Used is not a four-letter word

By Mir
July 6, 2006

Oh. Um, okay, yes, technically used is a four-letter word. But it’s not a bad word, is my point. Chag gave me the perfect opening to talk about this, although I guess I’m not supposed to mention that to his wife:


I realize I am supposed to preface my email by telling you how smart and pretty you are, but since I’m a guy that might seem creepy. Plus if my wife were to read this… Can I just say I really dig your site?

Anyway, I haven’t seen you mention anything about the virtue of yard sales on your site. We buy most of our children’s clothing (they’re usually still in pretty good shape since kids grow out of stuff so quickly), a lot of our backyard playground equipment (I indirectly wrote about this on my site today; nothing beats paying $25 for a plastic castle that retails for over $350), and DVDs at yard sales.

Chag is wise. Listen to Chag. Yard sales can be your friend. But maybe you have some preconceived notions about yard sales, or other avenues of previously-owned items. So let’s really talk about this, the idea of buying things secondhand and being okay about it.

Let’s all form a circle, join hands, and sing Kumbaya together! C’mon! Everybody!

Ack. Sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Sorry ’bout that.

Look, I know a lot of people fall into two camps when it comes to buying things used.

In the first camp we have the happy hippies who are into recycling and tree-hugging and saving the planet and maybe not showering very often, and they will happily spend all day every day searching out used items because it’s the responsible thing to do and they don’t much care about material stuff in the first place.

In the second camp we have the people who very much like having the latest and greatest of everything and oh, by the way, the idea of wearing someone else’s clothing or handing Junior a toy that some other baby drooled on sends them to therapy for the next three months. These are the people that make a polite face that reveals they’re trying not to vomit when I reveal that my [insert fabulous item here] came from a yard sale or Goodwill.

Okay, so. Now that I’ve alienated half my readers (hi! stereotype much? why yes!), let’s talk about the rest of us. Those of us who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. If you’re like me, you appreciate nice things, but you’re loathe to pay high prices. You’re happy to spend some time finding a bargain, but you don’t have an endless supply of spare time to ferret out the deals at the ends of the earth. Where do we shop for good secondhand bargains? How do we get the good stuff, without wasting time and energy?

Pull up a chair, friends. Let’s go through the options.

Yard sales. Chag has professed his love of the yard sale, and I, myself, am a fan of yard sales.

On the plus side, the prices tend to be insanely cheap. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, etc. And if you hit a neighborhood yard sale or similar there’s a lot of stuff all in one place.

On the minus side, a lot of yard sales have nothing but junk. They require (often) that you get up and out quite early in the morning. They often take a lot of time—which is fine if you have nothing else to do and genuinely enjoy pawing through other people’s discarded items, but isn’t optimal if your time is at a premium.

Bottom line? It’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning if you don’t hate it. (If you do hate it, why torture yourself?) I stick to conglomerate yard sales (either put on by a large organization, or when a whole block is having sales at once) to minimize travel and maximize possible offerings. I also only go to yard sales in affluent communities. Snobby? Yes. Hey, if I’m going to search through boxes of garbage, I want to find something good at the bottom of one of them. There’s a much greater chance of that happening if the person holding the yard sale is rich.

Yard sales are a particularly good source of children’s items; but keep caution in mind while buying equipment. Never buy a used bike helmet or carseat (both should be discarded after a crash, and there’s no way to know if they’ve been damaged). Check product recalls and don’t buy items that are so old they’re likely not to be up to current safety standards.

Estate sales. Have you ever been to an estate sale? You can find them listed in your local paper. Basically, um, someone dies and the people managing the estate decide to put the contents of the house up for sale. You get to walk through and pretty much anything you see is available for purchase (unless otherwise marked).

On the plus side, this is a great way to acquire things like furniture that might only be available at a yard sale if they were in poor shape. Also I find it rather a voyeuristic thrill to wander through someone’s house when it looks like someone still lives there, except for all the little price tags dangling from everything. Depending on the location (again, go for the good neighborhoods), you may find some interesting treasures.

On the minus side, depending on the house, the estate handlers, and whether anything was removed for separate sale beforehand, you may come up empty. Also depending on those aforementioned variables, you may find the prices aren’t all that good. It really depends.

