14 Things You Should Be Buying at Thrift Stores—and 9 Things to Skip
Thrift shopping is a hit or a miss sometimes, so we've asked some savvy thrifters for their expertise on what things we should always pick up and what things we should leave behind.
Buy: In-house label clothing
“Most high-end department stores like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdales have in-house labels that are at a slightly lower price point than more recognizable brands but are still high-quality garments,” says Betsy Appleton, thrift shopping expert, and blogger at Goldwill Digger. So, scoop up the house labels from Nordstrom such as Halogen, BP, and Treasure and Bond or Aqua from Bloomingdale’s. It might not happen as often but if you spot a Burberry trench coat or cute floral Ralph Lauren dress in your size, grab it. But don’t forget to check for missing buttons, snaps or broken zippers. Plus: These are the things you should avoid buying at garage sales.
Buy: Luxury handbags
“Handbag designs tend to be classic, which makes them ideal purchases on the second-hand market,” says Suzanne Wexler, a culture and lifestyle expert. Wexler recommends buying from reputable consignment sellers, but thrift shops like Goodwill have luxury brands in the store (and online), and some come with authentification. But if you do find a cute Kate Spade interchangeable purse in a pile of ho-hum handbags, and there is no authentication offered, try checking websites like Bagaholic101 or Bag Vanity for tips on how to spot a fake. You should think twice about donating these items.
Skip: Most shoes
Wexler strongly suggests passing on worn flip-flops and sneakers. Flip flops harbor a lot of bacteria, especially in the toe area and secondhand sneakers adapt to the wearer’s foot and won’t be a true fit for your own feet. “In terms of thrift footwear, stick with hardly-used or new-in-box statement shoes or heels,” Wexler says. “These can cost $400 to $800 brand new and are often more comfortable than less pricy heels, which tend to sacrifice fit for style,” says Wexler.
Buy: Sporting goods
You’re not sure how it happened, but your girlfriends talked you into signing up for a weekend field hockey league. Who knows if you’ll actually stick with it so why not buy used equipment? Well, there’s a playbook for how to buy sporting goods. “Look for things that were donated because they were outgrown, not because they were no longer useable quality,” says Morgan McBride of Charleston Crafted. “If the major component of something looks good but can be easily upgraded—like grips on a golf club—then that’s a good find. Gently used sports specific footwear is fine too, just check the soles and insides. But pass on helmets, because they could have hairline cracks or damage you don’t see—and that could compromise your safety. These 80 items in your home are fantastically fit for repurposing.
You know how fickle kids are—they beg for a toy, play with it for a week or two then move on to something else. Buying toys at thrift stores is a cheap way to satisfy their itch for a new toy, and, while you’re at it, you can donate the ones they’re tired of so you don’t end up with an overflowing toy chest. But before you buy, check for missing pieces and only buy toys that can be washed, McBride says. “Hard plastic can be soaked in bleach and water and soft toys can be washed in the machine. If you don’t know how to clean it, don’t buy it.” Next, check out our favorite organizations that offer donation pick up.
“When it comes to intimate apparel, never buy second-hand panties or shapewear that has visited the nether regions,” Wexler says. “It’s impossible to know how well the garment has been washed, leaving you vulnerable to bacteria and certain sexually transmitted diseases.” Only buy panties, hosiery, and bodysuits on the secondhand market with tags or in the original boxes.
Skip: Pots and pans
If your re-stocking your pots and pans, pass on ones that are scratched, especially the non-stick variety. The flakes can get in your food and release toxic compounds such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), particularly when you use high heat. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the health effects to humans are unknown, but PFOA does remain in the body for a long time. “However, copper or unique vintage pans could also make a beautiful wall hanging decor, and scratches wouldn’t matter in that case,” says McBride.
Buy: Kitchen gadgets
“Thrift stores are a great place to pick up novelty kitchen gadgets,” says McBride. “Many of them were impulse buys, used once or twice, and then donated.” Google the item while you’re in the store to research it if it doesn’t come in the box, or with an instruction manual or list of essential elements included. If it all checks out, ask to plug it in to be sure it powers on.
Skip: Electronics you can’t test drive
Electronics and appliances can be hit or a miss depending on the item. A coffee maker may power on but will it sputter and make an awful noise when you get home? A shiny laptop is inviting, but you don’t know if it is plagued with a virus. “If the store does not offer the ability to test an electronic or appliance before purchasing and will not allow returns, pass on the item,” advises Appleton. Find out the gadgets you can safely buy refurbished and the ones you should skip.
Buy: Wooden furniture
You can’t go wrong with sturdy, solid wood furniture. “Whatever your style you will find quality pieces in abundance at great prices at most thrift stores,” says Stacy Verdick Case, of Peony Lane Designs. Look for dovetail joints—they resemble interlocking fingers—where two pieces of wood connect, says Verdick Case. This type of joint is the hallmark of sturdy construction as it is harder to pulling apart. The one type of wooden furniture she cautions buying is nursery furniture, including cribs, as recalls occur frequently and you don’t want to risk your baby’s safety. Check out our best tips for hosting your own garage sale here.
Skip: Large linens
A gently used comforter, large decorative pillows, pretty table linens, curtains, and pet beds may seem like a steal at a thrift store, but if it won’t fit in your washing machine (or you don’t want to haul it to the laundromat to use the supersize machines), McBride says to leave it behind. Also, keep in mind that moldy smells and second-hand smoke is hard to remove, so you’re probably better off leaving these items at the store. See easy ways to fake high-end looks in your home here.
