We begin today with a satirical rant, which will, I promise, eventually wend its way around to some possibly useful advice.
Used stuff is gross. I mean think about it, someone else sat on my couch before I owned it. Someone else petted my dog before I adopted her. Someone else WORE my clothes. My cars were driven by another. Even my cloth napkin was pre-dabbed.
Therein lurks a very real threat to many a would-be frugal person: the fear of the used.
Sitting as I am at this very moment, in a deluge of used items, I contemplate this peril. Indeed, I’m perched on a used chair, at a used table, drinking from a used coffee mug, glancing over at a used high chair. A second-hand sideboard haunts the corner. Pre-owned baby toys are tangled in my feet (thanks to Babywoods’ current interest in putting things on our feet). Used is the shirt I wear. Used, even, is my home.
What dangers might skulk in this entirely used ephemera?
A Brief Quiz
We will now enjoy a short quiz to ascertain our threat level vis-à-vis used items.
1) Have you ever eaten a meal at a restaurant?
- a. Yes
- b. No
- c. Unsure
- d. All of the above
2) Have you ever tried on clothes at a store?
- a. Of course
- b. No, I don’t believe in clothes
- c. Yes, but I didn’t let them touch my skin
- d. No, I am afraid of dressing rooms (confined space, questionable locks, mirrors everywhere)
3) Have you ever stayed in a hotel?
- a. Most definitely
- b. Do motels count? (yes)
- c. I’d rather not say
- d. I’d rather camp in my car
If you answered A to any, or all, of these questions, now would be a good time to panic. For you, my friend, have touched used objects. The fork you naively fondle in a restaurant has graced the mouths of hundreds–perhaps thousands depending on how popular the restaurant is/if you live somewhere more densely populated than my town of 700 people–of others. Some of whom don’t brush their teeth. Or who possibly have beards.
That hotel bed you fling your coach class-weary body onto? A multitude of humanity has flung before you.
I alert you to these scenarios not to alarm you, but to pre-arm you. Touching used can be prevented: it’s up to you. I recommend taking all of your own utensils, not to mention a water glass, plate, soup bowl (if you’re a soup orderer), and also napkin to your next dining experience. As for the hotel situation, it’s not too much of a hassle to BYO mattress. Pretty sure Jet Blue will let you do it as a carry-on. Simply roll the mattress à la a log and explain to wary airport personnel that it’s a medical device.
Other People: They Are Used Too
Alas, despite our afore-outlined measures to ward off touching things previously touched by other humans, we will find ourselves periodically required to touch other humans. Problematic for many reasons.
We can work to establish the wave as an appropriate greeting and do away with handshakes, hugs, kisses and other undesirable contact points (pats on the shoulder!). I’ve enacted “how to wave 101” with Babywoods, so the next generation will be indoctrinated. But until the wave is more permanently enshrined, we may be subjected to occasional skin contact.
Real Talk (aka here stops the satire)
As if we weren’t phobic enough about the germ prospect, some folks feel shame over procuring used paraphernalia. To which I ask, what is there to be embarrassed about? Not sure why it’s more socially acceptable to have debt and new stuff as opposed to savings and used stuff. And if you’d rather people didn’t know you sport an entirely used entourage, the solution is simple: don’t tell the whole internet like I do. In fact, you don’t have to tell a single person. It’s not like anyone is going to require you to produce a receipt for your coffee table. If they do, methinks you have bigger problems.
Soap and water are also efficacious partners in the pursuit of used. I wash all of my used clothing in hot water before donning it for the first time, which alleviates any lingering concerns about the purity of the garb in question. If you’re curious how I maintain our clothes such that we don’t need to buy them very often, you might like: Clothing Care For People Who Don’t Buy Clothes. As for other objects, they too are often washable–especially if they’re for babies. Everything for babies is designed as washable. So wash away.
Furthermore, I’ll capitulate that there are potential pitfalls to sourcing used. However, these pitfalls are easily avoided by employing a remarkable tactic: common sense. Think of this as the Occam’s Razor of frugality: if something looks gross, it probably is gross. This approach has served me well in many an encounter with the outside world. Except in the case of dried prunes. Look gross, are actually delicious.
