On my recent post about the $200 jeans I bought for my husband at Goodwill for six dollars, I got a really good comment from a reader who wondered something that I’m sure a lot of the rest of you do too. Mustangsabby wrote:
Do you ever get tired of rooting and searching for good deals at thrift? Do you sometimes just want to buy the thing you need and be done with it? I know I sometimes struggle with the idea of thrifting as opposed to buying new.
I felt this was worth more discussion than just a simple comment reply, and I thought about it a lot today. My perspective is that it’s almost always better to at least try for a used option first before buying new, but that’s probably because I have a lifetime of experience with doing it that way. I grew up in a household where we didn’t have a lot of extra money – yard sales and thrift stores were our regular shopping spots, so that’s my normal. I realize that is not the case for most people. But I would say that it is hands down the number one reason we’re getting further and further ahead financially as the years go by. Because our budget is so low for things like clothing and household goods, we’re able to spend more money on high quality food, set aside money for the future, pay off our mortgage faster than scheduled, and save money for a rainy day. Knowing that we only need a few dollars to buy winter coats for our boys means that we can put more money towards our much more important goal of providing a secure future for them. And the winter coats from Goodwill are just as warm and just as nice as the ones we could get for far more money at the mall.
I realize that a lot of people have no interest in buying secondhand stuff. And I realize that it wouldn’t work if everyone did it – there would be nobody buying the new stuff that eventually gets donated to the thrift stores. But most people also aren’t reading this blog, so we can just keep the secrets for ourselves. In addition, some of you live in very small towns without much in the way of thrift stores or in areas that don’t have a robust Craigslist or Freecycle community. I would encourage you to check out garage sales if that’s the case – those happen pretty much everywhere. Granted, they’re not as convenient as a thrift store with set hours and organized goods, but you can still score all sorts of great deals by arming yourself with a list of the sales in your town on a Saturday morning in nice weather.
I think the first point that needs to be made is that there is really good stuff available secondhand! Several years ago, I was hanging out with a friend who had never been to a thrift store. She complimented me on a Marmot jacket I was wearing, and I mentioned that I had found it at Goodwill. She looked very surprised and said that she didn’t know you could get stuff like that at Goodwill. She thought it was just full of “old lady” stuff and garage sale rejects. I suppose it depends on the store and the location, but in a lot of towns, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our Goodwill has a drive-up donation center and there is always a line of cars there, dropping off piles and piles of stuff. Sure, some of it is old and unfashionable. But a lot of it is awesome (my husband’s new jeans, for example), and the prices are hard to beat.
To get back to the original question – no, I don’t ever feel like going and buying the stuff I need new instead of looking for a used alternative. I know that it’s better for the planet to find things used, and I know that it’s also far better for my wallet and for the charity organizations that run the thrift stores. And I enjoy the scavenger hunt aspect a bit too. Plus, I’ve become so accustomed to thrift store prices that I don’t think I could bring myself to pay retail for things like clothing. But it also takes a bit of planning in order to make it work. I know that I can’t walk into Goodwill and be guaranteed to find exactly the thing I’m seeking. I often do, but a lot of times I don’t. So as much as possible, I try to make sure that no shopping trip is ever an emergency. That means that I don’t wait until October to go looking for winter clothes for my boys, or until my last pair of jeans is falling apart to start trying to find a new pair. I found a winter coat for our son at a garage sale this summer ($3) and it will fit him next year. I bought it even though it would be stored for more than a year. I bought it because I know that he’ll need it, and it is a great coat, and now I don’t have to rely on getting lucky next year and finding a good coat for him. I also have a couple pairs of shoes for next summer for him already. I found them at a garage sale and a thrift store, both brand new, and both a couple sizes too big for him. I bought them anyway, again because I know he’ll need them soon-ish and this way I won’t be stuck buying new because I’m unable to find exactly what I’m looking for when he needs it.
