How To Find Anything and Everything Used: A Compendium Of Frugal Treasure Hunting
Just how did I get all of this second-hand stuff? If you’ve ever wondered how to similarly outfit yourself and your family with such illustrious things as a coat from the trash and a dining room table from Craigslist, then today is your day.
Buying and sourcing items used is one of the central tenets to frugal living, and it’s one of the key provisos outlined in my Uber Frugal Month Challenge (by the way, you can sign-up at any time to join the over 11,700 folks who’ve already taken this free Challenge and saved thousands of dollars!).
Before we get to the instructional portion of today’s event, let’s review the why of second-hand. Obviously, it saves money, but that’s just the first of many reasons to not buy new.
By a lot. Stuff depreciates as soon as its purchased and, if you’ve ever tried to sell your own stuff second-hand, you know that things do not retain their value–aside from the likes of genuine art by a genuine artiste and antiques.
It’s tempting to convince ourselves that an expensive, brand-name coat is an ‘investment,’ but it’s not. An investment–a good one anyway–yields actual returns. A coat, on the other hand? It’s something to wear in the wintertime.
Don’t imbue your stuff with power it doesn’t deserve. Material objects are not stand-ins for human emotions, they don’t bring us happiness and they don’t indicate our success or our worth. They’re just things, designed to serve a specific purpose such as to keep us warm when it’s snowing.
It’s Environmentally Friendly
Sourcing your stuff second-hand keeps it from the landfill, thus reducing the quantity of perfectly usable items polluting the waste stream. Plus, when you buy used, you’re circumventing the carbon footprint embodied in new products: the raw materials, the production, the packaging, the shipping, etc. Reusing and recycling material possessions is an easy way to reduce your impact on the planet.
You’ll Appreciate It More
The more we spend on an item, the more we expect from it–and the inverse also holds true. If we spend $8,000 on a brand new dining room table, we’re going to expect that table to be perfection incarnate. We’re also going to stress out if it gets scratched, or a dog vomits on the leg of the table, or a baby teeths on the corner with their little baby teefs. Conversely if we have, say, a $75 farmhouse table from Craigslist, all of those things can happen to it and we won’t worry because our sunk costs are substantially lower.
I find that I experience a higher level of contentment with my used things because I have lower expectations of them. My free red sideboard, for example, is one of my favorite pieces of furniture, yet it has a chunk missing from one of its legs and is in dire need of repainting. But since I spent $0 on it, I’m thrilled to have it!
Used items also encourage us to embrace imperfection. Chasing perfection is a false, futile race that we’re destined to lose every single time. You can spend thousands of dollars trying to achieve perfection–which won’t happen no matter how much you spend–or, you can embrace the human fact of imperfection and spend much, much less. For more reading on this theme, check out: Perfection Is the Enemy Of Frugality.
Used Is More Creative
As I discussed last week, second-hand stuff is often more unique than carbon copy brand new. My clothes and my stuff all has a touch of whimsy because it’s imperfect, the colors are sometimes unusual, and you wouldn’t find it in a fashion or home decor magazine. It’s my own unique assemblage of taste and style.
Fewer Choices Make Us Happier
If you shop at a garage sale, there’s probably going to be just one bread machine on offer. On the other hand, if you try to buy a bread machine on Amazon, there are no less than 288 different options you’ll have to wade through. And, contrary to what you might think, fewer choices make us happier. Research has documented that too many choices lead us to either paralysis by analysis–and a total inability to decide on anything at all–or to second-guessing our eventual decision and experiencing anxiety over our choice.
What if the bread machine we laboriously chose–after reading Amazon reviews for 11 hours–is not the ideal bread machine of 2017?!?! Conversely my free bread machine, which has to be about as old as me, works just fine and I never give it a second thought. For additional reading on this topic, please enjoy: The Sneaky Way That Frugality Fixes Paralysis By Analysis.
It Takes Less Time
Related to the boon of fewer choices, shopping used takes less time. When you go to a thrift store, they either have a dress in your size or they don’t. You don’t have to waste four hours trying on every possible dress in every conceivable size. You simply scan the racks and, if it’s not there, it just wasn’t meant to be. There’s a myth floating around that shopping used takes longer, but if done right, that’s nothing more than an anti-frugal superstition.
Used Stuff Is Gross!
True. Some used stuff is in fact gross, and you shouldn’t get that stuff–I certainly wouldn’t! But the vast majority of used things are not. I covered this topic exhaustively in the aptly named The Myth Of The Gross Used Things, so I’ll just say here that you shouldn’t reject the notion of used without first reading that post.
What Can’t I Get Used?
There are very few exceptions to the ‘buy everything used’ rule. One thing I’m forever trying to find used–but mostly failing to–are shoes. I’m of the belief that shoes must be comfortable and must fit properly. I have long narrow feet–an unusual foot form to be sure–and I own but one pair of used shoes: some rain boots I found for $5 at a garage sale. Other than that, I never find anything second-hand in my size, except ironically, for the shoes I wore on my wedding day–hand-me-downs from a great Aunt also afflicted with long, narrow foot syndrome.
Another item we have trouble finding used are men’s pants–menfolk seem to wear their pants to smithereens and, though we always check, we never can find second-hand pants for Mr. Frugalwoods. For the most part, the only reason we buy new is that we’ve been unable to find what we want via the used market. The mattress we bought on Amazon is a great illustration of our failure to find one used, and not for lack of trying!
Consumables are often tough to find used although I’ve received more than one unopened package of diapers for Babywoods from folks whose kid outgrew that size before the diapers ran out. And I once gave away three gallons of milk to my Buy Nothing Group because we were going out of town and it was going to spoil in our absence! All that to say, don’t assume you can’t find what you seek on the used market. The other main reason why I sometimes can’t find something used is because I fail to…
Unlike shopping new, the used market is a serendipitous thing. I happen to love this element of surprise–you never know what gem you’re going to find! But the dark downside is that if you desperately need something in short order, it’s not always possible to find it used. The used market is a long game and it favors those who plan ahead, as does frugality in general. My recent failure in this department was my winter muck boots, which as I shared, I had to purchase new. For more on the frugal imperative of planning ahead, please enjoy: How Planning Ahead Saves Us Serious Money.
How To Find Anything And Everything Used
Ok let’s get down to it! Over the course of my 10+ years of used procurement, I’ve identified a plethora of sources for used items, some of which are better than others. Here’s the complete rundown of my favorite sources, ordered from least to most expensive. Be aware that just because something is used doesn’t mean it’s a good deal! Shop smart even when shopping second-hand.
The Side Of The Road (aka the trash)
Mr. FW and I have taken so many things out of the trash that I have an entire section devoted to cataloging the great stuff we’ve found. I also have an exhaustive outline of tips in Our 12 Tips For Finding Roadside Treasures (aka Great Trash Finds) and by ‘exhaustive’ I mean 12 tips, apparently.
The quality of your trash finds will vary depending on where you live, but I will say that I’ve found great trash in urban, suburban, and rural areas. I’ve trash hunted on the West Coast, in the Midwest, on the East Coast, and in England (where I studied abroad in college) and there be gold everywhere, my frugal friends. So don’t be whining that there’s no trash in your town!
It’s true that cities are the bastion of excellent free trash items because people move more frequently, people live in smaller spaces necessitating they clear out their junk more often, and there’s more pedestrian traffic to peruse said trash. However, I’ve found a number of fabulous items out here in the middle of nowhere–some in heaps by the side of the road and others on the free table at our town dump. I’ve taken everything from a baby bouncer to a men’s dress shirt to a dresser from the side of the road.
Another preeminent option for free items are hand-me-downs! Most of Babywoods’ baby retinue–clothes, furniture, shoes, toys, books, car seat, high chair, stroller, and more–came to us via hand-me-down. I find this route works best for items that are seasonal in people’s lives, such as baby paraphernalia and maternity clothes. Once you’re done with your baby stuff and your maternity clothing, you want it outta the house and so I find people are thrilled to empty their basements and attics into the trunk of my car.