Additionally there are several levels, and origins, of used items and I do recommend applying one’s five senses to assessment of potential goods for one’s home/self. Although now that I think of it, taste is not relevant unless you’re a baby and feel the need to gum everything. Including mommy’s toes. Also, not sure what we’re listening for. Ok, just three senses: sight, smell, and touch (I recommend going in that order).
Ways To Obtain Used Stuff
1) Free Stuff On the Side Of The Road (aka hardcore frugal)
This is by far my favorite means of stuff appropriation for three reasons: 1) it’s free; 2) you’re recycling items that would otherwise clog a landfill; 3) there are few experiences in this world a frugal weirdo loves more than receiving a compliment on a material possession and responding, “Why thank you, I found it in the trash.” This makes our day.
However, this is also the method of procurement that requires the highest application of discernment. One must exercise constant common sense. First rule: see something, say something. This is relevant if you are not the one driving the stuff-toting vehicle. Mr. FW is forever on my case for not delivering adequate notice with regards to an object on the roadside. Many a U-turn is performed. But once you identify a found object, what’s worth saving from certain garbage fate?
I don’t advocate taking every single free item plunked on the roadside. Nay, fair reader. Because some of it is nasty. As a general rule, I am not inclined towards fabric items left on the roadside: couches, armchairs, beds, chaise lounges, as I fear rain, bugs, dogs, detritus are all possibilities. I have, however, found stellar clothes on the side of the road. I am more inclined towards roadside clothes because they are easily assessed: I can pick up a shirt (such as the one I’m wearing in the above photo) with the merest of pinchy-fingers and peruse it for bugs or bizarre odors. Finding neither, I’ll take it. Finding either, I’ll leave it.
Here is a short–and certainly not exhaustive–list of roadside items that adorn our abode: Babywoods’ dresser, my winter coat, the nicest shirt Mr. FW owns, Babywoods’ exersaucer, coffee mugs, wine glasses, our apple peeler/corer, a fondue pot, lots of other stuff I’ve forgotten about, but will surely recall if you compliment me on it. Want to trash hunt like the pros? Here you go.
Another excellent free avenue, hand-me-downs promote a virtuous cycle of reusing and neighborly cooperation. Short-term use items–such as baby clothes and moving boxes–are ideally suited to hand-me-down life. We also have hand-me-down quilts from my family, furniture, clothes, and more. Let it be known you’re a taker of hand-me-downs and suddenly, thoughtful items will find their way to you. We’ve accepted hand-me-downs from family, friends, co-workers, and yes, random individuals we met on the internet.
3) The Buy Nothing Project
A frequent recipient of praise from me, the Buy Nothing Project harmoniously aligns the ethos of local community, reusing, anti-consumerism, and kind heartedness. It’s an international organization with local branches that facilitate giving away items to one’s neighbors, all via Facebook groups. Check here to see if there’s a Buy Nothing branch in your area. If there’s not, consider starting your own.
4) A Used Store (aka Goodwill or a Thrift Shop)
This is not as cool because the stuff is not free, but it is a fraction of the cost of new items. I primarily purchase clothing from thrift stores as their furniture and housewares are generally either: 1) in terrible condition, or, 2) overpriced.
There are levels of thrift store: at the bottom is your Goodwill, which I find most applicable for Mr. FW’s outdoor work shirts and other utilitarian garb. Also, costumes. I personally haven’t ever found gorgeous clothes at Goodwill, but this is really quite dependent upon your local Goodwill. Utilize your senses to determine the cleanliness/desirability of the clothes you view. This is a simple test folks, you can handle it.
Next up is a thrift shop, which is typically smaller and slightly more curated than Goodwill. Commensurately, their prices are a tad higher, but usually still quite reasonable. Much of my closet stems from such a shop.
And finally, you have the premier top-shelf thrifting option: the consignment store. The consignment store must be carefully assessed for actual value. I have, personally, been to consignment stores with prices higher than I would ever spend on a new piece of wardrobe. Hence, don’t assume that used is always cheaper.
