Thrifting 101

By Kate Riley May 23, 2011

Happy Monday everyone!  We spent the weekend working outdoors on our patio, more to come on that project later this week.   Meanwhile, I thought I’d offer up my very best tips for thrifting, plus a peek at my latest thrift store before and after. 

There are plenty of people who don’t care to shop thrift stores.  Perhaps they dislike or are afraid of used goods, or their local thrift stores carry nothing but useless junk.  I’ve seen my share of thrift stores that carried mostly unusable items, but I’ve also scored a few finds in thrift stores that could be resold for hundreds of dollars.  It all depends on the particular store, they’re all so very different.  I’m asked now and then for my best advice on thrifting, so I thought it time to put them all in one place!

Here are a few of my tips for shopping thrift stores:

Stay Focused.   When you find a great thrift store, it’s like shopping in any second hand forum.  Your visit can quickly turn into ”Hey that’s cute” or “Oooh, I like that too!” and before you know it, your tab has climbed higher than you planned, and you’ve brought home things you don’t really need.  Before you walk through the door, remember what you’re there for.  Stay focused on your needs and your budget.    

Know The Sales Days.  Find out when your local store has sales and show up early.  My local St. Vincent de Paul has furniture sales when they have too much in stock (typically after a big donation weekend) so I’m in the habit of stopping in every Monday or Tuesday to see what’s new.  My mom loves to shop at the Goodwill on Tuesdays when anyone over 55 gets a 25% discount.  She’s found so many designer labels and even items that are brand new and have never been worn, you just never know what you’ll find!  It pays to know when your local store offers discounts. 

Seek that Diamond in the Rough.  Shopping a thrift store can be hit and miss, and you never know what you’ll find inside, it just depends on what is in stock on a given day.  For me, this is the most exciting part, searching through the real junk to discover a great find.  It’s that treasure hunt that keeps me coming back time and again. 


Typically, the good stuff is buried under the bad.  Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty and shuffle things around to find something worth buying.  Also, keep in mind that time is money.   Always consider the time and cost of refurbishing a piece.  If it is one that will need to be completely restored, stained or painted, factor in that time and energy into the purchase price. 

Full Inspection.  Give anything you contemplate bringing home a full inspection.   Often, the staff will have already weeded through the donations for stains, rips, or unusable items, nevertheless, take the time to thoroughly inspect the item.  With furniture, pull every drawer and open every door.  Look for signs of quality construction, like solid wood and dovetail joints.   

Be Willing to Walk Away.  Half the time I enter a thrift store I see absolutely nothing I could use.  I see pieces I could refurbish, but I (try to) resist the urge to bring them home if they serve no purpose.  I’m an avid thrifter and my friends know it, so I always have a list of things I’m looking for, for me or for them.  After a quick scour, if I don’t see it, I walk out and come back to shop another day. 

Beware the Cooties.   So many people freak out at the thought of bed bugs, mites, or strange odors.  This concern is legitimate, as there have been outbreaks of bedbugs in many urban areas, so always take precautions.  If you bring home fabric, be sure wash it in hot water to kill any germs.  Resist the urge to buy anything upholstered you’ll sleep or sit on unless you plan to have it professionally cleaned or reupholstered before you bring it into your home, and examine every piece of furniture for any signs of infestation or decay.  If your furniture find has an odor, perhaps due to a previous life in a smoker’s residence, there are several remedies.  Baking soda, white vinegar, witch hazel, Borax, and Murphy’s Oil Soap all help neutralize odors in second hand furniture. 

Shop Without Kids.  Just like any treasure hunt at a flea market or clearance sale, kids have a little patience, so if you intend to hit a few stores, leave those little ones at home.  That said, I think it does set a good example to take kids to thrift stores now and then (which I do sometimes) so they learn the benefits, but must most of the time I go alone.  I find I can’t spend the time I need searching for the good stuff if I have to attend to their wants or keep my eye on their every move. 

Ask For a Lower Price.  I am never afraid to ask for a lower price.  The key is to talk to the manager on site, not just any clerk working in the store.  If you’re a regular, chances are they will give you a discount.  If not, the good news is you’re money is going to a worthy cause and you are already getting a deal, but it never hurts to ask, so be brave and just do it.  But be nice!  If you’re a frequent thrifter, then the sales staff will recognize you.  Be as nice as you can be, ask their name and remember it.  When they see you walk through the door, they’ll treat you well and sometimes give you a better deal.  I asked my friend Rhoda, a thrifting expert, for her best tip.  Her advice?  “Go early, take cash, and don’t be afraid to bargain!” 

Purge Often.   You know how it is, both retail and second hand purchases can quickly clutter your home, so get in the habit of purging your home often of the things you don’t use or need and donate them to your favorite thrift store!   Just this month I rid my house of clothes we’ve outgrown, and other unused items like TV trays (I’ve made a pledge we won’t eat in front of the TV), leftover toddler toys, and unused electronics.  Drop off your donation at the back door before you enter the front door.  


No doubt there are items sitting in your home that you could easily donate.  Thrift store donations are tax deductible, so be sure to ask for a receipt. 

Think Creatively.  If there ever was a tip to embrace, this would be it.  Whenever I enter a thrift store, I see things for what they could become, not what they are.  Take this coffee table I recently spied for $15 at my local Goodwill.   This table has the potential to be a completely amazing bench ~ imagine it upholstered with new foam and fabric and those fantastic legs given a fresh coat of paint.  Completely stunning in an entry, and one of a kind too!

bench thrift store


Have a vision every time you thrift!   To quote my friend Mr. Goodwill Hunting,  "Be able to look beyond what you see and have vision for what something can be.  You can mix thrifted lamps and a side board with Pottery Barn lamp shades, and still have a well edited look.” 

rashon lamps.bmp

image: Mr. Goodwill Hunting


Most thrift stores are for charity and are run by churches, noble causes, or veteran’s groups, and most people assume thrift stores exist to provide goods to the poor.  However, many thrift stores like Goodwill or Salvation Army actually exist to raise money for their organization.  When you buy from them, you support their cause, and you also help the environment by keeping a few things from ending up in landfills.  That’s a feel good proposition we all should support. 

Now here’s a peek at my latest thrift store before and after: 


cabinet turned wine bar


I followed the same steps as I did on this green nursery dresser, but here’s a recap on how to paint furniture.

1) Remove all Hardware.  Before priming and painting, be sure to remove knobs and pulls.  

remove hardware


2) Clean and Scuff.   With the use of a bonding primer, there is no need to sand your piece to remove all traces of varnish, but giving the entire piece a onceover with a medium grit (80 – 120) sanding wedge for 5 to 10 minutes helps to remove any lingering debris and also preps your surface for priming.  Wipe down when complete.

good scuff


3) Cosmetic Repair.  Fill any scratches or dents with a sandable and paintable wood putty.  If you are moving the location of your knobs or hardware, now is the time to fill those existing holes.  Sand smooth when dry. 

wood filler

4)  Prime.  Bonding primers are essential for a lasting paint job, and there are several primers on the market, both water and oil based versions.  I use Zinsser ‘Cover Stain’, an oil based formula, because it adheres to glossy surfaces (even laminate) and blocks any stain from seeping through and affecting your future paint color.   You can choose either a spray version or brush on version.

zinsser primer


Keep in mind, using a brush on formula requires you clean your brush with mineral spirits or paint thinner, so consider using a throwaway paintbrush for the primer coat.  Tip: oil based paints will come off your hands with vegetable oil, no need to use harsh chemicals on your hands. 

5)  Paint.  One your primer is dry, apply two coats of latex paint.  For the best paint job, invest in a quality angled brush.  You can use a roller for quick application, but you’ll need to follow it up with a brush, especially in nooks or tight places.  I also recommend a paint conditioner called Floetrol, which extends your drying time to eliminate drag and minimize brush strokes in your paint.  It’s inexpensive ($7 to $9 a bottle) and a little goes a long way, find it at any specialty paint store. 

paintbrush and floetrol


7)  Add Hardware.  If you’re adding modern knobs or pulls, measure their precise location and use a drill bit to create new holes. 

drill new holes


8. Protect your Hard Work.  Use a water based protectant as your final step, which helps eliminate any stickiness that can result from using latex paint, and also protects your paint for years to come.  I recommend either Minwax Polycrylic or Varathane Polyurethane formulas, you can find them in brush on or spray applications, in both satin and gloss finishes.  Make sure you avoid any oil based polyurethanes, they are designed for stained furniture, and will yellow or amber over time. 

Follow these steps and you’ll have a custom piece in a weekend!


cabinet before



bar cabinet side view


kates cabinet after copy


What’s your latest thrift store score?




  1. Ah, some great tips today! With school almost out for me, I look forward to a summer of thrifting and refurbishing, so I’ll have to bookmark this post to keep me on track. Thanks, Kate! :)

  2. One of the things I do when looking for new thrift stores is to figure out what sort of communities surround the store. I prefer to drive fairly far to hit the Goodwill’s and Salvation Army’s closer to affluent areas. Especially a store that’s between a very affluent area and the main highways. Why? People will drive from their super pricey house towards work in the city and drop off goodies.

