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What to Buy at a Thrift Store [And What to Leave Behind]

If you know me, you know there are few things I love more than a good thrift store find, and I think I want it to be one of my missions in life to spread the gospel of thrift store home decor as far and wide as I can. 

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I’ve always loved a secondhand bargain find, but if you’re new to thrifting, you might be unsure of what, exactly, you can expect to find, or what’s a good buy and what’s not. 

You’ve come to the right place. Below, I’m sharing my favorite things to thrift, plus what I tend to pass over, along with some tips on finding thrifted items for your home.

thrift store home decor
The bookshelves in our house are basically my thrift-store trophy case.

What to Buy at The Thrift Store

If you’re new to thrifting, or you’ve gone a few times but haven’t had much luck, there are a few categories of decor & furniture that are always sure bets. i.e. these are the things you should be looking for most often.

This is our condo in Chicago when we lived there. I bought a few of the frames at a thrift store and “painted” the abstract pieces that went in them.

Frames & Art.

This is probably my most common thrift store purchase because thrift stores are often runneth over with art and mirrors, and every once in a while you can get something really good. Like oil paintings in gold frames for $30 good.

Here’s what I usually do though: I buy a piece of art for the frame only. A lot of times the art will be some godawful 80s watercolor in aqua and lavender, but it’s got a beautiful, solid frame. So I buy it for $3 and then I look for new art to add to the frame. A lot of times that’s printable art from Etsy (here are a few of my favorite sources for printable wall art!) for $5, or a print from an artist I love.

So, when you’re looking at art, be sure to look at the frames, too!

Coffee Table Books (and Books in General).

I love coffee table books, but I don’t like spending $50 for them, especially if they’re going to live out their days in the bottom of a book stack on a side table somewhere. So, I buy most of my coffee table books at thrift stores. I usually choose them by the way their spines look (so shallow, I know), since I like them to go with my decor scheme.

I also buy regular of’ books at thrift stores to fill shelves in my home, too. I think every bookshelf needs books, not just decor, but I don’t always love the aesthetic of a long line of my latest mass-market paperbacks, so I buy thrifted books in the color palette I’m going for.

Here’s a tip: Take off the book jacket and check the spin underneath. Oftentimes, the book jackets are tattered or ugly, but the spine of the book itself is perfection.

Baskets.

Does anyone else get sticker shock when they try to buy baskets at a retail store? Like, you want me to pay $82 for some woven reeds? And the large size is how much? Brand new baskets are a little rich for my taste, especially when thrift store ones can be had for a tenth of the price.

Thrifted home decor
I painted this second-hand side table in a weekend & stacked it with thrift-store books. Side Tables.

Side Tables.

Side tables are like dipping your toe into the waters of vintage furniture. Like, if you’re afraid you’ll start bringing thrifted things into your home and it will suddenly look like grandma’s house, start with a quirky side table. It should complement your decor at home, but it doesn’t have to go perfectly — that’s the whole point.

Side tables are also easy to customize (as long as they’re solid wood) because you can sand them and paint them, or use furniture stripper to refinish them, and they’ll look downright incredible.

Well-Known Vintage Pieces.

So this isn’t going to be for everyone, but when I go into the thrift store I’m also always looking for recognizable furniture and decor that people are always looking for, even if it won’t work in my own home. This is because you can re-sell these pieces on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist for more. Things like campaign dressers/chests/tables, cane Breuer chairs, Thonet-style chairs, wishbone chairs, Federalist mirrors, and tulip tables are always going to have a buyer.

One of my best-ever thrifts was a pair of original Thonet chairs that I bought for $35 each. After cleaning them up and realizing they weren’t quite right for my house, I sold them for $100 each.

Serving Pieces.

Whoever said fancy entertaining is dead 1. is boring and 2. has never been to my house for the holidays. While I’m not like white-glove butler fancy, I do love to serve things on china plates and cut-crystal bowls and pretty cake stands because life is too short for ceramic Crate & Barrel plates that chip at the edges And I think it makes occasions feel more special.

Where do I get my best fancy china? That’s right, the good ol’ Goodwill. Because it’s perfectly fine and clean after a good scrub (or a run through the dishwasher on the sanitize setting if it’s dishwasher-safe), it’s got a ton of character, and it’s about a one-hundredth of the price you’d pay if you bought it new.

Wooden Dressers & Cabinets

I love gorgeous old wooden dressers. They’re so much better quality that the ones you can buy now (and they aren’t off-gassing VOCs for months at a time). Plus, they’re really versatile. I’ve used them in my dining room instead of a buffet, as closet storage, as accent pieces in my living room, as nightstands, etc. So, when I’m in need of a dresser I usually look at a thrift store first.

Dressers and cabinets also make great candidates for customizing with a little paint or new hardware.

thrift store home decor
This is our Michigan house. Most of the decor in this photo (the books, the art, the vase, and the coffee mugs) were thrifted.

