The Financial Truth About Thrift Stores

by Rachel Muller
DIY Landscaping for Less photo

Could a thrift store really be dangerous to your financial health? Doesn’t thrift shopping help you save? We explore the financial truth about thrift stores and bargain shopping.

When it comes to flea markets, thrift stores, and garage sales, are you a shrewd shopper or a junk collector? The answer may impact more than your finances, as I realized when I examined my own behavior in this area.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of secondhand purchases.

The Upside of Thrift Store Shopping

Enter any room in my house, and most of what you’ll find is pre-owned. I dress well, but I pay only a fraction of what my mall-shopping friends pay for their wardrobes. My home is both comfortably and attractively furnished, and I didn’t have to go into debt to do it.

Besides saving a significant amount of money, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I benefit the environment when I reuse perfectly good items and help keep other people’s cast-offs out of the landfill. When I shop at thrift stores in my area, I’m also supporting worthwhile charities.

The Downside of Thrift Store Shopping

The upside of thrift store shopping sounds like a win-win-win proposition, but there is a potential downside.

Garage sales and thrift stores can be as addictive as malls. I’m more likely to get into financial trouble if I’m buying new items recreationally, but even thrift store purchases can add up. If I’m really going to wear the three skirts and four blouses I picked up for a song, then I can be proud of my bargain-hunting abilities. If I’m going to use the cast-iron apple peeler, or the battered mandolin is going to add to the décor in my living room, then I have every reason to be pleased with my purchases.

But if the clothes are just going to take up space in an already-crowded closet, and the apple peeler is going to gather dust in a cupboard, then not only have I wasted money on things I didn’t need, but I’ve also cluttered up my home. Whole books have been written on how clutter costs time, money, and peace of mind.

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5 Strategies for the Wise Secondhand Shopper

I’ve recently taken stock of my secondhand purchasing patterns. More than half of what I bring home can genuinely be classified as useful. However, many of my “bargains” duplicate things I already have, and some of them are downright useless. In an attempt to become a wiser secondhand shopper, I’ve come up with the following strategies:

1. Inventory what you own.

If you have a weakness for kitchen gadgets, then inventory what you already have, and what you actually use, in your kitchen.

If, like me, your weakness is clothes, then check what you have in your closet. I tend to be drawn to the same things over and over again, like black t-shirts and denim skirts. Counting how many I already had was an eye-opener and will prevent me from making further duplicate purchases.

2. Make a list of what you want or need.

Keep track of the items in your home that need to be replaced so that you remember to check for them each time you’re at a garage sale or in a secondhand store. With your inventory in mind, keep track of your children’s present and future clothing needs. Plan for upcoming events, such as occasions that call for dressing up, holidays and celebrations that require decorations or gifts.

3. Set spending limits.

Plan how much you’re willing to spend on your “shopping spree” before you set out for the flea market or enter a thrift store.

Take cash with you instead of a debit or credit card. (See Why We Spend More Using Credit Cards.)

If you find something you absolutely must have that exceeds your spending limit, you can always ask to make a deposit on it while you run to the bank machine. Instead of seeing this as an inconvenience, see it as a gift of additional “reflection” time.

4. Recognize your own second-hand shopping patterns.

I am much more likely to buy things I don’t need at the cheapest thrift store in my area than anywhere else. If an item is only a dollar or two, I’ll buy it without thinking.

On the other hand, I give a lot of thought to the items I buy at more expensive consignment shops. Cheaper items aren’t a bargain if I don’t use or wear them. I’m learning to be a more conscious shopper wherever I am.

5. Eliminate clutter at its source.

Check over your purchases as soon as you bring them home, and you may see them in a different light. Return unwanted items for a refund if you can, donate them for a tax credit, sell them, or pass them on. Just don’t let them take up valuable space in your home!

Reviewed October 2023

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