Goodwill Shopping

Yesterday at Goodwill I found a purple velour skirt-and-shirt set for Elizabeth. I’m never sure what she’ll end up liking/disliking, but she went NUTS for it. It was extremely satisfying: I laundered it yesterday evening and she put it on first thing this morning and was dancing around with happiness. It cost $3.59, unless that was one of the ones that rang up as half-price, in which case it was more like $1.79.

I also bought a pair of flannel-lined Gap cargo pants for William. They cost $1.79, which was weird because right next to them was a boring logo Gap t-shirt in so-so condition marked up to $3.99 (everything in the kids’ section is $1.99 unless otherwise marked) (and then I get another 20 cents off because I have the $10/year Goodwill card that gets you 10% off). The pricing is a little inconsistent.

AND I found Edward a great Gap sweater, dark green with pine trees so it’s nice for Christmas but also nice for the rest of winter, $1.79. AND some other things, but I forget what. Which brings me to this:


Monique writes:

I was at Goodwill the other day and felt very lost. I thought of you and wanted a Swistle tutorial of how to shop at goodwill, including the the things you look at when you pick out clothes, how you know the clothes are good finds and how to pick the clothes you know your children will like. I know you have done posts in the past but I felt so very lost.

So it was just a thought if you felt like it.


Ah! I am new to this as well: our Goodwill opened only this past February. (Though we used to have one near us back when we were first married.) And it can definitely be overwhelming. It can also be UNDERwhelming: some days I go and I find NOTHING. Or I find lots of good stuff, but it’s stuff we don’t need. Or I find lots of good stuff, but it’s all been inexplicably marked way above usual prices. Or I find the entire atmosphere of the store depressing and I leave feeling sad.

Are you a list person? I find it very helpful to have a little list of things I’m looking for. For example, the first time I went to the new Goodwill, William needed sweaters: he was wearing the same three sweaters over and over and ignoring all his other shirts. Goodwill had ONE MILLION men’s sweaters, $4.99 each but many marked half price: each day a certain color of tag is half off. Many of them were the same Gap and Old Navy sweaters I’d been upset to see for $20-30 online, so I walked out that day with many, many sweaters.

Or, like, right now, Elizabeth wants knit jeggings. They have to be stretchy, they can’t be baggy. She’s quite particular. They have some jeggings like that at Target for $12.99, but while I wait for those to go on clearance I’m keeping an eye out at Goodwill to see if I can find some for $1.79 instead.

It happens pretty often that I go to Goodwill and I don’t find anything I’m looking for but I do find something else I want. This is the category a lot of people try to avoid (it’s a good way to end up with Too Much Stuff), but it’s how I ended up with a happy purple-velour daughter this morning. Or, like, Edward and Henry don’t really need any more shirts per se, but when I found a Mini Boden shirt in Edward’s size for $1.79 and a Lands’ End rainbow tie-dye hoodie in Henry’s size for $.89 ($1.99 but it was the tag color of the day plus I got the additional 10% off), I went right ahead and bought them and felt happy about it.

Goodwill was especially great when I was trying to get Elizabeth set up for sleep-away camp. I didn’t want to send clothes I minded if she lost/ruined. So I looked through the racks and specifically kept an eye out for the half-price tag color, and I got her a bunch of shorts and pants and shirts and a couple of sweatshirts, all in the $.89-$1.79 range.

I tend to look for BRANDS. If I like something I’ll buy it even if I don’t recognize the brand—but I already know I like Old Navy and The Children’s Place and Gap and Lands’ End and L.L. Bean, and I’m basically familiar with their prices, so I’m more likely to buy those. Periodically I find brands like Hanna Andersson or Mini Boden, and that’s always a thrill.

I check for rips and stains. I TRY to remember to test zippers and snaps and make sure all the buttons are there, but this is my biggest area of forgetfulness. Still, I’ve only lost one or two things that way.

