Give Me Back My Five Bucks

Are thrift stores just for poor people?

This past weekend, Nic and I hit up the Salvation Army for a 50% off sale. And I was reminded of a post I once read on Budgets are Sexy: Should only poor people shop at thrift stores?  In that post, J$ spoke about a friend who told him he wasn’t allowed to shop at thrift stores because they were only for poor people.

When I first read the blog post, I scoffed at the idea. I’ve always shopped at thrift stores. That’s where I get the most for my money, and it’s fun to peruse the aisles looking for great deals and hidden treasures. Thrift stores are for everyone – not just poor people – aren’t they? Especially the Salvation Army, which reinvests the money they raise back into the community.

But then, as I walked around the store, it finally clicked. I got what his friend was talking about. In a weird way, it made sense: every time I buy something from one of these thrift stores, I’m taking that item away from someone who might not be able to afford to buy it brand new. And while I get that money is money, and the Salvation Army can use any and all donations going through their cash register, I was more concerned about the people that were shopping there. Someone might need what I’m buying more than me. While I shop for pleasure, they could be shopping for survival.

Plus, as someone who makes a decent income, I can really afford to be buying these items at full price. And yeah, my total bill only came to about $6.46, but it should have cost twice that amount, because there was a 50% off sale. And for someone who is genuinely poor and living on the very edge, $6.46 could mean the difference between whether they feed their family or not that day.

I don’t necessarily agree that thrift stores are just for poor people, because in the end, I think that the money donated through places like Salvation Army will eventually go back to benefit those who are truly down and out. But I do think that it’s interesting to think about and be aware of.

So what do you think? Are thrift stores for everyone, or should we leave those stores for people who truly cannot afford to buy items anywhere else? 

Author: Krystal Yee

I’m a personal finance blogger and marketing professional based in Vancouver. I’m a former Toronto Star (Moneyville) columnist, author of The Beginner’s Guide to Saving and Investing, and co-founder of the Canadian Personal Finance Conference. When I’m not working, you can usually find me running, climbing, playing field hockey, or plotting my next adventure.


  1. Penny says:

    That’s something I’ve wondered about as well. I don’t shop at thrift stores largely because I hate shopping (especially clothes shopping) and I can get in, find what I want, and get out faster in a regular store, but I do wonder about the trade off between wanting things to be purchased so there’s money coming in and wanting the people who need the clothes most to be able to get them.

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much, and I certainly wouldn’t feel guilty about shopping there if you feel like it’s the best decision for you. If you’re really concerned about it, maybe make an effort to donate more of your used clothing back into the system rather than selling them to someone who may throw them out when they’re done with them.

    • Anonymous says:

      The thrift stores also need the donations to sell to stay in business. Some items if there left there too long will end up in the garbage which can cost a store money. So there is really nothing wrong with a non poor person shopping at a thrift store.This is coming from someone who works in a thrift store.

  2. AMD says:

    I get both sides of the argument but at the end of the day I think there’s a place for everyone at a thrift store, especially as you said if the money is reinvested back into the community. Instead of selling most of my used stuff I usually donate it to the Salvation Army, which in a weird way I feel is my price to pay in order to shop there. It’s like I’m investing on the back end by producing inventory vs. spending a higher price on a product. I guess I might think twice if I was snatching up the one and only of a product that someone else could really use, but I’ve only really bought books/toys/board games there of which there have more often than not been a slew of the exact same book/toy/product.

  3. jane says:

    I dont agree with your line or reason today at all. Thrift stores serve two functions (1) like you said to provide clothing at an affordable cost to persons who might not otherwise be able to afford them and (2) to raise funds that charity organizations then use to do more good. I’ve never personally seen a charity shop empty or out of stock, generous people are constantly donating stuff so technically, poorer people will always be able to find something at an affordable price in a charity shop. Secondly, if people who make a decent income as you put it, dont patronize charity shops, that’s gonna lead to a significant drop in income and then where does that leave the organization? Charities run soup kitchens, the operate shelters, they do lots of other things that require cold hard cash,so if you can get something good for yourself while contributing to the organizations cash in take, it’s a win-win for all involved as far as I see it.

