What's out: The mall. What's in: Thrift stores.

Have you been to a mall lately? It's sort of a depressing place. Lots of stores have vacated the premises, and with the clerks that are left manning the surviving shops and kiosks look like they're starved for social interaction. There's just no one there. The Christmas music playing over the PA seems out of place in such a deserted venue.

The real shopping crowds this holiday season aren't at the mall -- no one's paying full price this for anything anymore. But you will find long lines at your local thrift stores, where you can purchase new and gently used clothes, furniture, accessories, and more for just a few bucks a pop, whether you're buying Levi's or designer jeans with the tags still on them.

Thrift stores are a great place to find inexpensive treasures, especially when "vintage" is so totally in style. Don't make the rookie mistake of thinking of thrift shopping as going through other people's trash. Lots of things for sale there have never been worn before at all, and everything has to be in decent condition before they put it on their racks, even at Goodwill. Tons of the things you'll find there are actually straight from the mall -- when stores can't sell all their merchandise, they send it to thrift stores to make room on their own clearance racks. These items might be a season or two behind the actual weather, but they're brand new, and the seasons will roll around again next year.

Secondhand shops are an especially great place for women to look for formal wear. So often, a girl will spend hundreds of dollars on a prom dress that she only wears once -- then it finds its way to the Goodwill racks after only a few hours of wear, and now it can be yours for less than $10. Avoiding the mall also means you're less likely to show up at your next formal wearing the same dress as everyone else who shops at JC Penney. (My local mall isn't very big, so my high school prom had 200 girls all wearing the same 10 dresses.)

Okay, so even with the economy as ugly as it is, a lot of people don't like the idea of secondhand Christmas gifts. If your loved ones asked Santa for clothes, you might still want to hit up the mall. But you can make room in your bank account for those full-priced outfits by shopping thrift stores for yourself. At an average of about $4 per clothing item, you can get yourself an entire winter wardrobe for under $50 -- the cost of one pair of jeans at the local mall.


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