's picture

This Mi 5200 mAh Power Bank is both handy, but very popular as well.

Guest's picture

I love shopping at the used clothing stores especially since money has been tight and I've noticed lots more folks are checking it out too. Wealthy people as well as poor shop at used stores. today I bought a great pair of tennis shoes they look brand new. Just wash them in the washing machine if they are mainly fabric type shoes and lay them out in the sun to dry. In the regular stores people try on the very same pair you buy so it's no big deal.

Guest's picture

No, no used furniture! BED BUGS!!!

Guest's picture

I hope you realize you can also pick up bed bugs on public transportation (city bus, taxi cab, airport shuttle), the trendy sofa at the local overpriced coffee store, or sitting in the movie theater.

Guest's picture

The book deals really are incredible. The book that inspired me to run the marathon I found at a thrift store for $3, but it was 50% off so only $1.50. And this is in New York City!