    • Krystal Yee says:

      Well, it was just a thought I had – and not actually true to what I believe in. I think it’s always good to look at something from somebody else’s point of view. And I totally agree with your points about thrift stores operating to raise funds, and that regular people need to shop there in order to keep the cash flow going for that store. It’s just interesting to hear everybody’s opinions and open up discussion on something maybe we don’t think about very often.

      • Anonymous says:

        yeah good discussion point, it was good hearing every ones perspective. I especially liked the reduce/reuse/recycle angle people brought up as perfectly good clothes would have definitely ended up in landfills had it not been for charity shops. I shudder just thinking of the waste: environmental and financial

  4. Iris says:

    Honestly, I’ve never thought of it that way. Now I feel like some sort of selfish jerk. At the same time while I can afford to buy some things at full price I wouldn’t say that an awesome designer clothing item that cost $10 at the thrift store and $60+ retail would be on that list. I wouldn’t say that it is the difference between eating or not but, quality is a major factor so I’ll keep on shopping at thrift stores. That being said I don’t judge people who might be able to pay full price for shopping there either.

  5. darmuzz says:

    Shopping at thrift/charity stores is good for the environment because fewer raw materials are used to make new goods, and still-serviceable items are kept out of landfills. Unless people believe they should buy new goods to keep manufacturers in business :)

  6. What about if you donated back one item for each item you bought? I would say this would be doing more than enough to justify your purchase. I bet I’ve donated more to Salvation Army than I’ve ever purchased there.

    I’m confident that you’re not taking clothing away from others by shopping at Salvation Army. I’ve never noticed a lack of clothing for them to sell. In fact, their racks are usually stuffed with clothing! In the US, it seems hard to believe that there would ever be a shortage of donating clothing.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard in the past that clothing that is slightly less desirable is packed up in crates and sold in bulk to companies that distribute or sell these clothes around the world.

  7. Col says:

    Interesting… haven’t really though of it that way. I buy clothes at resale shops… most of them have the original tags on them. I haven’t shopped at a Salvation Army in a long time. I have a $1 store near me that I can get houseware items easily.

    I understand your point and I guess there is enough to go around for everyone…

    • hollyjane says:

      You’re really lucky to live where you live!
      In Canada its full price for everything. Party of the reason why we love visiting america so much. The only places you get deals here are the dollar stores(which arn’t a dollar anymore) and thrift stores.

      Personally I have donated a lot to these stores & I don’t think of it as stealing from someone else who needs it. These stores are constantly getting new stuff by the bundles everyday so there will always be more coming. I love visiting thrift stores in other towns. It’s thrilling to find a hurley shirt or something you would of paid $20+ in the mall for for a couple of bucks.. I loved value village in Kelowna in Rutland. Nice stuff you just had to look..! :)

  8. Melissa says:

    I totally see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think I agree. Aside from providing clothes and items at a lower rate, the Salvation Army is a total non-profit (as compared to Value Village, which I believe is owned by Walmart), and invests all its profits in community programs, and provides jobs to those who want them. I also think (though I’m not sure) that they offer pricing on a sliding scale, so someone can get something at an even cheaper rate than it’s marked at, if they need it. Plus, like someone pointed out, the thrift store isn’t going to run out of stuff! It’s not like you bought the only jacket there for $5 and now someone is going to go cold.

    Another important point is that thrift stores are good for the environment, because it cuts down on the need to process and manufacture more stuff. That’s a reason for EVERYBODY to shop there.

    I mean, if you were going to a soup kitchen and knocking the last roll out of some dude’s hand, then that would be pretty uncool, but in this case, I think you’re OK. If you still feel bad about it, why don’t you donate some of your clothes that you don’t wear anymore, and pay it forward that way.