I know folks are sometimes hesitant to take hand-me-down baby items for fear they’ll be unsafe. But there are several tactics I recommend employing to ensure the safety of your bebe goods:
- Only take a hand-me-down car seat from a trusted friend or relative who can assure you that the seat hasn’t been in an accident. Even minor car accidents can cause imperceptible damage to car seats. But if a seat is accident free and up to date? No reason not to use used–we do!
- Look up the serial number and make/model/brand of the item in question to see if there have been any recalls or other safety notifications. Our fabulous used high chair–which I LOVE–did indeed have a recall and so we ordered the parts (free of charge) from the manufacturer and fixed the chair right up.
- Research any changes in baby safety technology. As fellow parents know, drop-side cribs are considered unsafe and have been recalled. However, there exists a conversion kit you can install on a drop-side crib to make it no longer drop-side. This is what we did to our hand-me-down crib and Babywoods has been rocking it for 15 months.
- Don’t be grossed out by heavily used baby items. Everything for kids is washable. Throw it in the washing machine, bust our your cleaning rags, and it’ll be good as new. Plus, kids are a hot mess and it’ll take yours about 15 seconds to add their own personal detritus. Also, as you can see from the below photo of Babywoods’ nursery, used stuff doesn’t have to look bad. Nothing in that photo (except for the picture frame above the dresser of her little feet-prints and the nightlight) was purchased new and yet, it looks pretty good. Yes, even the Diaper Genie was used–I washed that thing real good, let me tell you. Babies cycle through their things quite rapidly and so, used kid stuff has probably only been used for a few years.
We also have a slate of hand-me-down household items from my parents and my in-laws: bedsheets, towels, bedspreads, pots, pans, decorations, table cloths, blankets–anytime our parents upgrade to new stuff, they ask if we frugal weirdos want their old stuff and, nine times out of ten, we do!
Let family members and friends know that you’ll be the jolly recipient of their cast-offs. And for anything that Mr. FW and I don’t need? I simply pass it along to my…
Buy Nothing Group
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 for free to one’s neighbors via Facebook. Check here to see if there’s a Buy Nothing branch in your area. If there’s not, consider starting your own.
In addition to the Buy Nothing group, I’m a member of several different email listserves and Facebook groups in my local area that facilitate trading, swapping, and selling used stuff. They’re essentially online garage sales and I’ve found quite a few free/cheap items through these groups.
Typically, people are trying to clear out their homes and just want the junk gone. Enter me, ready to cart away their wares free of charge! And I like paying it forward by giving away anything we no longer need via these outlets. It creates a virtuous system of reusing, up-cycling, and otherwise saving items from certain landfill death. I’ve also found that parents’ groups are prime locations for swapping kid stuff.
Garage and Rummage Sales
The pros of garage, tag, and rummage sales is that they’re cheaper than Craigslist or the thrift store. The con is that you might not find what you’re looking for since you never know what’s going to be on offer. Mr. FW and I have driven to plenty a sale that promised a bounty of goods only to find a few piddly items strewn on a lawn. But, we consider garage sale-ing a fun sport and outing for the whole family, so there’s no heartache if we find nothing.
To make our garage sale adventures more efficient, I keep a list of things we need that aren’t pressing, but that we’d like to acquire sometime in the next year. Having this list in mind helps me mentally sort through what I see on offer at a rummage sale without getting overwhelmed. Since I plan ahead several seasons, on my list right now are toddler ice skates and snowshoes (plus a helmet!) for Babywoods for next winter as well as a play kitchen since I think she’s just about at the age where she’d enjoy such a thing.
Craigslist is ideal when you’re in search of a specific large-ticket item, such as a couch or a car. But be careful that you’re actually getting a deal. Since sellers are free to price their stuff however they’d like, know what the item costs new and know what the going rate is for the item used.
