Money College/Clothes to Free: Thrift store clothing makes cheap equal chic

thrift storeWelcome to "Clothes to Free," the weekly column where Money College blogger Alysse Dalessandro takes you into the collegiate world of high fashion, low prices and looking good while your wallet feels better. Got tips for Alysse? Leave a comment at the end of this story or e-mail MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.

Most fashion forward-teens growing up in the Sex and the City filled early 2000's dreamed of making big bucks to support a shoe addiction equipped with Christian Loubotin's and Manolo Blahnik's. While I always imagined I'd have some pretty stylish footwear, I also imagined I would just never be able to drop $650 on one (probably uncomfortable) pair of shoes.

Being a frugal fashionista, I developed this theory that every piece of clothing was worth $2 per wear, which means 325 outings for those $650 shoes. With the way that trends change, it seemed only fitting that I should look for fashion that was both cheap and unique. And thus entered my preferred place to shop: the thrift store.

Thrift stores nationwide are extensively stocked with men's and women's clothing, accessories, housewares, and furniture. Sure, some of these items are unwanted for a reason, but many times hidden gems are tucked alongside coolots, track suits, and high-raise mom jeans. Thrift stores take donations of all kinds without regard to style, age, or quality. This can work both for and against you. Fashion tends to cycle making current trends available in their past popular form at the thrift store. So when chain retailers such as Gap start mass producing plaid flannel shirts again, think of all the possibilities that already exist from the slew of mid-'90s Nirvana and Reality Bites fans.

And one of my personal favorite fashion redo's is youth and adult stretch pants from the '80s and '90s. While you may call them leggings now, there's no need to spend more than $10 on this leg-hugging garb. I've never paid more than $1.50 for these at the thrift store.

A common misconception: Everything at a thrift store is old. Some thrift stores sell excess stock of new items, but most of the offerings are donations. Though not new, much of the selection is gently used. This means clothes could still be in the original location for 50 times their thrift store price tag. I have often sifted through current selections from retailers such as Target, H&M, and Banana Republic. Of both recent and designs past, I've even stumbled upon selections from designers like Cole Haan, Michael Kors, and Diane Von Furstenberg.

Thrifting doesn't have to be all fashion-focused either; while I'm searching for vintage '80s Madonna-esque garb, my best friend shops for worn-in sweats. Her attitude? Why pay over $40 for a college hoodie when she can find a comfy alternative for 50 cents? In addition to finding one-of-kind threads, the thrift store is ideal for clothing you want just for lounging, working out, or those 8 a.m. classes, but don't necessarily need to make you look like a stylish Olympian.

The biggest skill you can bring to the experience? Patience. There are no fancy window displays or outfits pre-selected for you by fashion merchandisers. You may have to sift through hundreds and hundreds of garments before finding something you would wear. To make this process it easier, it helps to know how the store is organized. In most cases, clothing is separated into men's, women's, and children's departments. The categorization then goes into individual garment: button-down shirts, sweaters, pajamas, prom dresses, and jackets are just a few.

Within that grouping, clothing is color-coded, which makes looking for a chartreuse sweater easy and finding a black dress daunting. Tracking down specific styles can be a cinch, but finding your size is not so easy. Most of what you find in the store is one-of-kind. If you fall in love with an over-sized item consider how you can alter it. This could be hemming a pair of pants or taking in the sides of a blouse.

While patience is a thrifting must, a critical eye is also a necessity. Items for sale are non-returnable so look for permanent damage in the form of stains, rips, or missing buttons. Again if these are easily repairable then you've got yourself a new wardrobe staple, if not, keep looking. And while its nice to imagine the former life of your garment, keep that life in your head and not still on your clothes. Wash everything you buy before you wear it. For those of you who like knowing where you clothes came from, check out the pricey used tee retailer, Re-Shirt Story Store, where users tell purchasers the story of their shirt.

I've seen prices at thrift stores range from 25 cents for t-shirts to $100 for fur coats. The best way to navigate pricing is to pay attention to the color of the tag. Most thrift stores post a color that corresponds to a 50 percent discount. Other stores, such as locations of Village Discount Outlet, offer 50 cent Mondays where every item with a certain color tag costs 50 cents. Some store even offer a 10 percent off with a student id.

With patience, a critical eye, and some style savvy, the thrift store offers your ticket to an inexpensive and one-of-kind wardrobe. And most thrift stores benefit charitable organizations -- making for some truly guilt-free shopping.

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