Know What to Pay, and When to Walk Away

Learning to recognize true value and when someone is overcharging is a key shopping skill for both regular and thrift shopping alike.  Thrifting is a great way to hone this skill because of the diversity of merchandise and the shorter window of time to decide – part of why I have a firm belief that thrifting makes you a better shopper, period.  Best case scenario, you have to decide before you leave the store or risk that it will be gone, even if you return the next day.  In worst cases, you have to decide within minutes or someone else will swipe it from the shelf.

Pricing differs from region to region, so it’s difficult to give hard-and-fast rules regarding how much you should pay.  When it comes to thrifting, there’s an element of trusting your gut.  Also, different things hold different values for everyone.  Something that I might find great sentimental or nostalgic value in might be garbage to someone else.  That’s the beauty of the thrift – it’s part of why they exist!  Thrifters find redeeming value in a “worthless thing” cast away by the original owner.  To claim that all prices would reflect the same values for everyone is impossible.

Here are some considerations to keep in mind as you hone your skills at knowing how much to shell out, and when it’s better to leave without.

  1. Value
  2. Too Good to Be True?
  3. Repair / DIY Investment
  4. High Demand
  5. Evaluate Closet Space
  6. Benefits of Ownership
  7. What I Would Charge
  8. Phone a Friend
  9. Love at First Sight?
  10. Remember:  It’s OK to Leave Empty Handed


Do you have already have an idea or estimate of the value?  It helps to have some subject matter knowledge about the items you’re eyeing, especially if they are collectible.  For clothing, have you ever heard of the designer or manufacturer?  Do you know what kind of fabrics are quality, and which are kind of crap?  If you have a sense that it could be a quality brand or a desirable vintage piece, you’ll understand whether the price on the tag is too high or not bad, considering.  Sometimes you can scout out prices online to see what the going rate is.  Rule of thumb is that thrift store prices will be cheaper than online.  Practice comparing prices to get a sense of the ratio in your area.

Too Good to Be True?

Is it too good to be true?  If it looks brand new and normally pretty expensive, but marked down to mere pennies, it probably is.  Check carefully for hidden flaws or signs that the item is broken.  Of course, this rule is flexible – often thrift store employees who price the merchandise may be unaware of the true value and therefore slap on a lowball price.  But always be skeptical and give finds a once-over with a critical eye.  Look at clothes inside and out for sneaky stains, broken enclosures like zippers or missing buttons, or weird smells.  Check shoes for excessive wear and tear, heels that might break loose, and overall comfort factor.  Check dishes for warping, cracks, or chips.  Test electronics whenever possible, and check out the return policy when available.  If the item passes a thorough inspection, you can thank thrift karma for the pricing oversight and run to the register.

Repair / DIY Investment

While you should always be skeptical of high-quality brands at rock-bottom prices, quality items that are in fair to poor condition can be scooped up at low prices and somewhat restored to their former glory.  Quality is key.  If the construction or materials are good, it might be salvageable.  Items that look or feel cheap probably are not worth the DIY Investment.

If you hope to “rescue” an item in disrepair, think about a game plan.  How will you fix it?  What specific steps will you take?  Do you already possess the necessary skills, or are there some you need to learn?  There are some problems that can’t be fixed, or would take too much time / money / effort to repair.  Is it worth your time, energy, or extra money to have it repaired?  Don’t get me wrong, DIY is awesome – but it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to fix everything you see.  Left unchecked, a well-meaning intention can lead to a wasteland of junk that you never have time or desire to work on.  Consider the DIY investment in terms of time, energy, desire, and money (for supplies or paying someone else to take over if you get stuck.)

High Demand

Is there a high demand for similar items?  This should also be known as the “collectible curse” – meaning that once something is labeled a collector’s item by a third party, thrift stores tend to mark it up unreasonably high.  Even if something is practically worthless, if it is suddenly ascribed worth by becoming collectible, watch out for overpricing.  If you’re a collector, you’ll probably have a sense of the value (Step 1) and be able to judge accordingly.

It also applies to current trends.  If a certain style is back, you may see higher prices on vintage or retro “originals” of the style, not to mention pricier modern interpretations.  While trendy styles are still much cheaper at the thrift store than the mall, don’t overlook the condition of the garment and fork over a wad of cash only to be disappointed with the poor fit, dated print, or hidden flaw.  Wear it because you love it, not just because it’s “in.”

Evaluate Closet Space

Where will you put it?  What available space do you have to store or display this item?  Many wise thrifters have a personal policy of one-in, one-out:  if you bring something home, you have to be ready to give something else up.  Otherwise you just keep acquiring until you’re literally drowning in your own stuff.  If your closet is overflowing, but you can’t bear to put that garment back on the racks, think about what you’d like to give away to make room.  If your kitchen cupboards already runneth over with gadgets but you can’t resist that As-Seen-On-TV miracle product, evaluate which ones could get the boot on your next thrift excursion.

Benefits of Ownership

What is the potential cost-per-wear, or how much use you will gain from ownership?  For clothing, it helps to factor in other elements of your wardrobe.  What do you already own that would complement this piece?  What can you style it with from your own closet?  If you have several items, you may wish to rank them according to things you love and things that are only okay – then put the “okay” pile back.  If you feel ambivalent about it today, how will you feel in a week, a month, a year?  Save yourself the trouble and leave it for someone else to find.

What I Would Charge

This is a fun and valuable game:  play the price-maker.  Sometimes it helps your estimating skills to take a different perspective.  In your head, ask yourself what you would personally list the price.  Now see how disparate your ideal price and the actual price are.  Comparing what you would have priced it as versus the manager’s price shows a bit more of your perception of the item’s value.  A variant of this game is, “If it was [x] dollars, would I buy it?”  If you keep getting lower in price and still don’t have the gut urge to buy it, leave it on the shelf.

I got the idea to play the price-maker game when helping set up a garage sale for some friends.  One of us would hold up an object and ask all the other helpers, “What would you pay for this?”  We’d take a moment to silently fix a number in our minds, so we wouldn’t be influenced by others.  When everyone had a price in mind, we shared with the group.  It was interesting to see what items people thought were worth more, or what they thought someone would pay for it, and how your own guesses compared to the group average.  I consistently fell into the low-ball category, which I guess says a lot about me!  (Both that I am not willing to pay very much for garage sale things, and that I think other people won’t either.)  On items that I have never bought before, like an iron, I had no idea what I would price it as and gave higher price estimates than the others.  It’s a fun game to play in a group, but it can also work on solo thrifting trips.

Phone a Friend

Maybe not literally phone a friend, but seeking advice from a similarly-minded thrifty friend about a stubborn gut feeling always helps.  (I guess if you’re really on the fence, call or text somebody for a lifeline!)  The friend can validate any suspicions you might have, or reassure that it’s all in your head.  (AKA, “Is this cute or kind of fugly?”  Or “Is this a good bargain?”)  Friends who can give polite but unbiased opinions are worth their weight in gold – hang on to that dear friend who can let you down gently when those jeans don’t hug your curves in a flattering way (“Chica, you’re beautiful, but those acid-washed mom jeans are not…”), or that crazy dress (“Where would you wear that, exactly?”), or who talks you out of a junky purchase (“What are you going to do with twenty BetaMax tapes?”) or who spots the perfect thing that you may have overlooked because the price was too high.  Sometimes just talking out a potential purchase out loud helps you realize that your rationalization was a stretch, or that you really do have a passion for that vintage print.  Having a friend validate or help clarify your thoughts will leave you feeling more decisive and less anxious.

Love at First Sight?

How much do you love it?  This is a major part of the editing process and perhaps the most subjective consideration of all because it’s based on your gut.  Weighing your desire for the object relative to the price is another key shopping skill in both thrifty and non-thrift worlds.  The easy answer is to simply put back anything you’re on the fence about, but that can easily invite thrift regret.  (I’ve had a few thrift regrets – things I didn’t love in the moment but later wished I’d picked up.)

