If recent shopping forays into department stores have given you a sense of financial inadequacy, you may be ready for consignment clothing shops--stores where you can buy (or sell) hand-me-downs at a third to a fourth of the price you would pay if you bought the clothes new.

Now that consignment (or "resale") shops have become the in place to shop--particularly for expensive items like winter jackets but also for such non-basic basics as soccer shoes and quilted vests--the prices in some of the more popular shops have escalated above the bargain-basement days of yore.

Those of us, however, for whom penny-pinching has become a badge of honor know how to deal with that: We sell our old clothes at the higher priced stores and buy our new oldies-but-goodies at the cheaper shops.

What's the difference, you might ask, between a consignment shop and a thrift store?

Thrift stores, often associated with charitable organizations, usually get their merchandise through donations (often tax-deductible to the donor). Practically speaking, they're not a bad place to shop, but they're often not quite as spiffy as consignment shops -- probably because they're run for charitable reasons, usually by volunteers.

Consignment shops are more like a regular retail operation, except that they sell used goods provided "on consignment" from people who no longer want them. Because they're more profit-oriented, they tend to be a little less musty and more organized, and to have a slightly classier selection of goods--at slightly classier prices.

I have found perfectly gorgeous clothes at both kinds of shops. But at a consignment shop, you can be both buyer and seller.

If back-to-school closet cleaning has left you with a pile of clothes that no longer fit, and you would rather sell them than give them away, you can offer them on consignment. The resale shop owner will set a price for your item, display it for a set period (usually 60 or 90 days, sometimes longer), and split proceeds on the sale of each item--usually 50/50, though some stores offer slightly less, and some (on more valuable items) slightly more.

Most consignment agreements give the store the option of reducing the selling price if an item hasn't sold within 30 or 60 days. And most stores charge a $1 or $2 handling, or consignment, fee for each batch of goods you bring in, to cover the cost of sales tags and bookkeeping.

Consignment shops often specify certain days and hours during which they accept consignment goods (prospective buyers, note: the day after may be the best day for shopping). Saturday consignments are rarely welcome because the shops are too busy. Clothing must generally be clean, pressed, in good condition -- saleable--current in style, and appropriate to the season.

No matter what time of year, it always pays to stop in fairly frequently: You never know when someone with a great wardrobe is going to sell out. Someone else's fall housecleaning may be your bonanza.