    Also, I check out larger churches for their thrift stores. Not many of them advertise.. so if I’m driving and see a nice big church, I’ll check out their website or even call. Church thrift stores are better than Goodwill’s and Salvation’s.. Church ladies like clean stuff. (Goodwill’s and Salvation’s don’t much care about clean.. that’s why they mostly all smell horrid)

  3. Morning Kate,
    Love all your very helpful shifting hints, however I must disagree with the “avoid upholstered items’ tip. At least at my Salvation Macy’s they have very strict federal guidelines about sanitizing and cleaning upholstered pieces. All items are labeled as such. I also vacuum and spray all my fabric pieces with an inexpensive all natural spray called BEST YET, which is 100% effective against anything that might be living in that furniture.
    I just brought home a $1,600 Hekman chair and ottoman for $52.00!!! Pass that up…I don’t think so.
    Heading on over to enjoy your Goodwill Hunting post…see you there

    Janet xox

  4. As always, an amazing post!! I’m wondering if you have seen an increase in price in your thrift stores recently? Here in North Carolina my friends and I have seen quite a hike in the last 6 months, the reason being, I believe, that more people are having to thrift. The bargains are becoming slim pickings, especially furniture wise. This last week I saw an amazing buffet, totally over priced at $85 and I can’t seem to find a coffee table under $50, even though they are all terrible, cheaply manufactured pieces.

  5. I love thrift stores! My mom got me started as a child. You have to have a creative vision for most prices and the willingness to put in some effort. You are sure to find unique (and all wood) prices that are far beyond big name store peices. Thanks for the post. Check my blog soon for my finds as i have just moved. Happy shopping!

  6. Love the comparison to a treasure hunt! I think that’s why I enjoy it so much…finding those diamonds in the rough for a bargain. I very much agree that it takes patience, and you have to be willing to walk away. One of the head cashiers (I don’t ever see the manager out front) at our Salvation Army is a real crab, and even though I regularly stop in, she was once willing to charge me $50 for a crappy laminate dresser, albeit a large one. When I went back a few days later it was marked at $10. Needless to say, I found another piece for $15.

    Great post!!

  7. Oh friend – you know these tips are ones that I love. We were on the same mindset today. I did a quickie post last night about thrifting as a lifestyle, and how when we went through our year of unemployment last year, I didn’t step foot in a store, except for grocery/drugstore stuff. It’s amazing how I literally could live off of thrifting, so it can be all for the fun home decor stuff and lifestyle, practical things as well.

  8. Great tips for thrifting! I couldn’t agree more about the “donate often” tip. As a professional organizer I try to live my life with a “one in, one out” rule. I enjoy thrifting and finding those diamonds in the rough, but I know that if I’m not purging often, my house would become too cluttered to enjoy any potential diamonds. Another key point – stay focused – is key to keeping your house clutter free. There are lots of great deals out there and tons of items we *could* buy because they have *potential* – but again, a cluttered home doesn’t show off anything but clutter.
    Thanks for a great tutorial all thrifters can learn from!

  9. I love a good thrift store find, or a clearance item (I’m not picky). I once scored this amazing tray for a just a few bucks. It’s the third item down. I can’t decide though if I need to change anything to it. Thanks for sharing the tips, it always helps to have a refresher before going out. I like to keep of possible items I could need so I don’t buy too many things I don’t have need for.


  10. I LOVE me a good goodwill/ thrift run. My Grandmother and I make a real habit of it when we are together, we always score.

    Some of my favorites, a $4200 Hermes winter coat for my hubby. Someone had worn it once or twice, spilled a huge coffee everywhere and just dropped it off. One trip to the dry cleaner and it looked amazing for $25.00!

    I have a closet full of “brands”, Ralph Lauren (my favorite), Banana Republic, etc. all from thrift shops.

    Here is one of my favorite finds- we needed new bedside tables:

    Love your blog!

  11. Hey, my friend! We are thrifting buddies for sure. The blog world is just so fun with all the like minded thrifters out there. We “get” each other! Loved your tips, thanks for including me. My main focus for thrifting is usually yardsales, so that’s what I mean by get there early.

  12. Unfortunately, I don’t have any thrift store where I live, but the next best thing for me is the garage sales. I recently found a cabinet at a garage sale similar to your beautiful wine bar and also painted it. I would love it if you come by and see it when you get a chance. Thanks for all your tips on shopping at thrift stores, now I just have to locate a thrift store near me!

  13. Great tips! I love it when you write these posts! You are the queen of transformations with a can of paint!

  14. Great post! I think the hardest part is being able to visualize a thrifted item’s potential, but it’s so exciting when everything clicks – it can turn a good thrift store into a treasure trove!

