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The 5 golden rules of thrift store shopping

Kendra Hagerman for

Thrift store shopping is an economic, fashionable, and fun way to shop - if you follow a few simple rules. Your wallet will love you, your budget will thank you, and your closet will fill up with unique items. Whether your thrifting skills are vintage or new age, the potential benefits are hard to ignore. Vintage heels, silk blazers and leather clutches are among some of our favorite finds, and all for just a few dollars. If you're considering becoming a thrift store connoisseur, keep your eyes open, and these golden rules in mind.

1) Don't go with a specific item in mind

Many of us go shopping at the mall with an idea of what we want. When you're thrifting, avoid this strategy at all costs. The inventory at any given thrift store changes as often as daily, and they don't follow trends. Each item is unique and the chances of finding exactly what you're looking for is very slim. If you go with a preconceived idea, it will limit what you consider and may make you avoid a colour, style or fit.

2) Make a day out of it

This rule does not mean that you need to shop for 12 hours straight (although, we're always up for a challenge). Especially if it's your first time, or you are travelling a long distance to get to your favorite store, try to incorporate other things into your thrift shopping day. Thrifting, by nature, is a game of luck.  Sometimes you find six amazing items at three dollars each; sometimes you spend three hours and find nothing. In order to minimize your disappointment and avoid leaving frustrated, make a day out of it. Bring a friend, have brunch at the place you've always wanted to try, run some errands or grab a coffee at a café in the area.

3) Shop at least two sizes larger and smaller than what you normally wear

This rule applies to all clothing and shoes. Beautiful vintage pieces from the '70s and '80s are considerably smaller compared to present day sizing.  Though it may make you cringe to try on sizes that are larger than what you normally wear, swallow your pride and try that amazing vintage dress on. It's also important to shop in the opposite direction of the sizing chart. Many vintage pieces lost their tags or sizing information years ago. If this is the case, the store employees guess at the sizing, and don't always guess right. Try to shop by examining the item itself. Does it look like something that may fit you? Could you add a belt if it's too big? Could you get it let out if it's too small?

4) Don't be afraid to get an item tailored or altered

This is a major benefit of thrifting. Because the prices are so low, you can take it to a tailor and get it custom fitted. Most of us would love to take every item that we purchase to a tailor, but we can't always justify the added investment to a new (and usually expensive) garment. Thrifting changes all of this. In fact, you'll likely end up paying more for the tailoring of your new fashion find than you did for the item itself. Even when the item and tailoring cost is combined, we would be willing to bet our favorite vintage leather purse that it would still cost a fraction of what the new equivalent item would be.  The wonderful thing about altering a thrift store piece is that you now have a unique, form fitting, one-of-a-kind item that was literally made for your body.

5) Come prepared

Every girl knows that it's important to come prepared to meetings, dinner parties, conferences, and presentations (that's why we love carrying around big purses). Apply this logic to thrifting, and you'll save yourself some time and avoid purchasing items that aren't a right fit for you.

What to bring to be prepared:

We want to be clear on this: by no means is thrifting glamorous. It's often fun, ridiculous, exciting, inspiring and surprising. You may have noticed that the words enchanting, clean, chic and pristine were not mentioned. Be prepared to smell your fair share of odours that you would prefer to forget, and touch more questionable items than you would like to remember. Thrift stores usually don't sort every item, which can work to your advantage. Some of the best finds can be found in the most unlikely places, but this means that you'll come across unpleasant items as well. Jockstraps, band aids, dirty towels and old teddy bears; do we really need to elaborate on the importance of hand sanitizer or wipes?

A belt is your best friend

It's also very helpful to bring a belt, or find one in the store early on in your trip. Many items look completely different once a belt is added, especially oversized tops and loose-fitting cardigans. Thrift stores usually have one of each item, and unfortunately, grabbing another size is not an option. If an item is too big, it may be temping to purchase the $3 sweater anyway; don't do it! Try it on with a belt and leave it if it doesn't fit. A closet full of clothes that are too big is just as bad as a closet full of clothes that are too small.

Armour up, girl!

Finally, if you're weary about trying on second hand clothing, wear or bring a pair of tights and a form fitting tank. Try on your thrifty finds with your "under armor," but make sure you take into consideration the overall fit of the garment without a layer on underneath.

Do some good while you're at it

Thrift store shopping is a wonderful way to add a bit of personality, uniqueness and excitement into your wardrobe, and all without dropping too much cash. Depending where you shop, a portion or all proceeds usually support a cause, so you can feel extra warm and fuzzy about your new purchase. Whether you thrift because you're on a budget, or because you enjoy the thrill of the hunt, there's something special waiting to be found. is a free personal finance and education site for women.