Here is my usual path through the store, with what I’m looking for right now or have looked for recently:

1. Men’s section ($4.99 unless otherwise marked or tag-color-of-the-day). Sweaters for William (EXCELLENT success: I think a lot of guys get sweaters as gifts and never wear them, so I get new-looking Gap sweaters for $2.49 minus another 10%). Shorts and pants for Rob (medium success; a good way to see what 31×32 is like in a variety of brands). Barn jacket for Paul (no success yet). Sleeping pants for Rob (good success: $4.99 is too expensive considering after-Christmas clearances, but I’ve found several nice-condition, nice-brand pairs for $2.49). Hooded sweatshirts for Rob (no success yet). This is also where I found Rob a pair of great dress pants for $4.99 when he needed them for graduation, and I found Henry a tie for $.99 when he wanted one for a school event. T-shirts are $2.99, which is about what I pay for them on clearance at Target, but sometimes they have fun ones, or better brands than Target’s.

2. Kids’ section ($1.99 unless otherwise marked or tag-color-of-the-day). I basically go through the entire section from size 6 (Henry’s size) up. Right now I’m particularly looking for pants for Elizabeth, but the three little kids can usually stand to have some new clothes: the boys particularly are the third and fourth to wear the handmedowns, and sometimes styles have changed, and sometimes I’m just sick of some of the items. And Elizabeth would be happiest if she had every single clothing item in every single color and pattern, so this is a good way to increase her wardrobe. I’m especially happy when I find an item I’d like to own but am unsure if we’ll really USE—a raincoat for sleep-away camp, for example, or a nightgown when Elizabeth has been wanting a nightgown but I don’t think she’s going to like it, or see previous paragraph about the tie Henry wanted.

3. Dishes. This is where I found the Swistle-blue mugs (“Does this MUG coordinate with my WEB SITE?”). I don’t usually buy things in this section, but I always like to look.

4. Stationery/knickknacks/misc. I don’t usually find anything, but I like to look. The kids sometimes find something to spend their allowance on: a little animal figurine, a shaped candle.


Sections I don’t usually look in:

1. Books. Most of them are in the $2.99 range, tons of close-outs/remainders. More importantly, the books are in a huge unorganized jumble. I understand why it isn’t efficient to spend the time organizing them, but it does mean I don’t feel like looking at them.

2. Shoes. They don’t appeal to me, and I usually find them at 50-70% off at Target.

3. Toys. Huge messy aisle, and always crowded, and everything looks broken and lost-piecey. But the kids look here while I’m looking at clothes, and sometimes they find something and I buy it. We also had great luck with Beanie Babies: $.99 each, with tags.

4. Linens. They don’t appeal to me, and it’s too hard to figure out sizes.


I often glance in the women’s clothes, but the plus-size section is small and depressing (elastic waists! decorative sweatshirts!) so sometimes I just skip it.


I think Goodwill works especially well if you:

1. Enjoy that kind of shopping: it can take a lot of browsing to find good stuff, and if the browsing is unpleasant I doubt it works out as a money-saving strategy. Also, if the LOOKING isn’t also fun, then it seems like it would be way too discouraging to keep going back after those days where you find one single thing, or nothing at all.

2. Are relatively unpicky—or are picky in a way that meshes well with Goodwill. The Lands’ End hoodie had a little rip near the hood, and sometimes something has a small stain. I don’t really care about that: most of the kids’ clothes are handmedowns and ALREADY have little rips and stains. I also try to keep in mind how much worse clothes look when they’re in a big used jumble instead of prettily arranged on store racks, and how much better they look once I get them home.

3. Have relatively unpicky kids, and/or are good at keep straight what they will/won’t wear. Edward will wear anything. Rob won’t wear button-downs. William loves sweaters. Etc.

4. Don’t mind things occasionally NOT working out. If I get something home and think, “Oh, crap, I forgot to check the zipper—and it’s broken,” I’m disappointed, but I’m fine with tossing it out and losing the $1.79: I think of it as a donation to Goodwill, or as a Careless Tax on myself. Or sometimes, just as with things I buy at Target or Old Navy, the child doesn’t like the item and I end up donating it back to Goodwill.

5. Are willing (and have the space) to store things that are too big. It’s pretty common for me to find a great sweater in the size above William’s size, or a dress two sizes too big for Elizabeth. Sometimes I’ll pass it by, but sometimes it’s good enough to be worth the trouble of putting it aside for later.

