(Guest Post by Serena Appiah of Thrift Diving)
There are three things I will never buy from a thrift store: underwear (including socks!), mattresses, and rugs. Everything else, budget readers, is fair game! If I can paint it, stain it, reupholster it, bleach it, throw it in the washer, or dress my kids in it, for a fraction of the cost to buy it new, you’d better believe I will buy it from a thrift store!
Thrift stores are a huge opportunity to outfit your home and life without committing what I refer to as “financial suicide.” But how do you get the best deals while thrift-diving? How do you know what to look for? Where are the best thrift shops?
Here’s a look at what you need to know before you hit the thrift stores:
1. Never take “SOLD” as an answer.
Just because it has a “SOLD” sticker on it doesn’t mean it’s always “SOLD.” Customers change their mind often. Then, you enter the store that day, and you have just seen the perfect thing ever and you must have it. There’s a big red “SOLD” sticker on it, however. What do you do? Find the store clerk and insist they sell it to you. Some may feel that you’re stepping on the toes of other budget-conscious consumers here, but truthfully, you have no idea how long that “SOLD” sticker has been on the item; it may have just been placed, or it could have been hours. Days, even!
Last summer I found the perfect foyer table for only $30. There it was–beckoning me over, and I almost walked (it had a “SOLD” sticker on it). I asked an employee if I could buy it. He pointed out it was already sold. I insisted it was “perfect” and that I wanted it (without being, well, you know, overbearing). He offered to ask his manager, and came back a moment later and said it was available! Now, had I not insisted asked nicely, I wouldn’t have had a place to collect all the junk mail in my foyer.
And unbelievably, this experience happened a second time too most recently; I fought tooth and nail for a beautiful French dresser that was so exquisite. I drooled over it the moment I laid eyes on it. Again, a huge “SOLD” sticker graced the top. The employees were going to sell it to me; the supervisor would not, although no one could verify if the customer had paid or not. Long story short, they wouldn’t sell it to me. I came back at noon the next day to see if the customer had come to collect the dresser, and—[insert musical harp here]—there it was! No “SOLD” sticker! I bought that dresser so quickly, then wiped the drool from my lips.
If this should happen to you, persevere. And if they won’t sell something to you because of the “SOLD” sticker, offer to leave your contact information in the event the item is for sale again.
2. Always ask for a discount. Always.
This doesn’t always work. I’ve tried at times and was denied. Some thrift stores stick hard and fast to their pricing points, never budging just because someone asks. But there are many other places that will honor your offer to reduce the price, just because you asked. The day I bought my fabulous vintage drafting table for only $30 from one of the (smaller) thrift stores I frequent, I just happened to miss a 50% off furniture deal by about 15 minutes, because I had already been standing in line for another purchase. I simply went up to the cashier, asked them to include the drafting table in the 50% off deal, and they did! (And can I just add that I later found that the drafting table had sold for over $300 on eBay?? Just sayin’).
3. Tag along with your “frugal” friends.
You know the saying: “Birds of a feather flock together,” which means, in DIY-speak, “You ain’t the only cheap person in your circle!” If you’re cheap or frugal, odds are, you have some pretty frugal friends, as well. Tag along with them to their local thrift shops, or ask them for recommendations, because they probably know where the hot thrift spots are, as well as they know how to navigate them. You may even organize a thrift-diving day-trip with your friends and just spend the day hitting up all your favorite thrift shops.
4. Sign up for mailing lists, and more.
In the age of social media, nearly every business has a mailing list, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. Yes, even thrift stores. At my favorite thrift store, email notifications are how I find out when they’re featuring a “50% furniture” special sale.
5. Sign up for a “store card.”
Find out if your local thrift store has a “Value Card.” Little did I know, until a few months ago, that my favorite thrift store has a “Value Card.” It’s like a grocery store “bonus card,” where on Thursdays, you receive an additional 25% off everything in the store. I have scored some major stuff for next to nothing because of this deal. My favorite thrift store also has a “stamped card” in which you receive a stamp every time you spend at least $25. After 10 stamps, you save 25% off of any one item, any time you want to redeem it. Sweet!
6. Throw some elbows.
Sometimes you’ll just have to fight for your awesome discovery—you found it first! This happened to me recently when I scored my dining room table for only $12. The table was buried under a pile of toys, inconspicuous to other shoppers. That is, until I cleared it. There it sat, exposed in all its glory, and by the time I had walked back to the table with an employee so I could buy it (I was literally gone for 2 minutes), a woman was shaking it, testing its fitness, with a look of awe on her face. “Oh, this table is already SOLD!” I quickly mentioned to her. It would have been funny if she had pulled the “Never take ‘SOLD’ as an answer” move back at me!
7. Be-friend the staff
Make friends with the staff. They know the inventory; they can hold things for you; they can contact you when things come in that they know you’ve been looking for. My face is recognizable by several thrift store staff now. In fact, I get the biggest smiles from them when they see me. Who knows—maybe they’re thinking, “Oh, goodness, here comes that chick again….” Regardless, they’re a pleasure to see, and they’re always willing to help when I need it, including providing discounted hauling to my house when I find furniture items too large to fit in my Honda Accord.
8. Utilize your mobile.
When you’re thrift-diving, use your cell phone to look up name brands of items you like, to see if what you’ve found is a great deal. I did this recently with a pair of brand new Cole Haan shoes I’d found. Okay, okay, I’m totally not a fashionista, so I had no idea who Cole Haan was, but the shoes look immaculate and expensive. Sure enough, they were designer shoes, and for only $7.00!
9. Shop for solidly constructed items.
If you’re buying furniture at the thrift store, buy items that are real wood and not particleboard. Often times, the furniture at thrift stores is outdated (vintage!), but made of such solid wood, that you’d be a fool to pass it up. A little bit of creativity and you can refinish and transform it into a piece that suits your style. And the best part is that the quality materials will hold up over time.
10. Don’t be afraid to hoard.
If you like it, buy it. Even if you don’t have an immediate need for it. (Well, as long as you can afford it!) I know this speaks against all the financial rules we’ve learned about not being impulsive…learning to “just say no” to fruitless spending. But seriously, what you find at the thrift store will never be the same from day to day. If you find something you love, I guarantee you that someone else will come along that loves it as much as you. The next day it will be gone.
Don’t lose that which you love. If you can afford it, buy it. You will find a use for it. Your garage or closet where you’re hoarding your thrift store goodies may hate you. But you’ll thank yourself later.
Serena Appiah is a full-time working mother of 3 young boys (ages 5, 2, and 4 months), and is the author of the DIY (do-it-yourself) blog, ThriftDiving.com
EDITOR’S NOTE: While that last tip DOES seem counter-intuitive, I must admit I still get pissed at myself today for never buying this AWESOME set of drawers 5 years ago when it really was *perfect* but I waited too long to get it! Arghhh…so now I *always* buy the things I love right away, figuring I could always just turn around and sell it later on Craigslist or eBay anyways if I made a stupid move (though 90% of the time it’s not). Much better in my opinion to regret *not* getting something, than the opposite. At least when it comes to thrift store one-of-a-kinds :) They def. get sold fast!
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