How to actually be good at charity shopping

Making second-hand, sustainability and savings your mantra


At this point, The Tab's got Cambridge charity shops down to a T. They’ve been thoroughly reviewed and we now know where to find all the good, bad, and just plain ugly grandma cardigans that our city has to offer.

However, if you really want to know how to become the person who smugly replies "£2, got it from a charity shop", after receiving a compliment on some part of your ensemble, below are some tips to get the best bargains out of your local charity shop.

1) Look outside of your gender/size

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Boys' blazers, and t-shirts, and plaids. Oh my!

To get some really well made and high-quality oversized T-shirts, jackets and quarter-zips, the men’s section can be a genuine treasure trove. Not only do men’s styles change at a slower rate and are less likely to become dated, but the fabric quality is often far better than the polyester 2000s New Look tops that line the women’s aisles. Men too should check out the women’s section, which can offer some respite from the comparatively monochrome colour palette of dull blues, blacks and greys of your half (or rather quarter) of the store.

Similarly, looking beyond your own size can help you find interesting pieces. Remember that things can be belted, tucked in, and, if you’re comfortable with a sewing kit, altered. So many dowdy items can be made new and contemporary through some easy tailoring, whether that’s shortening a dress through a re-hem, patching up a little hole in a jumper or taking in the waist of some funky trousers.

2) Keep your eyes peeled for certain colours and fabrics

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A colour-coded haven

Now, I have noticed from some charity shop reviews that colour-coding is a site of controversy. However, I would argue that if you know a particular colour is your colour, then size is far less helpful and efficient form of store organisation, only narrowing the number of things you perceive as possible options (if unconvinced, see note above about the uselessness of size and gender in finding interesting buys).

As you’re scanning the racks, keep your eyes peeled for unusual colours and prints, one of the main appeals of charity shopping should be that you can find things that you wouldn’t normally see in your run of the mill fast-fashion factory. Another is that you can purchase items in materials, like silk and cashmere, that would otherwise be very expensive if you bought them new. So, be sure to check labels, looking out for 100% cotton in jeans and 100% silk in pretty much anything.

3) Go with someone who actually likes charity shopping

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There is frankly nothing worse than going charity shopping with someone who doesn't enjoy it and isn’t willing to put in the time required to find rare gems in the piles and piles of mediocrity. It is totally fair to not enjoy the experience: the clothes sometimes smell, they are often dirty and there’s no guarantee of success. However, going with a friend who is uncomfortable or uncertain can make you feel like you ought to get them out of this musty hellhole as soon as humanly possible, preventing you from taking your time to carefully look through all the hangers.

Equally, only go when you're in the mood to dig through everything, sometimes your mindset is the best way to guarantee success. If you enjoy the experience, either go with a friend who also really likes to go on a good bargain hunt or take a self-care day and go on your lonesome.

If you know that charity shopping is just not your thing, there are some excellent online options too. Anyone aspiring to even mild edginess knows about Depop, but websites like Re-Fashion and Oxfam both allow you to search and filter a large inventory of items, as well as offering free return services. Though the bargains may be slightly less 'bargainous', you may be comforted by the knowledge that everything has been found and cleaned for you.

4) Get inspired

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A quick search can reveal infinite inspiration

There are a number of YouTube channels and Instagram accounts which specialise in vintage and second-hand clothing. Seeing items that other people have found in their local charity or thrift store can really encourage you to get out there and see what you can discover for yourself. Thrift hauls are increasingly popular, but ‘thrift flips’ can be useful to find ideas about how ugly clothes can be updated easily and often without needing a sewing machine.

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As far as YouTube channels go, BestDressed and Elena Taber are both rising stars promoting sustainable and vintage fashion, and offering tips on how to get the most from your local second-hand shop. Instagram accounts like @thriftshopmanchester and @wearecow can also liven up your explore page and provide the inspiration you need on those days when Oxfam just isn’t giving you the goods.

5) Accept that not every day is going to be your day

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Image credit: Pixabay

Sometimes, you’ll do everything right. You’ll get yourself and a friend up early, both of you feeling excited and inspired, the two of you will trudge yourselves up to the Grafton, you’ll flick through the hangers of every colour, every size and every gender, and still you will find nothing sufficiently exciting or notable to merit you parting with your hard-earned cash.

It’s a tough one, but it’s important to accept that some days charity shops are a treasure trove and on others they’re just a dumping ground for the unwanted and unusable. However, don’t let that discourage you from trying again. Bear in mind all the reasons why charity shopping is important and valuable: it saves money, it allows you to develop an individual style, and, most importantly, it prevents clothes that still have a lot of life and wear in them from going to landfill.

Don’t use charity shopping as an excuse to displace consumerist habits to another, more affordable locale. If you see nothing you like, don’t just buy something for the sake of it. Be sure to continue to consider your shopping habits carefully, critically and responsibly.

And with that, may you, in all your endeavours, find many a pair of quirky vintage trousers, lots of suspiciously cheap May ball dresses and a relative lack of see-through Primark tops. Good luck!

Unless otherwise stated, all images are author's own