Shopping for clothes on the cheap is easy, but picking the right cheap option isn’t.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve taken an almost relentlessly frugal approach to buying clothes. My best suit was made in 1947 and purchased at a vintage store for $150. My most durable pants are Kirkland Jeans purchased at Costco for $13. My wardrobe is filled in with socks, t-shirts, button-downs, and other articles purchased at stores that, for several reasons, weren’t their first destination.
While dabbling in clothing from Marshall’s, T.J. Maxx, Nordstrom Rack, and Ross, I’ve since settled on two primary sources: vintage stores and Old Navy. The latter is the lowest tier of the Gap empire and has saved me everywhere I’ve lived. It was a regular stop for clothing when I was at school and going to my first jobs (a copy editor’s dress code is fairly lax). It was where I could pick up summer clothes cheaply in New York’s Herald Square when I was housesitting for my sister in Queens and ambushed by summer humidity. It was where I could refresh clothing quickly after downsizing from an apartment in New Jersey to a room in Boston.
But once I moved out to Portland, Ore., near-ubiquitous vintage and second-hand clothing stores — coupled with the city’s emphasis on local shopping and reuse — altered my approach. Vintage stores curated their selections and minimized pricing — with one shop in particular finding me a large, pristine Brooks Brothers French-cuffed shirt for $35 — while Goodwill shops had a larger presence in the area than most clothing chains.
About a week ago, and for the first time in about six years, I found myself in an Old Navy again. It occurred to me that, as a value proposition, the vintage stores and Goodwill shops I’d frequented in Portland weren’t always superior to what a low-rung, fast-fashion chain like Old Navy offered. There are trade-offs with each, but here are just some of the advantages and disadvantages of cheap first-hand vs. abundant second-hand clothes.
You’d think this one would go to Goodwill in a walk, and you’d be right on most days. Depending on their condition, used Old Navy clothes sell at ShopGoodwill, Goodwill’s online store, for $4.99 to $9.49. That’s a great deal when Old Navy jeans sell for $20 to $35 and dresses sell for $19 on sale, but not so much when that same sale includes shorts, shirts, and swimwear (which Goodwill has a limited selection of) for $5 to $10. This is what keeps customers coming back to what’s been long dubbed “disposable fashion.”
This easily goes to Goodwill for an obvious reason: Goodwill can carry anybody’s products. Meanwhile, if you find a Goodwill Outlet and don’t mind rummaging through bins, you’ll not only find a broader selection, but you may come away with a better price as well.
As noted by Elizabeth Cline, author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion,” much of the clothing from stores like Old Navy, Forever 21, H+M, Diesel, and other discount retailers will end up at Goodwill anyway, sometimes with the tags still on them.
This is a big issue for Goodwill and other second-hand and vintage stores: The size on the label does not always match the size of the item, which someone may have donated solely because it shrunk and not longer fits properly. However, the spectrum of sizes at these stores also tends to be larger for that reason, which offsets some of the issues with proper fit.
Besides, it isn’t as if something brand-new at Old Navy is a sure fit either: As Lifehacker points out, Old Navy clothes tend to run large to accommodate their customers — which doesn’t always work out. At best, this is a draw.
This depends largely on the garment being purchased. I still have at least three T-shirts from Old Navy that I purchased back in 2004, but that wouldn’t lead me to call Old Navy a durable brand. Old Navy jeans wear out quickly even compared to $13 Costco jeans, and I use the latter solely for yard work. Their button-down shirts, meanwhile, don’t take well to washing and regularly end up misshapen or misaligned even when closet-kept.
Meanwhile, the fact that most clothes are in a Goodwill in the first place means they’ve survived a whole lot just to get there. You can develop an eye for quality clothing and brands and learn to spot especially durable brands and clothing that will last for years. I stand by Old Navy t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, shorts, and even swimwear, but if it’s something you’re going to wear year-round, a savvy shopper will get more for their money at Goodwill.
Unsurprisingly, second-hand goods don’t have all that great of a return policy. Goodwill will not issue a refund and only offers store credit to folks returning items. Oh, and be quick about those returns: You have only seven days to make up your mind. While Old Navy items have to be returned unwashed and unworn, you have 45 days to do so. That said, some of Old Navy’s cheapest “final sale” items can’t be returned or exchanged at all.
There are going to be instances where Old Navy and other stores like it come in about as cheap as what you’d buy second-hand at Goodwill. There are also going to be times when you’ll want a moment to think over a purchase and reserve the right to return it more than a week later.
However, if you are frugal and value the price you’re paying up front over all else, Goodwill remains the overall better option. You can mix and match, but if you’re looking for a broader selection of more durable clothing that fits well, Goodwill is more likely to fit your specific needs and style.