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Best Decisions: Embracing Thrift Stores

by Gip Plaster on April 17th, 2012

I should have mentioned it sooner, I suppose, but this series of posts is in no particular order. Discovering thrift stores opened up a world of savings, business opportunities and fun to me that so many other people are missing.

If this list was in order of occurrence or order of important, this post about thrift stores would have been near the top.

Embracing thrift stores is among the best decisions I’ve made on my trek toward a simpler life, but I discovered second-hand shops, charities shops or resale stores — whatever you want to call them — long before I got serious about simplifying my life.

This post, the ninth in a series of 10 posts about my best decisions along life’s simpler path, is all about used merchandise stores and how they can change your life — if you understand them.

How I Discovered Thrift Stores

My online used bookselling business — now nearly folded — supported me for half a decade or more. It was great fun while it lasted, however, and much of that fun came from tearing through thrift stores (and used bookstores) looking for books good enough and worth enough to resell. I found tens of thousands.

No, that’s not an exaggeration. I’ve handled well over 20,000 books during my bookselling career, almost all of which came from used merchandise stores of one kind or another.

Some people mistakenly think buying things to resell from thrift stores is dishonest or unethical, but it’s actually a smart business decision that serves many people very well.

The store gets the full price it was asking for the merchandise, and if I’m lucky and careful, I make a nice profit. Even better, many thrift stores use the money they make to provide clients with food and necessities (like the Salvation Army, a conservative Christian service organization) or jobs and job training (like Goodwill, a secular charity).

As I explained in my post Making Thrift Store Clothing Your Own last July, charity thrift stores aren’t necessarily places where the underprivileged shop, as many people believe. They’re most often places that sell things to raise money to help those in need. Many other thrift stores are for-profit companies with no charitable connections or that donate only a small percentage of profits to charity.

The Role Of Thrift Stores In My Life

Many thrift stores now sell their highest quality merchandise on eBay or other online sales venues themselves, limiting the opportunity to use them as an inventory source for a business of your own. Some opportunities still exist, however, and I take advantage when I notice one.

In addition, almost all of my clothing is from thrift stores. I don’t buy shoes, socks or underwear at these places, but all of my other clothing comes from thrift stores. Some items cost me less than a dollar; others cost me as much as $8 each. I recently bought two pairs of jeans at a local thrift store for $7.99 each. That’s more than they should be charging, I think, but it’s substantially less than retail, so why should I complain?

For me, thrift stores are many things. First, they’re a business opportunity — although one that’s very limited now. They’re also an inexpensive source of clothing — although one that’s getting more expensive. Even better, however, they’re endlessly entertaining. I hate shopping in regular stores, but I like digging through bins and mismatched racks at thrift stores.

An Important Caveat

It’s not often I use the word “caveat”, but it’s just the one I need here.

Whether you use thrift stores for the resale opportunities they present, the endless supply of inexpensive clothing and home goods they offer or the sheer fun of the process, a bit of care is needed.

Clutter is the enemy of a simple, deliberate life, and thrift store shopping is a great way to increase the clutter in your home if you do it wrong. Buying clothes without trying them on is guaranteed to result in a pile of ill-fitting items on which you wasted your money. You can also seriously derail your life buying knickknacks and other uselessness from thrift stores.

Think about it: There’s a reason someone got rid of that collection of porcelain cats. It’s not the sort of thing you want to see more than once or twice. Admire these pieces in the store, then let someone else deal with dusting, arranging and protecting them for their rest of their days.

Even the tightest budgets can probably afford dozens of pieces of thrift-store junk.

Where do thrift store fit into your simple, deliberate life? No matter how much money you have or what misconceptions you may have had about thrift store, they can have a place in your life.

Because thrift stores promote reusing, recycling and re-imagining, they’re good things to have in your life. Never mind all the money you can save.

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13 Comments
  1. Keith permalink

    I think that you make a valid point about thrift stores getting a sale and what they value an item to be, what you do with that item afterwards is irrelevant. As long as the charity get the money that they were looking for, what does it matter where the item ends up.

    A good tip you’ve got there about buying from charity shops, but 20,000 books must have built up a lot of clutter!

    • Not all at once! I’ve never had more than 1200 books at one time, but yes, they do create some clutter… Since I had to be able to locate any book at any moment, it had to be organized clutter though. And since I was making money from it, it was worthwhile clutter!

      Thanks for the comment, Keith. It’s good to have you here.
      Gip

  2. Megyn @MinimalistMommi permalink

    I adore Goodwill and shop (and donate) there regularly as they have half price sales every other Saturday. When I first started shopping there years ago, I found it easy to bring home more than I intended. Now, I go with a list and rarely come home with more than intended, but if I do, it’s easy to return items for store credit.

    As for the comment about those who disagree with reselling items, I find it a bit harsh. Everyone has their own moral structure, and to say that someone is “mistaken” for having different morals is inconsiderate. I am someone who strongly disagrees with the reselling of items from thrift stores or garage sales or off of Freecycle. I do not believe I’m right, and you’re wrong, but it’s just how I choose to live my life. I keep finding this theme from your blog–anyone who disagrees is “wrong”, and your way is the “right” view (ex: the post about hair care/style). I really hope that in the future you can be a bit more open to other viewpoints!

