The Impoverished Student’s Guide To Having Nice Things

Let’s be real for a minute: uni life doesn’t come cheap.

Between tuition, books, rent, Metropass or Presto card, an IV drip of caffeine and the odd night out, there’s not always much left over. For the most part that’s not so much of an issue, but one thing that’s caused a bit of a hiccup for me was clothing- especially because in the last few years both my sense of style and my body have changed a lot. You know that Kim K selfie of recent scandal? I actually had nothing to wear; either it didn’t fit or it didn’t suit me anymore.

Luckily for me, I’m a bargain hunter extraordinaire.

When I moved to Canada in 2012, I arrived with a single suitcase filled with ridiculous maxi skirts and vintage printed tops. I think I’d brought one hoodie, one pair of jeans, and no jacket. The rest of my belongings were due to be shipped over a few weeks after we moved, so I’d packed light.

Our boxes didn’t arrive for a year.

And so, I had to rebuild an entire wardrobe almost entirely from scratch, and as I was yet to receive my SIN number, I didn’t have a job yet. Back in England I’d been a dab hand at finding treasures in charity shops, on Ebay and at car boot sales, but this time the stakes were much higher. I trawled every Value Village, consignment store and bin bag of donations from well-meaning neighbours and family friends, and eventually I had enough clothes to last me the year and keep me looking cute. Even better, a lot of the bargains I’d dug up were name-brand and excellent quality– such as the shearling Roots winter coat that has lasted me three winters, but only cost $60.

If that’s not enough to convince you, here’s some more reasons thrifting and shopping second hand is fantastic:

  • It’s great for the environment.
  • It’s an opportunity to support local businesses, charities, etc. (though not all second hand/thrift stores fall under this category- I’m a big fan of Value Village and Kind Exchange, but they’re not really charitable or local businesses. Hunting for the small local spots is definitely worth it).
  • Sometimes, it’s more ethical. I feel huge amounts of guilt shopping from stores that I know have less-than-wonderful ways of treating their employees or have NSFW, sexualised advertising campaigns, offensive slogans on their tshirts, and so on. The trouble is, most stores and companies are like this- so if I can find a pair of American Apparel trousers in a thrift store without giving money to the company itself, my conscience feels a little bit less guilty. (This is my personal opinion, and yes, I do still buy from H&M, Zara, and other stores occasionally, so no judgement if your opinion is different. You do you.)
  • The items you get second hand are more likely to be unusual or individual- if you like things that are a little off the beaten track of “fashion” or “trends” there’s a bit of a novelty there.
  • I’m super sentimental, so I love knowing that so many of my things have a story behind them.

So, I think we can agree that I know what I’m doing. Here are some of my top tips for finding the good stuff:

  • Location. I’ve found that a second hand store in a “cool” neighbourhood will have cool donations, a wealthy neighbourhood is likely to have a higher proportion of designer labels, and these are the spots to go to find the goods.
  • An open-mind is essential. Looking for a very specific pair of jeans, or a particular brand of shoes? You’re not guaranteed to find them while second-hand shopping. The best approach is to go in with a less specific goal in mind; ultimately, second-hand shopping is luck of the draw, and you never know what you’re going to find.
  • Texture is a giveaway. While rummaging through railing upon railing of clothing, learn to recognise the look and feel of good quality fabrics- they’re more likely to be made to last and comfortable. This tip is probably the most important if you’re after designer or name-brand items.
  • Give items a once-over. Does it have a stain that looks tricky to remove? Is the cute mug or teapot chipped? Is there a noticeable rip or run in the fabric? Does it have a tag still on it, revealing it as brand-new? Is it dry-clean only, and if so, are you able or willing to deal with that?
  • See the potential. Maybe that amazing trench coat has shoulder pads and is a little too big for you, but it’s also in fantastic condition and is only $6. Even after paying for alterations, maybe it’s still a lot cheaper than buying one new. This was actually one of my most recent success stories, and I love my new spring jacket with a passion:tumblr_o4xlwafFYJ1u90866o1_1280
  • Do you need it? I tend to get caught up in the excitement of “it’s such a bargain!” and want to buy it all. I try my best to really examine the items piled in my arms or basket and ask myself, will I really use this? Will I regret not taking this home? It’s saved me from over-cluttering my house on many occasions.
  • Take the time and have patience. Second-hand shopping is not the kind of thing you can do in 10 minutes when you need a wee and you’ve got somewhere to be soon. It’s time consuming, and requires the patience and mindfulness to really search for the hidden treasures. Personally, I find it quite relaxing, but I know that lots of people can find it really frustrating. Be prepared and don’t get too upset if you don’t find anything amazing in the first 10, 20, 30 minutes.
  • Out with the old, in with the new(ish). When my body and tastes changed rather suddenly in the last year or two, I found myself with cupboards and drawers stuffed with clothes I would likely never wear again. Over time, I’ve sorted them into batches of stuff to donate and stuff to trade. The donations went to Salvation Army and women’s shelters and the stuff that perhaps was more expensive went to Kind Exchange, where I traded them for store credit. Often I’ll trade 6-10 items I don’t like, and come home with 2-3 that I really love and could never afford to buy new.
  • Make it a social thing! Chat to the people working in your favourite haunts- in my experience they’re lovely and often will give you a heads up if they think you’ll like something, or even put it aside for you as soon as it comes in. Organise clothing swaps with your friends and friends-of-friends, and get rid of old things in exchange for new ones while catching up with your pals. The GL fashion club often runs clothing swaps in Lunik, so if you’re on campus that’s definitely worth going to.
  • WASH EVERYTHING! Even if you’re buying brand new from a store in the mall, you should wash everything before you wear it. In second-hand shopping this rule rings true for obvious reasons. I’ve seen some things while second-hand shopping, including actual human poop on the floor (the conclusion drawn by staff was that an elderly shopper had had an accident, so in the interest of being kind and recognising that these things happen, I would assume that this could have happened in any store, so don’t be too grossed out). The reality is that most second hand stores don’t have the facilities or the staffing to wash all their donations, and even though I make sure everything is clean before I donate, you never know what germs have been transferred when somebody tried something on, or while it was sitting in a donation bin. So please, for your own sakes, wash everything as soon as you get it home. I usually wipe down books with a disinfectant or vinegar solution, and obviously, wash all dishes. There’s some more useful tips here.

Do you have your own bargain hunting tips? Post them in the comments or tweet me a picture of your best finds @JasminElyGL – here’s some of mine below. Happy hunting!

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