10 tips for shopping Goodwill

by Jessie K on January 11, 2012

When I tell people I’m a devoted Goodwill shopper, they usually look at me and say, “How nice for you,” then “I never find anything good there.”

Au contraire, my friend. Treasures abound at your local synethic purse palace!

I would like to share with you a few of my time honored Goodwill shopping rules for success so you never have to worry about making a mistake or wasting your time.

#1. Seek out Goodwills in cities with colleges nearby. College students regularly slough clothing before summer break in May which could mean a treasure trove of hip finds for you — ironic saddle shoes! a color blocked sweater! leggings! — by June.

#2. Seek out Goodwills in secretly hip cities. Thrift shops in indie meccas like Portland, Boise and Savannah are already well picked over leaving scavengers just No Fear tee shirts and ratty long Johns to choose from. But Goodwills in lesser known hot spots like Wichita, Springfield, Staunton and  Jacksonville boast robust (shopping) populations not overrun with artfully distressed hipsters.  Those are the Goodwills you want to hit — the ones with massive selection and zero competition.

#3. That said, only shop Goodwills in regions without an outbreak of bedbugs. Otherwise, that bangin’ 80s stretch mini you scored at Goodwill in Manhattan? Yeah, that will be the gift that keeps on giving until you finally have to burn the rest of your wardrobe to get rid of the infestation. (Sorry, New York! I love you but I don’t want your bedbugs…)

#4.  Give yourself at least 40 minutes to browse…ideally without a small child yanking at the hem of your jacket. Utmost focus is required.  Fashionable finds usually aren’t in plain view but hidden in a sea of color blocking.  Expect to wade through plenty of early 90s mom jeans before finding a current fashionable cut.  Don’t be afraid to really slam those hangers into each other as your rifle through racks.  This is blood sport.

#5. Try on everything.  I don’t have to explain this one, right?  It’s Goodwill, not Barneys.

#6.  Only buy clothes that pass for brand spanking new.  No rips, tears, scuffs, stains, pilling, frays, missing buttons or snaps. No “worn” look allowed.  The item should be impeccable or in a month’s time you will find yourself using it as a dust rag.  Before purchasing anything, ask yourself this question: “Does it look like it comes from Goodwill?”  If the answer is yes, back to the rack it goes.

#7. Forget cheap synthetics.  No matter how Portlandia that dashing green acrylic  jumpsuit from the 70s looks on the rack, it will transform to a distressed and highly flammable clown costume the moment you bring it home.   Seriously.  I have 3 such clown costumes.   I’ve never worn them because I am not a clown.  Natural materials — cotton, wool, leather — on the other hand, look more expensive and feel nicer against your skin so you’ll wear them more.

#8.  Speaking of comfort, forget buying shoes just because they’re cheap.  I must own 6 pairs of funky, eclectic heels from a variety of second hand shops that I have never worn because they’re all cheap, shoddily made and uncomfortable (see tip 6). Only purchase second hand shoes you could conceivably walk a half mile in today.

#9. Buy pieces that already work with your existing wardrobe.  This is a good tip for shopping in general.  It’s ultimately a waste of money to buy a pair of Kiss boots — even if they come with studs and cost only $3.50! — if the rest of your wardrobe suggests Ann Taylor at a community luncheon.  Requires too much wardrobe restructuring, which cancels out any savings from the glam boots.

#10.  That said, don’t be afraid to take a risk!  Sure, you might wear that sequined tube top one time, but it’s only $2.50.  It’s Goodwill.

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah January 11, 2012 at 4:06 pm

I cringe at the thought of trying things on at second hand stores. How would one get over that?

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Jessie K January 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm

I don’t have that problem, but maybe I should?

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Ginny January 11, 2012 at 9:22 pm

wear tights and a tank top. in other words dress in a base layer that you strip to in the aisle if necessary. that way a whole bunch of “you” is covered up.

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Kirin January 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Chances are you are likely to encounter more germs, bacteria, viruses or other nasty things at any mall dressing room than on items at a second hand store. Many second hand stores wash their items thoroughly before selling. Do you know how many people have tried on the clothing items you try on at department stores? Or been naked in the dressing room you use? I once found a stuffed original Mickey Mouse from the 1930′s that I paid $3.00 for and sold for several hundred. Maybe avoid the clothing racks and look for treasures instead. :)

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Justin January 11, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Something we learned during my wife’s recent pregnancy: Thrift Stores are the ONLY place worth buying maternity clothing. Who wants to pay $30 for a shirt they’re going to wear for max one season? $5 is totally another story… :-)

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Kelsie January 11, 2012 at 5:35 pm

A note on thrift store shoes–I would typically agree with you, BUT, I was at a junk store (one of those roadside shacks straight out of Hoarders or American Pickers) and I found (amidst really crusty Converse All-Stars and piles of mom jeans) a BRAND NEW pair of leather Merrell “Sprint” sneakers in my size. They would have cost me $100+ had I bought them at the swank hipster shoe store in town, but I paid TWO DOLLARS for these. Because they had never been worn, I could break them in to suit my foot, and I would definitely wear them until the end of all time. In fact…I think I will.

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Jessie K January 11, 2012 at 5:48 pm

I think we’re saying the same thing. Im suggesting not buying shoes that only LOOK good but are obviously cheap and uncomfortable. Merrells so do not fall into that camp. (Great score, btw!)

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Deena January 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm

I don’t know how I stumbled on your blog, but you are speaking my language, sister! I am actually a single mom on a tight budget so I shop at the local thrift store and Goodwill quite often. (**shh, don’t tell my co-workers!**) You definitely have to have time to go thru these places because the best stuff is hard to find….but that’s what makes it fun! I recently bought brand-new Airwalk boots for $3, a brand-new Target stool for $13, and a limited edition and numbered print for my wall for only $6 (sold normally for $600). I could go on and on…..but I don’t want everyone to know about the steals you can get! :) Happy Shopping!
Your new blog follower!

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Molly O January 11, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I buy all my sweaters at Goodwill. I usually only go twice a year but I totally agree, the 40 minutes is KEY.

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Paula S. January 11, 2012 at 7:35 pm

You people make me jealous; there are no actual Goodwill stores here. Our everyday (and sometimes holiday, because we LOVE them) dishes are Folk Art by Pfaltzgraff. Huge set collected at full and sale prices, retail. I have seen accounts on line of collectors who snagged huge amounts of the pattern at Goodwill for pennies on the dollar.

Here, we have Abilities Unlimited, which seems to be junk, and Sav-More, which I personally feel is a scam. I went in there once, and didn’t care for it. And I must admit, I have sold clothes on consignment to stand alone thrift shops, but never bother to go shop there. Of course, when you retire, you find you really don’t need to buy many clothes.

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jacey January 11, 2012 at 8:12 pm

I go to the Goodwill on the outskirts of a fancy posh neighbourhood here in Toronto, and it blows my MIND the stuff I bring home. Zara, Banana Republic…Tons of BabyGap clothes for a buck an item !?! Only buy second hand kids clothes, and at Goodwill I can get 20 items for the price of one item at BabyGap.

But I don’t follow the “try it on” rule. At ours, we can bring stuff back if the tag is still on so I bring it home and try it on there. Which means I have more time to slam through the racks!

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Janelle January 11, 2012 at 10:37 pm

I needed this refresher course. Thank you!

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Jeannie January 11, 2012 at 11:34 pm

Thank you for summing this up so nicely, Jessie! I try to tell my unbelieving friends all the time that thrift store shopping is the way to go. When they tell me they never find anything good, I tell them they don’t go often enough! In the early years of my husband’s career, I did it because it was an absolute budgeting necessity. Then, for awhile, I did it because it was just so much fun to save money and find a bargain. Now that my teenagers are sucking the money tree dry, I’m back to doing it for necessity, at least for myself and my husband. ;) My children’s taste is much too sophisticated for thrift stores, or so they say. Just wait until they go to college and they’re poor as dirt………….

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Jessie K January 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I can just imagine how the middle school Jeannie I remember would have reacted if her mom bought her clothes from the Goodwill. It would have been world war three, am I right?

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Jeannie January 27, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Sheesh…..how do you remember so well? I admit, I would have thrown a gigantic fit and accused my mother of being a cheap, unfashionable lunatic. In fact, we still have incredibly different tastes and there is a mutual understanding that we shouldn’t buy eachother clothes as gifts. So, does this mean that I have become my mother, or is this just a universal phemonena between moms & daughters? I’m hoping the latter…..(even though I love my mother).

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Lauren January 13, 2012 at 6:05 am

I once found a Chloe shearling coat at Goodwill. For 8 bucks. True story.

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Jessie K January 13, 2012 at 11:03 am

Lauren, you are my hero.

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dawn January 13, 2012 at 10:45 am

Goodwill shopping is the ultimate treasure hunt. And it’s the ultimate in recycling too!

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Polly January 13, 2012 at 11:58 am

I’m with ya, Sister! I’m a die-hard Goodwill shopper too. It’s ok if others aren’t on the wagon – more good stuff for us. Cashmere, JCrew, Banana Republic, great vintage leather Coach bags, Hanna Andersson kids clothes – even saw a really nice Jill Sander sweater this week — it’s all there. But..one must be willing to revisit and wade thru the trash.

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Nancy at Coneflower Ranch January 13, 2012 at 3:05 pm

It was a wonderful “Goodwill” holiday season for me! Found a Jill Sander halter top for my daughter WITH TAGS from Nordstrom for $8. I kid you not.

Yard sales are my drug of choice in the warmer months. One of my favorites was a woman selling her late aunt’s shoe collection. All Gucci and Ferragamo for $1 a pair, all in my daughter’s size, in the original boxes; this woman was the 60′s & 70′s version of Carrie Bradshaw. Not even knowing which ones my daughter would like I bought them all. If not, there was alway eBay! Ha!

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Jessie K January 13, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Nancy, I am so jealous I don’t know if I can talk to you anymore. ;-)

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Erin P July 5, 2013 at 12:21 pm

A lot of the time I buy stuff from good will like jeans I know are to long or short but fit nicely in the but and turn them into shorts or a leather jacket I once found and added cool fabric to the lining…or this dress with long sleeves that I cut off the sleeves…..I just love vintage things!!!!

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Amanda September 24, 2013 at 11:35 pm

I found a Michael Kors dress for $2 I nearly cried.

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Jessie K September 25, 2013 at 11:59 am

I’m crying with you right now.

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donna October 22, 2013 at 6:42 pm

cool stuff for xmas shopping

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Mori November 1, 2013 at 4:32 pm

On the way home from work, the only place that offers solace for that necessary decompression is my local Goodwill. Yet, I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that I’ve driven 50 minutes to reach the Mecca of Goodwills in tony Westport. It is only there that I have reached that well-heeled status myself: $6 Jimmy Choo boots and $12 brand new (with box!) Gucci loafers. Kramer said it best: retail IS for suckers. I second the tip of shopping in upscale areas with limited competition.

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Jan January 11, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Last holidays, I made a pact with myself to wear only Goodwill clothes to my inlaws. I had a secret smile on my face as I looked around at all the cash they spend on mall clothes . . . . And I looked smokin’ hot, to boot.

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Denise March 5, 2014 at 7:57 am

I go to Goodwill for picture frames, they are so expensive in stores, even Walmart.
I remove the picture, clean it up and use pinterest printables to insert and redecorate rooms in my home! Good for doing photo collages on walls!

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Jessie K March 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm

What a great idea! I didn’t know Pinterest did printables. I’ll have to check that out.

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Elizabeth March 10, 2014 at 12:07 am

Hello there :) I’m a thirteen year old girl and I HATE spending $20-$30 for just ONE shirt or ONE pair of jeans, when you can have at least ten maybe with $30? Haha anyways I remember when my mom always tried to have me and my sister wear goodwill clothes back in the day(last year) and I screamed at her, but now with financial difficulties I am finding goodwill and thrift stores very inexpensive and with decent looking items. Anyways thanks for this article! :)

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Jessie K March 10, 2014 at 10:35 am

Sure thing! Although I noticed Goodwill recently raised their prices around here. It used to be $2.50-$3 for a shirt and now it’s something like $3.75. Scandalous!

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Alexa March 14, 2014 at 2:41 am

The goodwills near me have jeans for $4-$6-$10so I usually buy mine at rue21 (but only when on sale because they’re like $30, but eventually go down to about $7) but I have found some nice stuff at goodwill like clothes from Hollister, Aeropostale, Nordstrom and more :)

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