Thrift Shop Decorating: 5 Basic Rules of Second-Hand Shopping

The idea of furnishing a new apartment, in addition to paying rent, is the stuff of nightmares for those of us paying off loans. Add the Pinterest-induced pressure of accent pieces, space-saving DIY projects, and words like “minimalist,” “bohemian,” and “shabby chic,” and one wants to throw their hands up and sleep on an air mattress instead.

Flea MarketA message for the easily overwhelmed (like me): There is another way! Luckily for us, the recent trend of second-hand shopping has lead to thrift stores popping up everywhere, even in rural New Hampshire, the home of my first apartment. A simple Google search will start you off in your new hometown, but don’t forget to keep your eyes open: some of my best finds have been off-the-beaten-path and websiteless. Yard sales and roadside sales are great, as are family members or friends randomly getting rid of stuff.

Here are 5 simple rules to remember as you begin exploring:

1. Consider hygiene

First off, there are some things that should not be thrifted. For me, those things are towels, pillows, shower curtains, bed sheets, and mattresses. Everyone has their own things that give them the hygiene heebie-jeebies—buy those things new.

2. Check functionality

To me this goes without saying: If it’s broken or smells weird, don’t buy it! Test electric items like microwaves, refrigerators, toasters, lamps, irons, etc, right there in the store before you buy it. Also, I’ve found that good knives are hard to find, and you’re better off buying a new sharp chopping knife from the supermarket.

Bric-a-brac stall at a market3. Embrace quirky

This is my favorite part of thrifting. You can find some of the weirdest and most soul-stirring things at these stores. I found the craziest pink elephant-shaped creamer that made me laugh so hard that I had to buy it. I will warn you, though: if you get too excited about quirk, your apartment will end up a weird-in-a-bad-way museum exhibit of useless stuff. If you come across a soul-stirring quirky piece, hit it with a small dose of rationality: where will this go? what will this do? (My pink elephant is now a toothbrush holder in my pink bathroom.) I am not a rational person, but even I know you’ll thank me later.

4. Don’t decide on price alone

Yes, one of the many upsides of thrifting is the cheap price, but don’t let that be The Deciding Factor on a piece. You still have to like the items you bring home, whether you got them for $1 or $100. I’ve found that it’s worth it to spend the extra money on something I actually love, rather than something that is cheap but just “okay.”

5. Be patient

Your long term furnishing attitude has to be a patient one. You might not find anything at that first, or second, or third thrift store. Or, you might find a good pot for cooking rice, but its handle is a little loose. Don’t buy it. There will be more pots. Always trust that if it’s not at least almost-perfect, you’ll find something closer to perfect somewhere else. Make sure you do move in with at least the basics though—something to sleep on, something to eat with. The rest can slowly come together.

The real beauty in thrifting is that everything you find has a backstory that you’ll never know. Who bought this originally? And, for some pieces, why did they buy it?! Each store is so unique, and eventually you’ll cultivate your own collection of furnishings and décor that literally no one else in the world has. Even IKEA can’t offer you that.

Here are some specifics from my thrifted collection:

Free things (from my attic, my old room, or family/friends giving away things):

Plates and bowls. Two kitchen chairs. Four wine glasses. Two mixing bowls. A dresser. Sheets, blankets, and pillows. A bath mat. A bookcase. A teapot lamp. A floor lamp. A side table. A futon. An art table. A tchotchke display, not that I accumulate unnecessary stuff or anything…        

Under $10 things:

A toaster. A matching silverware set. Two pots. Two pans. A wok. A kettle. Measuring cups and spoons. Three drinking glasses. A lamp. A lampshade. Aveeno body wash. A natural-wood side table that I later sanded, stained, and finished myself. An easel to display both finished and in-progress art. A dark wood sculpture of lovers that I bought while I was studying abroad.

Under $15 things:

Another lamp. Another lampshade. A microwave. A bedside table. A pink elephant toothbrush holder. A dark wood sculpture of a parent and child to match the one I had. A dark wood hanging sculpture of a thinking face.

Under $30 things:

A coffee table.

Over $30 things:

A kitchen table, because I was sick of eating on the floor. ($50). A chair for my living room that took me a month to find, that I love a lot. ($115)

I spent about $300 to furnish my apartment, not including the new mattress, towels, and shower curtain (my hygiene heebie-jeebies). And the happiness I get from my perfect comfy chair, three matching (matching! from three different stores!) dark wood sculptures, teapot lamp, and pink elephant is, as they say, priceless.

But it definitely adds to my happiness that they were so dang cheap!

Feel free to share your own thrifting stories in the comments section!

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A recent college graduate, Eliza Kenney is an avid dog-lover, amateur artist, and dancer. She currently works long hours in direct care services and spends her off days bumming on the couch in her awesome new apartment, although she has recently been trying to be more productive. She has big dreams of starting her own adaptive dance company, and loves random, spontaneous adventures.

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