Thursday, June 16, 2011

Treasure Hunting at thrift stores

It's amazing what you can find at places like Goodwill, Salvation Army, or Boomerang's (thrift store in the Boston area). Twenty years ago, I would have been called a cheapskate, but now, I'm "green" or "environmentally conscious". Perhaps thrift stores would be more popular and trendy if we called them "eco-friendly stores". Whatever. The point of this blog is to help my fellow poor students live well on very little money. Thrift store shopping is very important in this endeavor because you can save a lot of money from the time you move into your first apartment or dorm. It should be your first stop for household decor and supplies. Whatever you can't find at the thrift store, you get at a regular store. If you go to the regular stores first, you'll probably find the same thing at the thrift store for a fraction of the cost and slap your forehead while yelling "DOH!"

The stuff you can get at a thrift store can be divided into 4 main categories: appliances, dining, clothes & shoes, and books. In this series, I'll show you what I've found in the past 10 years at various thrift stores in the Boston area. The videos will feature some of the best items.

Appliances and Cooking tools
Here's proof!
GE Convection Toaster Oven
The popcorn popper that I used in previous posts on roasting coffee was from the Goodwill. I got that for only $6. More recently, I found this GE convection toaster oven for only about $10! When I bought it, I didn't know that it was a convection model and just thought I was getting a great deal on a huge toaster oven. As I was baking some bread in it, I heard it make some noise coming from the oven. As you know, toaster ovens are not supposed to make noise! So, I googled the toaster oven and found out that it was a convection toaster oven. The noise was the fan that blows the hot air around inside. For more on this appliance, check out my future blog post on maximizing your toaster oven.

Kitchen utensils are another great surprise that you might find in the housewares section. I found a garlic press, a potato ricer, various spatulas, and more. The quality is usually going to be pretty good because the person who has donated it has already used it and the utensil has therefore stood the test of time. The crappy utensils break before they ever make it into a thrift store.

Finally, baking pans and cooking vessels (i.e. pots & pans) of all kinds can be found in most thrift stores. Why pay $10 for a muffin pan when you can get it for $3 at the Goodwill? However, you need to check the pans carefully for scratches. Teflon pans that have scratches and rust spots will probably add some small flakes of teflon or metal to your baked goods - not cool! Stainless steel pans are usually the best bet because it's pretty hard to damage those.

Dining - Dishes and Silverware
Most of my dishes came from Boomerang's. Recently, I found a crystal mug that retails for $48. At the Goodwill, it was just any mug, so it cost me 60 cents. Unfortunately, crystal contains lead oxide, so I can't use it on a daily basis. However, I've bought quite a lot of glasses and mugs from Boomerang's and have a cupboard full of great drinking vessels. Most of my plates are stoneware. If you take some time to look around thrift stores for plates, you could probably stock up your dish cupboards with better quality plates, cups, glasses, and dishes than if you  went to a regular store AND pay much less.

Clothes and Shoes
If you have free time to look through all the racks, you can pick up most of your wardrobe if you visit 2 or 3 thrift stores. It's unlikely that you'll find everything you need at one store because the selection at each store is so random and the sizes are not always accurate because a large size from a ten-year-old shirt is not the same as a large size today. It's a time consuming process to try on all the clothes there, so try to think about what you want before you go there. That way, if you don't find it, you can move on to the next store. Just make sure you throw the clothes in the wash before you wear them.

You can find things that are better quality at thrift stores.
Shoes are another crap shoot and you need to inspect those carefully. Check the heels to see how worn out they are. I've found Doc Martens that were not worn out much at all. If you know how to shine shoes, a pair of leather shoes that look old and worn can be transformed into a pair of shiny shoes that look almost as good as new. I guess those 5 years of military service taught me something useful after all...

You probably won't find all the textbooks that you need but if you're a philosophy major, it's very possible that you might find something by Chomsky or Nietzsche on the shelves. I've also found a Durkheim book and some supplementary books that came in handy. However, if you're looking for fun reading, there are usually plenty of used novels, travel guides, cook books, and autobiographies. Amazon charges $4 for shipping. Books at thrift stores range from $1 to $3 at most places.

Once you get past the funky smell of the clothes and the fact that the items were once owned by someone else, thrift shopping might just become your healthiest addiction because you'll realize that it's just not necessary to spend more money on stuff at regular stores. Some of the highest quality items in my house are from Boomerang's and the Goodwill.


  1. I am in total agreement with you! I love thrift stores-- cant pay full price for anything nowadays since I am so broke! Thrift stores & yard sales. That's how i shop. And even some consignment stores are too pricey, though its essentially the same concept.

    And on thing where I cant get it second-hand or gently used-- like food-- Coupons are my BEST friend! Gotta save a buck to live!

    ~The Nifty Thrifty Chicana~

  2. Thanks Chicana! Coupons are great but they always seem to expire before I remember to use them.

  3. I'm enjoying your perspective and your creative blog!

    Here are a few more tips for success w/ thrifting:

    Establish a relationship with a cobbler. Take your shoes and boots for re-heeling, re-soling and reconditioning on a regular basis. Cobblers can put in gussets (expandable seams) to accommodate varying calf and heel widths, adjust shoe sizes and do all sorts of things that will bring comfort to you and will save lots of $$ over the life of your footwear.

    When you bring home clothing, before wearing, wash/clean it according to the label instructions. If I'm not sure about machine washing, I hand wash in a gentle Woolite-type solution. Don't be afraid of buying merino, cashmere, linen, silk and other fine materials - most are washable, and even the dry clean only clothes are usually less costly to maintain than the cheaply constructed and poor quality material goods. When you are buying, look for the quality and drape of the material, the construction of the garment, and the styling. If you want the max for your investment, go for classics and a neutral color palette (white, cream, taupe, brown, navy, off black, black). You can add color and drama via accessories or one type of clothing, like a shell or shirt.

    Unless you need an item RIGHT NOW, you can afford to be selective. Decide exactly what you would like and treasure hunt for it. On the other hand, if you do need something immediately, such as being caught without a jacket when the weather turns, you can easily pop in to a thrift and find something serviceable for less than $6 to wear out of the store.

    Look for items out of season. Boomerangs and Goodwill run sales, and I've brought home $1 designer clothing with the tags still on.

    Be flexible and try styles/colors/designs that aren't what you would normally buy. Pricing allows you to experiment. You can always recycle what you don't want to keep.

    Learn when new shipments are displayed. Shopping then will get you the best selection.

    Donate! Bring your clean, in good repair, serviceable items to the thrifts you frequent.

    Use Freecycle for the items that thrifts don't/can't take. I've gotten a window a/c, a large flat computer screen, paint, pet supplies, gardening supplies and clothing from Freecycle, along with being able to offer things to others.

    Check Yelp for locations and reviews of thrifts, vintage and consignment shops that are worthy of your patronage. Several people create lists of the best and most interesting places.

    Happy thrifting!

  4. Thanks aek! I really liked your suggestions, especially the one about getting a cobbler to fix old shoes. The dry cleaners across the street from the post office in Jamaica Plain also repairs shoes. I'm going to take my worn Docs there to get them re-soled.