  15. I have been thrift shopping and antiquing since I was a kid. My mom took me all over the place, even bottle digging at old dump sites! She had an antique shop before I was born and later on we had a vintage boutique together.
    Some of my most treasured items are second, (third) hand.

    I have no problem bartering unless it is a specified charitable organization – like the Cancer Society thrift shops.
    At those places there is usually a sign which asks you to please respect their wishes – prices are firm. I’ve seen people met with a, “This is for CHARITY!” reply when the store manager has had it with people asking.

    So my one tip would be to look for posted signs about that type of stuff first and then if there is nothing posted, it’s all fair game.


  16. Great tips. We have the best thrift store here in l’il ol’ Placerville. Next time you take a trip up 50 to Tahoe, or Apple Hill, let me know ;)

    When I was the floral/display designer for Beverly’s Crafts (Cali version of Michael’s) I had to get ‘creative’. We had some home decor, but not a lot. I’d take a shopping cart and go up and down the aisles ‘shopping’ for color and scale, not caring what the item was. Chairs on top of tables, vases tipped over, you name it, we’d use whatever to pull a vignette together.

    Sometimes I forget about that when thrifting. Thanks for the reminder!

  17. I think the “Shop Without Kids” rule could also be “Shop Without Husband.” He just doesn’t have the patience to look through things, and can’t always visualize how something can look when it’s fixed up. Now I just leave him home. :-)

  18. I have taken our children shopping at thrift stores for years. My oldest child is 8 and she loves going to what she calls “The Recycling Store” because it is earth friendly, the money we spend is for charity, and if she likes something it is always in the price range that she has decided would be alright to spend on that particular trip. Win Win Win!

  19. Great list!! I could not agree more with the “Shop without kids.” Whenever I try to bring my son is def way more distracting. Hmmm and next time I will ask for a lower price. For some reason this always intimidates me ha!

    Delighted Momma

  20. I have the same coffee table in my mudroom that I scooped off Craigslist for $25 waiting to be upholstered. Glad to know I am not crazy for even thinking it.

  21. I loooove me some thrift store shopping and I have found some awesome items. I agree with your tips except one. I will not ask for an additional discount because these stores benefit a charity of some kind. This is not retail where stores make a profit although I have heard some horror stories about what really happens at the Goodwill in the corporate level.

    Anyway, the basic idea of a thrift store is to generate funds for charity from selling donated items and I just don’t feel right requesting a discount. I have felt like it sometimes as I have seen prices creep up to almost a retail level at the Goodwill stores in Southern California (Orange County) where I live. The Salvation Army is good about keeping prices low, but I find the Goodwill (where I live anyway) leans pretty high.

  22. Thanks for the great reminders on thrifting. Recently I have had to train myself to ask this: Where will I put it? If I don’t have a fast and good answer pretty readily available … I leave it behind.

  23. These are great tips Kate. I love thrifting but since they are usually run for charity I never thought about asking for a discount. I just wait for sales if I can, but sometimes I do miss out. Maybe I’ll try bargaining next time.

  24. I love thrift stores. I have been going since I was a child. Most recently I have had some fantastic finds! One treasure is this chair I found, after asking for better deal, they sold it to me for $50 from $75! Never hurts to ask, the worse they can say is “no”. While re-upholstering the chair I found it stuffed with straw and hand forged nails, wonder how old it is?

    Here is the after:

    Here is another chair I revamped. I asked the manager for a discount and got it – 2 for $40!

    I still think you find the most amazing stuff!

  25. Great tips Kate. You are the queen of thrifting. I’d like to see you do another post on your thrift store ideas. I love your vision(s). Stuff that looks like firewood to me you always find a new purpose.

  26. Once again I love your latest project. This is a great rehab and I love the wine cabinet idea. Thanks for sharing your tips in the guest post. Its amazing what you and Rashon are able to do with your thrift store finds and a little creativity.

  27. Great tips! I bought two pieces this weekend – a beautiful bed from Pottery Barn (!!!!) and a dresser for my girl’s room. Since I was purchasing both pieces, I asked the manager if he would cut me a deal for buying both…he knocked off $50! I think people are often scared to negotiate – there’s no shame in asking!

  28. i’ve been dying to find a dresser or cabinet to fix up ever since i discovered i could transform something old into something beautiful!
    as for thrifting, most of my things are from the thrift store. with a little sewing machine magic i can make anything look fashionable!

    new follower!
    check out my new blog and follow if you’d like!

