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A Guide To Thrifting With Your Teen

A Guide To Thrifting With Your Teen

By Mir Kamin

I started thrift shopping when I was in college, and it was the only way I could afford clothing (other than going home and batting my eyelashes at my parents). Back then—pre-top-40 song about “poppin’ tags”—this wasn’t a common or cool thing to do, but I did it because it worked for me. Once I finished school and had a job and “real money,” I could go shopping at the mall again, and for years I stopped thrifting. And then I had kids; even with an income that would allow us to buy nothing but brand new items, I just couldn’t see the sense in spending tons of money on items that would be outgrown or ruined in the blink of an eye. I started going back to the thrift stores for baby and kid items, and by the time I got divorced, I was actually able to stay home with the kids a little bit longer by regularly hitting up my local Goodwill for designer labels, then reselling them on eBay after outgrowing the clothes.

Thrift shopping and I have a long and rich history, is my point.

At this stage of my life, I certainly don’t have to thrift for clothing. But I still appreciate a great deal, and if I can save money on something, why not? Now that my kids are teens, I’m trying to teach them the value of money and careful shopping, too, although I’ll confess they fell right into gender stereotypes the moment we walked into our local Goodwill.

My son: Why are we here? I don’t need any clothes! This is boring!
My daughter: Look at all this stuff! And it’s so cheap! I AM NEVER LEAVING!

As a result, I am still simply purchasing clothes for my son and tossing them in his room, periodically. Maybe someday he’ll care about how he dresses, but that day has yet to arrive. In the meantime, I try to make sure he’s wearing socially-acceptable items that fit (aiming high, over here). With my daughter, though, each trip to the thrift store is a learning opportunity. My hope is that once she’s off on her own, some of what she rolls her eyes at, now, will stick with her and help her to make good financial choices. (Fingers crossed.)

So here’s how we roll when we’re out poppin’ tags:

Know the goal of the thrifting trip

The best way to avoid the “but I want this and this and this” demons is to be very clear about what you’re looking for that day. We are not recreational shoppers, and—much to my daughter’s chagrin, I’m sure—I’m never just going to up and take her shopping and buy her everything she wants. I’m just mean that way. When we head out to shop, even if it’s to the thrift store, I reiterate on the way on why we’re there. “Today we’re looking for shorts for you,” or “let’s find a dress for the dance.” This is also handy if you or your teen tend to get overwhelmed in a large store with a lot of choices.

Be critical with your thrifting choices

I think there’s a huge temptation to walk into a thrift store and sort of go, “Oh! Shirts are only a few bucks! I’ll just grab whatever looks good!” and not try things on or look at them too closely. I always encourage my daughter to carefully examine any item she’s interested in, because the drawback of shopping secondhand is that a lot of items are damaged or otherwise in poor shape. I don’t buy items that are stained or ripped, obviously, but I’m also still teaching my kiddo to look for things like pilling or stretching. You never know if something is going to bunch up or otherwise do something weird on your body until you try it on, so I also make sure we try on everything. Furthermore, the dressing room is a great place to both talk about what fits and flatters and to drop some little esteem-boosters. “Oh, that dress was prettier on the hanger, huh? It just doesn’t do you justice, somehow.” She acts like she’s not listening, but I think she is.

Make exceptions to the goal, but be clear about why

Generally speaking, if we head to Goodwill for jeans, we leave with only jeans. But there have been a number of exceptions, and they all fall under three possibilities: The item we didn’t need was 1) on additional markdown, 2) something brand new with the tags on, or 3) a designer label and truly one of those “too good to pass up” sorts of deals. Whenever this happens, I’ll make sure to point out why we’re making an exception (usually while my kid says, “yeah, yeah, I know!”). For example, about a month ago we were looking for a bathing suit cover-up and found a beautiful new-with-tags $150 dress my girl can wear to Homecoming for just $6. Sold!

Clarify the difference between rules and preferences

I don’t have a ton of dressing rules for my daughter, and I’m very lucky in that most of the few rules I do set don’t bother her. “No visible underwear” is a rule in our house, for example, and despite many teen girls’ penchant for spaghetti straps with bra straps hanging out, my daughter knows that’s not okay here. (Hey, girls everywhere! Buy a strapless bra. You’re welcome.) Our school system requires skirts to reach “fingertip length” and I’m happy to use that as a bare minimum. And both my daughter and I agree that shorts that look like panties are a big fashion don’t. So we’re not running into situations where she wants an item which I feel is inappropriate and would potentially forbid her to have, but sometimes she wants something i just don’t like or think she won’t wear. In those cases I either have to bite my tongue and buy it (like if we’re there for shorts and she picks a pair in good shape that fit well but are a color I wouldn’t choose) or suggest that if she really wants it, she can use her own money (like when she fell in love with a campy shawl and was undeterred by my assertion that she’s never going to wear a shawl).

Keep your thrifting manageable

Buying stuff on the cheap doesn’t have to mean “buy more stuff.” We keep our wardrobes fairly modest and I direct my kids to clean out items which no longer fit (or no longer please) and we donate those regularly. It’s the circle of thrift!

And if you’re not already a thrift shopper, it’s never too late to start. Heck, your teenager might even be able to teach you a thing or two about it. Heh.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Ally

    June 11, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    I live in a small town and we don’t have a lot of options (for any type of shopping). I have such a hard time with thrift stores. I love walking into neat orderly stores and finding exactly what I want within minutes. Going through racks and digging through boxes is very unappealing to me. I wouldn’t mind an upscale consignment store if we had one near us. 

  • Becca

    June 12, 2013 at 6:23 am

    Buy a strapless bra? Bwahahahaha. Lemme know when they sell actual functional ones in my size. Thanks for the judgment, though. Always very welcome.

