Illustration by Caitlin

The mall is a very scary place during the holidays. It lures you in with the intoxicating smell of Cinnabons and the promise of questionable deals: “BUY SIX FESTIVE SWEATER VESTS, GET ONE FOR JUST $39.95!” And once it gets a hold of you, it robs you blind and leaves you with a bunch of gifts that none of your friends actually want, like gingerbread-scented hand sanitizer. But never fear, there is an alternative to this nightmare: the thrift store. If you know how to maneuver one, you can find thoughtful, creative gifts that won’t empty your wallet or contribute to the consumerist hype of the holiday season.

Now, hold on a minute. I know that when it comes to presents, they say it’s the thought that counts, but please don’t give somebody an old cheese grater and tell them it’s an upcycled vintage earring-holder. Instead, check out this section-by-section guide for giving quality thrifted gifts.


The housewares section is where you’ll find old dishes, kitchen supplies, bric-a-brac—basically all of the stuff that makes your house feel cozy. (If you end up buying something from here, be sure to wash it with soap and water before gifting.) While I’m about to show you some ways to transform standard junk into treasured gifts, keep an eye out for items you can give as is. You’d be surprised how much you will find that appeals to specific interests. For instance, my mom is obsessed with giant forks. Not just, like, serving forks, but forks that are suited to hanging on walls or feeding ogres. One year, I came across a huge wrought-iron fork and gave it to her for Christmas. It was so much more memorable than the haphazardly assembled, “spa-themed” gift baskets I’d given her in the past. Maybe you know someone who is obsessed with deer paraphernalia or old photographs or whatever—a thrift store is where that stuff lives. On to some other ideas:

Novelty mugs
I am not sure why, but thrift stores always seem to be packed with hilarious coffee mugs. Maybe a lot of people just can’t handle high doses of comedy first thing in the morning, so they donate them? All I know is that the best 25 cents I ever spent was on a coffee cup featuring a cartoon cat that says “ONE MORE BAD DATE AND I’LL START COLLECTING CATS.” Pair a mug with a bag of nice coffee or tea or hot-cocoa mix, and you’ve got the whole package.

All sorts of jars
Thrifted jars are your best friend when it comes to homemade gifts. I bet a million dollars that if you give something to your aunt in a jar, she will ooh and ahh over how “quaint” it is. Did you know that you can bake adorable individual pies or cakes in jars? Or, with a coat of glitter, you can make them really luxurious-looking by following this tutorial. You could then fill them according to the person’s individual interests. For someone who likes to draw, pop a set of freshly sharpened colored pencils in there and spring for a new sketchbook. If you know someone who knits, fill the jar with knitting needles and include a new ball of yarn. Basic Mason jars work best for this sort of project, but feel free to use any size or shape that appeals to you.

Speaking of jars, a terrarium would make the perfect gift for someone who enjoys the outdoors, but lives in a city apartment where the most nature they encounter is the mold in their yogurt (I’m not speaking from experience or anything). Basically, it’s a teeny-tiny garden, so jars or other clear, glass-covered receptacles will work for this—you can even use a cake stand! With a few other inexpensive supplies from a hardware store, you can make a terrarium following Jamie’s tutorial.

Doily hangers
I have never come across a thrift store that doesn’t have tons of doilies for super cheap. I think that every time a granny dies, so does the legacy of the doily; no one really knows what to do with them. Thankfully, the blog A Beautiful Mess has a tutorial for making pretty (and useful) doily-covered hangers, which when tied with a ribbon would be a great present for the clotheshorse in your life.


The entertainment section of the thrift store is where you are likely to find tons of books on mesmerizing subjects like “microwaved meals for one.” But don’t let that discourage you from digging—you might just come across a vintage children’s book with beautiful illustrations for a graphic designer friend, or an old record by your dad’s favorite band. If you’re not that lucky, there are lots of ways to repurpose amusements of yesteryear.

Record bowls
When you apply heat to vinyl records, you can transform them into a decorative bowl to throw keys, jewelry, and even your iPod into, because HAHA WHO NEEDS RECORDS? TECHNOLOGY, AMIRITE? Just kidding! However, this is a good project to make use of worthless records that would otherwise collect dust.

Paperbacks that can be turned into a uniform collection of hardbacks
Say you come across a complete set of The Baby-sitters Club books or The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, but the paperback cover is totally beat. This tutorial shows you how to create custom hardback covers using a few supplies you already have. You could even go crazy and create a funny cover for your friend’s favorite book, using Better Book Titles as inspiration. I wouldn’t mind if someone gave me a copy of The Bell Jar retitled Internships Suck. Or, even better, repackage the entire Twilight series as War and Peace, and no one has to know.

Hollow-book box
This gift is basically the next best thing to giving someone one of those deceptive shelves that moves and leads you into a secret corridor. Following this tutorial, you can hallow out an old hardback book and turn it into a box to hold mementos, letters, secret family heirlooms, etc.

Clothing and accessories

This needs no introduction, as these are probably the most common things you hunt for when you go thrifting. But if you want to make those purchases more giftable:

Detachable collars
Buy a bunch of collared shirts in various colors and shapes. Don’t be afraid to look in the men’s section, especially if you want a sharp, pointy collar. Then, turn them into detachable collars for your friends following Marlena’s tutorial. I think the addition of lots of sequins to a plain collar would make a perfect accessory for New Year’s Eve, or any day for that matter, because your gifts should inspire everyone to LIVE EACH DAY LIKE IT’S NEW YEAR’S EVE.

Packaged jewelry
There is a good chance that you will come across a great rhinestone brooch or costume earrings that someone you know will love. However, most thrifted jewelry comes in little plastic baggies or out of a bin—not the most inspiring presentation. Using printed cardstock (available at craft stores), cut out various shapes and stick your jewelry in the center. You can make a hole with a pin for the earrings; for bracelets and necklaces, use a hole punch. (This tutorial is good if you want to get fancy.) You could even curate sets of jewelry, like three different pairs of plastic flower earrings on the same card.

Embroidered clothes
This gift probably requires the most effort on your end, but it’s worth it. I know that ties are the ultimate boring dad-gift, but what if you gave yours a thrifted tie with “STAY SASSY” in cross-stitched letters? Or buy two similar cotton blouses and embroider the initials of you and your friend, Laverne & Shirley-style. If you’re unfamiliar with embroidery techniques, Sublime Stitching has a series of super simple tutorials to get you started.

With these ideas in mind, you can avoid the mall at all costs this holiday season. That is, of course, unless you want a Cinnabon. There are some things that just cannot be thrifted. ♦