6. Are in a lower income bracket than the average household in your Goodwill’s area. If you mostly buy Target clearance but your neighbors are donating Hanna Andersson and L.L. Bean and not shopping at Goodwill, you’re going to be very pleased with the goods/prices. If instead your whole community is shopping clearance sections and Goodwill, you might find nothing but pilly scraps.


I do like my Goodwill card, but it’s not a good deal for everyone: you have to buy $100 worth of stuff at Goodwill in a year just to BREAK EVEN on the $10 annual cost of the card.

Goodwill can be overwhelming at first even if you’re going to love it in the long run: it takes awhile to figure out the pricing system, and where things are. If you ARE going to love it, soon you’ll start feeling happy to go dig in your usual treasure-map places, and you’ll start bringing things home and feeling happy about your finds every time you see  them come through the laundry.

30 thoughts on “Goodwill Shopping

  1. april

    My husband hates thrift shopping – for such a dealhound, I’m surprised but he just can’t stand the idea of other people wearing the clothes. He GIVES clothes to thrift, but will not shop. I don’t have good luck with kids clothes but I have a couple of great dresses that I got at my local Goodwill.

  2. Jess

    Totally agree with it being a different experience on different days. Some days it’s a jackpot, some days it’s a bust. A lot of days the fact that I have to look through ENTIRE RACKS is too much for my anxiety & I bolt. But, I do have the advantage of A) being on the low income side of a pretty high income area. So I can usually SCORE great deals. I exclusively shop at Goodwill & Salvation Army for my youngest (2.5 years) and her wardrobe consists of Gap, Childrens Place, Gymborree, etc. I can occasionally sneak in some Hollister/Abercrombie for my oldest (12) but she has “issues” with wearing used clothing. So sometimes I tell her “Ok, you can buy ONE shirt from Hollister for $25 OR 5 or 6 of them here.” Sometimes I win, but mostly I don’t! BUT, shopping at the thrift store for me & my youngest means I have some extra money to spend on my oldest (most of the girls that she goes to school with have (no lie) MULTIPLE pairs of Uggs, Lululemon yoga pants and other insanely expensive items) so she “fits in” a little better. And I LOVE LOVE LOVE spending time in the linen & houseware sections. I’ve become obsessed with (actual) linen tablecloths/napkins/etc & Pyrex and have managed to score some great stuff there!

  3. Phancymama

    Our Goodwill currently has clothes arranged by general size and then color. So 0-12 month girls will be on one round rack organized by color so you have to look through each piece to see the size. That is a bit frustrating, when I’ve got a toddler run amuck. So I am not as frequent a goodwill shopper as I used to be.
    My dad was in Denver recently and went to Goodwill (that’s his thing) and they had bulk clothing, 0.99$ a pound. He needed a zipper fixed so he bought an old jacket to use that zipper. Apparently it made his vacation.

  4. Artemisia

    We have a Goodwill opening in our little town! It seems to be taking forever to get set up, though.

    We have a used clothes store as well, and I have to be in the right mindset to wade through it. But, most of my closet is Ann Taylor Loft now, and I haven’t spent more than $6 on any particular item. SCORE!

  5. Brenna

    I agree with you about the shoes, except: my son needed dress shoes for a school performance, and I simply could not stomach the idea of paying for new dress shoes that I KNEW he would never wear again before he outgrew them. I just couldn’t do it. So I found some leather dress shoes at Goodwill that would’ve actually been decent, had the soles not been cracked and awful. They were marked $10, but they gave them to me for $2 after I pointed out the condition. SCORE.

  6. Beth

    I love the scavenger hunt aspect. I always have luck with dresses for
    Myself. Our goodwill has tons and tons of cute dresses from gap, Ann Taylor, loft, target, old navy, pretty much any mall store. I can wear them with tights and sweaters in the fall and it’s my favorite thing ever to stock up on those for like $5

  7. Melissa H

    I am reading this siting in the parking lot of my local thrift store. It opens in a minute ;) I always look at linens because I sew and I am here for shoes. We could be goodwill buddies like friends who like opposite skittle colors. ;)

  8. juliloquy

    My Goodwill stopped doing the half-price color tags, which results in the shopping experience being half the fun. They do special events, like everything half off on the 4th of July, but I imagine I would not enjoy the crowds. They also don’t offer the 10% off card, although that may be in the works. I like to look at the shoes, but the prices are about $8–too much for used shoes! We have a hospital-benefit thrift store that has some nice stuff at much better prices.

