How to Make Secondhand Shopping Work For You

Be mentally prepared for the task.

The first step to successfully shopping secondhand is knowing when you go in that it’s going to be a lot of work.

I challenged myself to explore some nearby thrift and vintage stores earlier this year, and was quickly overwhelmed by how labor intensive the search was. Sometimes you have to dig through a lot of junk before finding a one-of-a-kind treasure. And sometimes you have to check back and keep checking back before you ever find what you’re looking for.

If you’re planning to shop secondhand and vintage in person, allow yourself a pocket a time where you aren’t rushed. Have a list handy to refer to, because once you’re in a store that is jam-packed with items, it’s really easy to lose sight of what you’re looking for. Get familiar with your measurement, and carry a tape measure in case you aren’t able to try things on. If you’re looking for footwear, take a pair of socks with you!

And sometimes, shopping in person just may not be an option. I work long hours, and find my precious weekend time is really limited, so I shop online most of the time. But no worries! If you need a little extra browsing freedom, there are also an abundance of online secondhand shopping resources now. I’m sharing my favorite vintage and secondhand online shopping sites over here!

Choose Well

Shopping secondhand is fraught with risk. If something doesn’t work out, you’re most likely unable to return it, and I know firsthand how disappointing that can be. So it’s best to be pretty discerning in the pieces you pick out.

Check for stains, holes, and pilling. Check that it fits well–and err on the side of too big if necessary.

If you’re shopping secondhand online and trying on may not be an option, try looking at brands you are already familiar with. Knowing how Madewell Courier shirts, J.Crew denim, Steven Alan blouses, and Everlane everything fit on me made scooping up some of my most beloved secondhand finds a no-brainer. (Sometimes these things aren’t total deal-breakers, but more on that later).

Ask yourself:

  • Is it high quality and well made?
  • Is the fabric comfortable and breathable?
  • Is the the stitching intact?
  • If it doesn’t work out, does it have high resale value?
  • Does it fit well (enough)?

Make Alterations

While the first and most sung aspect of participating in slow fashion is choosing well, I find that an often overlooked quality is being adaptable. It’s equally valuable to be able to “make it work” once you have a piece that may not be absolutely perfect.

And because shopping secondhand often means you cannot return something that doesn’t work out, know that you still have options! Mending and altering your clothing can make a HUGE difference.

Consider patching small holes or mending with pretty embroidery. A tailor or cobbler is a great friend for jobs that are beyond your reach — yes, it takes extra time, money, and effort, but try to see this as part of the customization process that makes your clothing so much more special!

I had a cobbler recently repair a hole a my leather jacket, and it saved me so much time and money I would have spent replacing the jacket.

If you compare secondhand with alterations to shopping new, it’s often still more affordable, and has way more character. I find that anything that makes something “perfect” is worth it!

First and foremost, give your new pieces a good wash. Sometimes getting rid of that thrift store smell can make all the difference. For leather bags and shoes, try some saddle balm.

Pay Attention to Shoes

While shoes may not seem like the most obvious choice for secondhand shopping, I’ve actually found some of my favorite pre-loved items in this category. (Many vintage shoes were so well made that they can last forever!)

A semi-permanent sock (like Gekks) can also help alleviate some of the ick factor of pre-loved footwear.

For shoes that are slightly too big, look into heel inserts. I did this with a pair of glove flats that were about a half size loose, and they were so inexpensive! For shoes that are slightly too small, try breaking them in while wearing thick socks around the house, wearing for short periods. I’m currently on a mission to do this with some stiff vintage Gucci loafers I picked up, and if I can’t get them to a comfortable place, I might even take them to a cobbler to be stretched.

While there are a lot of challenges and potential pitfalls in shopping pre-loved, it can be so rewarding with a little extra effort.


What are your best secondhand shopping tips?

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