Eight Strategies for Maximum Value from Secondhand Stores

One of my favorite tactics for saving money when I need certain items is to head to secondhand stores in my area. Secondhand stores are invariably good sources for certain types of goods and, because of that, they’re often the first stop when I go shopping for those items because I can save a lot of money. (I’ll get into which items in a minute.)

There’s a catch, of course – isn’t there always? The catch is that if you go to secondhand stores without a plan, they can often feel like a waltz through a pile of junk. You look around and see a bunch of used items that you’re not interested in and, well, it just doesn’t seem worthwhile.

You have to have a plan or else a trip to a secondhand store probably isn’t worth your time.

So, what’s the plan? Here are eight key strategies I use when shopping secondhand.

Strategy #1: Treat it as Your First Stop When You Need Something – But Know What You’ll Find There

For me, a trip to a secondhand store is the first stop in a shopping trip where I know that it’s highly likely I’ll be stopping elsewhere. I go in there with a list of things I’m looking for and those are the things I seek out. If I find things that work for me that are on my list, great – I cross them off and buy those inexpensive items. If not, it’s okay – I’ll shop elsewhere.

There are certain types of items that I always shop for at secondhand stores first. I always check clothing at secondhand stores, not because everything there is great, but because there are often a lot of gems on the racks that you might not notice first. I buy small appliances there – rice cookers, bread makers, toasters, and so on. I often buy camping gear at secondhand stores, believe it or not – things like plastic plates and cups in our camping box have come from secondhand stores. When we had babies and younger children, I’d buy lots of baby and young child items there – toys, clothes, and so on. I buy sporting goods secondhand. I buy musical instruments secondhand. I buy books there, too – I’ll often find stuff by serendipity and then wind up reading it.

If I find that I need anything like that, a secondhand store is going to be a place that I stop. There are many things that I don’t bother buying there – electronics come to mind, for example – and I don’t bother stopping there unless it’s purposeful, so secondhand stores aren’t an “every time” stop. They’re an “occasional” stop, when I know there’s a reason to go.

Remember, secondhand stores are a “first stop” on a shopping trip. It’s at least somewhat likely that you still don’t find everything you need even after stopping at a few such stores, and that’s okay – that’s part of the equation. Once you’ve looked, then you can move on to other retailers where you’ll be buying new and likely paying more. Secondhand stores just solve your problem at a low price a lot of the time, not every time; in my experience, it happens often enough that it’s well worth spending half an hour visiting a couple secondhand stores before shopping elsewhere, especially if I’m applying the other strategies in this article.

Strategy #2: Look Beyond Goodwill and Salvation Army

Many people seem to think that secondhand stores begin and end with Goodwill and Salvation Army and don’t even consider whether there are other stores in the area. This honestly wasn’t a concept that ever crossed my mind until found myself being a more active participant in local community message boards, when people would suggest only Salvation Army or Goodwill as secondhand stores and seemed stunned that there were other options.

Most communities of any size have a wide variety of secondhand stores as well as some stores that mix secondhand goods with new items. In the two larger cities nearest me, there are independent secondhand clothing stores, secondhand sporting goods stores, secondhand bookstores, and a number of specialty stores that have lots of used items on their shelves along with the new ones.

Don’t start and end your secondhand shopping at Goodwill and Salvation Army. They’re great stores for finding secondhand items, don’t get me wrong, but they can often give a limited impression of the possibilities of buying secondhand items. Do some Google searching for secondhand stores in communities near you and see what kind of shops are out there. You’ll almost definitely find more options than you expect.

Strategy #3: Check Out Secondhand Stores Close to Wealthy Residential Neighborhoods

One great strategy for finding high quality secondhand items is to intentionally check out stores that are relatively close to affluent neighborhoods. If there’s a neighborhood or a suburb in your city that has a lot of nice houses and nice cars, make it a point to check out secondhand stores that are relatively close in proximity to those areas.

The reason is that wealthier people will quite often simply donate high quality items that are barely used because they’re buying a whole new winter wardrobe or replacing a small kitchen appliance they used twice because the color wasn’t perfect in their kitchens. It’s truly amazing how many great things you’ll find in those stores for a surprisingly low price.

You can identify such stores using Google Maps. Simply pull up a map of your city and search for secondhand stores, then see which ones are close to affluent neighborhoods. Look for used clothing stores, used sporting goods stores, used bookstores – they’ll all have good things. The Goodwill and Salvation Army stores near nice neighborhoods are often very well stocked, too.

Strategy #4: Always Check on Items That You Can Quickly Value

Whenever I’m at a secondhand store, I always check on a few items that I can quickly value at a glance. For example, I’ll look for things like old roleplaying books, board games, old books, older video games, old trading cards, and things like that.

Most of the time, I find junk. I find scratched up PS2 games or copies of “Scene It!”

