The Perks and Perils of Navigating Goodwill

There is a trick to finding treasure among thrift. Being a broke college kid sometimes forces you into becoming a Thrift Store Expert Extraordinaire, and I have had plenty of experience recently.

There are some people in my family who will not, under any circumstance, buy used stuff.

Then there are those (who taught me well) that imparted me with the wisdom of finding great stuff at garage sales and thrift stores. (Hence the tradition on one side of my family of labeling Christmas presents “Garage Sale Gift” and “Regular Gift.”)


Why shop thrift? Because it’s cheap. Also because its fun. But if you think shopping for expensive new stuff is fun and you’d rather do that, by all means, be my guest.

There are a few basic tools that aid in the treasure hunt of a dusty Goodwill.  First of all, invest in a bottle of hand sanitizer, because you never know who had their grubby mitts all over that Walkman. The strangest people haunt thrift stores, people whose backgrounds and life stories are anyone’s guess. That’s not to say these folks are in any way of questionable background (although that can sometimes be the case) but rather to say its better to be safe than sorry when handling pre-used items.

Another thing to carry with you: ones and fives. You can spend all day browsing a store, picking up and putting down various unusual items, but at the end of the day, sometimes a .99 tchotchke is all you want to take home. Loose change and small bills come in handy.

And, for students, this is useful: bring your student ID! They give 10% off at Goodwill. (Discounts on cheap stuff? A college student’s dream.)

When walking into a thrift store, don’t expect to find anything you’re looking for in particular. Thrift store specialty items are reclusive creatures and will retreat at the first sign of a chase. Instead, walk in with an open mind and let them come to you.


In my opinion, there is no better place to find books than a thrift store. They come in varying editions and conditions, and more than once I’ve found an unopened copy of a favorite classic. (I found a pristine copy of Catch 22 and nearly burst into a jig. It’s my all-time favorite and it was BRAND NEW for .99, which made my day.) Plus, unlike an organized book store, these books come in a mismatched selection of hardbacks, soft covers, fiction and non-fiction alongside a lot of Bibles that look like they were stolen from hotel room drawers. It may force you to bypass your favorite genre and find a new adventure waiting between the covers of an intriguing novel outside your comfort zone.

Also, you can find a plethora of cookbooks. I’ve found a few that turned out to be signed.

(Once, I found a guidebook to Wyoming and nearly paid the .99 just for the novelty of it, but I figured after living there for 18 years, I could write my own guidebook and let it pass.)

Other great finds can be spotted in the dinnerware area. Obviously this takes a lot of common sense–does it look gross? Is it not in good condition? Pass.

But, if you’re lucky, you can find some real gems. Thrift stores are great for finding unusual glasses and coffee mugs. I have a thing for mismatched kitchen utensils, so my cupboards are full of unique champagne glasses and tumblers. I always buy matching sets of glasses and never buy matching coffee mugs or teacups. I like the variety.

Sometimes there are quality pots, pans or sheet trays that look like unwanted wedding gifts to be found. My example: a cherry red fondue pot, unused. Two bucks. I bought it on the spot.

Pinterest is a goldmine of upcycling ideas, so if you see something that catches your eye and you don’t know what to do with it, I can guarantee an internet tutorial is probably floating around somewhere.

Picture found on

Picture found on

My favorite Pinterest tip (*cough cough cheap and easy*)  is to find a cool figurine or statuette, spray paint it a solid color and use it as a decorative piece. It looks very modern and fancy when painted white, but you can do whatever you want. You can dip it in gold sparkles. It costs you .99, just donate it back to Goodwill if you’re not overly fond of it.

Anyway, the key is to have an open mind and some good old fashioned imagination. You never know what you’ll find at Goodwill! (A signed copy of the Little Mermaid, perhaps? Thanks, Jodi Benson!) 20140509_134025


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