Keren Charles describes herself as “Atlanta’s thrift shopping expert.”
The personal shopper, fashion blogger, and all-around thrifting enthusiast tells Urbo that the first time she bought clothes from a thrift store, it was out of practicality.
“I had a job at Popeye’s, and we had to wear black uniform pants,” she explains. “My mom suggested that instead of spending a lot of money on pants that were going to get dirty, I should just go to the thrift store.”
Charles remembers being worried that her friends would see her.
“There’s a stigma [surrounding thrift shopping],” she says. “People think you have to be poor, or homeless, or that you don’t have enough money to go to the mall. The majority of thrift shoppers are middle-class people, and they’re just trying to save money.”
What a difference a couple of decades can make. Today, Charles is one of the internet’s most-visible secondhand-style experts.
“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” she says. “I like going through all of those racks, looking for buried treasures.”
These days, shoppers don’t seem to need much outside motivation. The used clothing market is expected to be worth $33 billion by 2021, according to resale site ThredUp’s 2017 Annual Resale Report.
A new generation of consumers seems to be drawn to thrift stores—not just for style, but because of the social benefits of buying secondhand. Thrift stores don’t contribute to the mistreatment of textile workers half a world away. They prevent cute clothes from piling up in landfills. Plucking treasures from the Goodwill isn’t just fun: It’s ethically responsible.
But hold on: That doesn’t mean you should only shop at second-hand stores. As Charles would tell you, used clothes are terrific. An old hotplate with a fraying power cable? Not so much.
By all means, channel your inner Macklemore and pop some tags; the come-ups are out there. But not with these items. Next time you stop by the Salvation Army shop, make sure you don’t throw even a few quarters at…
1. Children’s Car Seats
Car seats have expiration dates. Who knew?
Luckily, new mom Diana Kozlowski. In 2015, Kozlowski’s parents gave her a nice new car seat, which they found on clearance at a local toy store. It was a steal, they admitted. There was a reason the car seat was so discounted, though.
Kozlowski’s parents, like most caregivers, didn’t know to check. The car seat was expired.
“I mean, my parents wouldn’t willingly go buy an expired seat,” Kozlowski told NBC Chicago. “Let alone [that the seat was] expired for two years when they bought it. [It] was two years. It was like 2012.”
Kozlowksi found the expiration date on the base of the seat, and she didn’t use it. But how many more thrift-store car seats are sitting there expired, unfit for use, and ready to be plucked up by unknowing parents?
Car seats expire between 6 and 12 years from their manufacturing date, the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association told NBC Investigates. During this time, the plastics and styrofoam in the seat can degrade, creating a risk of failure during an accident. That’s not the only reason to avoid second-hand car seats, though.
Car seats should never be used after they’re involved in an accident, even if they were unoccupied during the crash. While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends replacing seats that after moderate to severe crashes, other organizations, like Car Seats For The Littles (CSFTL), say it’s likely you’ll need to replace the seat even after a minor collision; the difference depends on how the car seat was manufactured.
CSFTL, a 501(c)(3) organization focused on car seat safety, says “hairline fractures, not visible to the naked eye, and other damage can occur [in a crash] and cause your seat to fail in the event of a second crash.”
When you buy a second-hand car seat, there’s no way to know if that seat was involved in a fender bender, and when it comes to your kids’ safety, it’s better to be overcautious. If you see one in the thrift store, just stay away.
2. Bicycle Helmets
Bike helmets aren’t ultra-resilient armor. They’re not designed to protect you from repeated impacts—you shouldn’t think of them like Captain America’s shield for your head.
In fact, the foam core of most bicycle helmets absorb the blow of, say, the pavement, dispersing it instead of transferring it to your brain. As it absorbs the force of an impact, the foam compacts, rendering it useless for the next strike. That means you absolutely must replace your helmet if you hit your head during a wreck.
The only trouble is that helmets don’t always show signs of damage, even when they are hopelessly failure-prone. It’d be a gamble to buy a bike helmet from the thrift store, and not a very good one at that.
Stacy Barr runs the lifestyle blog Six Dollar Family, where she shares her tips on going “from six dollars to six figures.” She’s an artist of frugality. She knows her way around a thrift shop.
Still, there are some things that aren’t worth the savings, even for a blogger who built the concept of saving money into an empire.
“Pass on buying used pillows,” Barr wrote. “Yuck. Just Yuck.”
“Drool, sweat, tears, lice and many other things could be lingering on a pillow. Just avoid it and buy a new one since you can find them for as little as $5.00 each on sale a lot of the time. Mark this one totally off your thrift store shopping list,” Barr went on.
If an expert in building wealth through thrift alone tells us to splurge on new pillows, we’ll splurge on new pillows.
4. Stuffed Animals, Maybe
Barr doesn’t outright condemn buying stuffed animals from the thrift store. Plush toys aren’t on her banned list. But she does warn thrifty shoppers to think twice before throwing another stuffed pet into the cart.
The blogger listed the gross things that can hide in the synthetic fur of a child’s beloved snuggle-buddy: “germs, odors, bed bugs, mold, and allergens.”
Even more to the point, Barr, herself an experienced mother, suggests you ask yourself if your kid really needs another plush companion. “My guess is that they already have a ton,” she wrote.
5. Impulse Buys
The whole point of thrift store shopping is to come home with treasures, right? If so, you might be doing it wrong, Barr told her readers. She advocates making a shopping list, just like you would on a trip to the grocery store.
If you need a new skirt, only buy the new skirt. It doesn’t matter that those hilarious Ninja Turtle socks only cost $1; you will never wear them. Save that dollar; each one adds up.
Keren Charles agrees.
“Go in with a plan,” she says. “Just because something costs a dollar, that doesn’t mean you have to get it. Only buy something that you truly need, want, or love. Otherwise, you can end up spending a lot of money on things that will just sit in your closet.”
If you really feel like you need some retail therapy and the thrift store is your hospital, another option is to set a strict budget and go to town—just make sure you don’t blow your budget. Blowing budgets kind of defeats the whole purpose of being frugal.
“Thrifting is addictive,” Charles says. “It also takes a lot of patience, if you’re looking for the big finds, and it can be a bit overwhelming when you walk into the store and see stuff everywhere, particularly if you’re used to department stores. You need to have patience.”
Oh, and while we’re on the subject, don’t assume that just because you’ve found something at a thrift store, you won’t be able to knock a few bucks off of the price by shopping intelligently.
“Thrift stores do have sales,” Charles says, “even on top of their low pricing. Some even send you coupons in the mail—you can still save additional money off the listed price.”
6. Waterproof Outfits
A classic yellow raincoat might look like an amazing thrift-store find, but it also might not work. Like, it might not repel the rain anymore.
The hydrophobic finish that covers raincoats breaks down over time, according to Popular Mechanics. Waterproofing does not last forever, and if the coat is in a thrift shop, that might be because it’s outlived its usefulness.
The same is true for rain boots and galoshes. Over time, everything springs leaks.
All of this said, you can usually tell when an item of clothing is going to fail. If you find an adorable set of rain boots in just your size, who knows? Maybe they didn’t fit the original owner, and they’re totally fine for you. Just be sure to inspect them closely. There’s nothing worse than wasting money while you’re trying to be thrifty.
Oh, and Charles offers one other item to skip:
“Underwear,” she says. “You’ll hear that a lot from thrifters—even if it seems to be a brand-new item, it’s not really worth the risk.”