I didn't used to shop thrift stores. I didn't think I had time, and it seemed that I rarely found anything I wanted when I did go.
Once I had children I would shop consignment stores, mostly one store devoted to children's things and clothing. Children grew fast, and it seemed silly to spend good money on clothes they would wear for only a few months. I thrilled at paying $4 for overalls that sold for $30 retail, and the store owner would give me a credit when I brought the clothes back.
I had nothing against used clothing. I loved hand-me-downs, both for the boys and myself. I'd hit a rummage or yard sale here or there. I bought a few used household items off eBay.
A few things changed to turn me into a hardcore thrifter. One, a great store opened near me, huge, with a wide selection of everything. Need a folding chair? They probably have one. Need a towel? They have those too. They have more choice in clothing than your average big box; when I look at medium women's shirts there are hundreds to choose from.
The second thing that happened is that the boys and I started thrifting regularly. We had to get out of the house and the thrift store was near the park, so we'd stop in weekly. Going regularly opened my eyes to the variety at the thrift store. I learned to think of the thrift store as a viable place to get things.
The third thing that happened was that I developed patience. It probably stemmed from procrastination, but whatever the impetus, I started waiting to buy something until I found it at the thrift store. I figured out what they had regularly, and I learned what things I most likely wouldn't find. Now I have a running list (usually in my head) of things I need or want, and a list of things I always look for.
For instance, my boys love two sports teams. We always look for t-shirts from these two teams, even if we don't have time to look at any other clothing. We always check for 100% wool blankets. We always look at the vintage sewing machines. We look for granite wear and cast iron skillets. We look for all one piece stainless steel cooking utensils. Again, patience is the key: I used my old melamine soup ladles for months before finding two stainless ladles at Goodwill for 99 cents each. They are great ladles, too, without plastic handles.
Once we started thrifting regularly we expanded out to other shops. We know that Goodwill has better prices on books than the Salvation Army, but that the local store has the best price on books overall, especially on Wednesdays when they are 10 cents each. Book prices are so high at SA that we don't spend our time looking at them there. On the other hand, Goodwill has high clothing prices. SA and the local thrift have much better sales on clothing and their everyday prices are lower than Goodwill as well. SA has better prices on knick knack items like baskets, and when clothing is 50% off we can buy boy's shirts for 60 - 80 cents each.
We learned that the higher end clothing goes to the Assistance League shop (mostly women's), and some better boys' things. Today I bought an Ibex wool vest for myself for $6, and the matching jacket for $12, plus a like-new Under Armor shirt for T-Guy for $4.40, and a Spiegel shirt for 55 cents. Retail on the jacket was $240, and $145 for the vest. Assistance League is more likely to have vintage linens, fabric yardage, and wool yarn. It is a much smaller shop, however, so selection is limited.
We've learned to shop ahead. Shorts are donated once the cooler weather hits, and go on sale in November. We look for long sleeve shirts, pants, and jackets in late spring or early summer.
This year we'll be on the lookout for good quality books as well as vintage and classic toys, so we can stock up for birthday and holiday giving. I'm past feeling weird about giving a thrift store gift. I bought the kids in the family art supplies again this year, and later I passed the vintage Spirograph I had purchased for $1 at the thrift store (missing one tiny piece), and I had an aha moment. Vintage toys are likely to be popular with the kids and their parents.
I practiced this year by giving my niece several thrift store books. My sister was thrilled. When my boys brought home a Scrabble Jr. game with all of the pieces, for 95 cents, I decided right then that we would thrift any gifts we don't make this year. The key will be looking ahead and buying age appropriate gifts when we see them.
Really, what is the difference between a new book and a used (or, previously read) book? The words are the same, the story is the same. A used game is the same game as a new one. The difference is in price, true, but even better it gives us the opportunity to buy outside of the dominant consumer culture. People who buy at thrift stores create a market for used goods and help keep stuff out of landfills and incinerators.
There is little risk to buying a child's game for a dollar. If it is missing pieces you will probably find the same game again and you can buy it for a dollar and put together a complete game. Right now we have our eyes out for a classic Battleship game, because the one the boys thrifted is missing two ships. I'm sure it won't be long until we find what we need.
Now, I don't go around convincing myself that I made hundreds of dollars an hour by thrifting expensive wool outer garments. I found the vests on clearance for $70, so I use that as my price point, not $145. The reality is that I wouldn't have spent $70 on the vest, either. If I had ended up buying new I might have spent $25 or $30 on something that wasn't wool.
We don't thrift all of the time, but I do try to get out a couple of times a month, and if we need something we go to the thrift store first. That change alone ~ thinking of the thrift store first ~ is the biggest change we have made regarding buying items.