How to Thrift Like a Rockstar: Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead and Focus on Depreciation
I’m a known thrifter. Unlike known grifters, this is a good thing. Since becoming Mrs. Frugalwoods, I’ve tried to buy everything second-hand. This doesn’t always work out and sometimes I choose to buy things new (such as my mattress), but on the whole, my household is awash in used goods.
Today, I want to talk about three aspects of my buying used strategy (oh yes, it’s a strategy):
- Focus on things that make the most sense to buy used (using depreciation to your advantage)
- Why I plan ahead and buy ahead (even though I might not end up using the stuff)
- The non-monetary benefits of buying used (I started buying second-hand because it saves tons of money; I’ve continued for that reason and all the non-monetary benefits I’ve discovered)
If you’d like a primer on where and how to find used stuff (which I won’t be covering today), check out: How To Find Anything and Everything Used: A Compendium Of Frugal Treasure Hunting. If buying used stuff grosses you out, you might enjoy: The Myth Of The Gross Used Things.
Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead and Reap the Rewards
The reason I’ve been able to cobble together a mostly second-hand household–including clothes, shoes, toys, books, furniture, holiday decorations, sleds, kitchen utensils… you name it, I’ve probably bought it at a yard sale–is that I plan ahead and buy ahead. Previously, I thought this approach was counter to frugality because it involves buying stuff I don’t need right now.
However, I’ve learned it actually facilitates greater frugality because the cost of making a mistake–buying something used that we don’t end up needing–is nominal compared to the cost of buying new. Of course this does not hold true for expensive purchases, such as used cars. We buy used cars, but only when we absolutely need them.
If I added up all of my “mistaken” used purchases over the years (a $1 fondue pot we’ve never touched comes to mind… ), the total wouldn’t come anywhere near the amount I would’ve spent had I needed to buy fill-in-the-blank (a bread machine, a pack-n-play, a coat) new. Heck, the bread machine ALONE would’ve cost me several hundred dollars (versus the $5 I paid for it at a yard sale this summer).
My children provide me with the greatest opportunity to enact my Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead methodology because parenting is essentially an 18-year course in planning ahead. I know my kids will be in a larger size next year, I know my daughters will want to read more advanced books in the future, I know they’re going to need snowshoes in a bigger size, I know they’re going to love this puzzle/board game in a few years… and so, if I sees it, I buys it. And if the kids don’t end up using it/reading it/wearing it? No sweat! I probably spent all of $1 on it and so I’ll just pass it along to someone else who can use it. Our goal to not-buy-new is helped by the fact that we happened to have two girls who are far apart enough in age (27 months) that they aren’t ever wearing the same size, but close enough in age that the clothes don’t wear out/fall apart before they make it to kid #2.
There’s an element of counter-minimalism in the Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead approach and it’s only tenable because I have a basement in which to store stuff. If we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, the calculation would be drastically different. I thought a lot about this tension in: How I Try To Balance Minimalism With Frugality.
Thanks to my Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead mentality, I don’t go to garage sales or thrift stores with a set list of what I need to buy–that’s a surefire route to disappointment. Instead, I go with an open mind and a nose for deals. I often have a loose list–either mental or paper–of what would be nice to find, but I mostly look for things that are inexpensive, in good condition, known for depreciation, and that I’m pretty sure we’ll use in the near future. More about Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead here: How Planning Ahead Saves Us Serious Money.
When To Buy Used: Focus On Depreciation
When using the Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead methodology, I focus on stuff that depreciates at a high rate, but retains its functionality. I want to buy things that are super expensive brand new, experience steep depreciation, and are still in good condition. Here’s a real life example from my thrifting adventures:
I found a Zojirushi bread machine for $5 at a garage sale this summer. At this same garage sale, I found a nice glass salad bowl for $5. These are both things I’d use, but I only bought the bread machine. Why? The rate of depreciation is much higher with the bread machine than with the salad bowl:
The depreciation experienced by the bread machine is thus much greater than the depreciation of the salad bowl. Put another way, I got the bread machine for 98% off the new price whereas the salad bowl would’ve been 65% off. Now, $5 is a fine price for a salad bowl and if I really needed it, I would’ve gotten it. But the salad bowl fell more into the Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead category, so I decided to wait until I find a salad bowl for more like $0.50.
Another genre of items that depreciates at a near-catastrophic rate, making it a prime suspect for my yard sale efforts, are kids’ winter boots, winter coats, and snow pants.
