With interest rates going up again, you’re smart to cut back on credit card purchases. But life still presents the need to buy stuff. You might have an invite from a new circle of friends on your calendar. Or, there’s an empty table in your living room that’s begging for a funky accessory.

For these purchases, consider thrifting. In the internet age of flash sales and online marketplaces, it’s easy to forget about thrifting and other old-school strategies for saving money. But when you know what to buy at thrift stores, secondhand shopping can be a fun, penny-pinching adventure.

Read on to learn how to focus your thrifting effort on the five products that’ll save you the most.

1. Thrifting vintage engagement rings

Thrift stores can be goldmines for vintage engagement ring hunters — if you know what you’re doing. Use the five tips below to root out the best jewelry buys in a thrift store.

  1. Cultivate patience. Unearthing treasure requires time and attention to detail. You can assume any jewelry deals of the “low-hanging fruit” variety will be long gone before you step into the store. 
  2. Be detailed. Plan on exploring every corner of any jewelry display case or drawer you find. That’s how you find the must-have vintage ring hidden behind a clunky bracelet.
  3. Know your stuff. Understand how gold markings work. 10K, 14K, or 18K, for example, describes the percentage of gold in the metal. Likewise, three-digit numbers can also be gold purity measures. 750 means 75% gold, for example. You can also get familiar with maker’s marks, such as T & Co. for Tiffany & Co. And finally, learn the basic distinguishing features of vintage rings,   like filigree details, boxy diamond shapes, and smaller carat sizes common in older eras.
  4. Pay attention to craftsmanship. Custom pieces may have unique characteristics.
  5. Recognize that condition affects value. Slight wear can indicate authenticity without significantly degrading value. On the other hand, heavy damage should come with a lower price.
  6. Consult with a jewelry if necessary. If you’re worried about authenticity, check with a jewelry before you buy.

It’s also worth noting you can find sparkling, elegant gold and platinum engagement rings with timeless yet modern design features and using lab-grown gems from VRAI. This can be a backup plan if you’ve spent hours sifting through thrift stores without landing on exactly the right piece.

2. Thrifting fine jewelry

Collection of vintage jewelry in display at thrift store.
Source: Envato.

Admittedly, spotting high-end jewelry in a sea of mixed lots can be challenging. Here are three key pointers to direct your quest:

  1. Good value pieces like gold rings and silver necklaces often weigh more than their counterparts. Test by holding it in your hand.
  2. Gold, platinum, or sterling silver pieces should have numeric marks indicating percentage of precious metal content.
  3. Look for things like well-made prongs on a pendant setting or evenly spaced pearls on a necklace strand. Avoid items that aren’t put together in a uniform way. Unintended asymmetry is an indicator of lower-grade pieces.

Also, remember that high price doesn’t necessarily signify higher worth. Don’t rely on price tags to tell you how nice a piece is. Instead, trust your own research to assess value and stay true to your own personal style. Frankly, those are standard strategies for shopping on a budget in any context.

3. Thrifting vintage accessories

The charm of classic accessories lies in their ability to transport us to another era. Thrift stores are a treasure chest for such pieces if you know where and how to look.

Keep these pointers in mind.

  1. Sure, you can buy a 1990s t-shirt from Mervyns in a thrift store on the cheap, but do you want to? Rather than focusing on the price tag alone, look for interesting or unusual pieces you can’t buy today.
  2. Well-made garments withstand years without significant wear. A quality piece can and should have retro style without looking dated or worn-out.
  3. Don’t be led astray by what’s currently hot when looking for treasures from decades past.

4. Thrifting premium apparel

Clothing hanging on rack in thrift store.
Source: Envato.

Discerning shoppers know the thrill of scoring top-notch apparel at incredible prices from thrift stores. Here’s how you can hit the jackpot too:

  1. Many high-end brands are tucked amidst lesser-known names. You may even find some pieces with the original tags still intact.
  2. Seams, buttons, and zippers should function well and look meticulously created.
  3. Natural and weighty materials suggest a premium piece.
  4. Do the smell test. Smells can be hard to eradicate in clothes. Also know how to clean your thrift store clothing.

5. Thrifting rare books

If you’re heading to the thrift store in search of vintage engagement ring styles, clothes or accessories, you might as well pop into the book section, too.

Sniffing out for rare books in thrift shops might become your new favorite hobby. It’s like a treasure hunt, delving into stacks of dusty old books hoping to unearth some classic literature or sought-after first editions.

Here are a few must-know tidbits about vintage book shopping:

  1. Know which authors or titles are worth pursuing, as this saves precious time when rifling through countless volumes.
  2. The most valuable books are usually the first print runs of first editions. Sometimes these are identified by details that aren’t found on the copyright page. There might be one or two defining typos, for example, on specific pages of the book. Before you celebrate finding a first edition, research and verify the print run.  
  3. A first edition of The Great Gatsby without its original dust jacket is worth a few thousand dollars. The same book with the original dust jacket is worth more than $150,000. Even slight damage can affect a book’s value. Torn or stained pages, for example, can be a dealbreaker for a book collector.

What to buy at thrift stores

The big value plays in a thrift store include vintage rings, designer jewelry, retro accessories, clothing, and books. Head in with an appreciation for the process and you’re likely to enjoy yourself — even if you don’t land a first edition run of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (nope, that’s not a typo).

If you prefer to shop used online via marketplaces and apps, many of these strategies still apply. The hardest part will be evaluating fabric and stitching on used garments. Maybe someday the internet will evolve to support touch? But for now, brick-and-mortar thrift stores still have an edge in that regard.