Bottom line? Estate sales can be sort of fun, but there’s no real way to know if you might find something great. They tend to be a great source for bargains on larger items, like furniture and bicycles. Also keep estate sales in mind for jewelry and antiques.

Thrift shops. When I say thrift shops, I’m talking about stores run by the Salvation Army or Goodwill or similar. These are the sorts of stores that smell funny and contain a lot of junk. There is no quality control to speak of.

On the plus side, the prices here can’t be beat. My local thrift store does a sale each week on a different color of tag, and so if I head in with the mindset that I’m only shopping $1 pink tags, or whatever, I’m good. Also, the stores tend to be organized into sections, so it’s pretty easy to navigate if you’re looking for something specific.

On the minus side, these stores are filled with polyester monstrosities and clothing that is either ripped or stained or both ripped and stained, and sometimes you will walk out wanting to tack a sign to the donation dumpsters that says “If your clothes are garbage, please throw them in the garbage.” A certain amount of patience and perserverance is required, here.

Bottom line? Thrift shops tend to be a good source of clothing for the entire family if you find one that has a pretty rapid turnover in inventory. This is determined by visiting the shop a few times.

Upscale consignment. These are not charity thrift stores; these are real shops with standards as to what they will and will not sell.

On the plus side, the clothes/furniture/whatever tends to be quite nice. You generally won’t find anything that’s more than “gently” used, and—depending on the store—you won’t find items from more than a decade ago. The styles tend to be current. Most of these shops also allow you to consign your items in return for store credit, which means that for things like children’s clothing, if you play it right you never have to spend a dime. Bring in the clothes the kids outgrow, bank the credit, use it when you purchase.

On the minus side, the prices are good but perhaps not spectacular. If you’re like me, you will often come across some fabulous item that costs just a bit more than you want to spend, and the price will be dropping in a couple of weeks (most of these stores decrease the price by how long the item has been in inventory), and you then have to decide whether to buy it now or wait and see if it’ll still be around. I’ve seen women come near to blows over Columbia snowsuits in April. It’s not pretty.

Bottom line? This is a great mid-price option; you will spend less time digging because the quality is more consistent, but you will spend a bit more. If you can consign items on a regular basis you can avoid spending money.

eBay. I haven’t seen any of those annoying “I bought it on eeeeeeeeBaaaaaaaay!” commercials lately, and for this I am supremely thankful. I was seriously considering boycotting them altogether if they didn’t stop forcing me to watch people singing about it in elevators.

On the plus side, you really can find almost anything there. If you want it, someone is selling it. If you are hip to the ways of bidding and don’t fall into the trap of paying more than you would, otherwise (because you get caught up in the bidding), there are deals to be had. eBay offers some buyer protection so transactions are relatively low-risk.

On the minus side, eBay has jacked up their fees so much that sellers are, as a whole, raising prices… and deals are harder to find. Shipping may kill even the greatest bargain. A lot of people are basically obnoxious, and you may find yourself in a transaction with one of them. It is not a risk-free proposition.

Bottom line? Tread carefully. Take shipping costs and seller feedback into account before bidding. Returns are generally not permitted, so make sure you really understand and want whatever you’re buying. eBay can be a great source for bargains on lightweight items.

Craigslist and other classifieds. Your local Craigslist may be a good source for items for sale, as are the newspaper classifieds for people who haven’t discovered the internet.

On the plus side, you may be able to locate a specific item you want.

On the minus side, there is no policing of sellers, so you have to enter into an agreement on good faith than Joe Smith really is going to sell you his computer when you show up next Tuesday, and not club you over the head and eat your liver with a nice Chianti.

Bottom line? Proceed with caution, but a good option for large items that are best purchased locally (lawn equipment, swingsets, etc.).

Freecycle. Freecycle is nice because you can get free stuff. (Wow, I am full of wisdom today. Behold my overwhelming… smartitude!) If you have a group in your area, it’s worth checking out.

Freecycle is a great idea that can be quite cutthroat in practice, unfortunately. Be prepared to be hassled if you post something (once it’s gone, people may feel the need to keep emailing you and perhaps even abusing you for not picking them), and equally prepared to never actually “win” an item you express interest in. It’s just the nature of the beast. Worth knowing about, worth checking out, for sure. But you can’t count on it. (Disclaimer: I’ve never managed to snag anything on Freecycle. Ever. But I hear people do. So.)