You have to ask the “reverse gold-digger” question here:  Do you love it for itself, or because it’s cheap?  Being cheap certainly doesn’t hurt, but if that’s the only real reason you want it, hold out for something better.  Don’t settle* in romantic love or thrifting hauls!

*The exception to this rule is if you need it immediately, or for temporary purposes.  Say, if you need a new pair of work pants ASAP because your go-to pair shrank in the wash, you can buy trousers that fit the bill but you’re not married to in order to avoid going naked to work.  If you need a throwaway T-shirt for a painting project, there’s no need to agonize over your feelings.  If you need a cheap piece of equipment, say a cassette player, buy it for your immediate purpose and re-donate when finished.  If you don’t plan to have a long-term relationship with the item (a “thrift fling,” if you will) it doesn’t require as much love.

Remember:  It’s OK to Leave Empty Handed

I stopped in a thrift store today and it felt strange to walk out completely empty handed.  But it also felt good, because I knew I wasn’t settling for anything that I didn’t love, and my closet and shelves are that much happier for it.  I am admittedly addicted to thrifting, but “retail therapy” doesn’t always necessitate a purchase for me.  Sometimes just the experience of wandering around a thrift store (as dangerous as that can be – ha!) can be relaxing.  After all, it’s free to look.  You can still admire all the cool vintage clothes, ponder the quirky reading material, or laugh at the straight-up weird knickknacks.  Being able to appreciate the culture of thrift without always buying is freeing.  It’s all too easy to fall prey to consumerism and fuel that need to acquire, acquire, acquire.  By occasionally denying yourself, you learn to be a more discerning consumer.

That’s it!

I know I refer to this principle a lot in my posts, but only because I believe it is a vital part of the shopping experience – thrift and non-thrift alike.  Don’t worry if you’re not excelling at this skill quite yet – it takes a lot of practice, and even veteran thrifters know it’s not always cut-and-dried.  Next time you are confronted with an item that leaves you stranded on the fence, consider these tips to help you make a smart buy.

What’s your process for evaluating a good bargain?

8 Responses to “Know What to Pay, and When to Walk Away”
  1. Great post! I’ve found that I have a very hard time remembering that it’s ok to leave without anything.

  2. i love this post!
    i’m an avid thrifter myself, and have been for years. still, it is hard to hone the ‘it’s ok to walk away’ skill.
    it takes time and experience. i now do it with ease 🙂
    i also go by your ‘love at first sight’ rule. if i’m on the fence, that’s when i know to leave it.

    • natfee says:

      Thanks for reading, Valerie! I think, as your comments illustrates, it takes time and practice – truly a learned skill. Glad to hear that you have honed it! Even though I’m proud of this post and I believe what I wrote, I still have trouble following my own advice about “love at first sight” and walking away empty-handed! Ha! Thank you again for sharing 🙂

  3. I would like to know the worth of A MarTee ORIGINAL. The garment appears to have been a cocktail dress and it does have a union stamp on one of the tags, with lots of letters on the stamp. The style number is 8253 and the dress is a size 8. The colors of the dress are black and gold. Thanks for your help!

    • natfee says:

      Hi Katie, thanks for commenting! It sounds like you have a really neat dress on your hands. I wish I could help you estimate a price/what the dress is worth, but I’m still sort of a vintage newbie.

      The latest search on Etsy ( reveals a listing for a Mar Tee Original brocade cocktail dress for $145, but there’s no guarantee that your garment will be worth as much. If the fabric is a a more ‘expensive’ fabric and the dress is in good condition, it is probably worth more than something made of cheaper fabric or with a little wear and tear. You could try searching for similar styles of dress (the silhouette / cut / etc.) to try to narrow down how old the dress is or what others are selling for.

      My blogger friend Sammy Davis Vintage has a lot of good info on her site about dating / selling vintage, so you might find some more resources on her blog:

      I plan to post a follow up to my original posting on my Mar Tee Original soon (read it here). In the meantime, I hope this comment helps at least a little! If you have any more questions, let me know and I’ll do my best to help answer them 🙂

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