  9. Tiffany says:

    Thrift stores are for everyone. When I’m at my parents’ house, we shop at Goodwill a LOT. We also donate a LOT to Goodwill, and they use the money from what they sell to go back into their own programs. It’s not like there’s a lack of good, cheap stuff at thrift stores, and like other people said, it’s environmentally friendly too. Even if I didn’t donate all kinds of books and clothes to Goodwill and other places every year, I wouldn’t feel bad about picking up 50 cent books and $2 shirts because the cash is going towards helping others.

  10. Michelle says:

    I shop at thrift stores also. I’ve heard many people say that it’s only for poor people, but I don’t always agree with that. Most of the people that I see whenever I go to Goodwill do not look poor, yes sometimes it’s obvious, but whenever I go to Goodwill, I see TONS of nice cars out front. So I think most people that shop there are shopping there to save money, just like me.

  11. Geoffrey says:

    I think you’re in the clear here, but maybe the 50% off sale isn’t for you.

    In the UK and other places, thrift stores are “charity shops” and are located on main shopping streets in small spaces and definitely attract mainstream shoppers, I think it’s a North American thing to think of them as a place to shop for those who need charity themselves.

  12. Nope, thrift stores are for everyone! I love thrifting, especially for glassware items. There is a Goodwill a few blocks from my parents’ home and I pop in every once in a while. I got a $20 IKEA cake stand at a Goodwill for $7, and a milk glass vase for $1.50 that was being sold online for $10.

  13. Sarah says:

    As someone who has shopped in them all my life, I say they are for everyone. If I find a gorgeous dress that I can wear to work for $7 and I buy it I don’t feel like I have taken it away from anyone else. For one thing, since I donate all the stuff I’m tired of I’m really only “borrowing” it. Or that’s how I choose to think about it.

  14. jD says:

    I shop at a thrift store that encourages you to bring in donations. Therefore I look at it as if I am giving and receiving. The other thing I have learned is that you never know when you might end up being someone who “needs” the service provided ie thrifty clothing and items because you have been laid off. As long as we all remember to share the good with the bad I think it balances out.

  15. Melissa says:

    As someone who has parents who work for the Salvation Army, I grew up going to the Salvation Army church and I have shopped there my entire life, I think they are for everyone, totally! And usually when they have those 50% off days, it’s because they have a warehouse full of stuff that is waiting to be put out! ;)

  16. Denise says:

    If you are living in or close to a major city in 2011, I think there is absolutely no reason to feel bad about shopping at thrift stores. Low-income people now have access to an ABUNDANCE of second-hand clothing. I live in downtown Toronto, and when I was looking to donate clothes I had to call I think 4 different non-profits before I found one that was actually accepting used clothing donations because they are just inundated with them.

    In our current culture and clothing industry, many middle-class and high-income people buy cheap clothes and then want to donate them after 2-3 years. This actually exceeds many local non-profits need, and larger organizations ship the clothing to poorer countries overseas. There it is either donated, or purchased at very low prices by individual entrepreneurs and sold for cheap at marketplaces. Note that international donations have their own downsides as it undermines the development of local economies (for a good documentary that covers this issue, see Life and Debt).

    Another reason why you should feel perfectly fine about shopping at thrift stores is the environmental factor. Buying second-hand clothing (a) means that clothing doesn’t end up in a landfill, which is always a possibility for unwanted items, and (b) reduces the demand for yet more new clothing, the manufacturing of which would have its own environmental consequences.

  17. J$ says:

    Hey! Glad the post got you thinking ;) The convo continues to build even after all these months since it’s been posted! Haha… it’s def. an interesting one, that’s for sure. Looking forward to seeing what your readers think about it here – thx for the shout out.

  18. Charlotte says:

    I have never heard of this idea. It sounds that my income level (or lack of) should determine the places I go to shop and the price I am willing to, or afford to pay for something. There are stores and prices I cannot afford in general but I might buy an item there once in the blue moon.
    Second-hand stores are for everyone, charity stores are in need of everyone’s support.

