The art of thrift store shopping

May 1, 2008 at 3:00 a.m. ET

We know only too well that children seem to need a constant stream of necessities - medicine, school books, entertainment, birthdays, not to mention a whole new wardrobe of clothes nearly every year. How can you meet the entire family's clothing needs without blowing the budget? By learning the art of thrift shopping!

Shopping at a thrift store

Managing on a tight budget

So many of us with families a tight budget. If so, you know only too well that children seem to need a constant stream of necessities -- medicine, school books, entertainment, birthdays -- not to mention a whole new wardrobe of clothes nearly every year. Often Mom and Dad have to make do with what's already hanging in their closets, no matter how old or worn it may be. But perhaps you have gained or lost weight; or quit work to be a stay at home mom. All of a sudden, your clothes are all wrong!How can you meet the entire family's clothing needs without blowing the budget? By learning the art of thrift shopping!

Seek and you shall find

The best place to start is the largest thrift store in your area, as they are more likely to yield a "find". Kristy explains, "I never fail to hit pay dirt at the large Salvation Army store in our area. The first time I went in I found a cute little vest for $3 -- just what I needed to jazz up my jeans. And it's the same every time. I always seem to find something there!" (Find a Salvation Army store in your area here.)But Kristy also warns, "Be prepared to search and sift through racks and piles of clothes. It will give you sore arms, but it's definitely worth it!" Amongst all the weird, wild or just plain dated clothing, you will actually find some wonderful surprises.Most stores these days sort their goods into mens', ladies' and children's wear -- even separating items such as tops/blouses, sweaters, skirts, capris, shorts and pants. If you're really lucky, they may even be arranged according to color. This is great because you don't have to waste time looking at colors that you know don't suit you. However, be prepared to look at every garment individually to identify the size. Not all garments will have the label intact so you will become very good at guesstimating the correct sizes and fits for each member of your family.

It's an Aladdin's Cave!

"I like to think of my thrift shop visits as a trip to Aladdin's Cave," shares Anissa, another savvy secondhand shopper. "You never know quite what treasures you will find! I bought myself a gorgeous sweater in a popular surf brand for just $7 -- it would have been worth at least $50 new."If you need a specific item however, don't expect to find it the first time you look. "My husband desperately needed shorts," Anissa explains. "I looked in several stores over a period of weeks before eventually finding a quality pair of denim ones in his size for $5. Definitely worth the wait!"Anissa is a petite size 6, which she finds an advantage when thrift shopping. "For some reason, there is always a lot in my size!" Could it be that the original owner was a teenager who has decided the item just isn't hip enough any more; or an adult who has put on weight so that the garment no longer fits? Whatever the reason, Anissa says, "I always seem to have a lot more to choose from than my sister who is a size 10!"You can also breathe new life into secondhand clothes with a bit of imagination and a few minor alterations. Is there something simple you can do to update the garment? Last winter, Anissa wanted a plain black jacket but didn't have the funds to buy it new. Instead, she bought one at the thrift shop -- a good brand for just $12. The only fault she could find was that the buttons were gaudy and dated, so she replaced them with plain black ones. "All it took was a couple of dollars and ten minutes of my time, and I had a valuable addition to my wardrobe," Anissa says.

Cool kids clothing tips

At standard thrift sores, children's clothes don't seem to be as plentiful. If you can't find a secondhand shop specializing in clothes for boys and girls, there is still the odd bargain to be found. Much to my daughter's delight, I picked up a pair of Pooh Bear sandals for just $3, and a pretty pink raincoat for $1.50 on my last shopping spree!Thrift shops are a great source of dress-up clothes and costumes too. Our dressing up box now boasts a pink fairy skirt, a white doctor's jacket, a Chinese satin robe, and many accessories such as gloves, hats, beads, and bags thanks to our local thrift shop.When Tracy's son Dale was invited to a fancy dress party, she spent a whole $4 on his costume. "I bought a pair of bright blue trousers and cut them off at the knees; and a white shirt, which I then ripped the sleeves off. All I had to add was a big black belt, a black patch and scarf on his head and his pirate costume was complete!"

First in, best dressed out

Bring a friend and double your fun! It's great to giggle over some of the monstrosities, and even better if you are able to crow over a bargain with someone. Just try to take a friend of a different size than yourself and whose children are different ages to yours or you could end up wanting the same thing. I missed out a beautiful chambray shirt for $4 for my son because Tracy found it first. Later, I bought a similar shirt new for my son to wear to a wedding and had to pay nearly five times that price.

Sometimes, you will come home empty-handed. Don't fret, because you never know what will be there next time you look. The shops get new deliveries every week. Even better, find out the delivery day for your favorite secondhand store and make a point of being there when the new garments are unpacked. My Mother-in-law thinks it's even easier to bag a bargain if you are a volunteer worker at the store!

Secondhand needn't mean second rate!

There's no doubt about it, thrift shops smell of mothballs -- but unfortunately it doesn't just deter the moths! One girl I know refuses point-blank to even set foot in a thrift shop for this very reason! Just remember -- one wash with a dash of scented fabric softener will soon take care of that odor.Other people may be embarrassed to be seen in a secondhand store. Remember, thrift shoppers come from all walks of life and financial backgrounds. Whether you're well off or on welfare, you are supporting a charity in your community -- and that's something to be proud of. "One thing I've learned is that if you don't tell, nobody will ever know where your clothes come from," Anissa confides. "I often get compliments on my secondhand gear and smile to myself. Last summer I was wearing a beautiful green linen shirt and one of the other Moms at the school admired it. I felt like a million bucks -- but it had only cost four!"Remember that secondhand/thrift store clothing might not be in as-new condition, so check carefully for any tears, stains or missing buttons which may have been the reason the original owner decided to get rid of the garment. A bargain that you won't wear is not a bargain at all.

No limits

A limited income needn't mean a limited wardrobe. Accept the challenge -- try dressing your family as nicely as possible, for as little cash as possible. Thrift shopping will help make your budget stretch just that little bit further. You'll have the satisfaction of finding a real bargain, supporting a worthy cause, and saving the planet -- all at the same time.

READ MORE! 6 tips for thrift store shopping: Get your goods secondhand