Every once in a while, though, I hit the jackpot. In the last four years or so, by doing two or three minutes of extra browsing while in a secondhand store, I’ve found the following:

  • Some early Dungeons and Dragons books in immaculate condition, worth about $75 a pop, on sale for $0.99 each. I bought them all, naturally.
  • A copy of the Super NES game Earthbound for $5. This was without the box or any other material. It sells for around $200 on the secondary market. This was in a HUGE box of Super Nintendo games; I bought several, but this was the jewel.
  • A copy of the board game Civilization published by Avalon Hill in the early 1980s, unpunched, which often sells in the $50-$100 range, for about $3.
  • Autographed copies of Rabbit, Run and The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike for $0.50 each.
  • A box of mixed Magic: the Gathering cards for $10. There were several cards in there I was able to sell individually for more than $10 each.
  • A Vitamix blender for $8 in great shape. I actually doubted it would work, so I asked if I could plug it in and it whirred right to life. It sells for hundreds new.

Those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head. I didn’t go shopping for these things specifically, but I just kept an active eye for bargains like this while wandering through the store and looking in a few areas where I knew I could identify bargains.

Strategy #5: Remember Secondhand Stuff Can Sometimes Be Overpriced, Too

One might think that I view everything at a secondhand store as a great bargain, but that’s not true. There are often items that are overpriced at secondhand stores. In general, I’m not going to pay the majority of what an item lists for new at a secondhand shop.

Basically, don’t turn off your internal price detection when you’re in a secondhand store. Always look at the price tag and if it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t right. The price in a secondhand store should seem low to you; if it seems high, don’t buy.

I should say that I don’t think such pricing happens intentionally. Most used stores want high throughput. They don’t want stuff to stick around forever because they’re always receiving donations and consignments or they’re always picking up new lots of things to sell. Often, items are priced by someone making a quick guess and a high price is just someone pricing something a bit higher than they should. You should only shy away from a used store if lots of their items are priced higher than you think. A single item or two is likely just someone making a quick estimate that’s a little high.

Strategy #6: Planning Makes a Huge Difference

As I noted earlier, I usually don’t go into a secondhand store without a plan of some kind. Unless it’s a weird situation like I’m waiting at an office and there’s a secondhand store nearby and I’m just scanning the shelves for something to flip, I don’t go into a secondhand store without something I’m specifically looking for, and I’m usually looking for several things.

As I mentioned earlier, there are several types of things I look for at secondhand stores – clothing, sporting goods, small kitchen appliances, camping items, children’s items, and so on. When I find that I want or need one of those items and it’s not blisteringly urgent, I’ll start a “list” of things to buy secondhand. Over the next few weeks, I’ll add items to that list – maybe my son is growing fast and needs some new casual t-shirts, or maybe my daughter needs a new soccer ball, or maybe I want to try out a bread making machine if I can find one for a pittance. Once the list has three or four items on it, then I go to a couple of secondhand stores in the area and look for those items.

You should always go into any store with a plan in mind, not just to browse. Browsing means that you’re going to buy unplanned things that you probably don’t need. If you go in with the intent of looking for specific items (and leaving if you don’t find them), you’re going to be focused in what you’re looking for and be much less likely to walk out with extra items.

Go secondhand shopping with a list. Give that list some time to build a little unless there’s an urgent need. Remember, you can also use this list for yard sales, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and other secondhand buying opportunities.

Strategy #7: Be Flexible

It’s generally a bad idea to go into a secondhand store with an overly specific idea of what you want. For example, if you’re going to buy a secondhand toaster, don’t go in there with a specific toaster model in mind – rather, just go looking for a toaster and see what they have. Don’t go in there looking for a shirt from a specific company in a specific color or else you’re going to be disappointed – rather, just go looking for a summer shirt.

The more specific you are, the greater the chance that you won’t find what you’re looking for and the greater the chance that you’re overlooking a perfectly good solution for your situation. The more specific you are, the more likely it is that you’re going to end up buying that specific thing new, which means you’re going to be paying far more. It also means that you’re probably wasting your time at the secondhand store.

Be flexible. Be as unspecific as possible with what you’re looking for when you go in the door.

Strategy #8: At the Same Time, It’s Okay to Move on if You Don’t Find Something That Works

When I say “be flexible,” I don’t mean “buy junk.” You might go in the door looking for a toaster, but if there are only two toasters and they look like fire hazards, you don’t have to buy one. If you go in the door looking for summer shirts and there are only a few in your size and they look like rejects from the rag bag, don’t buy them.

What you’re really looking for are items at a low price that actually solve your problem without creating new ones and without bringing home something that will just have to be replaced again in a few months. Take a problem-based view of all of your used item shopping. Does this fix the problem at a very low price without creating new ones or just delaying the problem for a very short time? Then buy it. If not, skip it. You can always shop elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

Secondhand stores are a great tool in a person’s shopping repertoire. They’re not going to always have what you want at the price that you want, but if you’re flexible and keep your eyes open and you go into a good store with a sensible plan, it’s quite likely that you’ll find some great discounts that are really useful to you.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.