Today I’m beginning a series of posts where my focus will not be on showing off things I’ve acquired, but giving some guidelines on how you can pursue a thrifty-but-stylish wardrobe for yourself. I plan to cover where to shop, what to look for, and how to decide whether something is a good purchase or not.
So, to begin, how do you know where to shop? Well, thrift stores are your best bet for finding things dirt-cheap. When you see me post that I’m wearing a $600 pair of shoes I got for $8, you can bet I got them at a thrift store. The downside to shopping at thrift stores is the selection: the good is mixed in with the bad and the ugly, and there’s a whole lot more of the latter than the former. Successful thrifting takes time, patience, and persistence. Some days (for that matter, some weeks or months) you’ll walk away frustrated and wondering whether it’s all worth it. Then you’ll find a $1500 sportcoat for $15 and you’ll be hooked again.
So how do you know which thrift stores to go to? Well, you don’t. Not at first, anyway. Look up the thrift-store listings in the phone book, map them out, and start visiting them. If there are several near each other that you can visit all at once, that’s perfect. Start going as often as you can. Hitting the same store once a week may not be over the top, and some thrifters in busy areas hit their best spots daily. If you can take two or three different routes home from work every day and hit one or two stores on each route, you’re likely to have good results.
I recommend you start with suits, sportcoats, and shoes. Those are the big-ticket items where you’re likely to get the best return on your time. You can dig through shirts and pants if you like, but it’s usually harder, slower, and more frustrating to do so. Stick with the suit/sportcoat and shoe racks and you can be in and out of even a big store in 15-20 minutes.
Pay attention to how quickly the stock turns over. If you see the same half-dozen polyester suits there week after week, that store probably isn’t worth as much time as one where they’re constantly putting out new stuff. If you can find out from the staff whether there’s a specific day where new stock is put out, make a point of going on that day.
Big national chains like Goodwill and Salvation Army often have a central processing facility in metro areas where all the donations from nearby stores are sorted, priced, and sent back out to be sold. If the stores near you do this, there won’t be any logic to what shows up in which stores; it’ll be more or less random. And the jackets and pants of suits will be less likely to stay together. On the other hand, smaller, independent stores like those associated with local churches, charities, and hospitals, frequently put out what’s donated at that location. When that’s the case, you can begin to think strategically. Is there a wealthy neighborhood in your city? Frequent the closest thrift store(s). Is there an established old mainline church that’s known to have wealthy members? Hit its shop often.
Finally, think about the season. The best time for thrifting, bar none, is December-January, when people are trying to squeeze out every last tax deduction and donating whatever they can. Next best are the turns of the seasons heading into spring and fall. Not only do stores begin to put out seasonal items they’ve held back, people clean out their closets and it’s also a big time for donations. The dog days of summer, for some reason, are usually the worst time of year.
In my next couple of posts, I’ll talk about what to look for once you’re in the thrift store. What makes a well-constructed suit or shoe, and how can you tell?