Let’s face it: college is expensive. Our bank accounts seem to diminish by the minute, bearing the costs of overpriced textbooks and the one impulsively purchased Canada Goose jacket you thought you absolutely needed. Yeah, we’ve all been there.

Well, not me. At least in terms of the jacket, as I’ve stopped buying most of my clothes from department stores since coming to Northwestern about 10 weeks ago. I’ve turned to thrifting not only to revitalize my wardrobe, but also because it’s ethical, sustainable and, most of all, cheap.

First, it’s important to realize a few things. If your sole purpose in thrifting is to score a fabulously well-fitting pair of Zara jeans or an elusive Gucci belt, take a brief reality check. This is Chicago, not Madison Avenue. Even if it were, you shouldn’t search the racks only for high-end names — they will be there, but my best finds usually come with the most obscure labels. Chicago’s best second-hand hotspots can be a gold mine for the unique and stylish.

How to make the most out of it, then?

Preparation begins the night before with a good night’s sleep and should be followed through with an early start. Pack a big reusable bag into a backpack, grab a water bottle, some snacks and a filling breakfast. Then you’re ready to jump into your day-long venture.

The first store I’d recommend visiting is Unique on 3748 N Elston Ave. You can get there by taking one of the many buses Google Maps recommends. Once you make it there, you’ll see that Unique strikes the perfect amount of aisles, making its collection expansive but not overwhelming.

I thrifted this bright bucket hat from Buffalo Exchange for $7. Hats were a staple of New York Fashion and I am a proud proponent of neon as a year-long color palette, so why not combine both trends in time for autumn? I found the blue turtleneck, which nicely contrasts the orange in my outfit, at Unique for less than $5.

Unique is where I began my thrifting journey back in August, and it’s been one of my regular stops ever since. I find that it’s particularly great for turtlenecks, blouses, bottoms, winter outerwear and accessories. It’ll definitely take an hour or two to sort through the racks if you’re doing your thrifting as meticulously as you should be, but the results will be well worth it.

The next few stores are in Argyle, so you just need to hop on the Red Line (and plan to stay there for a while). The first place, Village Discount Outlet, is a brief 10-minute walk from the Argyle train station. Located at 4898 N Clark St., it seems slightly smaller than Unique but its aisles are absolutely bursting to the brim, making the establishment appear larger than life. Honestly, with so many clothes in one place, it can be extremely overwhelming. I suggest starting small with the scarf section, conveniently located at the store’s entrance. I usually come to Village Discount Outlet for winter gear, though I have yet to find any Canada Goose hidden among the racks. As for blazers, their selection never fails to disappoint in terms of sheer quantity and variety. If you’re in the market for some Hawaiian T-shirts (they might be out of season, but I’m from Florida, so sue me), this is a great place to hit up as well.

Again, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say Village Discount Outlet can be overwhelming, so just take it easy and dedicate yourself to the task at hand. Another pro tip I’ve learned with time: thrifting alone can be particularly productive (and you don’t have to duel your friends when you snag something you both like).

This blouse comprised a part of my most recent Village Discount haul. I find the fit to be really flattering and the coffee color palette really timely for fall fashion. I like wearing this under a simple brown sweater with the collar popping out. 

Moving further into Argyle, our next stop is Buffalo Exchange at 5252 N Clark St. I absolutely love this store. It tends to be pricier than the other ones, but remains less expensive than Crossroads. The selection of accessories here trumps that of any store I’ve mentioned previously; I cannot stress this enough — every time I walk into that store, I walk out with a new pair of earrings. Or a hat. Or a purse. Or a belt. Honestly, that list could continue for a while, but if you’re on the hunt for accessories, Buffalo Exchange is definitely the place. It also has a great selection of clothes and shoes.

I thrifted this mustard yellow jacket from Village Discount. The shade of yellow reminds me of fall and would pair well with an array of warm browns, though I prefer to have more fun when it comes to colors and instead wore the jacket as part of a primary color palette. I bought three items during my last visit to Village Discount and spent less than $10.

I’d say to make this your last stop both because it will probably be the priciest place and because you’ll be less likely to splurge at the end of your long day thrifting.

That’s it for now! I’m still developing my list of must-hit thrift shops.

So here goes my last tip: what hits best after a long day of thrifting is a massive bowl of Pho. You can find a bunch of places right in Asia on Argyle (although I like this little place in Chinatown called The Noodle, but that’s quite a long trip on public transit).

That being said, good luck with your thrifting! And, from one broke college student to another, at least pretend you’re budgeting!