Why I Thrift (and How I Got Started) by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“Thrifting fits the ‘reduce-reuse-recycle’ mantra so well…Thrifting may not be the most efficient way to shop, but I love how it encourages me to see the value in old things…”

Last weekend, I went to one store and came home with 1 cotton sundress, 4 lightweight sweaters, 2 pairs of pants, 1 beaded necklace, and 3 khakis for my preschooler. I paid $26.31 for the entire haul. That feat was only possible because I bought all of those items second-hand at a thrift store.  While I have always been a value-conscious shopper, for the majority of my life “scoring a bargain” almost always meant buying something new on sale at a deep discount. I only started buying used clothes a few years ago after my firstborn son moved up into the toddler room at his daycare. The more artwork he did there, the more consistently he came home with paint splattered all over his hair, body, and clothes. Though his teachers always told us that it was “just” finger paint and that it would wash out, his clothes would almost invariably remain stained (whether or not I pretreated the stains, or vigorously attempted to scrub them out by hand before and/or after the wash).

That ruined-though-barely-worn clothes routine quickly drove me bonkers. Worst still was my realization that even if I had been successful in removing the stains, my son would soon outgrow his clothes anyway. When I shared these frustrations with my “working moms” support group at Virginia Tech, it was then when I learned of this amazing store featuring gently used children’s clothes and toys that I hadn’t realized even existed–Once Upon a Child.

Buying used (vs. new) clothes for my son has since become my default mode of shopping (n.b., his little brother mostly wears his hand-me-downs). This doesn’t mean that I never buy new for him/them, only that my general pattern is to thrift rather than go to the mall or buy something new online.

Showing off his popcorn (and thrifted clothes)

It took a little longer for me to start regularly buying myself thrifted clothes. My first purchases were “impulse” maternity  items—pieces that I noticed out of the corner of my eye when pregnant with my second child while shopping at Once Upon a Child for my firstborn. I was still then, however, of the mindset that while it made economical sense to buy second-hand for things like Halloween costumes and maternity wear, thrifting wasn’t the way to go when looking for quality “regular” clothes.

I no longer believe that. I now regularly buy more clothes for myself (and my kids) second-hand at thrift stores than I do new anywhere else. I didn’t have an overnight conversion to thrifting, but my shopping habits have gradually changed since moving back to California three years ago as I also began scrutinizing my own consumer choices more closely.

I love how thrifting fits the “reduce-reuse-recycle” mantra so well. People donate clothes and other items to thrift stores that they no longer need—thus allowing them to declutter their lives (a form of reducing) and even receive a tax-deduction for their charitable contributions. When folks like me shop at thrift stores, we prevent these otherwise unwanted items from simply being thrown into a landfill (i.e., we are reusing what others don’t want and accordingly recycling). Buying used products also uses fewer natural resources than new ones do, in part because these goods are generally collected (i.e., donated) locally.

I also love the fact that most thrift stores have some sort of direct charitable connection. Take my two favorite thriftstores: American Way (in Pomona, CA) and Steven’s Hope for Children (in Upland, CA). A portion of American Way’s proceeds goes to Helping Hands for the Blind and the Cancer Federation. And Steven’s Hope for Children helps families of seriously ill or injured children, especially those who have relocated to be near a specialized hospital, by providing (financial and other) assistance to their families so they can stay together.

What is also unique about thrift stores is that many of them provide vocational training or rehabilitation to people on some form of state aid. While I don’t mean to sound condescending, I think it’s great that thrift stores provide employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled and disadvantaged.

I’ll blog later about how “sweatshop” labor is behind much of the clothes sold today and how my growing consternation about that has also led me to go the second-hand route when possible. So I’ll close now with two final reasons why I thrift.

Quite simply, it’s fun. Thrifting may not be the most efficient way to shop, but I love how it encourages me to see the value in old things and even in styles of clothes I wouldn’t normally gravitate toward in retail shops. I’ve recently even followed the advice of some seasoned thriftstore-loving bloggers, which is to buy thrifted clothes with an eye of making some minor alterations (e.g., transform a dress into a skirt, a sweater into a cardigan, a long-sleeved shirt into a tank top).

Finally and obviously, thrifting is great for stewardship and fiscal management. Spending significantly less on clothing does great things for my family’s pocketbook. To be sure, we are privileged enough to be able to afford to buy retail, but I love how I can regularly purchase pieces for my kids or myself for a fraction of what I would have to pay even at a big box or outlet store and thus put the money I would otherwise have spent to better ends.

Yesterday, I bought 1 tunic-style top for me and 3 cotton t-shirts for my growing preschooler for $2.50. My friend who had come along with me (and who hadn’t thrifted in years but ended up leaving with an impressive haul of her own) turned to me and said, “Wow, that’s less than a latte.”  Indeed she was right.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (2011) and is working on a second book on Asian American Christian Ethics. Read more about her work on her website.

Categories: Children, consumerism, Ethics, General, shopping, sustainability

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. oh! i LOVE this blog- i have thrifted every since i was in grade school and my grandmother would save good finds out for me when she worked the annual church rummage sale..


  2. Thank you for this blog, Dr. Kao! You raise a lot of great points. And thanks for posting the links to thrift blogs and stores in in the Claremont area. I find it much easier to thrift here than where I grew up in Ga. I was never really concerned about the ethics and politics tied up in materialism and consumer culture until undergrad. I really struggled with not buying brand name/brand new clothes because of how I would be viewed – especially in middle/high school and even into college. I think that taking your children thrifting and sharing clothes with one another really helps them cultivate an appreciation for it and an understanding of the ethical problems with labor/production. I wish I would have had that when I was younger.


    • Amanda – I feel similarly; now when I buy clothes, I lament how much money I wasted when I was younger and how I didn’t have the same criticisms of consumer culture as I do now.

      For tips of thrifting in Claremont, especially if you go to American Way (in Pomona), try to go on Tue or Thu mornings from 9am-12pm when clothes are 50% off. There’s no fitting room, so wear something you can just slip things over (e.g., tank tops or leggings). There’s a mirror in the back of the store (by the electronics) that everyone heads to check out how things look like on themselves. Happy thrifting!


  3. This is a fantastic blog! I absolutely love thrifting and my appreciation for it grows more and more. Also, I completely agree with Amanda– many people are so wrapped up in brand names and are sucked in to materialism that they do not see the value and appreciation of recylced clothes. And its great that you are sharing the joy of thrifting with your kids! I always get so excited when I stumble upon a great find ;)


  4. Thrifting is very fun! I have been going to thrift stores since I was in high school. It was fun to go with friends and not have to spend a lot of money. Today I go to thrift stores with my boyfriend and we mainly look for jackets (for winter), long sleeves, and t shirts. I am all for recycling clothing and I think it is such an easy way to do your part in society. I have even gotten my mom to start going to thrift stores as well! I actually remember when I moved out to LA to go to college we got my plates, and utensils from the local thrift store. It is always fun to see what you can find!


  5. Great blog! I love thrifting! In high school, my friends and I used to go thrifting almost every friday. We had such a blast rummaging through boxes and bins of what other people considered junk. It’s always nice when you find something really unique and the price is incredibly low. When this happens I always feel like I hit the jackpot!



  1. They Are Trying to Trick You by Xochitl Alvizo « Feminism and Religion
  2. Appealing to Values and Interests in Consumer Choices by Grace Yia-Hei Kao « Feminism and Religion

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