My Secrets for Turning Thrift-Store Finds into Gifts People LOVE

published Dec 11, 2021
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image

This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids. Join us over on Instagram for more!

Cubby. Real solutions for unreal times.

Join us for a weekly dose of fresh, modern ideas for life at home with your kids.

It’s a common misconception that secondhand gift giving and “re-gifting” are one and the same. They’re not. The difference is thoughtfulness and intention. Secondhand gifting is ALL thought and intention, while re-gifting is a quick, sorta-lazy way to give something — usually out of obligation. I’ve done both, and the latter didn’t feel good at all. Meanwhile, secondhand gifting a great way to ensure you’re really being thoughtful when giving, an incredibly responsible way to spend your hard-earned money, and it’s recycling at its best.

With secondhand gifting, you are giving someone something that once belonged to someone else, but you are putting time and maximum care into choosing that gift. How good does it feel when a friend says “I was out the other day and saw this and thought of you” or “I read this thing and it made me think of you”? Just the idea of knowing someone was thinking of you and  knows the things that bring you joy — that feels good. The gift is just the cherry on top. If this sounds like something you want to try, I’ve got a few tips and strategies on where to find gifts and how to bring it all together!

Make a (secondhand) gift list and check it twice

If you’re the type of person who likes to work from a list, find some time when you can sit down and be really intentional, and think about the people you’re buying gifts for. Make notes about their favorite things and brainstorm ways you can make that happen. If your mom really loves home decor, consider what her home looks like, and be open to that while you’re out shopping. Maybe your partner is really into coffee; if that’s the case, keep an eye out for a secondhand coffee mug that might be an inside joke between you, then put it in their stocking with a bag of their favorite beans. 

Thrift store or antique store?

Giving secondhand gifts doesn’t mean you completely abstain from giving anything new — it can be a great way to slowly introduce secondhand giving within your family. If you’re the type of person who gets the willies going into a thrift store, or really can’t stand the idea of anything that could be dirty, try antique stores! You’ll find really great items that might cost you a little more, but are usually cleaned and cared for ahead of time by the dealers that bring inventory to their booths.This is also a great option if you want to do second hand giving, but have a family member who you think might turn their nose up to the idea. Sometimes, bringing a gift home from an antique store is just easier for people to understand.

How to deal with others’ perception of secondhand gifting

This leads me to my next thought on second hand giving: The fear of having people think you’re cheap. My first thought is “So what if you are?” Sometimes we need to be frugal. As long as you put thought and effort into finding the gift, you’ll feel good about giving it. That said, I acknowledge the fact that we all have those family members who might cringe at the idea — so maybe you just stick to something new and thoughtful for them. 

But if secondhand gifting is really important to you, try talking to them about it and get their thoughts on receiving a gift from you that’s secondhand — you might be pleasantly surprised by their response. If you’re comfortable, you could explain why secondhand gifting is meaningful to you. I recently asked a question in my Instagram Stories about how people would feel about receiving a secondhand gift and was blown away at the responses; the vast majority were excited about the possibility of receiving a second hand gift. The response that everyone echoed was “thoughtful gifts are the best gifts.” And they all were in favor of saving a little money around this time of year. People who I assumed might not even feel one way or the other about it were passionate about secondhand gifts because of the level of thoughtfulness that was involved. It helped me to see that maybe we are all just a bit tired of the lists and pressures of spending.

My top secondhand gifting strategies

Okay, so how does my family actually find thoughtful, inexpensive secondhand gifts? We scour online marketplaces, we take leisurely strolls through the thrift store, and we go on nice, long walks down the aisles at antique stores. And we do it with patience, flexibility, and creativity. A discerning eye helps too — when buying used items you always want to look for things that are good quality. Before bringing an item home I look it over like a rental car leaving the lot! Here’s what I look for:

  • Check glassware and other fragile items for chips and cracks by running your fingers along the edges.
  • If buying clothing or linens, check for funky smells (gross, but so important to take the time to do this since we’re all wearing masks right now!). Then look for missing buttons, rips under arms, and stains down the front. Holding a garment up in front of a light is an easy way to spot stains and holes. A caveat: Vintage linens can be mended and still look charming, so think twice before passing on a blanket with a few small holes. Once home, let your goods air out outside for an afternoon, then launder thoroughly.
  • Check over all electronics before purchasing. Most second hand stores have areas where you can plug in and test items before you buy. If a lamp doesn’t have a bulb, just ask someone in the store to assist you. And remember, even if it doesn’t work, old lamps can be rewired!
  • Last rule of thumb: Heavy items usually are usually good quality! Check the bottom of china and pottery for makers’ marks, and if you need to, pull up eBay for reference!

