Why (and How) I Buy All My Clothes Second-Hand

by Kate

 A few of my favorite thrift store outfits (all clothes, shoes and accessories were purchased second-hand, except for the Frisbee).  Left : An outfit I wore to a friend's spring wedding.  Center : A casual work outfit.  Right : Ultimate frisbee duds. 

A few of my favorite thrift store outfits (all clothes, shoes and accessories were purchased second-hand, except for the Frisbee). Left: An outfit I wore to a friend's spring wedding. Center: A casual work outfit. Right: Ultimate frisbee duds. 

I love thrift stores. As a kid, I went with my mom to the Salvation Army to look for interesting trinkets and dishes. In high school, I hunted for wacky vintage pieces and strange decor and climbed around on the room-sized piles of clothes in the Salvation Army basement. As an adult thrift stores became my go-to place for clothes, furniture, decor, media, kitchen gadgets, and dishes. As Alex and I became more interested in frugality, shopping second-hand became second nature. Now when I need something I head to the thrift store to see if I can find it there first. This is especially true for clothes.

I buy all my clothes second hand these days (except undies and socks). In fact, when trying to calculate for this post, I think the last time I bought a piece of clothing new in a store was Black Friday 2013 - I still have a shirt I bought then. (Although, I can’t remember which year I bought my favorite blue blazer from Sam’s…) Of the 113 pieces of clothing that I currently own, 7 of them were purchased new by me, and 6 were gifts. So 90.2% of my current wardrobe is secondhand. (Also, yikes! I need to do a clothing audit soon!)

There are three primary reasons I buy my clothes second-hand:

  1. Money - I am a haphazard dresser. I like to experiment with different styles and try new colors and trends. After a year or so I can get bored with my clothing and like to switch things up. These kind of dressing habits can only be sustained on a second-hand budget. Thrift stores also support my overall frugal budget - when I know I can find a good pair of jeans for $5 at Goodwill, I just can’t bring myself to go to the mall.

  2. Impact - In the last few years I’ve been increasingly bothered by the excess inherent in the “fast fashion" clothing industry. Clothes now are designed to be consumable and to fall apart quickly in order to encourage people to buy more. All my favorite stores do this (Target, H&M, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, etc.) and it really gets my back up. If I am going to buy fast fashion, then I’m only going to pay $3 for it (not $23). Shopping second-hand has become my own way of personally protesting over-consumption and unnecessary waste. I know my individual decisions aren’t going to impact this systemic problem very much but it’s an important way for me to be true to myself.

  3. Fun - Thrift store shopping is SO FUN. It’s full of surprises and great deals. I love finding unusual and extraordinary items that are outside my usual style. Like that time I bought my mom her now favorite pair of pants for 25 cents on the sale rack at Salvation Army. Or the time my friend found some really fancy Italian pottery at Goodwill. Or the time the Catholic Charities was giving away all their Christmas stuff for free the day before Christmas. Second hand shopping is epic my friends. EPIC. It’s the secret to my success.

Kate’s Thrift Shopping Tips and Tricks

 Sometimes NOT finding a complete set of something has its own attractions. I couldn't resist giving this partial Christmas decoration a new home (especially because OY and YO are  both  great home decor sentiments!)

Sometimes NOT finding a complete set of something has its own attractions. I couldn't resist giving this partial Christmas decoration a new home (especially because OY and YO are both great home decor sentiments!)

While thrift shopping is the best thing ever, it does take a bit of strategizing and you have to adjust your expectations for the experience. You have to plan ahead for what kind of clothes you need and then go to the store with the knowledge that you might not find it that day. Also, you’ll have to sift through a lot of unwanted items to find the item you do want. Thrift stores are a bit behind the latest trends, so you won’t find new stuff for about 6 months or so. But I’ve grown to like this slightly slower cycle because it lets me see if trends are going to be long-lasting or flash in the pan. Clothing trends are just another way for companies to try to trick me out of my money so I like subverting the system a bit and if something I like still looks good to me 6 months later then it’s worth it.

There are certain things that are usually extremely difficult to find in a thrift store (in my decades long experience) - white button down shirts, high quality long-lasting shoes for women, or a complete set of something. On the other hand, there are some things that seem to exist in every thrift store at any time, including cute dresses, dress shoes, casual shoes, small appliances, tennis rackets, books, and shot glasses.

In regards to clothes, I typically don’t buy undergarments of any kind or specific types of shoes at thrift stores. If I want a high-quality boot or shoe I will spend full price on a good brand, because most thrift store shoes are of the department store or fast fashion variety (although there are typically a great many of these). Everything else, however, is fair game at the thrift store - shirts, shorts, dresses, skirts, sweaters, workout gear, purses, scarves, shoes, and jewelry.

Shopping Tips:

 The thrift store item I didn't know I needed - GALAXY PANTS! It's hard to be unhappy while wearing these. (Shirt and flip-flops also secondhand.)

The thrift store item I didn't know I needed - GALAXY PANTS! It's hard to be unhappy while wearing these. (Shirt and flip-flops also secondhand.)

Don’t look through every item of clothing. I slowly scan the rack in my size and look for patterns, colors, or fabrics that appeal to me, then I look at that item. When looking for jeans just look for the type of wash you want. If I’m looking for dark jeans for winter I scan the rack until I see a color that I want. This way you are not overwhelming yourself with jean vests and boyfriend cardigans in lime green and oversized floral t-shirts. It helps to go into a thrift store with a game plan as well. Decide what pieces you need so you know which sections to target (shirts vs. skirts vs. dresses). This targeted searching helps avoid the problem of just buying things because they are cheap (a habit I had to un-teach myself). Consumerism is still consumerism whether it costs $100 or $1. Just because the book is $1 I still don’t want a bookcase full of books I’m not reading. Having so much stuff (even if it’s cheap) doesn’t add value to my life, so I try to shop strategically.

Thrift stores have every size, every fit, and every color. They may not have them all at once, but over time I guarantee you’ll be able to find something in your size. However, if you have trouble finding clothes that fit you right in new stores then you may still have trouble finding them in thrift stores. Seriously, I know the struggle is real. It’s good to keep in mind that getting clothes tailored (or tailoring them yourself) is a great option, especially because in a thrift store that nice pair of black jeans is a fraction of the cost (which makes tailoring a fairly economical option).

Thrift stores also typically reflect the kind of community they are in - although national chains do ship stuff around. Consequently, in DC the thrift store clothes were the highest quality I’ve ever seen. I was buying like-new Ann Taylor and LOFT and Banana Republic and H&M and it was easy peasy to find work clothes and cocktail dresses for Alex’s annual Christmas party. In Indiana, the stuff is more casual and slightly lower quality, but I can always find a great IU t-shirt and pair of polka dot Keds. Thrift stores in cities are typically more expensive than stores in more rural areas, but in rural areas the stuff is a lot more random (meaning...more fun!).

Each type of thrift or secondhand store has its own flavor, too, so depending on your mood you may want to try out different places.

  • Salvation Army - the slightly shabby one
  • Goodwill - the corporate one
  • Catholic Charities - the wild card
  • Habitat for Humanity Restore - the home decor/renovation one
  • Local independent stores - the heart of gold
  • Consignment shops - a step up
  • Annual mega secondhand sales - the goldmine

For me, thrifting started as a way to save money, but it's become an intentional practice. It’s one way I can try to live out my values of limiting my consumption and waste, committing to frugality, and supporting impactful organizations. Also, it’s fun! Explore your local thrift stores and let me know how it goes!

Do you have any great thrift store deal stories? What other items do you like to get second-hand?