How to Thrift Shop Without Regret

how to thrift shop

Thrift Shop Without Regret: My Process

I wrote a post in January on how much I benefited by not thrift shopping over the past year. A large part of that argument had to do with distancing myself from the temptation of over-shopping or accumulating things that didn’t suit my lifestyle.

During my thrift hiatus, I learned a lot about my tendencies to buy secondhand items just for their novelty, without considering how they would work in my existing wardrobe. Like a kid in the dollar store, I wanted everything just because it was cheap and accessible.

In other words, thrift shopping had become like fast fashion for me. It was a frivolous exercise rather than a means to building a responsible, slow fashion wardrobe.

After a year of not thrift shopping in person, I headed to my local Savers last week. But this wasn’t going to be a free-for-all. I came armed with a set of ideas about what I was looking for and what would suit my existing wardrobe.

This was possible because I did a style audit before leaving the house. Whether you’re thrift shopping in person or shopping secondhand online, I recommend really pinning down your style before you let yourself loose.

An all-thrifted outfit – Time to iron!
how to thrift shop

Step One: Do a Style Audit

A style audit is a step-by-step check-in on your personal style and wardrobe needs that helps you get a clear-eyed sense of what will actually work for you. It pairs well with doing some wardrobe inspiration work, as I do each season using Pinterest. Make sure you’re near your wardrobe as you assess your style. It’s good to have a visual of what you actually have and wear often.

Once you have an idea about what you’re drawn to, follow these steps:

  1. Identify your body type. What kinds of items suit you? What parts of your body do you like to highlight?
  2. Consider your typical uniform. What do you reach for?
  3. Using your existing wardrobe, define a color palette, narrowing things down to neutrals and up to five colors. What colors do you frequently wear? What colors do you like to wear together? Be honest about what will work together, and make sure patterned items still fit the color criteria.
  4. Think about wardrobe gaps and surpluses. What types of items are you lacking in your closet? What things do you have in adequate quantity?
  5. Make a shopping list. Be specific about fabric preferences and silhouettes so you don’t settle for items that don’t quite meet your expectations. Set a budget.

How I Used the Style Audit before thrifting

  • I have a pear-shaped body and prefer to wear tighter-fitting shirts and straight-leg pants. I also like a-line and circle skirts. I like to highlight my shoulders, back, and waist.
  • I typically reach for rib-knit tops and straight-leg jeans/pants.
  • I narrowed down my closet to these colors: neutrals – gray, black, blue, warm taupe; colors – rust, bright yellow, green, lavender, pink.
  • I have a lot of t-shirts, jeans, and sweaters. I have very few blazers and other work items.
  • I am looking for a warm-toned blazer in a color (not a neutral), work-appropriate pants, some flowy summer dresses, and a pair of streamlined ballet flats. My max budget is $100 (this is higher than usual for thrifting, but I am looking for several items).
how to thrift shop

Step Two: Shop Well

My tips for shopping without distraction or regret:

  1. Check for sales and coupons. Thrift chain Savers offers 20% off your purchase if you donate items to their partner charity (most of the time, drop-off is at the same location as the retail store). My credit card also offered 10% cash back on Savers’ purchases. Follow shops’ social media channels and sign up for emails to make a note of special discount days and sales.
  2. Check measurements. Many local thrifts are still not allowing people to use dressing rooms due to Covid risks, so it’s really important to bring measuring tape with you. Know your measurements before you go, noting which ones are particularly important (ex. bust, waist, hips, rise, upper arm, inseam) and then measure clothing accordingly. If you’re shopping online, make sure the listing includes measurements, or reach out to the seller for details.
  3. Avoid irrelevant parts of the store. Scanning for treasures is fun, but it can get you into trouble. Make a beeline for categories that are likely to contain what you’re shopping for and avoid the rest.
  4. Shop in your typical size, plus 1-2 sizes above. Vanity sizing is real! Today’s 6 is yesterday’s 16, so don’t be afraid to check a range of sizes for items that suit your measurements. While it’s best not to purchase far above your size just for the purposes of size accessibility for others, you will likely find that size really is just a number at the thrift store. I bought a range of sizes from 5-16 last time, and all have nearly identical measurements.
  5. Check for quality and condition. Once you find something in the right size, style, and color, check the garment for issues. Avoid polyester and really thin fabrics, as well as anything scratchy. If shopping in person, check seams for tears and weak points. Look at the garment on a flat surface (direct overhead light) to see if there are any stains. Make sure straps are secure and that zippers work. With shoes, look for sole and insole wear, and make sure the sole is still firmly glued on.
  6. Tally prices as you go. Have a range in mind of what seems like a fair price point for each item, then mentally total your purchase before checking out. It’s best not to get blindsided at the register.
  7. Edit your cart. Be ruthlessly picky about what you keep. If the item is not in your color scheme, has a cut you don’t like to wear, or is out of your price range, put it back.

For secondhand shopping online, I recommend:

Read more on this topic: Why I Prefer Ebay, Tips for Shopping on Thredup, Vintage Stores Online

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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