Top 10 Tips to Getting Better Deals at Thrift Stores

(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,

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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  1. Modest Money April 12, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    Regarding negotiating prices in a thrift store, this likely works best in the smaller stores. In the bigger stores, employees often don’t have the power to override the sticker price. In some cases you might still be able to ask a manager or supervisor, but when it’s a bigger store they’re usually not in as much of a rush to clear things out.

    I do have to disagree with your last tip about hoarding. It’s not a better deal if you don’t actually have a use for it. Unless you really think you can find an immediate use for it, I personally think you should just avoid buying it. Once you do it once, it’s all too easy to use that excuse for any good deals you find.

  2. Serena@ThriftDiving April 12, 2012 at 10:30 AM

    Modest Money, ha! My husband would agree with you 100% about that last tip! I think he’s ready to kick me out of the house so he can have his garage back, and schedule me a spot on TLC’s “Hoarders.” LOL. Anyhow, I think it depends. For me, though, I can’t pass up a sweet thrift store treasure, especially if I know I can resell it, refinish it, or give it away as a gift, even it’s it isn’t immediate. Good example–I found an awesome chair last month that, honestly, I don’t know if I will be able to use it. But my friend is salavating over it, and so I plan to add new fabric and paint it, and give it to her for her 40th birthday next month :)

  3. J. Money April 12, 2012 at 12:30 PM

    Agree! I found this kick-ass table 6 months ago with a glass top and green felt storage area below it, which I thought would make for a good place to put cool trinkets in one day, but I didn’t know where to put it so I just bought it and hid it in my basement for a while… then, when I started pimping out my Blogger Library I thought, “OMG! I could put all my old currency and coins in it and use it next to our new reclining chair!” So it’s now a perfect addition to our room – and SO glad I picked it up even though we didn’t have a use for it then…. I think it depends on how much you LOVE an item, and the deal you could get with it, that determines whether it’s worthy of being bought w/out a home. At least to me ;)

  4. SavvyFinancialLatina April 12, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    I have to say that I love garage sales!!!! You can find so many treasures while shopping at garage sales. Plus,I have found that garage sales have better prices than thrift stores because there is no overhead cost and the people are looking to get rid of their stuff.

  5. Christopher @ This That and The MBA April 12, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    I love tip number 2. You would be surprised what you can get if you just ask. I ask for a discount on everything now. No one else cares about my money like I do. I ask for it when I get my car worked on, it is surprising how quick a $600 dollar brake job comes down to $250-300 when you tell them that is all you want to spend. Then I just reward the shop with my loyalty. Working in a hospital, this even applies to services, if you just ask for a discount we will give you one. If you do not ask, do not expect us to come right out and advertise it to you!

  6. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager April 12, 2012 at 1:33 PM

    I would say, know what you are looking for before you go shopping, for example dimensions of spaces, etc. That way the hunt is always successful, rather than buying something, hauling it home and realizing it doesn’t fit.

  7. Charlie @ ThreeThriftyGuys April 12, 2012 at 2:14 PM

    My wife and I love thrifty stores, because we can ofter find a lot of antique type items. Plus there is the benefit of finding older stuff that wasn’t built in China, and will last a lot longer, so I don’t always mind paying full price! Great article, Serena!

  8. Nick April 12, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    I love “asking for discounts” – I’ve been known to ask for discounts EVERYWHERE. It’s pretty interesting how often you get them.

    I’d also add to not take along anyone who thinks they’re too cool for thrift stores because they’ll just be biased, negative and trying to get you out of there.

  9. Serena@ThriftDiving April 12, 2012 at 3:52 PM

    Savvy–You’ve got a great point about yard/garage sales. I’m almost afraid to start going to them this season because I know I’m going to find some amazing stuff! I’ve got about 14+ projects on my “To Do” list and I hesitate to add one more. LOL

    Christopher–So right, my friend! I bought a bench for my dining room table from Ross, and there was a single nail loose. Opportunity!–I asked for a discount and the manager gave me 20% off! Thanks for the compliment on the article! :)

    Nick–You just described my husband. HAHA. He really should get the Hubby of the Year Award for putting up with my thrifting ways. I have never taken him thrift diving with me because of your very point. But he always loves the “AFTER” of anything I refinish, as well as the awesome deals on children’s clothes I find!