A few more things to consider. For all of the previous options, you need to know some basic things before you start buying used items.

  • What are you comfortable with? Can the item you’re purchasing be cleaned? Will it skeeve you out if it can’t? I have no problems buying used clothing, for example. But I don’t buy used underwear. Why? Because it creeps me out. I’m not saying it’s logical, but I know my limits.
  • How important is it that this item come with some sort of guarantee or that it can be returned? You’re pretty much stuck with something you buy used, unless you go the upscale consignment places where you can return things. If you’re spending $1 on a shirt, who cares. If you’re buying a used computer, are you really okay with buying it from a stranger? Does the price matter? Example: I might buy a used computer from just anybody for $100, but as the price edges higher, my need for some sort of service backing increases.
  • Is this something that should be bought new regardless of price? I mentioned bike helmets and carseats, earlier. Use your common sense. There’s nothing wrong with a used dress, or at least nothing wrong that might cause you or your child harm. There might be something wrong with a used baby gate. Just be aware.
  • Do you need it? There is a tremendous temptation at yard sales and other, similar venues to pick up things just because they’re “such good bargains.” Nothing is a bargain if you’ll never use it.

See? Buying used isn’t so scary. There are lots of options, and one may fit your needs and budget. But don’t ever sing that eBay song around me if you value your life. Seriously.


  1. I have a question maybe someone can answer in comments. I’ve never been to an estate sale. Can you bargain with the prices? I imagine it being like shopping at a wake (though I’m pretty sure they don’t have the deceased laid out there at the sale ;-). Is it disrespectful/against the “rules” to try to negotiate?

    All great tips, Mir. Now I want to hit a rich person’s yard sale!

  2. Em: All of the estate sales I’ve been to have had fixed prices. But I’ve not been to a ton, so that may not be a hard and fast rule. Also, typically the sale is two or three days, with some percentage off towards the end of the sale. The “last day—everything half off!” time is, obviously, my favorite.

  3. One more idea. In my town we have a Dump- it is an upscale kind of town, so it is called a Transfer Station. (People actually look at you with disdain if you call it a Dump- trust me.) At the Transfer Station, they have a three-sided shack called the Swap Shack. People are allowed to leave off virtually any usable item, and take anything their heart desires. It’s a gold mine! The only thing is you have to have the yearly pass, which can be around $90 for the year, but it is usually pro-rated. However, if you are going to use the dump anyway for your garbage (much cheaper than paying the city to take it), the swap shack is free! However, at least in my town, I would probably purchase the pass *anyways*, because I find amazing stuff there. At least twice I have found items I was able to sell later on Ebay for $50 each, another for $40, several more that I could have sold for that much or a little less, but I kept them. I have found many, many, many very cool, very good items there. You can call your town clerk’s office to find out if you have a transfer station, and if they don’t have a swap shack, you can talk to them. Who knows, maybe they will start one?

  4. Caya: In my town, a dump pass is free, and we have the “Still Good Shed.” Same concept, although it’s part of the “fair use” agreement that you won’t sell what you find there. (I mean, I’m sure people do… but you’re not supposed to.) We also have a Book Shed (same concept). It certainly does make recycling more exciting. 😉

  5. I am a big fan of our local Goodwill. I shop there all the time, as well as donate items like kids clothes and toys. Luckily, our store is relatively well organized, so its not overwhelming to shop there. Since my teenager turned into a teenager, she has become label conscious. She is well-trained and knows her mama will not spend $50 on a pair of Abercrummy jeans, so she is always more than happy to check out Goodwill. You would be amazed at the upscale labels we find there. Like Mir said, you have to dig through some junk, but getting a pair of label jeans for $5 is so worth it.

  6. You are sooo right about Freecycle’s downside, but I’ve found it really handy when you have a specific need. When my cell phone died, I found that it was going to cost me a bundle one way or another. On a whim, I posted a “Wanted” message on Freecycle. Within a day, I had offers for three different phones that would work on my plan.

    Thanks for the great site!

  7. I’ll second on Freecycle. I’ve “won” several things on it — and some things I wanted, I didn’t get. But I like the idea of finding a home for things I don’t need, but are still in good shape. Also, it feels good to get the clutter out of the house.

