Let’s face it: in a tough economy, many of us are trying to do more with less. And while there are some things that are out of our hands (like gas prices, tax increases, and the cost of a gallon of milk (or almond milk for our vegan or lactose-challenged friends), there are some areas in life where we do have personal discretion and individual control—particularly in our lifestyle choices and related spending.

Choosing to shop secondhand, in thrift stores or consignment shops, is a smart way to add value to your household, save money, reduce your carbon footprint, look fabulous, and—on those days when you really find a gem–live a champagne life on a beer budget.

I know what you‘re thinking. It’s probably something along the lines of “Ew, used items are gross! Won’t they give me cooties?” Quite simply no. Thankfully, that way of thinking played out with 8-track tapes and platform shoes.

Our culture’s burgeoning interest in vintage fashion, along with en vogue anti-consumerist rumblings and concerns about environmental sustainability, mean that secondhand stores are no longer just for the poor, elderly, or fashion challenged.

Phew! Glad I got that off my chest.

So, what can you expect at these increasingly popular shopping venues?
Unique, quality items and designer wear at rock-bottom prices—including some items that are actually brand new and still in their original packaging!

I should know. My quality of life and my bank account have been greatly enhanced through these monthly purchases, making me the envy of my less-than-savvy, retail-shopping sisters.

Over the years, I’ve scored everything from antique furniture to beautiful artwork; classical music to literary classics; kitchen gadgets to designer clothes. And you can too.

For optimal results, however, you have to know how to do it correctly. Finding that little gem can take time and a bit of vision. And, for all its benefits, there is a downside: most locations have a no-return policy.

This means being a smart shopper is more important than ever. Here are the top four secrets of savvy thrift store shopping:

1. Try Before You Buy

Be sure to test all gadgets, appliances, toys, etc. before you head to the checkout counter, just to be sure that all the pieces are there and everything is in proper working order. If you are buying electronics, make sure to find an outlet in the store and plug everything in. I bought a vacuum cleaner some years back that only worked for three days before I had to toss it. Ask yourself, does the price merit the risk?

2. Don’t Trust Label Sizes

I don’t care what manufacturers say, one size fits all is a fallacy. Find a dressing room (or a discrete area in a corner somewhere) and try on all clothing before purchasing anything. Better safe than sorry.

3. Shop for Brand Names and Labels You Already Trust

In other words, look for the same brand names you’d buy in your favorite department store or boutique (Yes, Virginia, thrift stores do carry name brands and designer labels!). This mitigates much of the risk carried by gently used items because you know they work well for you and will stand up to the test of time. Some big ticket items that are still relatively new may even be covered by a manufacturer’s warrantee, but you’ll have to do your homework on this before making any assumptions.

4. Do a Final Scan of Your Items Before Reaching Checkout

When you’re standing in line, give your purchases a final inspection to be sure there is nothing you’ve missed up until this point. Are there any holes in clothing or fabric? Ripped seams? Missing buttons? Stains or discolorations? Do books have all the numbered pages? Do glass items have any chips or cracks? Are your goods free of any unusual smells, like pet odor or stale cigarette smoke, that might be tough to remove (yes, I know it sounds gross, but trust me, the sniff test is a necessary evil)? Be vigilant here, as once your reach the clerk, there may be no turning back.

Finally, if you’ve followed all of these steps and made it out the door with a few stellar items in hand, congratulations! You are officially a fashion-forward, financially savvy, and eco-friendly shopper! You’re in good company. Statistics show that 20 percent of Americans shop in thrift stores regularly. And who knows? You might just be the trendsetter amongst your friends who takes that number even higher.