  29. One last tip!!!


    I frequently get the “sneezes” in Thrift Stores. Nothing worse than putting my arms and hands near my face to block the sneeze or wipe my watery eyes with hands that have touched EVERYTHING and who knows what else!!!

  30. Oh yeah! Sign up for the CLub GoodWILL card and on your birthday you will receive a 25% discount coupon good for your ENTIRE Purchase!!! They also NEVER EXPIRE!!!
    I have my last 2years’coupons in my purse, waiting for THAT ONE BIG DEAL!!! I only recently used the one from 3 years ago!

  31. I love the wine bar! I don’t mind thrift shops, although I certainly don’t always find something worth buying. I don’t like antique shops, although my husband does. Too much stuff, prices too high and the smell drives me crazy!

  32. Love this post! I’ve noticed some of the thrift stores here in AZ have completely raised their prices. Last time I was at goodwill they had an ikea lack table for $20 and a used tacky sofa set for $600. I keep joking that Goodwill is too expensive for me, but it’s true!

  33. What a great post!

    My best thrift store find ever is not furniture, but a Hermes scarf for only a couple of dollars. And yes, it was real, the woman in charge of the store had no idea it could be valuable.

  34. Know The Sales Days – this is my favorite of all and the most effective for me. If your local thrift store has an email or SMS system that reminds you of their coming sales day, be sure to register yourself. This will alert you ahead of time.

    Big stores do this. Only a handful of thrift stores follow this business strategy. I’m not sure why.

    Having a list before you shop, or even drive to the store, will also help.

  35. One of my favorite parts of thrifting is that the stock is ever changing versus retail furniture stores that have the same stock for a few weeks or a season. I go in with a very specific idea and dimensions of what I need, which sometimes means I have to go every weekend until what I need pops up. But the hunt is part of the fun. I recently needed to organize my craft supplies and found a great dresser that needed some patching and refinishing. Got it for $40 because of a furniture sale at Salvation Army, patched, painted, and clean and I love it!!!

  36. Great tips! I also love visiting my local thrift stores. Chicago has a ton! You have to hunt through everything but when you find great pieces it is all worth it. Lucky for me I have one right next door to work and frequent it often during my lunch break.

    Happy hunting!


  37. My biggest tip is to take the tag off of an item that you like, that way while you continue shopping no one else will be able to buy it. Even if you end up deciding that you don’t want the item it is easy to just put the tag back on. My second biggest tip is to thrift and thrift often! I’m in my thrift stores every week to check back on new merchandise! Loved hearing your tips…they are all VERY good advice!

  38. What great tips. Thanks for sharing!!!

    Kate or anyone else in the NY area, where do you shop? I’m on Long Island and wanted to know if there were any places that were good to go to. Thanks!!! :-D

  39. I get hives if I don’t thrift at least once a week. Not even kidding. ;)

    I’ve scored a ton of great things, but most recently brought home a new, with tags $650 Badgley Mischka dress and another new with tags $1425 dress by a designer I’ve never heard of and can’t remember the name off the top of my head.

  40. Kate, I look forward to your gardning blog and tips….your site is my first DYI site and to say you have inspired me….well that is not enough….you give me so much….my creative brain is working overtime!

  41. Kate, I look forward to your gardning blog and tips….your site is my first DYI site and to say you have inspired me….well that is not enough….you give me so much….my creative brain is working overtime!

  42. Kate, I was shopping at my local St. Vincent de Paul and overheard the cashier say that anything bought at the store (or any other other thrift store) is tax deductible. I thought, this girl is mistaken! If that was true, then that 42″ plasma TV I bought for $200.00 that didn’t work is tax deductible? I’ve never heard of this. I know donations are tax deductible, but purchases? I’m not brave enough to pour through countless IRS publications and articles that dole out partial information. I’m not believing this. Are you? Thanks.

  43. Hi,
    thanks for all useful tips. Just started my project earlier today. Decided to use Zinsser primer in spray but ran out. At first I was surprised how many cans will I probably need for this relatively small project. When I went back to Lowe’s to get more cans I decided to go with the brush on version of the same primer. Now I regret it. The spray is expensive but is much easier to apply. The brush on version was drying super fast so I have a lot of visible brush strokes which I was able to sand down but the result is not that great (one of the reasons it was drying so fast was the fact that it was pretty hot outside). Now I understand why you prefer to use Zinsser spray over the brush on version. Totally agree with you!

  44. YES!!!! I love to thrift shop. I love to remake furniture. My husband and I buy rental properties and we just got a house that was full of furniture that none of the family wanted….I’m in heaven. lol.never heard of floetrol. Going to get some tomorrow. Thanks for sharing.

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