Thrift Shopping: A Beginners Guide to Finding Hidden Gems at the Thrift Shop

Thrift shopping can be intimidating if you don’t know what to look for. I used to always see girls finding incredible pieces at places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. I, on the other hand, was finding windbreakers and high school spirit shirts from 2002.


When I go thrift shopping I’m confident that I’ll find cool pieces that fit well or can be DIY’d. It took me time to figure out, but I wanted to minimize the learning curve and give you my tips.

But first…

Why thrift shop? 

Thrift shopping is a great way to build your wardrobe and save the planet!

A lot of people think that thrift shopping is overrated, or something you “have” to do based on your financial situation. The truth is that there are so many benefits of thrift shopping that extend beyond yourself. 

  1. Thrift shopping is good for the world: fast fashion brands like Forever 21 and H&M use cheap materials and cheap labor to quickly produce that season’s trends. Often that means the clothes you buy will only last a year or two at best before hitting a landfill. Even worse? It means that you may be inadvertadly supporting child labor, cruel work conditions, or unfair wages. 
  2. Thrift shopping puts money back into the community: When you’re shopping at places like the Salvation Army, that money is used to do good in your community. When you’re shopping at Zara, that money is lining the pockets of anonymous faces. 
  3. Thrift shopping saves you money: My boyfriend calls me “Miss Stingy Pants” when my spending habits come up, but that’s the way I like it. I don’t want to drop $150 on a sweater when I can get 6 at the thrift shop for $20. That mindset has allowed me to build a savings account, emergency fund, and invest in the stock market. Building my savings account is more important to me than building my wardrobe.
  4. Thrift shopping allows you to shop sustainably no matter your budget. With so much noise about the issues surrounding fast fashion, some people take it to the next level and shame people who aren’t shopping at places like Reformation or Madewell. They fail to acknowle that not everyone can. If you’re trying to be an environmental superhero, but are on a sidekick budget, you can do your part by thrifting instead of buying new. 
  5. Thrift shopping helps you establish your sense of style. If you’re only shopping fast fashion, you’re only shopping trendy pieces. At the thrift shop, the selection is eclectic and you’ll be drawn only to what fits your fashion sense. I’ve found a lot of people don’t even know what their sense of style is until they quit fast fashion.

Thrift shopping tips 

Shop near wealthy communities

If you’re after expensive, brand name items consider heading to a thrift shop located near an affluent area. My closest Goodwill carries a lot of Old Navy and American Eagle denim, for example. But if I cross the river and shop in Bettendorf, I can pretty much guarantee the racks will have at least a few pairs of Hudson or Paige jeans.

Personally, I’m usually not necessarily after super expensive brands. If I have a wedding to go to or a fancy event, I usually have better luck finding a formal dress at the wealthy neighborhood’s thrift shops, too.

I don’t know how the other half lives, but based on their Goodwills, I can only guess there are galas and balls galore. My local Goodwill carries plenty of sundresses and t-shirt dresses, but I rarely find a formal dress there. 

Shop the men’s section for high waisted denim

I can’t remember the last time I bought thrifted denim from the women’s section. Normally, I’m after vintage-y looking distressed denim that I can either wear as boyfriend jeans or cut off into shorts. 

More often than not, the denim in the women’s section is stretch (aka won’t make cute cutoffs) or is skinny, and my skinny jean collection is already out of control.

The men’s section, on the other hand, is full of nice, sturdy denim. Their jeans look great as is and are also the perfect candidate for a little chop chop. 

Pro tip: The inseam doesn’t matter! As long as the waist/thigh/booty area fits, you should be good to. You can turn them into shorts, or cut the cuff off for a casual, undone look. If you want to keep the cuff and don’t trust your DIY skills, you can take it to a tailor.

Look with your fingers, not your eyes (sometimes) 

I forget where I learned this tip, but it’s been a game changer for me. If you find yourself at the thrift store but not actually looking for anything in particular, a fun way to find hidden gems is to walk up the rows running your fingers across the garments. 

When you feel a unique texture or fabric, or one that feels high quality take a look! I’ve found a handful of silk tops and cardigans doing this, as well as my favorite basic tee. Items that don’t necessarily look remarkable hanging, may very well be very special once you try it on. 

Once you’ve got the hang of this strategy, it almost feels like a sixth sense helping you find hidden gems among the clutter. 

Try everything on

It’s very rare for me to leave the thrift shop without trying everything on. I love some things on the hanger but they just don’t fit me quite right. I’ll also pick up unique pieces that I’m not sure how I feel about, and it’s hard to get a sense if I like them or not until I try them on.

Fast fashion chains are curated to be trendy and fit you well enough because their pieces are usually thin and stretchy. When you’re thrifting the fit will be hit and miss, and sizing is all over the place.

If your thrift shop doesn’t have dressing rooms, consider wearing skin tight clothes you can try things on over them. This isn’t a perfect strategy, but it’s better than nothing. 

Consider tailoring your finds

Usually most things at thrift stores are steals so if you find the perfect piece that doesn’t fit you just right you can take it to the tailor. Whether you need to shorten a hem or bring in a waist, the tailor quite literally makes sure clothes look like they were made for you.

Getting clothes tailored often isn’t that expensive, either. Normally I DIY my tailoring (YouTube and my sewing machine are my best friends for this!) but the few things I have gotten tailored have cost less than $20 each. 

Don’t be too loyal to any one thrift store

I try to rotate through my local thrift stores, often hitting up several in a day. If you’re always going to the same thrift store, you’re missing out on so many great finds. I like to go to The Family Store to look for vintage Levi’s, whereas I have better luck finding cute tops at Goodwill.

If I’m on the hunt for something specific, I’ll usually hit up 3-4 thrift shops on my hunt.

Don’t buy things just because they’re cheap

When I started diving into the world of thrifting, I’d buy expensive things just because they were selling for cheap. It was exciting to say, “This was originally $108 and I got it for $9!”

The problem is, these pieces weren’t necessarily my style. I would have never considered wanting them at full price, but I’d get excited and impulse buy. They sat in my closet for 6 months before I’d donate them again.

Now when I’m thrifting I’m a lot more considerate of what I already have, what I can wear pieces with, and if it’s something I really want. I try to keep my wardrobe small and curated, which means resisting the temptation to buy things just because. 


Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not 100% sustainable when it comes to shopping – I’m definitely not. My goal is to always make sure my decisions are having a net positive in the world. Forgot my reusable cup at Dunkin? I’ll pick up a few pieces of trash in my parking lot and make sure to recycle them. Can’t find the perfect event dress at a thrift shop? I’ll buy a pricier but sustainable new piece. 

Know what you’re supporting

Also, research the ethics of your local thrift shops. In the state of Illinois, Goodwill will no longer be paying their employees who have special needs in 2020 but instead they’ll “…be involved in some type of learning based initiative.” 

For me, that means come January 1st when this new policy takes effect, I’ll be crossing the river into Iowa to do any shopping at Goodwill. If you’re in a privileged enough position to be picky about where you shop, consider boycotting any Goodwill in Illinois for as long as they make the choice to exploit workers with disabilities.

Whew! That was a lot – what are your favorite tips for shopping at thrift shops? What have been your best finds? Let me know in the comments!