  9. BKC

    When I was young, my family was considerably better off financially than we are now. I used to go to Goodwill three or four times in October, looking for pieces for my kickass homemade Halloween costumes, but sort of shun it the rest of the year. In more recent years I’ve become a convert. My biggest score must have happened the day after some other plus-size business woman either got a new causal job or lost a lot of weight, because I scored a ton of dress pants that only needed to be hemmed like two inches and about seven gorgeous shirts. I also let my kiddo buy any pair of shoes that she wants (that mostly fit) if they are under five dollars. They make her SO HAPPY.

  10. Kristin H

    Another thing I look at when I’m checking the condition of the clothes is elastic. I’ve found that on things with an elastic waistband (like on a boy’s swimsuit), the elastic tends to dry out when it sits for a while. Then the first time it gets used, the elastic stretches out and stays stretched out.

  11. sooboo

    I have been a thrift shopper since my mom gave me 20 dollars for fall school clothes when I was in high school! I can afford to buy new now, but prefer thrifting because I love the hunt. I liked your tip about shopping in wealthy areas. I would add that shopping in areas where old people live is fun if you like vintage clothes and antique-y knick knacks. Also, a friend taught me that it’s really good thrift shopping etiquette/ karma if when you find a great item, but you don’t need it or can’t use it, to hang it on the end of the rack where it can easily be seen by the right person.

  12. Laura D

    I gave up on my Goodwill years ago, because instead of organizing clothing by size, they organize by COLOR. I simply don’t have the time to waste going through an entire rack of kids’ clothes just to find the ones in the size I’m looking for.

    1. Nicole

      Our locations are arranged by color too and I HATE IT. I would really like to look for items for all the members of my family but it would take forever to dig through the entire store. As it is, I could maybe look through one or two colors and then call it a day.

      Really the only explanation I can come up with is that they have employees who can’t read sizes? So they sort by something more obvious.

      When I read everyone else’s stories about shopping I’m so jealous :-(

  13. Maria

    The goodwills in Texas offer a stamp for evey $10 spent. When you have ten stamps, you save ten dollars on the next purchase.

    I love goodwill stores… My 9 month old son has more clothes than he needs and I have been able to start stockpiles of the next size up clothing too. We are pretty much set until 5T! He had two halloween. Outfits that were about $2 each. I just can’t bring myself to pay more than that for something he will wear only once or twice. And since onesies only cost $1.25, I don’t care if they get stained and tossed.

    I wish people would be more thoughtful about donating. If you have a beautiful white cashmere sweater with a hideous orange grease stain all down the center… toss it or craft it, don’t donate junk!

    I wish goodwill employees were more careful about tagging clothes too. Putting the plastic tag through the label tag is perfect, but when they put it through the fabric it makes a hole that will stretch over washing and wearing.

    Toys are hit and miss… Some toys are worth buying even if they are missing parts. The fisher price website sells replacement parts for their most current toys. When I see a toy I like I check the website to see if I can get the pieces first.

  14. Sarah

    Yes about the area in which you live! There are certain Goodwills I’ve learned to avoid entirely because they never have anything but the stained/decades old remains of people’s garage sales! Others are routinely awesome. It’s weird, but very predictable.

  15. jill

    I’m disappointed my Goodwill stores don’t separate things by size. You can look at row upon row of clothing before finding something in your size. It takes a lot of time.

    FYI- Goodwill sells stained or otherwise unusable clothing to companies that make rag rugs and what not, so go ahead and donate those items to them. They will still profit from that item with the broken zipper and it’s better than landfilling it.