  19. I think you could say that anything you buy at a discount, no matter where you get it, you are technically “taking away” from someone else, which is why you shouldn’t feel guilty about buying things there. The money is going to a good cause. If only the poor shopped at thrift stores, they wouldn’t make enough to keep operating. You could even take the money you saved by getting things cheap and donate it to the charity of your choosing.

  20. Michelle says:

    Although I absolutely love your blog and agree with most of the stuff you have written, I do not agree with this post. If someone is really poor, there is always help available. There are quite a few places to go that GIVE clothing away. Now, it would be very wrong for someone who can afford clothes to go to an organization that gives clothes away to get “free” donated clothes. However, thrift stores are very different. Each item is prices differently, and as someone stated, there are a ton of stuff coming in and out of thrift stores everywhere and all the time. As stated by someone above, shopping at the thrift store is really, really good for the environment. It prevents waste. We should encourage giving away items and buying items from thrift stores. We as Northern Americans (US especially) are in my opinion really wasteful people. We could probably survive on our own surplus for many years to come if production of clothes (and other misc. items) ceased which in my opinion is kinda terrible.

    • Krystal Yee says:

      It’s not that I think that thrift stores are just for poor people, it was just something I’ve been thinking about and thought was interesting. I definitely agree that shopping at thrift stores is great for the environment, and that they often have surplus of stock that they need to get rid of. This post was mainly for discussion to see what other people thought, and not an indication of my actual values. :)

  21. I’ve never thought of it that way, but I will say that MOST of the stuff that goes to the Salvation Army does not get sold. And a good portion of the “good” stuff doesn’t even hit the store, as it’s taken by the workers. Granted–I am making generalizations for MY area, but I’ve known of a few places that worked like that.

    To me–a deal is a deal. So no, I highly doubt I’m taking anything from someone else.

  22. I always figured that thrift stores in general were simply selling stuff other people don’t want/need anymore to make a profit and use the profit to help those in need. I don’t think it matters who their customers are. There are enough thrift stores around in every town. Also, if they are in need and poor, maybe they don’t need to shop or shop much at all.

  23. Frugal law student says:

    As a former social worker who worked in social housing, I think another great reason for EVERYONE to shop at a thrift store is that it does not stigmatize poor people. I think by people of all income levels shopping there, the Salvation Army doesn’t become the place “where only poor people shop” and might help low-income folks feel less self-conscious about shopping there/being seen there. I think that several of my former clients liked the fact that I shopped second hand and it helped us relate to each other better. I would also like to echo someone’s previous point that there are many charities that receive clothing donations and give out clothes for free to those who really need it.

  24. Francesca says:

    I think they are for anyone. The money spent there goes to such good causes and there is usually so much donated,there is enough for everyone.

  25. Kris says:

    Their model of operations is that they are for everyone. Good Will’s mission is to provide jobs and job training – the thrift stores are what helps them fund those programs. Salvation Army, too, uses thrift stores to fund their anti-poverty and other programs. Especially in our culture of excess, they’re not running out of merchandise. And, the more money they can raise, the more they can further their actual missions. Both also give away a ton of clothing and other items. So please, shop away and feel no guilt about it. You are supporting their missions by doing so.

  26. Mercedes says:

    Oddly enough, I had almost that same dialogue go through my head the other day. Our Salvation Army has 50% off all clothing items on Wednesdays and yesterday I was thinking of heading up there after work to poke around and see what I could find. But then I had the thought that I’d be taking away clothing items from those who really can’t afford to purchase these things at a regular store, and at 50% on top of that! Although, it is true that this money goes to help out people in the community in other ways.

    I do think that these stores are for anyone and everyone, but I just wanted to say that you weren’t the only one who has had thoughts like this!

    And also, I think I may go on one of the full price days. I can afford it and it’ll help that many more people.

  27. Jeff says:

    I think that the Salvation Army and other thrift store rely on people other than poor people to keep their doors open. I understand your thought but if only poor people shopped there then I would honestly say that the benefits they donate to the community would be drastically cut back. I know the local thrift stores here will give more of discount to the ones they know are in need. They know just who the less privileged are and help them out quiet a bit more than you know.

  28. Kay says:

    I was talking to one of the Managers at Goodwill the other day and he mentioned that the thrift stores would go out of business if only the poor shopped there! And that they wouldn’t have any place to put the donations coming in everyday! The 50% off days were not really created for helping the needy people. [ofcourse it helps them too, but that is not the main reason the thrift stores have them]. The Toonie days and 50% days are for clearing the display space so more clothes can be put in.. The Godwills in Ontario have increased their 50% days to weekly (every Friday) and they have 75% of one color tag every Sunday. I have double checked that this is done to clear stuff sitting there too long. And they have a mountain of stuff that needs to move. And from the sale of all these, They provide innumerable services behind the screen to needy people using the money people spend there..

    I used to wonder if I’m taking away clothes from somebody else who might need it. But I take donations regulalry and I spend about $90-100 in thrift stores every month. So in reality, I’m only renting those clothes and books from there for a short while. Once I’m done with them, they always get donated. I have come to think that my $100 spent there every month can do more good than those clothes sitting there!

    And for people who might think that $100 is too much, that is my only fun allowance as I do not enjoy eating out, take outs or coffees! I spend that $100 on something that gives me fun and also gives back to the community.

  29. Robyn says:

    I find that in many cases 50% off days are the only days to actually get a deal. I browse the Value Village across the street from my work every once in a while, but rarely buy anything because they are trying to charge $9.99 or $12.99 for a t-shirt? $19.99 – $26-99 for a dress? really? And looking at the brand names on the tag, if you know even basic retail pricing, in some cases they are charging more than what they sell for brand new!

  30. AlexM says:

    Since I donate a lot of good stuff to thrifts, I feel totally entitled to shop them! Plus, the goal of the store is to sell as much merchandise as possible, so they want as many customers as possible. Then you take into account not all “poor” people want the same stuff I want, why shouldn’t I buy the cashmere sweater that I can wear to my office and take care of?

    I donate some very good quality stuff to the stores and I’d like to know it’s going to be taken care of in its new home. Maybe a person with higher income is in a better position to do that?

    Finally, looks are deceiving as some of the most outwardly looking affluent folks I’ve know were seriously deep in debt. Does that mean they don’t deserve to shop at thrifts — or are more deserving then me?

  31. Heather says:

    No offense to your friend, but that idea is ludicrous. Wow. I’ve never been so shocked in my LIFE! By shopping at thrift stores, you are conserving (read: recycling, reusing!!) as well as supporting non-profits (But be careful, as this is not the case for all thrift stores!). And hey, it wouldn’t kill you to rub elbows with the poor now and then, would it?! (By you I mean, anyone).

    Whoever wants to shop there, should! AND if you are not “POOR,” you should be donating your “RICH” items!!!

  32. Country Girl says:

    I’ve actually been thinking along these lines lately too, but with a bit of a twist. Shortly after I bought my house, we had a tornado nearby. My initial plan was to buy as much furniture as I could at the Salvation Army, but following the tornado, I decided not to shop at the SA because the donations that were pouring in, were being donated in response to the tornado and for the people who were affected. As someone not directly affected, I didn’t want to take away from those who were. I think enough time has passed now that I can shop and support the store again by buying stuff there.

  33. Jimmy Nguyen says:

    I don’t normally shop at thrift stores not because I’m above it, but at the end of the day spendings are spendings. As far as I see it, if it’s available for sale it’s fair game, as that’s the nature of capitalism.

    Now I can choose to not shop and say that perhaps that will mean someone in much more dire need of it can have access to it, but at the end of the day the objective is to not let the moolah spill out of my pocket unnecessarily.

    In my views shopping at thrift stores might save you money compared to if you buy it from other retailers, but is your demand for shopping justified? Or are you simply going shopping for the sake buying to satisfy your want and not your need? The ultimate goal here is to curb the demand.

