Get Maximum Value out of a ‘Thrift Shop Day’

Shopping at a thrift store for something you’re specifically looking for is a great frugal strategy. It’s a way to save quite a bit of money on things like clothing, small kitchen appliances, dishes, furniture, hobby items, and other odds and ends.

One of the best ways to turn frugality into even more of a positive is to seek ways to make it fun, and the most powerful strategy for making frugality more pleasurable is to make it social. By finding ways to engage in frugal activities with other people, you add the joy of hanging out (which is fun in the short term and builds relationships in the long term) to the act of saving money.

What’s the game plan when it comes to making thrift store shopping fun AND frugal? Turn it into an all-day social thing with friends, where you mix frugal shopping with social bonding.

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    Pick a day and ask some friends

    The first step is to gather those friends. The easiest way to do this is to pick a potential day when you think you and your friends will mostly be free, then invite them. You’re simply planning a day where you go thrifting, including lunch. You might want to consider choosing a community yard sale day for this, for example.

    Choose friends that you think will get along well enough to spend a day together thrifting. You want to invite a largeish group because it’s likely that some people won’t be able to do it. If you invite eight people and four say yes, then you still have a nice group size.

    Start and keep a list

    Before the thrifting day, start making a list. You’ll want to identify things that you actually need that you might come across at a thrift store or at a yard sale. Are there clothing items you need? Are there any small kitchen appliances? Are there tools you may need? Collectibles? Sporting goods?

    The list you’re building serves as guidance for thrift shopping, providing a sense of intent. If you go knowing you need two new tops, a new microwave, and a soccer ball, you’re focused on finding those specific things. Without that guidance, your eye may wander to things that you buy on impulse, and those purchases often wind up being regrets (and often find their way right back to a thrift shop in the future as a donation).

    Pack a lunch

    If you’re going to make it a “thrifting day,” plan an appropriate lunch. One easy way to do this is to simply make a sandwich for everyone who’s going, then just ask everyone to bring a drink and some sort of snack to share. Maybe two friends will bring chips, and another friend will bring some veggies and dip, and you’ll have sandwiches. All of you were able to spend very little, but you wind up with a lunch together with a lot of variety.

    Choose a nice park to eat at, ideally one with a shelter house in case of inclement weather. This lets you enjoy the beautiful outdoors together with friends, enjoying a very inexpensive and varied picnic lunch (costing everyone just a few bucks each).

    Thrifting tips

    Here are some tips to get maximum value out of thrift and consignment shopping.

    Shop with cash only

    Before you go, determine how much you want to spend, then withdraw that much in cash. As you’re thrifting, stick to that cash budget. If possible, leave your cards at home so that you’re not tempted to spend even more with plastic. By setting a clear physical limit on your spending, you make a smart spending decision before you ever leave. 

    Aim for shops closer to expensive residential areas

    Look for thrift stores, consignment shops and yard sales that are closer to expensive residential areas. The sales and thrift shops in this area tend to have newer and higher quality items from affluent people who turn over their possessions very rapidly. While the prices are sometimes a bit higher, you’re much more likely to find high quality versions of the goods you’re looking for.

    Look for both fun and useful clothes that are made well

    While many items at a thrift store might be worn or not well made, you can find lots of well-made and interesting clothing gems. 

    At Treehugger, Kathleen Martinko offers great advice for identifying well-made clothing that will last. Look at the stitches and seams. Make sure they’re evenly spaced and appropriately aligned. Stitching that’s crooked or broken is likely to fail much sooner and is likely a sign of other shoddy aspects of that article of clothing.

    Plug in any electrical items you might buy

    Thrift stores are a great place to pick up small electrical items and kitchen appliances, but you don’t want to walk out the door with something that doesn’t work. Plug in any secondhand electrical item that you’re considering buying just to verify that it actually works. If they won’t let you do this, skip that purchase. Many thrift stores either have items plugged in or have a plug nearby where you can test the item.

    Drop off a few items, too

    A thrifting day isn’t just a day to get new things. It’s also a great opportunity to downsize a little, too. Before you go, identify some items that you can donate. What items have been relegated to the back of the closet or the bottom of the drawer? Take those with you and donate them. That way, you have space for the things you pick up on your big thrifting day.

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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.