Tchotchkes/Knick-knacks/Bric-a-Brac/Etc.

To me, a home is not a home without a certain level of tchotchke in it. I’m not talking covering every surface with hand-painted ceramic cat figurines because clutter gives me major anxiety (though nothing against cat figurines if that’s your thing!). But, you do want the surfaces of your home, like bookshelves, and coffee tables, and nightstands, and entryway tables, to have a little interest to them. And you do that by adding some well-curated odds and ends to create pretty vignettes. I’m always on the hunt for things like vases, bowls, candlesticks, book-ends statuettes, etc.

So, Now. Here’s What Not to Buy at A Thrift Store

There are a few (very few) things I don’t usually thrift. Here’s what I usually prefer to buy new.

-Upholstery. I mean, you could buy a sofa at a thrift store if it’s in really, really good condition. But generally, I leave behind anything that’s upholstered. This is because upholstered pieces generally need to be re-upholstered. Plus they can hold smells.

I did once buy an awesome vintage settee with every intention of re-upholstering it. Four years later, I still haven’t done it. It’s one of those projects that’s juuuuust a big enough investment of time and energy and money that I never actually get around to doing it.

-Broken things. This one seems obvious, but if you find something you love except it has a chip or it doesn’t turn on, leave it behind (unless you’re super handy). I’ve bought these things with every intention of fixing them, and, again, I never do.

-Kids stuff. If it’s something going in my kids rooms I put it through the ringer. That’s because with vintage furniture you have to worry about both the safety of the item (i.e. a vintage bassinet might be beautiful but does it still meet today’s safety standards?) and whether it’s covered in lead paint or some other hazardous substance from the late 80s. If it’s a simple piece of stained wood furniture like a nightstand or dresser, or some wall art, go for it. But if it’s a set of tiny antique chairs covered in paint, I would pass.

cool kids room ideas -kma
This is my son’s room. The wooden bed is an antique, and the red nightstand is a piece I painted from the Goodwill.  But, I’m definitely more discerning about the thrifted pieces I bring into my kids’ rooms.

I love shopping at thrift stores for a whole bunch of reasons, but mainly because:

It’s cheaper.

Let’s start with the most obvious reason. Decorating well is expensive, and unless you have a few hundred K saved to decorate your house, or you can live with blank walls and empty shelves, you’re going to have to budget somewhere. Thrift store home decor is an awesome way to furnish your space with unique items, without spending a fortune. 

It’s less wasteful.

Like everyone these days, I feel like I’m constantly thinking about how I can be less wasteful with my purchases and lifestyle in general. While I buy certain things new from my home, I like to save as much from the landfills as I can. And if it makes my house look better in the process, why not?

It’s unique.

Anyone can recreate a look from a showroom or mass-market furniture store, but without personal accents and unique touches, your house is going to look a lot like a showroom or chain store. Thrift stores are goldmines for fun decor you won’t find anywhere else.

It’s fun.

It’s kind of like treasure hunting, and so, so satisfying when you find something great.

Thrifting has become one of my favorite hobbies (followed closely by scavenging flea markets, visiting antique shops, and stalking Facebook marketplace), so I figured if you’re new to it, or on the fence about it, I’d share what I’ve learned over the last few years about how to shop and what to look for.

thrift store home decor black bedroom
This is our bedroom in Chicago way back in 2016. I got the brass nightstands at a thrift store north of the city, and the wishbone chair in the corner was a Craigslist find.

How to Thrift:

-Go often. The thing with thrifting is that you never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes, I wish I owned a moving truck so I could take home everything I wanted to buy. But other times I find nothing. So, you’ve got to go a lot. It’s a commitment, for sure.

-Learn the good days. Certain stores have days when they put out new items, or refresh their inventory. The Goodwill in my area, for example, bid on pallets of clearance items from Target, and those pallets arrive every Friday. Hence, I like to go on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings because I’ve gotten all kind of awesome Target finds from the Goodwill.

-Have a loose plan. I usually go into a thrift store with a list of things I’m looking for so I don’t get overwhelmed or debate whether or not I need something for 10 minutes. It’s usually a pretty big list, but it gives me a loose plan nonetheless. Below, I’ll get a little more in-depth about what I buy most often and what I usually pass on.

What About Things you Love but Don’t Have Room For?

There have been occasions where I find the find of a lifetime (OK that’s dramatic, but I find something pretty damn good) and it’s just not my style or I don’t have room for it. Most of the time, I buy it anyway. Here’s why: If it’s something awesome, like a pair of caned Breuer chairs, or an entire brand-new patio set from Target, there’s a good chance someone out there is looking for a good deal on it. So, I’ll take it home & post it on Facebook Marketplace and flip that bad boy. I once make a few hundred bucks selling a pair of bistro sets that were sold out on the Target website that way.

To see more of my thrift store home decor and vintage finds, follow me on Instagram at @KaitMadden.