Thrifting by theme: How to thrift for the perfect pieces

I approach thrifting like a treasure hunt, staying open to all of the wondrous possibilities that the thrift store holds. That said, I do find it useful to go into the store with some kind of mental framework for picking out pieces. It helps me avoid the all-too-common pitfall of hoarding stuff just because it’s cheap — I find that being a discerning shopper is a skill that you sharpen as you get older, and it’s especially useful for thrifting! (I’m trying to be kind to my 20-year-old self who stockpiled fast-fashion clearance pieces from [REDACTED].) 

Over the years, I’ve developed a good instinct for finding pieces that fit in with my vision for my personal space. It all comes down to setting boundaries for what you want and what you don’t want. If you’re a bit clueless as to what to bring into your space, I’ve put together a simple guide on how to thrift for the perfect pieces. 

Step 1: Consider a theme when you go thrifting. 

Dog gallery wall
I think this area encompasses maybe two years of collecting random dog wall art?

Lately, I’ve been trying to thrift by theme. Since becoming a dog owner, I’ve become a dog lady in every sense. In addition to spoiling my fur babies rotten, I also have a sentient canine collection — think ornately carved dog busts, framed antique dog prints, and dog figurines. 

While my decor sensibility might be too kitschy for some folks, it personally sparks joy in me, and that Marie Kondo philosophy should be your shopping compass. Think about what’s bringing you joy, not what’s trendy and not what the Internet says you should have! For some people, that might be a specific color, a certain texture, or a designated time period. 

In addition to filling out my dog gallery wall and dog tchotchke collection, I’ve also been scouting for bird decor pieces. (Not taxidermied, mind you…) I technically rent from my parents, and my personal space primarily consists of my bedroom and bathroom. My bathroom isn’t the coziest space, so I want to give it more pizzazz. While browsing my local thrift stores one day, I noticed a bunch of duck and goose items. Since I already have a few bird pieces around the house, it felt like a sign from the universe to organize my bathroom around an avian theme. 

You can also have a broader theme in mind if that works better for you. If I were to pinpoint my broader personal theme/vibe, it’d probably be somewhere between Victorian or English countryside, but slightly modernized. I don’t want to feel like my space should warrant an updated tetanus shot. (But you should still keep your immunizations up to date regardless!)

Step 2: Consider specific pieces and styles you’d like to look for at the thrift store. 

Duck wall art next to Easter tray
This beautiful $5 Avon Easter tray holds my random jewelry and eyewear pieces in the bathroom.

I find ducks and geese so fun and droll, but I do want to keep specific pieces and styles in mind. Obviously, I’m not out to collect plushies and children’s toys for my bathroom. I also don’t like super muted colors (besides my beige walls), which is how my mom originally furnished the space. 

While you thrift, keep a checklist (mental or physical) of pieces that you want to look for. Think about specific items with specific purposes — don’t just vaguely consider decor. Pieces don’t always need to be pragmatic, but they should occupy a designated place.

For my bathroom furnishing project, I’m on the hunt for bird-inspired portraits and wall art for the walls and trays and boxes for my toiletries. When it comes to style, I’m also looking for pieces that are playful and quirky without being too traditional or trendy. I will not be picking up crystal swans from a Swarovski shop or squiggle candles from Urban Outfitters.

Step 3: Consider the quality of your thrift find.

Dog trinkets
I simply love a frivolous dog trinket. All of these are imperfect in some way, but they’re in good enough condition to add to my collection. I can’t say the same about the pressed wood table from Target. I think the most expensive thing here might be the $12 Snoopy planter. 

It can be disappointing to find a cool piece only to have it break or fray the very next day. Frankly, I’m still learning a whole lot when it comes to being discerning with home decor. Still, I’ll say this: Before you buy a piece, inspect it for any stains, scratches, dents, chips, cracks, or imperfections. While I’m a fan of rehabilitating less-than-perfect pieces (and even appreciate a worn look from time to time), some defects aren’t worth the time and effort it takes to fix them. If you collect fine pieces, also consider looking for the maker’s mark. This will help you get a sense of your piece’s history.

Step 4: Consider which pieces you won’t thrift. 

Goose tin and ceramic goose planter
I have a thrifted tin filled with hair ties and a secondhand planter holding my travel-size perfumes and creams. However, I plan on buying my shower supplies and towels new.

It’s okay to have a mix of new and thrifted items. While my personal goal is to thrift for as many items as possible, there are simply things that I will buy new for hygiene reasons. (Have I mentioned that I have mysophobia?) While I always hope to find sealed things at secondhand shops, there are items that I will probably have better luck scouting for at a department or boutique store. Personally, my list of buy-new bathroom items includes shower caddies, laundry baskets, and linens. 

I’ve left the thrift store empty-handed on more than one occasion — and that’s okay because secondhand shops are always replenishing their inventory! Thrifting can be a wild goose chase, but being mindful of what you bring into your home will help you avoid those epic thrifting fails. 

Be sure to follow me @fancylittlethrifts on Instagram for my latest thrifting adventures!