- Children (at least my children) change size often. Sometimes yearly. Sometimes monthly. This means they’re in near-constant need of new clothes and shoes.
- Children must wear clothing… at least some of the time. My children contest this and try not to wear any during the summer.
- We live in a climate that mandates warm winter gear. It’s not unheard of to hit -25 degrees (Fahrenheit) during our Vermont winters. Given that, proper attire is necessary. We play outside almost every day of the year–and Kidwoods’ preschool takes the kids out daily–so warm, waterproof clothes and boots are a must.
- Children’s snow boots, winter coats, and snow pants can be super expensive.
Due to this, I follow Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead for used kids’ snow pants, boots, and coats. If I see a pair of baby snow pants for $2? I’m buying them. If a pair of kids’ boots pops up for $4 at a yard sale? I lunge for them. Let’s discuss why with some exciting depreciation math (try not to get too excited).
94.7% Off: That’s Depreciation I Can Get Behind
Let me illustrate–with real live numbers–why Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead is so profitable when applied to heavily depreciated items. Below are the new prices and the used prices for one pair of kids’ snow bibs, one winter coat, and one pair of boots (these are affiliate links):
- NEW Lands’ End Little Kids Waterproof Snow Bibs (size 4T): $79.95
- NEW Lands’ End Little Kids Squall Waterproof Winter Parka (size small/4T): $109.95
- NEW Kamik Kids’ Snow Boots (size toddler 11): $59.99
Yep, $249.89 for one set of toddler-sized winter gear, likely to be worn for one winter, by one kid (amortize over the number of kids you have, but still!). And that’s just a single pair of snow bibs, one set of boots, and a solitary coat! Never mind a second set for the inevitable drenching of the first set, or the requisite hat, mittens and wool socks that must accompany.
I reference those specific brands and sizes because I happen to have purchased those specific brands and sizes used. Here’s what I paid:
- USED Land’s End Little Kids Waterproof Snow Bibs (size 4T): $5
- USED Land’s End Little Kids Squall Waterproof Winter Parka (size small/4T): $3
- USED Kamik Kids’ Snow Boots (size toddler 11): $5
Total saved: $236.89
That’s a dramatic amount of money to save–94.7% to be exact–especially when you consider this is an annual expense for many families with little kids in cold climates. I’m not sure it’s possible to save such a staggering percentage (again, 94.7%) in any other category of purchases. This right here is a goldmine of depreciation for used shoppers.
Ignoring inflation, taxes, shipping, and the increase in price correlated with the increase in size, let’s say I need to buy a full set of winter gear (boots, coat, snow bibs) for my kids every winter for 15 years. We’ll assume they’ve stopped growing at age 15 and can then continue wearing the same size. We’ll also assume my older daughter passes everything down to my younger daughter, necessitating I only buy one set in each size. I’d be on track to spend $3,748.35 on new winter gear ($249.89 x 15 years = $3,748.35).
If I instead continue getting lucky with my used finds (ignoring inflation and the increase in price correlated with the increase in size), I’ll be on track to spend $195 on used winter gear ($13 x 15 years = $195). I fully realize that at some point, one of my kids will need something in a size I haven’t been able to find used, or one kid will misplace a boot before the annual snowshoe-a-thon, or a snow bib catastrophe will strike right before the high school biathlon challenge, and I’ll race to the internet to provide. Plus, I know my daughters will eventually age out of allowing me to buy all of their clothing at yard sales. But until that day comes? I’m thrifting it up.
Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead is well applied in the scenario of kids’ winter outerwear because the used alternatives are so cheap that even when I buy a coat or pair of boots we never use, the cost of accidentally overbuying costs me far, far less than new ever would. And, I can happily pass along those unneeded boots and coats to friends who do need them!
What About Accidentally Buying Stuff You Already Have? Enter: The Size Spreadsheet
In an effort to cut down on these unnecessary purchases, I created a spreadsheet detailing the kids’ winter gear we have and still need. Yep. You knew I was going to do it. What frugal weirdo doesn’t have a spreadsheet of the sizes of kids’ coats, boots, and snow pants she has and the sizes she still needs? Hah!
After making the discovery that I’d bought not one, not two, not three, but FOUR winter coats in size 2T, I decided a spreadsheet was warranted. It’s a humble, yet useful, spreadsheet and I print it out before a garage sale outing and update it when I return with fresh finds.
