Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Getting Started: Thrift Shop Genealogy

One of the realities of being a young genealogist is that you are broke most of the time. Our income has a non-negotiable function of keeping us alive--and between paying our own bills, handling student/life-related debt, and the rest of our various expenses, there may not be much left over.

Calculate in the money we've already decided to spend on genealogy for software, record access and subscriptions, books, and research trips there isn't a lot left over. How we make our dime stretch is exactly what makes us so savvy--it's out of pure necessity.

So from one savvy researcher to another, I'm going to let you in on one of my best secrets in how I save money.

The Thrift Shop

I'm gonna pop some tags
Only got 20 dollars in my pocket

The thrift store has saved me thousands of dollars on my genealogy bottom line so far. As I've been unpacking and setting up my office, that much has become blatantly clear to me. Let me break down some of my finds with you by category, and leave any others you can think of in comments!

Office Supplies:

  • Binders - All sizes and colors
  • Report Covers - Smaller and lighter than binders, excellent for mailing reports or charts to family, genealogical societies, libraries, or clients
  • Various office supplies - dividers, hole punches, sheet protectors, organizer bins and trays, file boxes, staplers, etc.
  • Computer/ Tech gadgets - Wireless keyboards/mouse, external monitors, power cords, HDMI cables, plugs, cables, adapters of every kind.
  • Data storage - external hard drives, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, etc
  • Thank you cards - For grandma letting you tear her house apart looking through her stuff

Photos/Photo Restoration

  • Printers - also, any missing power cords or cables for yours
  • Paper - Standard, Photo, etc.
  • Ink cartridges
  • Scanners
  • Photo Albums
  • Frames
  • Software


  • Computer software - Family Tree Maker, Adobe Acrobat Pro, Photoshop, etc. If you're willing to use outdated programs as workarounds, this can save you hundreds of dollars on software.
  • General History - Some of my best Civil War resources were ones I found at the thrift store
  • Local Histories - ALWAYS stop by the thrift store on your research trips to where ancestors lived. You never know what you could find there.
  • Research References - Even though we don't use Chicago Manual of Style or MLA, principles of good research are universal. They're still worth a read. Same thing with used textbooks.
  • Dictionaries - Look for older references to be able to look up outdated words from old journals and letters
  • Atlases - Wish you had maps to mark up, hang on the wall, or use for a craft? Get an old atlas or map book from the thrift store and go to town
  • Also, check out paperbackswap.com and other used book sites. I refuse to pay full price for a book anymore. Sure, the publisher and the author don't get any money from me. But they should have thought of that before they charged $50 for book! You want my money? Put that crap on Kindle!

I'm not a cloud--I don't make it rain.

Giving Back/Service Opportunities

  • Bibles - Do you check Bibles at the thrift store to see if someone wrote family details in them? If you find one, have you ever tried to return it to the proper family? Did you know you can donate these to archives and they'll preserve/index this information? Even if you only take some shots with your camera phone and post them online, it's better than doing nothing. Be sure to take down the name of the store where you found it.
  • Photos - Have you ever found unmarked photos? If they're cheap, purchase them and see if you can't return them to their original owner. If your cash is short, try to take some decent shots with your camera phone, front and back. Post them online and see if you can't find the owners. Good genealogy karma is real, and you never know if someone might be trying to do the same thing for your family right now.


  • Music - I can't work without music in the background, and I always need more. Music is a powerful tool for jogging memories too. Get to know the music your grandparents listened to. Play it when they're around and see what memories come to mind as they hear it.
  • Movies


  • Dry Erase Maps - Get a map, put it in the proper sized frame, make sure the frame uses glass. You can now write on it with dry erase markers. Trace migrations, or even mark permanent locations in permanent marker
  • Photo Tree - Ever seen one of these jewelry trees at the thrift store? You can re-purpose it like I did using small picture frames from your local craft store. 
  • Cross Stitch - Once upon a time, family members would create a cross stitch of their family history. You can do the same thing, and sometimes thrift stores have the thread, needles, patterns, and hoops to get started
  • Scrap book - Also find your materials and trinkets here

And as a bonus, here's an anthem for your awesome thrift store finds: