1. Go with a fellow bargain lover or go it alone. Unless you want a friend to sit on a musty recliner and shoot you dirty looks while you dig for treasure, fly solo or go with someone who enjoys the hunt as much as you.
2. Start small. It’s easy to get overwhelmed at a thrift store, even a well organized one, so begin your search in the jewelry counter or with shoes and bags to ease your way into it.
3. Make sure it’s in good condition. If it’s stained, yellowed, stinky or made of cheap fabric, it’s not worth it, even if its only $5. Look it over in good lighting to spot discoloration (especially in the armpits!) and to examine the fabric and lining for tears or damage. Missing buttons and zippers are easy to repair.
4. Hit out-of-the-way thrift stores. Because people are so fashion savvy these days, thrift stores in bigger style cities like Los Angeles and New York are really picked over and prices are always more expensive. Deals can be had for sure, but for more options and better scores, try to squeeze in a visit to a thrift store the next time you visit relatives in Ohio or have a work meeting in Orlando.
5. Drive to estate sales. Unlike garage sales, which tend to be more down market, estate sales by their very nature are a more quality affair. These types of sales tend to be in suburban areas, so a trek might be a bit time consuming. But the finds can be very good. Check the real estate section of your weekend paper for listings.
6. Shop late. When shopping at flea markets or vintage expos that bring together many vintage retailers, try going at the end of the day on the last day it’s held. Dealers often give drastic deals when closing up because they don’t want to carry their entire inventory home.
7. Prepare to pay. True vintage shops are a pleasure to browse through, especially if you’re a clothes connoisseur, but they are not cheap. It’s not uncommon to see price tags comparable to high-end boutiques. But if you fall in love with a bewitching frock, you can justify your $200 purchase with the pretty safe assurance that no one else will be wearing it.
8. Wash then wear. Most thrift store finds can be machine or hand washed, while gentler vintage pieces should be dry-cleaned. This is also a good time to make repairs or updates. Spiffy buttons can update a piece quickly.
9. Use your imagination. Some of the best pieces we own have been altered to perfection. The easiest tailoring job is to cut and hem something. Consider making mini’s out of last seasons maxi dresses. If sewing seems too daunting, spruce up a look by changing the buttons. You can find affordable buttons online, at garage sales or you can pull from your own castaway clothing. You can also just change the buttons on a cuff or collar – or just change the top button of a coat or shirt, for a subtle but cool effect.
10. Get friendly with your tailor! Beyond just hems, consider tailoring the shoulders of a jacket or taking it in to flatter your figure. Tailoring is much more affordable than people think!
Bonus Tip: Upcycle! Many thrift and second hand stores across the country will give you store credit for your unwanted clothing. So trade in that giveaway pile that’s been sitting in the back of your closet for some awesome 2011 duds!