Unlike our beloved home decor stores, where it can take mere minutes to spend a hundred bucks, searching for secondhand treasures at thrift stores takes time. Bring along your notes, but have an idea of what you’re looking for before you head inside. 

For example: if you’re looking for a little hostess gift for your friend who has a beautifully curated formal dining room, consider the plated silver section. Vintage silver is always a lovely gift. Plated items are priced well under $10, and can be dressed up easily. Most thrift stores organize like with like, so the vintage silver section can be found near the dishware section. A silver-plated cup or bowl can be purchased for less than $5, and is a really beautiful gift when presented with an amaryllis bulb inside and tied with a pretty ribbon. If that’s what you headed in for but you can’t find any cups or vessels, consider a tray (be flexible!). Wash it well with hot water, then fill it with cookies and a few candles and it can later be used as a serving tray, or something that can be hung and displayed on the wall (how’s that for creativity?). 

You can also mix in a few secondhand gifts with new or handmade gifts! Over the past year, my husband has become obsessed with Scotland so I decided to give him a nice bottle of Scotch. While I’m sure he’ll appreciate the bottle, I decided to pair it with a leather weekender bag I found at the thrift store. The bag was super worn-in (the kind of worn-in people pay hundreds of dollars for!) and very roomy, so I added a beautifully hand-knit wool cardigan I found (for $6!), a journal, and a guidebook on Scotland. None of these items were purchased together; they came from different stores over the course of a month. But that’s the fun of the find!

Another great gift for the season that can easily be sourced is a vintage teapot along with the recipient’s favorite tea, and a cozy secondhand or antique quilt. 

Secondhand gifting for kids

Lastly (and I could write about this for days) are the tricks to shopping for kids secondhand. The possibilities are so vast. My daughter loves LOL dolls, but could really care less about the surprise part, or opening the seven thousand tiny packages they come in, so I was over the moon when I realized people sell the dolls in lots on Facebook Marketplace. I recently picked up 20 dolls, with accessories, for $20 which is a savings of $180. The dolls will go in a handmade dollhouse from the 1970’s (also found on Facebook Marketplace) that I’m currently fixing up and personalizing with fresh paint and her name on the exterior. It’s wacky and wonderful and will be the perfect home for her new dolls!

My daughter’s best friend loves dinosaurs, so we are creating a prehistoric play bin using a shallow plastic tub filled with kinetic sand. The dinosaurs are a dime a dozen around here at thrift stores, so we’ve picked up quite a few, along with plastic trees and some rocks to add into the habitat. I actually found a 2-lb. unopened bag of kinetic sand at the thrift store this summer for $3, so this big, impressive gift cost us under $20! It’s such a fun way to get my daughter involved and teach her the importance of using what you have — or what you can find.

We’ve also found some fun and easy gifts for school friends that she doesn’t know as well, but wants to include on her giving list. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found unopened craft kits, along with paint canvases. We’ll pair them with a special little note or a handmade doll, and I promise you, the kids will be just as happy as if we’d paid full price for the item in a big-box store. These are the types of things I keep an eye out for all year long because they’re also fun to pull out when you’re hosting a playdate. 

Secondhand gift giving is something you can easily become passionate about, and it’s fun once you feel comfortable doing it. It reminds us of a treasure hunt! The last step is to tie the gift up with a pretty ribbon, or paper that can be recycled, then gift it to your friends. There’s no need to  be timid or awkward about secondhand gifting — it’s truly one of the most thoughtful and responsible things you can do during the giving season!