  16. Jane in Pa

    We have newer Goodwill in the area and it is insanely organized. Like, you go in and the clothes are of course divided by section and size but THEN- each section is divided by pants vs. shirts/sweaters and then organized by COLOR. This is really helpful when looking for uniform colors (our public schools have a uniform). I don’t go there NEARLY enough…but I like the strategies proposed here for how to shop/what mind set to have. Thanks for the tips :)

  17. Alexicographer

    I really can’t stand to shop, but I am also not a fan of spending money (and if you are used to Goodwill prices as I am, anything else looks scandalous! Also, by buying used I do not worry if the clothes were made in a collapsing factory in Bangladesh since I figure that (the secondary market) does not go into their value and so I don’t need to be the one worrying about the sourcing — one less thing to consider!). So. I will often (though as seldom as possible) run in committed to buying just one sort of thing, e.g. pants for my son (currently size 6 and I will only buy him elastic waist pull-on sweat-pant type things with pockets because (a) I can’t stand helping him with the buttons/zippers and (b) he insists on pockets). So it is pretty easy to scan through and grab the ones that meet my criteria + look like they might be the right size, confirm sizing and check condition, and then pay and run out.

    If buying for myself I force myself to try the stuff on, which adds tedium but otherwise is similar to the above, e.g., I go in to buy pants and will only try on pants styled like jeans (decent pockets front and back) and only in a few colors and only in my size and not stained or in need of repairs.

    I never take a kid (or anyone else) with me, and I have just the one kid. So others’ mileage with this approach may vary, but needing to buy just ~6 new pairs of pants/sweatshirts per season for DS, or 2 pairs for myself, whatever, I muddle through with it.

    We have one (fairly) good Goodwill and others that are not as good (more crowded, fewer items), so I focus just on the best one. Life is too short!

  18. Barb

    I hit the jackpot at my neighborhood thrift store last year and got a ton of Little People stuff that was in nice enough condition for Christmas gifts for my kids. I was so excited! I saved at least 50 bucks- they were items on their lists anyway. I don’t shop anywhere very often because my kids are 4 and 2 and make me want to die when I take them places. I love yard sales for this reason because I can drive by to see if it’s worth getting everyone out of the car.

    I love to buy toys and kids’ clothes at the thrift store. I don’t like to buy women’s clothes, men’s clothes or shoes. I always buy vases and storage baskets there, too.

    Yay for thrifting!

  19. Barb

    Forgot to say that I love to go on Monday mornings, right when they open! That’s when all the new stock is out from people donating over the weekend.

  20. Rbelle

    I totally agree that it depends on the store. Southern California is wall to wall cities, so I have more than one option. My “local” store is small, cramped, and has a very small rack of children’s clothes. The few times I’ve bought things there, they were for costumes or something I needed right away, and I wasn’t really bargain hunting. It feels like a rip-off to pay $6 for something that’s both used, and that I’ll likely never wear again. However, the store in the next city over (which isn’t that much farther than the local store) is better organized, larger, and has racks and racks of kids clothes (not so much for babies and toddlers, but enough that I spent 20 minutes digging through them). I went recently, and got some great finds. I really didn’t understand the pricing – they were having two 50 percent sales, so pink and blue tags were supposed to be half off. Based on the signage, it looked like the clothes ranged from $1.99 to $4.99, but I couldn’t tell what prices applied to what types of clothes. In the end, I only ended up with a couple of pink tagged items, but I thought I’d take my chances and see what the rest cost. The guy rang everything up for $.99. I was naturally super-excited, but I think one of us must have been color-blind, because I would have called most of my tags green.

    I also really love the housewares section, even at my “crappy” local store. I collect teacups, and I have never been to a Goodwill that didn’t have tons of them. Often, they’re part of a large set – people really like to donate their china, it seems. But you don’t necessarily have to buy the whole set, and there are a lot of solo or small sets of cups and saucers as well. The pricing doesn’t always feel like a bargain, but it might be if you know what you’re getting. While I will get any cup I think fits my collection, what I really look for is bone china, made in England, which can run $20 to $30 for a single cup and saucer. I’ve seen these in antique and vintage stores priced quite high, but recently found a beautiful rose patterned cup at Goodwill for $6. The saucer it was paired with wasn’t the same (it was made in Japan, and not bone china), but it matched and was only $2. And the best part of my teacup hunt was watching a woman come tearing through the shelf and put plate, after plate, after plate into her cart – all different patterns, all dinner plates. She must have had 20 by the time she was done. My guess was props of some kind, but I was too chicken to ask. Regardless, if you collect any type of housewares – vases, clear or colored glass items, coffee cups, whatever, there are always some great pieces to be found.