    Charlie–I’ve actually seen things recently in my favorite thrift store with auction-type stickers on them! Antique-y chairs and what-not. I guess people donate what can’t be sold?
    Jenna–It’s best to travel with a tape measure! Just in case…. :)

  10. TeacHer April 12, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    If you live in the NYC area, I want to recommend a specific thrift store: Beacon’s Closet! It’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and carries tons of trendy clothes for women and men. No furniture, but I scored some amazing deals the last time I was there.

    Sorry, I just couldn’t let this post go by without putting in a plug for my favorite thrifty spot!

  11. This Aggie Saves April 12, 2012 at 8:17 PM

    I’ve never tried asking for a discount at a thrift store. Might have to try it!

  12. Cherleen @ My Personal Finance Journey April 12, 2012 at 8:34 PM

    I also love the discounts and bargains at thrift shops. But for obvious reasons of hygiene and sanitation, I also do not buy and will not advise buying underwear and socks from thrift shops.

  13. Cranky Aunty Lou April 12, 2012 at 9:17 PM

    Great article! I’d add a caveat to the rule about always haggling, though: if you’re in a charity shop arguing over 50 cents, just stop. Have some class. And yes, I’ve seen people do it.

  14. April 12, 2012 at 9:38 PM

    TeacHer– I’m going to have to check that out! Have you heard about the other place in NY called called Film Biz Prop Shop? Supposedly it’s a 2nd hand shop for props that have been in movies and what-not. I sooooo want to check it out! It looks totally cool! They’re address is: 540 President Street Basement, Brooklyn, NY. If you happen to check it out, please let me know if it’s worth the trip there :)

    Aggie–Yes, give it a try! It can’t hurt!

    Cherleen — A funny thought– I can’t imagine wearing anyone’s used underwear and socks, but for some reason, I pass these things down from my 3 sons….?? LOL BAD MOM!

    Aunty Lou — I agree. 50 cent bargaining is downright cheapskate-ish! I wonder who those people are??

  15. J. Money April 13, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    Thanks again for the awesome post, and follow ups, Serena! Learned a lot which was new for me considering I’m a huge Thrifter! ;)

  16. D @ The Shady Porch April 13, 2012 at 10:34 PM

    I love, love, love thrifting and these are all great tips…some that I haven’t tried yet too!

  17. Jerry April 15, 2012 at 4:59 PM

    This made me smile. My wife and I LOVE thrifting. It leads to serious savings and it was our insurance for survival while in grad school. I never thought of haggling! LOL!

  18. J. Money April 15, 2012 at 8:46 PM

    I went this weekend but couldn’t put these to use cuz I didn’t find anything I really wanted! Haha… next time ;)

  19. Serena@ThriftDiving April 15, 2012 at 11:33 PM

    I went this weekend too (actually lendingy services to help a friend find stuff!) and sadly I broke rule #10!! Gasp! I found a very very very cute desk, solid wood, clean, a few imperfections but nothing I couldn’t fix…. And I walked away!! Only because I worried about hubby having my head if I shove one more piece of furniture in the garage! It was only $44!! And wouldn’t you know I was telling hubby about it, and he said (get this), “why didn’t you buy it?? I want a really sturdy desk and not that Ikea table/desk I have been using.” !! So I’m going back tomorrow when it is 25% off Customer Appreciation Day and see if its still there. Wanna bet on whether it’s there? :-/. Lol

  20. J. Money April 16, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    Oh no!!! Haha… that’s the worst rule to break! ;) I hope it’s there for you, friend, that’s one of the worst feelings with shopping. And pretty crazy that he actually WANTED it too! He’s like my wife who gets nervous with what I’m bringing home all the time – but since I do all the decorating, she only gets to say so much ;)