    • I think reselling is disallowed in Freecycles rules, at least when I checked last.

      Remember that almost all thrift stores sell premium items online themselves now. That wasn’t the case a few years ago. Those who don’t support reselling thrift store items don’t understand how these stores work. They have set prices, which resellers pay. There’s no way the thrift store could ever make any more than their asking price for the item whether it is resold or not. I wouldn’t pay even $1 for a prom dress, for example, but an expert in dresses might gladly pay $50 for a designer dress at a thrift store and then properly describe and photograph it to make hundreds on eBay. They can do that because they are experts (or lucky). I can’t do that, and neither can the people who run the thrift store. If the store owners knew how to make more on the item they would.

      My blog is intended to present strong opinions. There’s no point writing if you don’t have strong opinions. Unlike many simple living bloggers, however, I allow comments so others can use the resources I pay for to state their opinions as well. It’s a nice deal for all of us, don’t you think?
      Gip

      • Megyn @MinimalistMommi permalink

        My issue with reselling is that we are grossly inflating the value of items. I strongly believe that if we all only purchased that which we needed, loved, and used, there would be a more realistic price scheme. I often feel that buying into trends and fads that a lot of resellers do, it’s just worsening the problem. They know they can take advantage of the consumer because the demand is so high all due to trend. I choose the other route of not going towards the money-grubbing trends and just buy what I actually want, use, and love, even with having the insight and understanding of what an item “should” really be worth. All items have the value they do because we allow them to. I’m just going the route to say that most items really are pretty valueless. Until the trends change (which is unlikely to ever occur), I will not buy into the reselling trend.

        • Megyn, resellers usually make things that were available only to a few people available to a larger, more educated audience who knows the true value of the items. To me, jewelry, knickknacks and Christmas decorations are valueless, but books that I can resell have value to me and to the end user. I offer those users a great deal that they gladly accept if it’s a better deal than someone else’s offering. The market determines the success of reselling.
          Gip

    • Joni Brown permalink

      This is the first time I have ever heard of it being “wrong” or even heard the controversary on this subject. Why? What is the reasoning? The thrift stores can charge whatever they want. I have never bought from thrift store to turn around and sell items but if I had thought about it and it would put food on my table I would definitely do it. I don’t see the moral question there at all.

      I am sure I have sold things I bought at thrift stores, or yard sales. When I have a yard sale about once a year I don’t even think about where I got the item that I am selling. Once I buy and item it is mine. I’m real confused about this one.

      Joni

  3. Like you, Gip, I’ve been a fan of thrift stores (as well as yard sales, flea markets, swapmeets, and other second-hand sources) for as long as I can remember. I used to collect vinyl records; easily half my collection came from thrift stores. I’ve also occasionally re-sold things, but mostly I shop for myself.

    While there was a time when I would regularly “go thrifting” as a recreational activity, as well as stop at any and every thrift store I happened to pass in my travels, now I mostly just go if I actually need something. It’s nice to know I’m saving money while helping a worthy cause, and possibly saving something from the landfill.
    Mike | Homeless On Wheels recently posted Goodbye Google, Hello DuckDuckGo!

    • I think thrift stores are win-win-win. No one loses. That’s why I brought up this topic again — hoping to educate others about how deep the true value of thrift stores really is.

      I go through phases with my thrift store shopping. I’m in a thrift store phase again at the moment.

      Thanks, as always, for participating, Mike.
      Gip

  4. I think thrift stores are a winning solution for everyone. There are also garage sales and with the right research you can make online purchase for specific clothing products (say a minimalists 3 season waterproof jacket for a traveler).

    Thrift Stores are also a tool to teach people about budgets in this debt consuming world.

    Thanks for this post Gip. People from all walks of life shop in the Thrift stores. I know people that refuse, which means they have to pay full price…I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay $60+ for a pair of Levi Jeans when I can pay less than $10.

    Every dollar is more time for me to be creative and enjoy life.
    simply stephen recently posted 15 creative uses for empty wine bottles

    • Thanks, Stephen. You’re right. No one loses in the thrift store system. Even those stores that don’t have any charitable connections are doing the right thing by encouraging reuse of items. They’re great things all the way around. Buying used merchandise is always a good idea, whether it comes from a thrift store, an online seller or a garage sale.
      Gip

  5. Joni Brown permalink

    And one more thing. I might pay a lot more money for something that I specifically want whereas you might think it’s a piece of junk. One mans trash kind of thing. Last weekend I bought an end table at a thrift store owned by a lady (no charity or anything) because I needed the table, it was tons cheaper than what I’ve been seeing online and it was the exact color I wanted. I now use a list when I go to get something off the list I need.

    However, if next year I have a yardsale and either no longer need the table or i’m so broke I need food more I would have no qualms of selling it. Things are only inflated if its something a person wants.

    Joni

    • I agree with your thinking on this, Joni. The market sets the price on items for sale — and once you buy something, it’s your to do with as you please. If you’re fortunate enough to offer something to someone who wants it and make a profit, that’s great. And if your needs change or you need the money, it’s perfectly acceptable to sell any of your belongings — and it’s even better if you can make a profit in that situation as well.
      Gip

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