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How to Shop at Salvation Army and Look Amazing

Updated on January 29, 2009

You Can't Be Serious!

As an independent graduate student, I know what living on a tight budget is like.  I also happen to love clothes and looking good.  Unfortunately, it seems often that limited funds and new clothes often don't go together well.

If you are willing to take some time and get creative, it is completely possible to spend less than $50 and go home with a mountain of completely wearable clothes...even if some require a little tailoring.

Below, you will find my rules for looking amazing when shopping at thrift stores like the Salvation Army and Goodwill. 

(1) Find a Store Near You

If you don't already know where one is, use the links below to find a charity thrift store near you. I recommend Goodwill and the Salvation Army because they are well-known and often have many locations.

I also recommend checking out the store before you go there on your shopping expedition.  Often, the stores will have sales - I know, for example, that many Salvation Army locations have days where clothing is 30% or have random days where clothing is 50% off - but these are rarely posted online, so you have to go by to find out. 

(2) Make the Time

Once you decide to go, block out a couple of hours for the expedition.

Most of these stores have racks upon racks upon racks of these clothes and they're often only organized based very minimally on type of article (pants, skirts, tops, dresses).

You will want enough time to move quickly through as many of the articles as you can. 

(3) Know Your Body and What You Like

Take a good look at the clothes you have in your closet.

What sizes are they? Most women have a range of sizes in their closet, usually a 2-3 size span (from 6 to 10, say).  Many of these stores have no or limited dressing rooms, and using them can often be more hassle than they're worth. 

What kinds of shapes and colors do you have that work on you? Think about which items are your favorites and why, this will give you a good template for what you pull off the racks.

What are you missing that you'd like to have? While you like green sweaters, if you've already got 20, you probably don't want any more even if they're only $3 each. Where are places you'd like to add? This will help you know what you really want to buy -- sometimes when clothes are so discounted, there's a tendency to buy anything that looks like what you've already got.


(4) Discover What You Can Do

Because you're less likely to find clothes that are exactly what you want, you need to know what you can and/or are willing to do to alter your purchases.

Hemming is really easy, but are you willing to take the time to stitch it or use hemming tape?  Can you sew buttons to completely change the look of a sweater or shirt?  Can you take in the sides of a skirt that's just a little too big? Alter straps on a dress to be thicker or wider set?

Being willing and able to do these little nips and tucks to clothing can expand your horizons infinitely, but be realistic for yourself.  Personally, I have cut dresses in half and used the skirt portion as, well, a skirt - that took some creativity and time fashioning a tie-waist -- the remaining fabric can be used as a belt or headband, but that has to be sewn, too.  I've hemmed pants, skirts, dresses.

The more you know, also, about what's possible for clothing alterations, the better.  Get creative! 

(5) Remember These Rules for Fit

Fit can be a funky thing, but knowing these rules about buying clothes that you can't try on is important.

  1. Look for giving fabrics. They're the most likely to fit well even if they're not in the perfect size.
  2. You can go up or down at least 2 sizes with wrap-dresses (not faux-wrap, though). These dresses have waists which tie, so you can loosen or tighten as needed. For example, I generally wear a size 10, but I own an XS wrap dress that fits beautifully since I just tie it loosely.
  3. Be wary of jeans. Unless you already own the brand in a similar style and size, I suggest being careful when looking at jeans since they rarely have any give and can be very unflattering.
  4. Dresses are the easiest items to manipulate. You can fit them easily, especially if they're in a giving fabric.
  5. Empire-waisted dresses and tops are likely to be giving in fit. Since the only part of you it really has to fit is your ribcage and bust, you have some more give - even if the bust is too small for you, you can often just put a camisole underneath and problem solved.
  6. Pants are tricky. They just are. Be willing to take the risk.

These rules should help you in deciding which items are worthwhile. I generally stay away from brands I don't know especially if the fit is tight or unusual.

(6) Go! and Pull a Lot!

Now you're ready to go to the store.

When you go, move quickly through the clothing and pull anything that agrees with the above rules and that you like.  Keep in mind what you are and aren't willing to do to adjust the item. 

Pull everything you like and seems like it can fit you.  It's much easier to put things back than to try to find them again -- especially if it's a sale day!

(7) Evaluate Your Finds and then Purchase

Once you've taken everything off the racks that you want, look at your finds.  Check them for holes, missing buttons, broken zippers, stains, and etc.  There is often a reason people donate these clothes - know whether or not these are things you can live with or fix.

After you've finalized your pile, go buy it!

The nice thing is that you're really giving to charity while getting something for yourself.  People donate these clothes for free and by purchasing them, you're ceing charitable. 

(8) Go Home and Re-Evaluate

When you get home, try everything on all at once.  Figure out if you like it and what you need to do with it to make it just right.  If nothing comes to mind, think of people in your life who would like a for-no-reason gift.  (If no one comes to mind, see step 9!)

Put tags on everything that needs cleaning or mending and make a plan about doing it.  You'll be amazed at how much you like clothes that you put some time into -- somehow you become more attached to them. 

(9) Donate Back!

Now that you have a ton of new clothes, go through your closet and pull out all that stuff that you never wear anymore or doesn't fit quite right (1 year without wearing is the rule of thumb).

Take these clothes and donate them to wherever you did your awesome shopping.  It's a nice way to give someone else an opportunity to discover your clothes and still participate in charitable acts! 


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