  21. HereWeGoAJen

    I have good luck at our Goodwill sometimes and sometimes not. One of the best finds I had was when I got there one day after someone with the same taste as me but an older daughter obviously donated a bunch of jeans in Elizabeth’s upcoming size, all in brands and styles I liked, and really good shape. I think I got her entire winter’s worth of jeans for $10.

  22. Kalendi

    I do not like thrift shopping, but I don’t like to shop (unless it’s crafts or books). However, my husband loves thrift stores. We don’t have Goodwill where we currently live, but many local thrift stores. He comes home with treasures all the time! We live in the mountains of Colorado so he even finds great skis and boots and other winter stuff for a really good price! If I ever need a small appliance or kitchen tool I will mention it to him and he will usually find it. Thrift shopping is good for the budget and the environment…SCORE!

  23. emmegebe

    Ooh, this is timely! I am still feeling self-satisfied today over my great thrift store find yesterday: brand-new Brooks Brothers dress shirts in my teenager’s size, just when he’s been asking for new dress clothes! (His HS sports team dresses up on school days when they have a competition — do all / lots of schools do this? First time in his life he’s needed more than one or two dress-up outfits. Since we are not churchgoers. But that was last week’s topic, lol.) I bought three, they fit him perfectly and look awesome, and he was very happy!

    I’m a devoted thrifter and agree with all your points. In my area Goodwill is my least favorite thrift store, though. They price things too high and don’t weed out the stained/torn/broken zipper things well enough.

    My best thrifting tactic is to visit often and be fine with finding nothing. If I am running errands and am near a thrift store with 20 minutes to spare, I’ll pop in and scan the racks real quick. Sometimes I find thrilling scores, sometimes nothing is right. The majority of my & my kids’ wardrobes are thrifted. Like you I look for quality labels and keep a mental inventory of my kids’ needs, preferences, and sizes.

    I *mostly* skip the linen section BUT every now and then I find a nice set of cloth napkins to add to our rotation.

    I own a Cuisinart ice cream maker and an excellent Zojirushi bread maker because I found them at thrift stores for $15 each. Would not have ever bought them otherwise, but am very happy to have them!

  24. Marie

    It’s fun hearing everyone’s thrifting stories! I grew up with a father who spent Saturday mornings at garage sales, but I’m more of a Goodwill person. I have three different Goodwills and myriad other thrift stores within a short drive. My favorite one is very organized almost like a boutique. My least favorite one is packed, and then the employees follow you around if you don’t make nice when you come in. My old favorite one closed – it had awesome furniture.

    I usually have one or two things in mind to shop for when I go. Some days I’ll look specifically for skirts or shirts. I like bringing home a few new Tshirts or colors each season just to rotate my clothing. Other days I’ll look for children’s clothing or household goods. I almost always scan housewares and children’s clothing in passing, just in case something jumps out at me. I look for classic pieces that go with anything, or fun colorful designs. If I need something like drinking glasses or fleece tops, I *always* scan for it at a thrift store first.

    I have to be prepared to leave if I don’t find what I am looking for, or it can be a huge energy-suck. It’s kind of fun when I want to shop but don’t have much money, though. It’s a hunt and a low-budget challenge. When I am free-form browsing, I’ll set my timer so I don’t get worn out! Sensory overload leads to bad decisions! I try to collect, decide, then keep the best and then get the heck out. :)

    My best score ever was a vintage Vera Neuman scarf – not that I knew who she was when I picked it up, but I knew I loved it, and I wear it often. I’ve also found flashing toddler sneakers, a new couch, a dining room chair set, a toddler rocking chair, leather heels, a fleece men’s jacket, and fleece tops, fun skirts, and necklaces for myself. I try to make sure that when I bring something home that something else leaves. :) I try to give my good stuff, too, to pass the thrifting karma around.

  25. Barb

    After I read this post, I got the thrifting bug and piled the kids in the car to hit up the thrift store. I scored some Christmas gifts for my nephew (he’s 21 months so he’s happy with second hand trucks) and my 4 year old took his own money and bought his own toy that he’s been carrying around all day. I love to thrift.

  26. Monique S

    I loved everyone ‘s comments and ideas. This post has given me some great tips and I am so excited to try again.

  27. Liv

    I am still happy about finding someone’s huge Olily donation & buying nearly every item (in my kids sizes).

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