I don’t go to these lengths for any other category of used stuff because it’s time-consuming and borders on obsessive. The reason I do it for kids’ winter outerwear is that the return on my investment is tremendous. The return on my investment is ridiculous, actually.
We’re not talking about $5 or $20 or even $50 saved here and there–we’re talking about hundreds of dollars saved every single year–totaling thousands of dollars over the course of my children’s childhoods. When you find an item that is readily available at yard sales, a candidate for Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead, and scores high on depreciation, a spreadsheet just might be your friend too.
More Than Money Saved: Other Benefits Of Buying Used
Beyond the astronomical amounts of money I save by accepting hand-me-downs and thrifting it up, I’ve discovered a slew of non-monetary benefits of the used market:
- Buying used = fewer decisions, which makes us humans happier.
- More choices actually decrease our happiness and too many choices can push us into a paralysis by analysis spiral of doom:
Infinite choice is paralyzing… and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves… Too much choice undermines happiness (source: NPR).
Used stuff is more environmentally friendly.
- Used stuff avoids the embodied environmental costs of new: packaging, shipping, manufacturing, etc. Plus, it keeps stuff out of the landfill!
- Buying used allows for the experience of kismet.
- Oh yes, there’s kismet in finding great used deals. I love my garage sale scores and I delight in the sheer kismet of finding, for example, a $1 baby doll stroller that my girls ADORE.
- They adore it so much, in fact, that I was thrilled to find another ($2) used baby doll stroller so that they can both push a stroller around the house at the same time.
- Buying used reduces the endowment effect.
- Since so much of our stuff was purchased used at a deep discount, I’m not super attached to any of it. This allows me the freedom to let it go so that it doesn’t clutter up my life. This is also why I’m in favor of the Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead approach.
- That cycle plays out over and over in our home: we gratefully accept hand-me-downs or buy inexpensive used stuff, then pass it along. All of my hand-me-down maternity clothes are now being worn by a friend who is pregnant with her first. My infant bathtub is being used by a family who just had their first baby. I love that these things can continue their useful lives.
- Since I paid nothing, or very little, for our stuff, I don’t feel compelled to hoard it or sell it in an effort to squeeze out a return on my investment (which is unlikely to happen, based on the depreciation noted above). It relieves me from being held hostage by the endowment effect, which occurs when, “…an individual places a higher value on an object that they already own than the value they would place on that same object if they did not own it” (source).
Buying used is fun! So fun.
- Similar to kismet, I find second-hand shopping to be so much fun. It’s not stressful because if a yard sale doesn’t have anything I need? I just move on. Conversely, if I do happen to find a great deal, it’s a cause for frugal celebration!
- Another reason I find garage sale shopping so delightful is that I have a BGSGP (best garage sale gal pal). With our forces combined, she and I are garage sale mavens. We plan which Saturdays we want to garage sale, we get up early those mornings, leave our husbands and dog/kids at home, and quest forth for finds. Garage saleing–like most things–is better with friends.
- Buying used creates community.
- When I shop at a garage sale, I’m giving money to my neighbors, which I love. Their stuff gets a new life, I get a great deal, they make a few bucks, and everyone is happy.
- My cycle of receiving and giving hand-me-downs further enforces a community mentality of sharing, lending, borrowing, and just generally taking care of each other.
- Buying used takes less time than buying new.
- It takes drastically less time than shopping new. There’s a misconception that it’s more time consuming, but that’s a fallacy if you do it the right way.
- My BGSGP and I don’t go to garage sales every weekend–that would be far too time consuming! Garage sale season in Vermont is confined to the summer months, so she and I scout out the most likely goldmine sales in advance and do strategic strikes. We go early for the best selection and are usually home by late morning.
I Wish I Were Organized Enough
…to include my garage sale finds in my monthly spending reports. That would be helpful, wouldn’t it? The problem is that I buy stuff from garage sales in cash and our cash withdrawals are lumped into the “household supplies” category, which is totally unhelpful. Someday, perhaps I will actually write down each item and its corresponding dollar amount. Someone should do that!
Buying used is awesome when done correctly. To best leverage the power of the second-hand market:
- Look for items that score high on depreciation and longterm functionality
- Plan Ahead, Buy Ahead for things you predict you’ll need in the near future
- Discover the tertiary benefits of shopping used to enjoy rewards beyond the money saved