    • Mir Kamin

      June 12, 2013 at 9:17 am

      Becca, “no visible underwear” is a rule in my house. Do you live in my house? If not, I’m guessing you’re free to do whatever you like, including assuming that I’m judging you when actually I’m talking about my kid. 😉

      • Sarah

        June 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm

        I think it was the “Hey girls everywhere!” part that took it past a rule in your own home and into general commentary, which perhaps made the commenter (as one of the ‘girls everywhere’ wearing a regular bra with a spaghetti strap shirt) feel like you’re talking to her. That said, I think she was being overly sensitive. 🙂

        • Mir Kamin

          June 12, 2013 at 12:15 pm

          Fair point, though I really was just trying to make a joke. No offense meant, obviously.

          • Alice

            June 13, 2013 at 12:19 am

            No offense taken here, but I never thought about visible bra straps as indecent. I have cup D so a strapless bra is completely useless and therefore half of the time you can see my bra straps. Actually I always feel that women with “hanging breasts” (either no bra or a bra that doesn’t do its job) are more indecent than visible bra straps. But I guess that’s just a matter of taste/opinion.
            Actually amused by your post since I consider myself very strict on teenage girl’s clothing (I have a 14 year old) and now finding out that I do/allow something that might offend others. 🙂

            BTW I love second hand stuff!

          • Bobbie

            June 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm

            My mother always said “as long as your bra is clean, it’s okay if your straps show a little bit”.

  • Paige

    June 12, 2013 at 8:47 am

    My son just got bitten by the thrifting bug and this scavenger mom couldn`t be happier! I also wanted to share that I just got some great deals without having to drive all over by using online consignment shop . First time customers can save 35% Off + get Free Shipping when you use code KPC35 

  • SKM

    June 12, 2013 at 10:13 am

    My mom and I just spent an enjoyable afternoon in a consignment shop and I found two dresses to wear to upcoming weddings for around $30. I know that one of them retailed at over $100 and it was like new. I am a believer. 🙂

  • el-e-e

    June 12, 2013 at 11:56 am

    did she ever wear the shawl? inquiring minds want to know!

    I have yet to shop Goodwill but every time you write about it I think “Okay, THIS weekend.”

    • Mir Kamin

      June 12, 2013 at 12:16 pm

      She put it back at the last minute… it was cute but in the end I guess she only NEEEEEEEDED it if Mom was paying! 

  • Diane

    June 12, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I rarely shop at thrift stores for clothing, but I do donate fairly often (single professional – don’t judge). I’m a bit of a fanatic about making sure anything that goes to Goodwill is clean and in good repair. If *I* won’t wear it because it’s full of pills and bunches up, neither will anyone else.

    Second hand furniture and house stuff, however, I gobble up. I’ll heartily endorse the “know the goal” plan.

  • Brenda

    June 12, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    I find shopping for clothes to be rather exhausting, especially so at Goodwill, where things are sorted first by color and then by size (pretty, but inefficient). I have found some great buys though, like a long coat I bought for a play costume for $8 that I ended up wearing for the past two winters because it’s so warm.

  • js

    June 12, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    I admit that thrift shops freak me out a little because of the whole potential for wearing clothes someone else has worn but the cheapskate in me is so tempted to save the monies! What to do?! I like how we can exchange ideas and no one gets their panties or bras in a twist. At least…Not that we can see. At your house that wouldn’t be acceptable. At least, not in public 😉 I’m a huge fan of your posts here. Keep spreading goodwill to others!

    • Amy

      June 13, 2013 at 5:26 pm

      I was a little weird about buying stuff at thrift shops at first. But I mainly only wear skirts and dresses from thrift shops so that helps (no seams pressed up against lady parts and whatnot). Just do what feels comfortable though. Your could always check out consignment shops…you’re more likely to find unworn clothes at those. 

  • Allyson

    June 12, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    For people who are freaked out about buying used clothing-would you buy vintage? If so, what’s the difference? The nomenclature, really. Both are pre-owned, one just sounds fancy because it’s older.

  • Jenne

    June 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    Thrift and secondhand stores are the best! Even though Peanut is much like your son, and has been known to park herself under the racks for the duration, we have scored some great deals!

    And – just an empirical, curious question – do people wash ALL clothing, whether brand new or from a thrift store, before wearing it? Perhaps I’m just goofy like that . . . . 🙂

    • Laura

      June 13, 2013 at 12:48 pm

      I always wash before I wear. You are good, not goofy.

    • Amy

      June 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm

      My husband wears anything without washing it, either from a retail store or a thrift store. I will wear new clothes without washing, but not new underwear. And I certainly don’t wear thrift finds without washing them first. 

  • Lisa Kay

    June 13, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    When he was younger, my brother would NOT wear hand-me-down pants because he was concerned that someone else had…ahem…passed gas while wearing them. It kind of cracks me up that he’s now one of the biggest Goodwill shoppers around!

  • Heather

    May 22, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    I just introduced my almost 13 yr old son to thrifting. He LOVED it. Of course keeping him in the clothing section was hard. He needed a 70s style outfit for a school dance. PERFECT thrift store opportunity. We got him what I must say was the BEST outfit at the dance. Authentic and kitsch. for $10 including shoes. Again nothing I was going to spend much for. While we were in there he got a couple of pairs of cargo shorts, which I was just about to buy online at old navy. And then we got a can opener since ours was left at school. Long story. He was so excited he enthused that when he’s old enough to get his own place he’s going to get all his kitchen stuff and furniture there. 🙂 Only request was that I wash everything before he wore it, which was on my to do list anyway 😉