Secrets of a thrift store shopper

I want to let you in on a little secret:

I love thrift store shopping.

And not just to save money.

In addition to being pretty frugal on certain things, I enjoy shopping at thrift stores for more than just the savings. Don’t get me wrong – I love finding that amazing deal, but that’s not quite enough to keep me coming back to the mysterious color-coded tagging systems, “vintage” kitchy glassware, and dusty late ’80s electronics bins. And although you might question how this is connected to improving my health, I assure you there are logical reasons.

There are also a few gigantic, impossible, James-Cameron-like stretches of reason – but hear me out.

Before I get into that, let me be clear that there are a few things I don’t buy ever at thrift stores. Old non-stick cookware is out. Old electronics? Very rarely, if ever. Underwear? No way ever ever ever. And the king of things to never buy? Intimate items for your significant other, which amazingly they do sell (never never ever, gentlemen).

Reasons I love shopping at thrift stores – oh yeah and that health tie-in thing

Here’s a list of some of the reasons why I love shopping at thrift stores when you’re trying to lose weight.

- Rewarding yourself with clothes that fit – on a budget. One of many great tips I come across repeatedly (and use to my advantage) is to “reward” yourself with clothes that fit as you get in better shape. Similarly, you can set up a goal by buying something that you love but that is a little too small – Its a great motivator for me.

However, clearly this could get expensive if you’ve got a lot of weight to lose, and especially if you’re eating higher quality food that may force you to rethink your budget priorities a little. And that’s where thrift stores come in.

Case in point: The pants in the picture.

I bought these pants today knowing full well that they do not fit – YET. They are about a size too small in the waist, but the quality was too good to pass up. So, these pants become a great weight loss tool: they are an affordable source of motivation to get down another pants size.

And these pants are luscious. Yeah, I just said “luscious”.

They are pants that normally retail for easily more than I’d spend on 3 pairs of pants, but being a find at the thrift store means they’re within my inner cheapskate’s boundaries. And the best part? Today was blue tag day at the thrift store, so they were marked down by an additional 50% to $7.47 – an almost 95% discount off of retail, and never worn as far as I can tell. But they will be soon, proudly.

- It’s a hunter gatherer thing: I love the thrill of the style hunt – even for styles meant for thinner folk. My wife and I both love to find and share things that are visually interesting or unusual, from innovative ads to well-designed kitchenware. Fashion is no exception. It’s not uncommon for me to rush from one side of a large store to the other only to extoll the virtues of the triple stitching in a jacket, or the rare-but-highly-sought-after hand-stitching of vintage Italian leather shoes.

Personally, I think it’s good for our marriage. :) Unfortunately, most of these great finds are for people of, well, slimmer physiques. But turning that into motivation works for me, even if I don’t buy it (I will never be a size 28 waist. No way.). It doesn’t help me with fine leather shoes much, but pants, shirts, and jackets? Definitely.

- Exercise equipment graveyards – Or, “things at which you should not throw your money”. Thrift stores almost always have piles of grungy, junky fad-driven exercise machines. The piles of junk are good reminders not to waste your money in the first place. There are better ways to exercise than overpriced, poorly made fly-by-night contraptions that wither and die in the closet or under the deck.

- On the other hand, exercise equipment graveyards are good places to find new things to try – on the cheap. Occasionally buried in those piles of ab floggers and thigh blasters you can find high quality items that are made to last and might give your exercise routine a change – at a fraction of the original price. Good examples of quality items I’ve found are cast iron dumbells, kids’ sports gear, and sometimes bicycles (if you know what you’re looking for).

Today was a great example: Thanks to some personal knowledge of bike gear and my iPhone I was able to check the original price as well as the reviews for a bicycle that had just been put out, and it was a good deal: It retailed for over $400 dollars several years ago, not including the improved seat and rims that it came with. My price? $19.95. Sold.

- Haunting thrift stores is a good way to stay grounded. This might sound terrible to some, but it’s honest: If you visit thrift stores often you will quickly encounter a huge cross-section of people ranging from those who are pretty “together” just looking for a bargain, to those who…well let’s just say that in the Texas Hold ‘Em game of life, so far they either a) haven’t been dealt much by way of face cards, or b) wasted more than a few good hands by indulging in some of the more destructive vices of life – for much too long.

I point this out because there are a few immediate internal results each time I leave a thrift store. First, with regard to patrons clearly down on their luck, it’s a good reminder that hard times can befall anybody no matter what station you think you’ve reached in life, or what good fortune you’ve had so far. It reminds me to be thankful for what I have in health, in my family, and in my work. It also reminds me that we’re all just people, and it takes all kinds.

But it also reminds me that my life choices matter. If you continue down a path of self-destructive behavior (i.e. smoking, eating junk, drinking excessively), in all likelihood it’s going to catch up with you sooner or later both in form and function. And some of the rougher folks at thrift stores, sadly in my opinion, are living proof.

In my case, that means being as healthy and “put together” as I can be. Seeing someone at the opposite extreme is frankly a good reminder that I’m in control of my own fate, regardless of the circumstances or in some cases, the choices, of others. Does this make me better than them? No. It means every day I make a good choice, I took responsibility for my life in that moment, and I was really fortunate to have that option.

- Buying quality products is synonymous with buying quality food. While I don’t recommend ever, ever buying a snack at a thrift store (yikes), being surrounded by piles of plastic disposable junk reminds me that we are bombarded with the “more, and cheaper, is better” philosophy in everything, and we as a culture continue to buy it over and over again.

But we don’t have to. You can buy quality things that last, even on a budget. Finding good quality items in a thrift store requires time, including both the search and the research beforehand. But the investment of time pays off in big ways, and affords me the “luxury” of putting my money into better choices in other categories, like food.Thrift stores have piles of cheaply made, worn out clothing. But occasionally you find something that you could never normally afford that has little if any wear (my wife once found a pair of women’s pants that were from an exclusive designer – they were $400 dollars originally!) But knowing what you’re looking at of course involves learning a bit more about what to look for in brands, in construction, and so forth. And that may not be your cup of tea.

For me, it has become a hobby of sorts that I enjoy. I love looking at sites like The Sartorialist for style ideas (though some are a bit too “out there” for me), as well as guidance in understanding why some clothes look better than others (where a jacket should fall on the shoulders, what a tailored shirt looks like vs. a cheaply made shirt, etc.). Again, it may be a little too “chi chi” for you, but there is nothing that says you have to follow what sites like these suggest; you can pick and choose some of the advice, or none at all.

The soapbox – You knew it was coming, right?

Believe it or not, I am increasingly of the belief that consumerism is one of the root societal causes of obesity – even beyond our food choices. Walk down the aisles of a thrift store and look at pile after pile of broken, branded, unnecessary junk, from giant candy-shaped plastic toys to junk food-themed cookie jars, and you will start to see how this mirrors what we are being continually told to put in our body from a food perspective.

And while I may be waxing philosophical a bit here, I think there is merit to the idea that we can easily look at our food like we look at a pile of cheap plastic goods. Buying cheaply solves an immediate problem/hunger, and on occasion is necessary – but more often than not a better choice can be made by reprioritizing where we put our dollars and planning ahead for what we need. And in the end, whether it’s plastic thrift store items or cheap industrial food, the junk adds up.

As I mentioned, thrift store shopping may not be of interest to you. But that’s OK. It just means more bargains for the rest of us. :)

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