I wouldn’t buy the first thing you see–comparison shop via Craigslist and make sure you’re paying a fair price. I generally don’t go for smaller items on Craigslist simply because I have to drive all the way to the seller’s house before I can assess the item in person. My complete guide to successful Craigslisting is: 12 Ways to Get a Steal on Craigslist and the highlights are below.
Before making the trek to buy an item, ask the seller for:
- Photos of the actual item–not a link to what the item looks like brand new.
- The exact dimensions (I once failed to do this with a couch and Mr. FW and I were holding it aloft, realizing it wouldn’t fit into the back of Frugalwoods-mobile… )
- Any technical details, if relevant, such as the mileage on a car or the brand name of a sofa.
When you go to a seller’s home to purchase an item:
- Take a friend. I never go alone to buy something from Craigslist since you are going to a stranger’s home after all.
- Be prepared to pay in full in cash.
- Don’t feel obligated to buy the item if it doesn’t quite meet your expectations in the flesh. I’ve left without buying on a number of occasions.
- Always offer less than the asking price. Craigslist is a haggling situation–the price is not set in stone and the seller wants it gone. The worst they can say is no, but I’ve never had that happen.
- Ask if they’re selling anything else. I’m a huge fan of the Craigslist package deal. More often than not, if someone is selling one thing, they’re selling other things too. I once went to buy an end table and came away with a mirror, that wheel thing that hangs on the wall of our living room, the end table in question, and a chair. Similarly, when we bought our couch, we ended up buying our leather armchair too because the sellers were clearing out their entire living room–they tried to get us to take their coffee table too, but it was too large to fit in the van. In addition to the convenience of one-stop shopping, it’s easier to bargain if you’re buying a passel of stuff–total it up in your head and then offer about half off–you’ll bargain with the seller to reach the right price.
Thrift and Consignment Stores
No used compendium would be complete without a mention of thrift stores! But I’ve listed them last because I actually don’t find them to be all that useful for anything other than clothing. Occasionally I find housewares in a thrift store, but they’re often overpriced or used to the point of being destroyed.
Consignment stores are even pricier than thrift stores, but they typically have the best clothing selections. If you need a fancy dress for a wedding or a suit for work, a consignment store is a great option. But for casual clothes or pots and pans? Usually too expensive.
For more tips on sourcing second-hand clothes, check out When To Thrift: Chic On The Cheap.
But Wait, It’s Still Shopping!
I know we just went through an exhaustive rundown of how to buy everything your heart desires for WAY cheaper than you ever thought possible–but–buying is still buying, even if it’s deeply discounted. Hence, I recommend applying the 72-hour waiting rule to used purchases wherever possible (obviously this is not feasible while at a rummage sale, so try a five-minute waiting period). Spending money on used stuff is still real money and if you don’t need it, it doesn’t matter how cheap it is.There’s no savings if you’re buying excess stuff.
I recently went with some friends to a gigantic rummage sale of kids’ stuff–this thing took over an entire hotel ballroom–and all I bought were a few footie pajamas for Babywoods in the next size up. Why? Because she didn’t need any of the other stuff there. Never mind that dresses were $2 and coats were $4–she has plenty of dresses and coats.
So don’t take this as a blank check to transfer all your impulse shopping desires over to the thrift store–it doesn’t work that way! Case in point: I put myself on a ban from buying clothing (which lasted three whole years) even though I bought exclusively used clothes. Didn’t matter how cheap the clothes were–I had too many and thus, any clothes I bought were a waste of money. One way I combat the urge to over-shop is by making a list ahead of time. I had a specific list of things I hoped to find at that baby rummage sale and, as it turned out, all they had were the footie PJ’s, so that’s all I bought.
Used For Life
The most frugal approach of all is to buy nothing and to make due with what you already own. But for the times when you legitimately do need something, sourcing it through the used market will save you money, time, and stress. Once you get into the groove of used shopping, you’ll find there are very few things you need to buy brand new. It’s sort of like cutting your own hair–once you realize how easy and cheap it is, you’ll never go back.
What are your tips for finding used treasures?
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