Thrifting 101: How to score on clothes and more

clothingI would never spend more than $20 on a pair of jeans. Period. If I tripled my salary tomorrow, I still wouldn’t drop more than $30 on denim.

Between thrift and consignment stores, discount retailers, and purveyors of cheaply made but trendy accessories, I’ve built a versatile and trendy wardrobe, for a fraction of the cost of buying new clothes. The trick is in knowing where to look, and knowing what you’re looking for.

Thrift stores are for basics

Find a local thrift store, get a membership, and commit the sale days to memory. I’m a religious shopper of Unique Thrift, that offers 25 percent off all merchandise every Friday.

What to look for

  • Jeans: Expect to find racks upon racks of jeans. Be warned, most pairs will have elastic waists or acid wash, but don’t let the uglies dissuade you. It isn’t uncommon to snag a pair of like-new Levi’s, Gap 501s, or Express jeans for under $15, before your member discount. Be sure to visit the store on a day you’re feeling especially confident and energetic, because the fitting room at a thrift store WILL beat your self esteem to a bloody pulp. Just remember, you will try on five ill-fitting pairs for every well-fitting pair. When you’re flipping through the racks, look for dark, uniform washes — this distinction will help you cut through the nasty, quickly.
  • Pants: See above. Trousers, slacks, whatever you call them, the thrift store has them in abundance. Be sure to check the hems, as used pairs can be worn or torn at the bottom.
  • Tees: I don’t know about you, but t-shirts never seem to fit me correctly, and I typically have to pony up for expensive brands to get them to fall right on my torso. So when trolling for tees, be shallow — pay attention to the tag and try on Gap, Loft, Banana Republic, and Express tees. They fit me best, and last the longest. Tee shirts will cost around $5 a pop.
  • Bags: The thrift store is undeniable evidence that women buy too many purses, get bored with the old ones, and throw them in the donation pile with many miles left on them. I love to buy purses used, because you can find real leather models for $5 and up. And when you get bored, re-donate it, and snag a new bag for the cost of a small coffee.

Consignment stores are for trends

A consignment store is much like a thrift store, in that it offers gently used garments for low prices. However, instead of relying on donations to support the inventory, consignment shops purchase clothing from customers. But like thrift stores, you have to shop around to find a good one. I’m not often impressed with the merchandise at Plato’s Closet, but I can’t walk into Buffalo Exchange without leaving with a heap of clothes. Expect to pay a bit more than at a thrift store, but for higher-quality and trendier pieces — sometimes they offer designer clothing for 90 percent off retail.

What to look for

  • Dresses: Chevron, chiffon, and silk, oh my! The selection of dresses in consignment shops is both diverse and trendy. From colorful sheath dresses, to little black dresses, and everything in between, you’ll find pieces that flow effortlessly from office to evening. And unlike clothes you score at Target, these garments go the distance. Price varies greatly, but I usually expect to pay $15-30 for a fantastic dress that will last forever.
  • Tops/blouses: Now that you’ve got the perfect jeans, you’ll need some cute tops to pair with them. So when a black tee won’t cut it, check out the consignment store. They’ll have everything from sequined tanks to flowy peasant tops to structured blouses. Blouses should run about $10-20.
  • Shoes: Shoes are like boyfriends; it’s exciting when they’re shiny and new, but so much comfier when you wear them in. Luckily, at consignment shops, flats, boots and heels are already worn in, but often have plenty of tread left on them. Shoes run from $10-35, depending on the style and brand.

Cheap retailers are for accessories

Like any badass chick, when I wear holes through the soles of my boots, a part of me dies. Yes, I’m clingy about my clothes. But I’m fickle about my accessories. So when the clasp on my $3 necklace breaks or the elastic on my favorite thong wears out, I don’t feel as bad tossing them in the trash. So rely on Forever 21, H&M, and Target for accessories.

What to look for

  • Jewelry: Much like when I was fourteen and pillaged Claires for low-quality silver hoop earrings, I’m shameless about cheap jewelry. Although I love the few diamonds my guy gifted me, I would never drop hundreds of my hard-earned dollars on something sparkly. Why bother, when Forever 21 stocks cubic zirconia, galore, for less than $5?
  • Belts, scarves, socks: There is no item of clothing more necessary for a woman’s wardrobe than a great belt. I use them to cinch the waist of flowy tops, dresses and sweaters. It instantly defines a waist, hides my tummy, and creates a focal point for any outfit. So I like to have at least three belts in my drawer at a time, and I get tired of them quickly. H&M and Forever 21 have cute pieces for $10 or less. Same goes for scarves and boot socks — get them cheap, get them in several colors, toss them when you get bored.

Some items are an investment

I love a great deal, don’t get me wrong. But there is a time and place to drop major cash on a purchase. When I’m considering investing in a piece for my wardrobe, I ask myself if it meets most or all of the following criteria:

  • It will last at least five years: I’m a fan of the warranty. So when I consider an item, I ask whether it is likely to go the distance. Price per wear (the price you pay for each time you use/wear an item) is important. For example, I dropped $300 on a pair of chocolate brown Frye Company boots, and my friends think I’m crazy for it. But the company boasts a fantastic warranty, so I know that if I wear them out, they’ll send me a new pair.
  • It is versatile: I wear my Frye boots to work, to meet friends, and to run errands, from Spring through Winter. They go with jeans, skirts, dresses, and work with any color. So when dropping serious dough on a big item, ask whether it will work for more than just a new year’s eve party or vacation.
  • Fit and quality reign supreme: Sometimes companies charge a premium because they exacted the fit and have superior quality. I tend to buy bras, bathing suits, tank tops, or tights for a higher price than other items. These pieces in particular are often ill-fitting or of very low quality when you factor in price.

What are your secrets to saving on clothing? Share them in the comments.

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