Buy: Board games
Board games can get pricey at around $20 each, but thrift stores offer them at a fraction of the retail price. “We’ve picked up a few favorite games from our childhood that are in great condition but no longer sold in stores,” says Jen Panaro Honestlymodern.com. Check the contents to make sure nothing is missing before heading to the register. In that vein, Panaro recommends passing on used jigsaw puzzles. “After placing 499 pieces, the missing puzzle piece is such a drag.” Panaro also looks for art project kits, which are cheap and fun boredom busters for kids.
Buy: Basic kitchen goods
Panaro replenishes her cupboards with bowls, plates, mason jars, and other ceramic or glass basics for her kitchen. “Check to ensure the pieces are dishwasher safe if that’s important to you,” she says. But steer clear of buying used plastic containers, because not only do they absorb whatever mystery food they previously held, but they could also contain harmful BPA and PVC or other chemicals.
Buy: The framed picture of the creepy clown
Look beyond the art and look closer at the frame it’s in. If it’s in good condition, you can replace the art with your own canvas or photograph. Quality picture frames are sold on the cheap too—and if you can find solid wood frames, they’re easy to sand and repaint if you’re not keen on the color of the wood.
Skip: Anything upholstered made before 2010
“Never buy fully upholstered pieces unless they are exactly what you want and were created later than 2010,” warns Verdick Case. “Pieces created prior to 2010 contain harmful fire retardants that you don’t want to bring into your home.” And, if you do decide to buy something upholstered don’t assume it’s bedbug-free. Ask if the upholstered item has been sanitized. (Some states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, require proper sterilization of upholstered goods before selling.) If not, try a product like Sterifab to remove bedbugs, fungus, and mold.
Buy: Books and records
“Thrift stores have an amazing selection of brand new or gently used books, especially if you are looking for books strictly for decorative purposes,” Appleton says. Hardcover books with paper covers can easily be removed to showcase an old-school kind of look. And while you’re perusing book titles, check out the nearby vinyl collection. It’s hot again, but some people don’t realize what treasures they have and just want to get rid of the boxes in the basement. That’s good for you because record stores sell—and buy—used vinyl too, but they usually carry a higher price tag. Find out the 10 record albums that are worth a fortune today.
Buy: Maternity clothes
You can have a closet full of stylish maternity styles, just like Meghan Markle, when you shop for them at thrift stores. Not only do you get amazing deals, but maternity clothes are generally in great condition because they weren’t worn very long. “Maternity clothes can get expensive as you need to get many pieces from work to casual clothing. Buying used maternity clothes is a great way to save money, cash that will come in handy for those upcoming baby expenses,” says Jacqueline Gilchrist of Mom Money Map.
Buy: Baby clothes
Babies often grow so fast they don’t spend much time in their adorable little outfits, so like-new baby clothes are a cheap way to dress your little bundle of joy. “I’ve purchased several gently used or new (with tags) baby clothes from Gap, Carter’s, and Roots—and even one from Burberry—for only a few dollars each at thrift stores,” says Gilchrist. When you buy baby clothes second hand, you don’t feel as upset when your baby spits up or poops on the clothing, but do check for stains before ringing up the purchase.
Skip: Baby gear
At the top of this list is car seats, because there are so many recalls and it’s next to impossible to tell if the seat was in an accident, which could render it ineffective. In fact, many donation centers refuse donated car seats for this reason. You may, however, find baby bouncers, high chairs, and playmats that are a good deal as long as all the safety features are in place, says Gilchrist. (Of course, you’ll want to remove any fabric covered pieces and toss it in the wash.) Be sure to check the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission list of recalled products before you put anything in your cart.
“It’s difficult to tell if the makeup is expired as there is often no expiration date, even if it’s sealed, “Gilchrist says. “Expired makeup can cause breakouts or an infection like pink eye.” Also, be cautious of health and beauty products made outside of the United Staes as the safety standards might not be up to par. If you’re looking for a beauty deal, head to Goodwill as they buy all kinds of unsold clearance items from Target, she says.
Skip: Antique crystal
How cool would it be to pour wine into antique crystal glasses, decanters, and gorgeous old crystal vases? Unfortunately, if they were made prior to 1969, they could contain 32 percent or more of lead oxide, according to the Washington Post. If the crystal is just for decorative purposes, and if you really want to stock your bar with the potentially leaded crystal, make sure it’s safe by using an instant lead test kit before you store or serve your wine or food in it.
If you’re sprucing up or disassembling those picture frames you thrifted, you’re going to need some tools. And even if you’re not, every household will need a hammer, screwdriver, a level, and measuring tape to aid with basics chores and minor fixes. But new tools are pricey and if you’re not going to use them very often it’s hard to justify paying retail for something that is going to sit in a toolbox on the top shelf of a closet the majority of its life. Brands including Craftsman, Dewalt, Milwaukee, and Channellock are a steal secondhand, provided they’re in working condition.
Buy: Authentic vintage clothing
It’s more difficult these days to find authentic vintage designer labels because major thrift stores employ people who have a keen eye for valuable goods and will opt to sell the donated item online to make more money. But if you discover a random scarf with a Hermès label, use your phone and consult the Vintage Fashion Guild for tips on identifying designer labels. Next, check out 15 creative ways to repurpose a pile of old books.