Most of my fancy and/or festive sartorial effects are from a fabulous consignment store in the suburbs of Boston (Revolve for you locals) that strikes that chord between thrifty and fashionable. Their wares are not dirt cheap, but they’re far more reasonable than new items. Plus, the quality is fabulous. If you ever see me wearing J Crew, Banana Republic or that ilk, be assured it came from this consignment store.
I did find, however, that I had to check prices like a greyhound with a magnifying glass. Once I experienced shortness of breath over a $40 price tag on a pair of jeans. In case you’re wondering, buy jeans new from Kohl’s for $20 instead. And don’t tell me that Kohl’s jeans don’t last because, ladies, I’ve been wearing mine for years. Years. And don’t tell me that Kohl’s jeans aren’t fashionable (see photo at right: shirt from the trash, jeans from the Kohl’s). Or do. I don’t actually care. Remember I’m the person who hasn’t purchased any clothing in over 2.5 years. Want to up your thrifting game? My tips are all here.
We find Craigslist imminently useful when we’re in search of specific high-ticket items. Most of our furniture found its way to us via Craigslist and, in my experience, it’s valuable for locating precisely what you need at the higher end of the used market.
When we needed a kitchen table, for example, I searched for a specific size and style of table to meet our needs. Craigslist is also a source that I mine for fabric furniture and mattresses. Why? Because I have the opportunity to view the previous owners and their environment (aka their house).
In the case of our Craigslist couch and armchair, we purchased them from a lovely young couple in downtown Boston. Their apartment was spotless and it was clear this furniture lived in their living room–not stashed away in a spider-mottled garage.
Similarly, the bed we purchased used (mattress, box spring, and frame) came from a very friendly older couple who were downsizing–the bed had been their daughter’s, but she’d gone off to college. Knowing the provenance of all used items is unnecessary, but for things like beds and couches, I enjoy meeting the previous owners. Our comprehensive Craigslist hacks are here.
6) Garage Sales and Flea Markets
I put garage sales and flea markets last only because they’re extraordinarily hit or miss. And, unless in a fit of kismet you stumble upon a sale in progress, you must plan ahead and drive/commute to the sale. Mr. FW and I do attend garage sales with regularity, but we certainly don’t find gems at every sale. Far too often, it’s simply stuff we don’t need.
But when the stars align, we walk away with three trash bags crammed with baby clothes for $10. Or a pair of winter boots for 5 bucks. With garage sales, flea markets, and Craigslist, I try to follow the bundle-and-sale route. I like to make a discounted offer on several items that I want (for example our couch and armchair), knowing my price cap ahead of time.
Haggling–politely, of course–in used sales is par for the course. The seller will expect you to do so, unless they’ve explicitly stated prices are firm in advance. Since garage sale operators are actively seeking to rid themselves of their stuff, I’ve never had anyone not accept my offer. They’ve gone through the trouble of hauling their old rakes, axes, and chains out of the barn–they’re delighted for Mr. FW to cart them off for $15. Along with a baby hiking backpack that we bundled into the sale.
I frequently ask if folks are selling anything else. Often, they’ll say, “oh yeah, since you were interested in this side table, you might also like this matching end table over here, which I meant to bring out to the sale.” Happens to me all the time.
It’s also true that Mr. FW and I enjoy the process of garage sale-ing, especially out here in rural Vermont. We make conversation with the sellers, learn their (always) interesting story, peruse their (always amusing, sometimes useful) stuff, and occasionally walk away with a few items we need. We view garage sale-ing as a sport–it’s free entertainment for the whole family–so we’re never disappointed if the goods don’t quite pan out.
Get Over It
I once wrote that perfection is the enemy of frugality. While that is true, I find that perfection is actually the enemy of basically everything: personal contentment, parenting, dog care, washing dishes, harvesting apples, cooking, my hair, entertaining friends, and my overall enjoyment of life.
Finding pleasure in used items–which aren’t perfect and aren’t, uh, new–is an integral aspect of a happy frugal life. You cannot beat the price of used (ok except for those Kohl’s jeans… ) and you also can’t beat the incredible feeling of community that sharing/bartering/handing-down fosters. Life’s full of risks, but it’s also full of minor miraculous moments–like when Babywoods needed a new carseat and our friend gave us the one her daughter had outgrown. Sometimes, you just have to get over it and get used.