    Plus having just vacated my tiny apartment, I learnt the hard way that the more I buy, the more I have to get rid of all the stuff I turn out to not need and not man enough to discard. Bottom line is: if it doesn’t disappear on its own then I probably shouldn’t buy it, which limits my spendings to strictly food and booze and anything that I can put in my system to digest.

  34. Kathryn says:

    I concur with the above posters that they are not just for poor people as the higher the sales, the more they will need and be able to hire additional help and they also support many other groups and soup kitchen. Additionally, it is a greener alternative and your donations are tax deductible (if you itemize and donate a lot, you can save money on your taxes).

    As far as taking away from people who might not otherwise be able to buy it and as a single parent an a budget who has shopped there for years, really the only thing I would discourage someone from buying if they can afford it elsewhere are kids coats and boots and XXL+ larger sized mens or womens coats as those seemed to be the only items there seems to be a shortage for – pretty much everything else there is more than plenty of. An exception would be if you are pregnant and you are saving money for baby items, a woman’s plus size coat comes in handy for covering the baby bulge and you can donate it back post-baby.

    One thing I try to do if I am planning on going is to find things that I no longer need and donate them – not only does it give them more inventory, it makes space for new items to try to avoid too much clutter.

  35. Because textiles are the largest form of pollution on our planet, I’m all for recycled clothing.

    p.s. Hi, I’m Clare. I read blog entries a zillion days late.

  36. Ban Clothing says:

    What categorizes a person as being poor enough to shop at the thrift store? I have a good job, a house, a vehicle but I have debt, lots of it. My net worth may be less than the lady who works for minimum wage sifting through hangers next to me.

  37. Meg says:

    I think it’s important to think of the intent of the gifts that were given. I have always donated my gently used goods to Salvation Army because I assume I am helping those in need. I don’t do it so that privileged college students or frugal middle/upper middle class shoppers can get a stellar discount on their stuff. Now I’m considering donating my things elsewhere…I mean I’d never considered shopping at Salvation Army myself, just like I’ve never considered hitting up a food bank for some food, even in months when my budget was really tight.

  38. Dee says:

    Similarly, I’ve heard some people think that libraries are just for people who can’t afford to buy their own books!

  39. Joyce says:

    Hi! Great blog subject. Congrats! The comments hit an interesting high and were fun to read about. To tell you the truth when I was a lot younger I also thought that it would not be right to shop at a Sally Ann or Goodwill store as long as you were not “real poor” and that you only should donate your goods. However, in more recent years I have been thinking more along the lines of not only donating but also buying, re-donating and making a difference because of the landfill. Actually it has served me nicely and I now feel I should have purchased from these stores sooner. All the best with your interesting topics :)

  40. anonymous says:

    I’m actually only on this post because I actually had a dream about this issue and wanted to know if this ‘issue’ presented in my dream is actually a real-life issue. I was presented in my dream that there were poor people who needed the thrift store to buy their stuff but some people could buy things and then take it away from the poor people who needed it…and I guess in the ‘waking’ reality this issue has been brought up at least once by Budgets are Sexy and this post here

    • anonymous says:

      I wanted to clarify I had this dream about 10-20 hours ago…so not sure if I remembered this is the dream that I had but I THINK it is the jist of it. The reason why I brought up my dream is because it might be possible that this knowledge of information about this issue presented in my dream is to either inform me or teach me a lesson, hopefully an indication that I am connected to a higher source, because I am in NEED of a saving grace in my life right now, at least spiritually…but yeah I do agree that we might be taking away from the poor persons from getting stuff at the thrift store but I also DO believe that if we really seeked something, we can get it if we are aligned with our best spiritual form….

  41. Angelia says:

    Huh, I shop there like many middle class and to tell you honest truth were I live if middle class and above didn’t shop there then it would not make any money..The people who really (should) us it tend not to because they don;t want people to know they are poor..Oh well happy holiday’s

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