This buying ahead philosophy works great for children’s stuff, because we know that they’re going to need new stuff every few months or at least next year. They grow like weeds. The shoes that fit this month will be too small by February. I make a habit of glancing at things like children’s shoes, coats, gloves, boots and clothing on a regular basis when I’m in a thrift store. I only buy something if it’s perfect – new or nearly new condition, a good quality brand name, and a good price. If it’s a bit too big, I just set it aside. I don’t have a huge stockpile, mainly because I’m pretty picky about what I buy. But I have several things set aside, and that means that I don’t have to worry about finding exactly what we need in a hurry. The flip side of this is that I’m ruthless about getting rid of clothing and toys that we’ve outgrown. Our younger son is a year and half old, and everything he has outgrown has already been donated or sold or given to friends. I take pictures of the boys with things that are sentimental to me, and then move those things along too. So although I do have a few things stashed away for the future, I’m not hanging onto any physical stuff from their past. I’d rather make room for the new than hold onto the old.
The buying ahead philosophy should definitely not be confused with hoarding or any sort of tendency to buy all sorts of stuff “just in case” or because you might need it someday. Only buy things if they’re really great, and if you know that you’ll need them – not if you just think that you might. The latter is a recipe for ending up with a garage so full of junk that your car has to live in the driveway. Stuff for our boys encompasses most of the things that I buy ahead, but I’ve also purchased several things over the past year for our basement, even though we’re not finished with construction yet. I found a perfect vanity on Craigslist (retail price, about $350) for $40. I got a great mirror at Goodwill for $5, and just the right light fixture for over the mirror at the used building supply store for $15. I bought all of those things before we were ready to install them (and yes, they’ve shared some very close quarters with our car lately), but I knew that we would be needing them soon when I bought them. And the minor inconvenience of having them stashed in the garage for a few months was far better than the alternative of probably having to buy all of those things new at the time we were ready to install them.
The final point that I think is helpful here is a reminder to be very conscious of the difference between needs and wants. When you truly need something – especially if you need it quickly – it can be frustrating to try to find it used, particularly if you live somewhere without a strong used goods market. But other than food, almost all of the stuff that we buy from one day to the next is a want, not a need. Clothing is a good example. What do we really need? A couple pairs of pants, a few shirts, some underwear, socks, a pair of shoes, and some winter outerwear if you live where it’s cold. The amount that we need would probably fit into a suitcase or two, depending on the climate. Nobody needs a closet full of clothing. Nobody needs ten pairs of shoes. Don’t get me wrong – I have far more stuff than I need too – I’m in the same boat as most Americans when it comes to that. But I think it helps to keep that in perspective when shopping for new stuff. If I think of something that I want (or occasionally, that we actually need – like snow boots for our boys), I write it on my shopping list. I take that list with me when I go to the thrift store (about once or twice a month) and I browse around to see if I can find anything on my list. Usually I’m at least partially successful. But as long as I make sure to plan ahead (ie, those winter boots need to be on my list in June, not October), I rarely find myself in a situation where I have to find whatever I’m looking for today. So it’s no big deal if I don’t. I’ll just check again next time. If I had the mindset that everything I want is actually something I need (and worse still, something I need right now), I would probably get frustrated – and maybe buy new instead – when my attempts to find it used didn’t work on the first try.
Those are my thoughts when it comes to buying secondhand stuff. As much as possible, we try to buy used. It’s the greenest shopping we can do, and it means that our budget for clothing and household goods is tiny. And that leaves far more of our money to put towards things that are more important to us: experiences, savings, college accounts, a paid-off house… The things on that list will be different for everyone, but buying more of your day-to-day stuff used is a great way to free up funds for whatever it is that matters most to you.
Mustangsabby – thanks for the great comment! It made me think, and I hope that this post answers your question. I’d love to hear from any of my readers who have questions or tips with regards to getting past the idea that buying used is a chore and buying new is the easier path. It may indeed be easier at the time, but we also have to remember all the hours that we need to work in order to pay for the stuff we buy. Buying used might end up being a lot easier in the long run, since you don’t have to devote as much time to earning money to pay for your stuff.