Your Guide to Buying Secondhand Clothes Online
Did you spend your young years in *those* secondhand dresses? I’m talking about the grim floral prints and the big white lacy collars. You know, the ones that made you look like a haunted porcelain doll? Because I sure did.
Looking back at those awkward school photos of me—ones my mom claims are not awkward—I am grateful instead of embarrassed. My picture-day outfits were hand-me-downs from my older cousins, a practice in community that my mom shared with her sisters. With a small budget for a growing family, my mom was frugal and creative before it was cool (or maybe just before her kids thought it was cool; sorry, Mom!)
Those floral dresses planted the seed for something I practice to this day: when I need or want new clothing, I shop secondhand first. I’ve always loved thrifting for its affordability but now love how sustainable it is, too. Once I framed it up with sustainability in mind, my approach changed.
I stopped buying garments on a whim, to slice up for craft projects that I never completed. I became more vigilant about fabrics, fit, and the longevity of each piece. I stopped purchasing garments with complicated care instructions that I end up ignoring anyway (good riddance, dry clean-only garments). In short, I changed my mindset around how I consumed secondhand fashion. Thrifting is cheap, but it doesn’t mean thrifted clothes are disposable.
I love the thrill of finding unique (and sometimes weird) garments that few other people have. But, I’m not a huge fan of shopping when it’s not from the comfort of my own home. Enter: online thrift shopping. It can be a challenge to find the perfect fits and fabrics for your wardrobe when you’re not able to see the garments in-person. Luckily, I’ve been thrift shopping online since the dawn of thredUP and I’m here to walk you through it.
So, from the first find to the final fit, here’s my step-by-step guide to buying secondhand clothing online.
1. Know your measurements
Sizing varies based on the age and brand of each garment, which adds to the challenge of thrifting online. One of my favorite "hacks" is to try on new versions of the piece in-store before thrifting it. Note the size, brand, and style, then search it online once you get home. This'll save you the frustration of a bad fit and the cost of a tailor.
You can also keep a note on your phone with all your measurements and the sizes you wear in your favorite brands. Measure your favorite garments flat, too—some resellers only feature those measurements. This makes it faster to filter and search for exactly what you’re looking for. Still not sure? Opt for a larger size—it’s easier to tailor a large garment than it is to expand a small one.
2. Have a few shops you love
Start by checking out our guide to the best online thrift shops for clothing. thredUP is best for finding specific styles and sizes thanks to the website’s search and filter options. Sites like eBay and ShopGoodwill tend to be more affordable and are best for finding exact brands. Etsy, of course, is a goldmine for decade-specific vintage clothing. If you'd rather avoid shipping, OfferUp and Facebook Marketplace are good local options.
A helpful approach is to have two or more platforms that you’re comfortable with; that way, you can cross-check listings when you’re searching for something specific.
3. Set a budget (especially for auction sites)
A word to the wise: set a budget before you enter auction sites. If you find your dream jumpsuit, you might find yourself getting caught up in the thrill of the bid and spending way more than you wanted to. There’s plenty of clothing in the world and your chance will come again.
Some resale sites offer a discount for your first purchase and extend sales and coupons as you go. Use these thoughtfully! Favorite multiple options of a style, so that once a sale or coupon rolls around, you have a greater chance of getting the piece you’ve had in mind.
4. Keep an open mind
One thing I’ve learned from shopping secondhand online all these years is to treat the site more like a mood board than a store. Don’t get too precious about your search, since availability changes quickly. Stay open to “off-brand” options or pieces that may need a little TLC. And, give listings with less-than-perfect photos a chance since those are the ones that everyone will overlook.
A sense of humor and a streak of curiosity will help you find new and interesting pieces for your wardrobe. Add terms like “unique” and “unusual” to your search terms on auction sites to pull up garments that will turn heads. If you find a seller you adore, give them a follow—chances are they’ll have other pieces in the future that you’ll like, too.
5. Invest time in the search
If you’re looking for the perfect affordable secondhand statement piece, prepare to spend some time searching. As in, months. My search for the perfect secondhand wedding dress took several months and resulted in a couple of epic sizing failures. I’m still searching for a colorful matching blazer and slacks, and those have been on my list for over a year. It takes time.
Use saved searches and keyword notifications to speed up the process. This will remind you what you’re looking for, too, so you don’t get carried away with impulse buys. Keep a mood board or a list of needs and wants handy so that you can keep your eyes on the prize.
If you’re crunched for time, you might explore buying in bulk. Years ago, when I was feeling particularly desperate for a wardrobe refresh, I searched for “lots” of clothing in my size on eBay. I ended up getting ten pieces from one seller, all in my size, for around $40. It worked for me at the time, but eventually those pieces cycled out of my wardrobe. Maybe this’ll work for you, maybe it won’t.
6. Double-check that it’s actually secondhand
While you can find new-with-tags garments on resale sites, it’s worth a few moments of digging to make sure that it’s not being sold by a wholesaler. For example, if it’s an eBay seller, check out what else they have for sale: does it look more like someone’s closet, or does it look like a store with multiple sizes of each style available?
For vintage pieces, watch out for phrases like “vintage-inspired” and try to find a picture of the garment tag to see if it truly is vintage. When in doubt, message the seller to ask for more information.
7. Know the return policy before you buy
Finally, before you hit submit on that payment info, re-read the return policy. It varies from seller to seller, and some platforms have a restocking fee that can add up if you return items often. I try to avoid it, but sometimes it’s more worthwhile to donate poor-fitting garments to a local thrift store than it is to go through the hassle of returns.
At the end of the day, it’s point number five that I cannot stress enough. Patience, practice, and error are all part of the process of successfully finding the perfect pieces for your wardrobe. You’re probably not going to find the boots of your dreams on your first try—but once you do, you’ll be hooked. 👢✨
Do you have any questions about thrifting online? Ask away in the comments below. ✨
Emily Torres is the Managing Editor at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio.