thrifting + vintage | 12 tips for making the most of your thrifting trip

I swear I don't have some special vintage-finding karma. (Despite some recent finds that make me really wish I did--keep it coming!) I have, over many years of searching, unearthed some real treasures and picked up a couple tips for scoring a vintage find that I wanted to share with you! My mom began thrifting in the early 1990s, and I loved going with her on our Saturday morning treasure hunts. (I still dream about a bright red kimono I begged her to get me, but it was too pricey and left at the store...) Now Miss A. and I dig through the stores regularly in search of all the wonderful finds there are to be had. 

01. | Seek out appropriate neighborhoods. If you live in a newer suburb, head towards an older part of town or the city. Older sections usually have a larger population of retired residents, and they often downsize when they move or families donate whole housefuls of possessions when someone passes. I most often discover my best finds in areas I know have a lot of mid century (or older) homes.

02. | Do some footwork to find venues. I rely a lot on The Thrift Shopper directory to find listings for shops nearby. I don't always pay attention to the reviews though (unless they universally state a shop tends to be overpriced--I avoid those as a general rule because they tend to weed out vintage and price accordingly). Craigslist and for discovering what is going on this weekend for estate sales and rummage/flea markets. I most often start checking on Thursday for those listinngs, and do another run through late Friday night.

03 | Inquire about each shop's discount schedule and jot them down. I try to visit my favorite stores on days they mark items of a certain tag color or department down. Also ask whether they offer student/teacher/military/55+ discounts as well. Generally with estate sales you can expect items to be marked down as the sale progresses, the best prices being on the final day of the sale. However, things are picked over. At the very least, your negotiating power is greater (especially with cash in hand!).

04 | Some thrift stores will separate out their vintage--and price those things higher. If you're on a budget, this can be a downside. I tend to hit those sorts of stores on discount days (ask if you don't see any signs posted about their discount schedule). The upside is that you don't have to dig as much for vintage pieces! 

05| Dig. Dig. Dig. Ignore what I said above about not having to dig hard at shops that separate vintage. Often I've found some amazing pieces that were overlooked in the regular racks. And in most secondhand shops, that is where you'll find everything shoved together. Over the years I've developed an eye for spotting vintage fabric hanging on a rack so I don't always have to go through piece by piece, but it's often worth doing that if you're not as sure.

06 | Be prepared! Bring a tape measure to double check measurements (because what may be a size 10 in the 50s is not a size 10 by modern standards!). Nothing is worse than finding something you think will work, but there are no dressing rooms to try it on. I have a "thrifting kit" in my car, and it has a tape measure, hand sanitizer, wipes (good for seeing if the grime is easily removable on something), and measurements for some pieces of furniture we're trying to replace (I keep these synced on Evernote between my computer and phone). In the past I've also tucked in paint and fabric swatches. Also something of note when purchasing furniture: have a plan to get it home! We one time purchased a china cabinet that I thought would fit in my SUV, but the angle of the sides made it impossible. It ended up being a costly, beginner's mistake. Ouch!

07 | Search with an open mind and leave your expectations at the door. I do have a "to find" list, but it's something general and I sometimes have things on there for years before I can cross an item off. More often than not I discover great treasures that I wasn't looking for, or may need a little tweaking/alteration (this is especially true with clothes, but housewares too!) in order to make them work for me. Rarely have I walked into a thrift store thinking "I'm going to find X item today!" and find it.

08 | Be discerning about what you buy. 99% of the thrift stores (and all the estate sales) I've ever been to have a "final sale" policy. This means it pays to thoroughly inspect (I know--hard sometimes in the excitement of a great find!) each piece before you take it to the checkout. On clothes I check for worn patches of fabric, ripped buttonholes (sometimes fixable), any sign of bugs (I one time saw roach eggs on a 1950s Jonathan Logan dress; I left it at the store!), or other irreparable flaws. On home goods I look for gouges, missing components, check that electronics work, paint or finish flaws that can't easily be repaired, wobbly joints (again those that are hard to fix), or other costly to remedy flaws. I have had my fair share of moments that I didn't examine something closely enough, and regretted it. But it really does save you money (and disappointment/head smacking) to take a close look before you hand over money.

09 | Be realistic about your finds. I may have, over the years, let a few things come home with me (mainly my weakness, vintage clothing) that weren't entirely suitable, but with grand schemes of redoing, refitting, dying, etc. to make them work. Be honest about your time, storage space, requirements for furniture, and clothing sizes. It's not a crime to pass up something that is really fabulous, but just doesn't work for you. (Though difficult.)

10 | Take a friend! I always have more fun going on a thrift or estate sale outing with a friend or two.  Go over what each of you are hoping to find on your trip, and that way you're more likely to spot it if it's there. I don't know how many times I've had a friend call my attention to something amazing that I overlooked (because I get really distracted, especially at estate sales with vintage clothes... lol), but were perfect for me or the house. I would have missed them otherwise. Two sets of eyes are sharper than one!

11 | Don't forget to look in departments you would normally walk past. I still check the boy's department for teenage-size blazers and button up shirts for my wardrobe. My sister found a killer brown leather bomber jacket in the boy's section years ago that fit her perfectly, and was only $5! I even check the smaller girl's sizes for Audrey (year 2 or 3) for any amazing, can't-pass-up garments that would suit her in a couple years.

12 | Network! Estate sales that are run by professional downsizing services often have mailing lists or Facebook pages; sign up and like! Sometimes they have previews long before the general sale announcements are released. More and more thrift stores are also relying on social networking as well as e-coupons texted to your phone; check and see if your local shops offer anything like that. I also tend to find out which new acquaintances are fellow thrifters when we move and ask for their store recommendations. (I do believe in thrifting karma, and am more than happy to tell people about my favorite shops too!)


  1. Regarding taking furniture home. It's worth noting details of any "man with a van" types for hire in the area. We have one who would have sorted the problem of the china cabinet for you! I'm sure there must be lots of similar in the US.


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