Thrift Stories,  Thrifting Tips

The Emotions Behind Thrifting: What Motivates Us to Buy?

I went into my local thrift store today and as soon as I crossed over the threshold and into the shop, I was taken aback by a flood of memories. Suddenly, I was 15 and shopping with my mom and sister. We’d hit the store early in the morning, flipping through the racks of blouses, skirts and dresses until we’d amassed armloads of cheap finds. We’d each take turns ducking behind the makeshift “dressing room” that was nothing more than a curtain hung up over a tiny closet.

Yes, there are emotions behind thrifting, and they are strong.

I have so many memories of doing that exact routine with them, and trying to find them in the massive space. I’d hunt for my sister and always find her near the spaghetti top summer dresses. I’d find my mama in the jeans section, looking for a pair with a little stretch in them.

A major part of why I thrift is that it reminds me of a simpler time in my life. A time when money was pretty scarce and we had to scrap by on secondhand. When you’re a teenager, your emotions are all over the place and life seems big, scary, exciting and full of possibility all at once. Without even really recognizing it, I think I flocked to the thrift store out of a sense of comfort and stability.

In college, it became a place where I could go to get away from the hustle and bustle, stress and chaos of studying for exams, navigating new friendships and carrying a too-heavy workload. I’d hit up the local Goodwill in my college town and again, I was 15 years old and shopping with my family. It was nostalgic and sentimental and so special to me.

I have no doubt that connection played a major role in why I decided to pursue thrifting and vintage reselling as a side job for so many years. It wasn’t about the money. I’d sell an old Polaroid camera to someone in Sri Lanka and lose more money than I made due to miscalculating shipping (lesson learned), but the act of going there almost every day to browse?

It was therapeutic beyond words.

Experts have documented the role of emotion in consumer behavior for decades. The takeaway? We attach old experiences to each option before us, and ultimately, we choose with our heart. Studies reveal that past occurrences, emotions, and personal biases influence our purchasing decisions more than brand or even price. The emotions behind thrifting help explain why we’re automatically drawn to the sweetheart neckline on that blouse, or that piece of embroidered artwork on the home decor aisle. 

We see something on a shelf or rack and we’re drawn to it because it stirs something up within us. It could be as simple as a coral blouse that makes us think of the beach, and how much we love the water. Or, it could be a baby onesie that we pick up and smell because our own little ones have grown far too big to wear one.

As someone who definitely shops with my heart, I can attest that this science holds true. So, if you see me whispering softly in Spanish to a particularly beautiful Zara dress that I find amid the thrifted polyester jumpsuits and denim jumpers, don’t be alarmed. I’m probably just daydreaming about the time my husband and I stayed up all night and planned a trip to Spain for our anniversary. The trip didn’t come to fruition, but the memory of the possibility will never leave me.

Or, you may find me in the blouses, looking for a semi-sheer floral number like my sister always found. Still looking? Check the jeans aisle. I’m probably flipping through the distressed and skinny options, looking for a pair with a little bit of stretch in them.