Thrift Store Shopping for School Clothes Can Teach Great Lessons

When I was a kid, my family shopped thrift stores, so I learned early that searching through bins could be a lot of fun. The experience truly felt like a treasure hunt. I remember unearthing fun t-shirts and belts—I even tried out suspenders when they were the rage—and everything I found seemed unique. My parents rarely said no to my cache. It was a win-win.

I think I was hooked on thrifting at a young age because I felt the thrill of discovery, and the true benefit for my parents was that their kids all learned how far a dollar could go.

I’ve boiled down my experiences a little to give you a few reasons you should try thrift shopping if you haven’t. Then I’ve included some pointers on how to navigate the shops so you, too, can get the hang of it and have fun. And remember—take your kids. They can have their own fun finding their way around, unearthing those bright orange suspenders and learning how much further a dollar can travel in some places.

You’ll save money (the no-brainer). At a recent wedding reception, I was seated next to a mom who is a thrift store connoisseur like myself. We laughed as we told each other the items we were wearing that had been purchased from a thrift store: my dress, her shoes and purse, and many pieces of our children’s outfits. We were as nicely dressed as anyone in the crowd. She had a great point that you can’t always change the amount of your mortgage, car payment or utilities. One thing you can impact is your clothing budget. Paying only a tenth of retail price for clothing is not uncommon at the thrift store.

You’ll cut your carbon footprint. When you buy secondhand, you save innocent clothing from getting heaped in a landfill. At the same time, you lessen the demand for new clothing to enter the production cycle. I can happily report I have been able to stow away many items I found at the thrift store after my older daughter outgrew them, saving them for my younger daughter. So by the time she outgrows them, we will have done a lot of saving.

You’ll aid your kids’ creativity. One of my favorite parts of thrift store shopping when I was a kid is the same for my kids: Getting to wear some “iffier” fashions without my dropping a lot of cash. Those neon tights that cost $12 at Target you can find at the thrift store for $2. The dusty-rose pleather vest that zips diagonally across the chest, you can get for $4. You have no idea whether your kids will actually venture out in some of these items, but it is great to let them test their fashion sense.

You’ll teach your children how far a dollar can go. Our family has not given up on retail purchases. We find ourselves paying retail prices for things we are really bowled over by, but not that often. Our girls love to try on dresses at Nordstrom and get new shoes at the Nike store, but they also have learned how far $10 can reach at each place. My daughters know, because we have thrift store shopped for years, that you often can get three items—sometimes many more—for $10 at a thrift store. If you can forego the one-day experience of wearing something brand new, you can save an immense amount of money.

Now here are a few ways you can be assured of success at a thrift store:

  • Find a thrift store close(ish) to your home. My husband, who has become a tried-and-true thrift store shopper, stops at a thrift store once a week on his way home from work. In 10 minutes, he scans the men’s shirts and jeans sections and can be back in the car before he misses three songs on the radio. He devotes time but doesn't waste it on finding bargains. He has a closet of designer dress shirts and blue jeans now to show for his perseverance, and he paid between $5 and $10 for each item. This is mostly because the store is on his route home from work.
  • Have patience and return often. Go in knowing that thrift stores are completely different than retail shops. They don’t have regular inventory, as things change on the floor from hour to hour. You may get frustrated if you’re looking for the one particular item you need on a particular day. If you are in a hurry, you are better off heading to a retail outlet.
  • Look for several things while you’re there. On any given stop at the thrift store, I keep my eyes open for several things. Here are items you almost always will find for your kids’ school wardrobe: khaki pants, shorts and skirts, as well as dress pants, shorts and shirts of all colors. Blue jeans. T-shirts, both long- and short-sleeved. (I have found a number of t-shirts with retail tags still on them). Undershirts that will help them layer for the winter. Sweatshirts. Sports shorts. Tights. Then closer to winter, you’ll find coats, boots, long johns, scarves and hats. And believe it or not, you’ll find lots of cool shoes. I have found multiple pairs of kids Converse shoes in many patterns, almost new.
  • Shop for your future kid. If you have some storage room, you can buy larger sizes and pack them away. I have found this makes life much easier. When a new season rolls around, I already have a box full of clothing. Also, this kind of shopping has saved us multiple times when, through some act of magic, a kid grew a size overnight and announced on a busy school morning, “Mom, my shoes are really tight. I don’t think I can even walk in them.” Instead of flipping my eyebrows completely off my forehead and asking whether she’d been curling her toes for weeks, I just got the next shoe size from the basement.
  • When I walk out of the thrift store, I often do the wiggly math: I imagine the retail prices of the items and add up the savings. It’s always an incredible number. Beyond saving money at the thrift store, my husband and I believe we are teaching our daughters that we are doing more than buying things, we are saving them through reuse, and in turn, helping the earth a bit. In this way, shopping for school at thrift stores—and really shopping there anytime—can be a school all its own.


Maggie Uhl lives in Waldo with her sweet husband and two funny daughters and her dog named Leo. 

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