  8. When I was expecting my first child, I had seen a beautiful and very expensive bassinet in Babies ‘R Us and wanted so much to be able to put my newborn baby in it when he arrived. Unfortunately, the $250 price tag was way out of our newly married budget. I stopped at a yard sale one weekend and saw the exact same bassinet there for sale for only $16! Needless to say I joyously snatched it up and rushed home to clean it up myself since I didn’t know what the previous owners might have done to it. I have been sold on yard sales ever since and even look in the classified sections of our local paper to find out where that weekend’s yard sales will be!

  9. I have been to many an estate sale and have found that many times the handlers will entertain bids on bigger ticket items — sort of in the manner of a silent aution — if the item hasn’t sold at full price by the end of the sale, it will go to the highest bidder. Most usually do some sort of half-price sale on the last day, too.

    I’d like to add that auctions (estate or otherwise) are also an excellent source for used items — not necessarily antiques, and probably not the best source for clothing or children’s items, but great for household items, furniture and tools. At the very least, attending an auction just once is interesting and entertaining. Do be careful when waving to your friends or nodding, lest you find yourself owning something you really didn’t want.

  10. Dear Mir,

    You’re very pretty and smart but even coming from me, that might be a little creepy so let me rephrase that…

    I LOVE this site!

    I’m all about Freecycling my old crap because, believe it or not, someone ALWAYS wants it and I don’t have to lift a finger. What could be easier?

    Additionally, I love thrift stores. In fact, one of my favorite things to do when traveling is check out thrift stores in other places. FUN!!!

    And like Chag, I get a thrill from getting kid’s stuff like all that Little Tykes plastic junk, on the cheap from yard sales or consignment shops.

    Yay for used stuff 🙂

  11. About my town’s transfer station swap shack- we don’t have any rules that I know about that prohibit selling what you get. I’m almost 100% sure, because I’ve read the sign-up sheet before, when I get my pass. My neighbor doesn’t like the concept of selling the things one finds there, but I don’t tell them I sell things sometimes. I figure, why not? I use the money to buy something I actually need, or, more often, something the kids need. They clear out the stuff about once a week and load it all into a backhoe, and all the leftovers get thrown away anyways- if I don’t snag it, sometimes there’s a good chance it will literally get thrown away. I don’t see any moral wrong in selling it- but, there’s no rule prohibiting it here; if there was, I wouldn’t sell it.

  12. Well, I happen to love yard sales, myself. They are almost a regular business around here. I don’t like the richy ones, though, because I can go to the normal ones and get REALLY great stuff for much cheaper. That is just around here though.

    We have tons of thrift shops, and consignment shops, too. But seriously the yard sales are so abundant I always have plenty of stuff to put in my own yard sales, eventually!

    (We just had our annual yard sale and I made $300 tyvm!! hehe)

    I do not like shopping, but I really do like yard sale-ing! :-p

  13. Man, I have GOT to get the hang of the yard sale. It just seemed like something for which you’d need “the knack,” you know? Finding the good ones, getting there early enough, getting to more than one on a Saturday morning…needless to say, estate sales intimidate the heck out of me if I can’t get it together enough to conquer a yard sale!

    I’ve had good luck with Freecycle, too. The only thing I ever answered for, I got, and I’ve gotten rid of screen doors, refrigerators, etc. Our list is might eclectic. Just last week saw the successful trade of a rooster, a turtle, and several blackberry plants!

  14. Singing the praises of Freecycle (again) – it’s great for finding things that you don’t need right away – you can post a Wanted ad, and as long as it’s something multiple people would be likely to have, and not something crazily valuabvle Faberge egg, etc.), you can often get a response. *Not* foolproof, though.

    And I miss craigslist so damn much! I lived in the Bay Area until recently, and I hadn’t realized that it had become a staple of my moving routine – sell stuff before moving, buy stuff afterwards. (If you’re ever nervous about picking something up, with either Freecycle or Craigslist, you can always bring someone along with you – I’ve had people do this when I was selling stuff.)

  15. looooooooooved this post. i de-cluttered my garage threw everything out in the garage and made $300. bagged the rest took it to the local thrift shop where they re-sell the stuff and the profits go to overhead, soup kitchens, area needy families, etc….What a good deal. Thanks for the tip!

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