One of my favorite tips to hammer home on The Simple Dollar is the value of shopping at secondhand stores. About a year ago – I think I started the note last November – I started keeping track of things that I bought at the secondhand store with the goal of someday listing them in a post to give people the idea of what kind of value I find there, and today is that day.
In general, I don’t go to secondhand stores without a purpose, but I also don’t go there with a highly specific idea in mind. For example, I won’t go there if I don’t want anything, but I also won’t go there if the only thing that will work for my purposes is a blue long-sleeved shirt in a specific size. Rather, I’ll go there if I need to pick up a few summer shirts for my daughter.
Another example: I won’t go there if I absolutely must have a specific make and model of a small household appliance, but if any sort of slow cooker is fine, I’ll start at the secondhand shops.
To be clear, I use the term “secondhand shop” to include any store that sells used items. Goodwill and Salvation Army both fall into this category, as do places like Play it Again Sports and Plato’s Closet and local clothes consignment stores.
Here are 12 things I’ve bought at secondhand stores in the last year, how much I paid for them, and how they had a frugal impact on my life.
A couple of men’s dress shirts: This was one of several items I had in mind when I went “shopping” at secondhand stores last spring. I often find long-sleeved nice clothing in mid-spring, just as I often find short-sleeved nice clothing in mid-fall, because people often ditch a pile of clothing when they’re deciding what to keep for next year and what to get rid of. These shirts were in my size, very well made, and looked basically unworn, and they cost $10 each. Similar shirts aren’t found for less than $50 a pop.
Soccer cleats: My kids all needed some new soccer equipment, so we headed to a secondhand sporting goods store in the spring to pick up some items. We found a couple of soccer balls at a reasonable price, but the real find was a pair of soccer cleats perfectly in my daughter’s size at a good price. Kids outgrow cleats in just a season or two, it seems, so it’s kind of silly to buy them at full price. $15 for some Nike Bravata II cleats in really good shape was a buy I was very happy with.
A slow cooker: We already had a slow cooker, but when we were hosting a party, we found it would be useful to have a second one so that we could easily prepare two different soups and keep them warm as our guests arrived. I found one that was actually nicer than the one we already had for $3 at a Goodwill; it’s actually become our main slow cooker, while the other one has been relegated to situations where we use two. Believe it or not, we’ve actually had several situations since then where having two slow cookers has solved a logistical problem, so this has been really useful.
A couple of simple, small wall decorations for my office: For a long time, I knew the type of item I wanted to hang on my office wall, but I was just looking for the right one. This was very much a “know it when I see it” kind of thing. Surprisingly, I found the right thing at a secondhand shop that had a display of super inexpensive wall hangings.
A pile of boy’s t-shirts: My sons wear t-shirts everywhere we allow them to do so, and don’t really worry much at all about where they come from, so when I notice that they’re starting to run low, we’ll go to a secondhand store or two and I’ll let them pick out several of their choice. I veto ones that appear to be overly worn or have other issues, but we’ll usually go home with a wide variety of shirts that are in great shape in the $2 to $4 range. Why would I ever buy such things at a nice clothing store when these are perfect for their rough-and-tumble everyday wear?
A pile of used Dungeons and Dragons books: This was a serendipitous purchase. I found a pile of nearly mint condition D&D books, almost exactly like the ones I had when I was a teenager, for $0.99 apiece. In the condition they’re in, most of these books sell on eBay for $40 or more apiece, but I’m holding onto them for now because I’ve enjoyed reading through them for nostalgia’s sake, and it’s also made me want to play a little D&D with my kids.
A portable chess set: This was actually for my youngest son, who is a chess aficionado. I wanted a nice magnetic portable chess set so that he could set up chess problems on the board and look at them and think about them while in the car. He vastly prefers a physical board rather than some kind of chess app. The magnetic portable boards I’ve seen in the past that I thought would work well have been fairly pricy, but I found a perfect little one in the game section of a Goodwill store a while back for just a couple of dollars. I verified that all of the pieces were there and I happily bought it for him.
A bread machine: I should point out that I didn’t quite buy this at a secondhand store, but it’s close enough that I’ll count it here. I went to a few secondhand stores in the area looking for a bread machine and found one for $5 that seemed to work, but I was simultaneously talking to some people online about an upcoming family reunion event and I simply asked if anyone had a bread maker in their cupboard and one of them did and they just said I could have it, so I saved $5.
Since acquiring that bread maker, I’ve made at least 10 loaves of bread with it – if I had bought it for $5, the cost per loaf for the maker would have been $0.50, and thus, with the low cost of a few cups of flour, a bit of water, and a pinch of yeast and salt, I’ve enjoyed a lot of cheap homemade bread. The bread maker has sat in the back of the pantry when not in use.
Some discs for disc golf: A park within walking distance of our home has a free disc golf course, which I’ve enjoyed playing many times. I’ve used a friend’s disc set in the past and I’ve had a couple of discs of my own to use, but I wanted some different ones to try. However, good discs were prohibitively expensive – at least in terms of what I wanted to spend – until I saw a pile of them for a few bucks each at a used sporting goods store. Now I have several in my garage and that disc golf course has seen some more use.
Cheap clothes for a “zombie” Halloween costume: The goal was to find some clothes that we could mangle and get really dirty and rip up a little without worrying about the cost, so we found some pants and an old sweatshirt that were perfect for this for $2 each. We tossed them around in the dirt, rubbed various substances on them, and made them look as worn as possible. After that, we just added a bit of face makeup and suddenly we had a pretty convincing zombie Halloween costume.
A few older travel guides: I paid $0.50 apiece for these and picked up about six of them, in two separate visits to a used bookstore. These were a couple of years old, but they provided a great overview of some areas that Sarah and I are considering for summer vacations in the next few years. What I find fun about printed travel guides is that we can pass them around as a family and mark things that we’re each interested in in the area. With these, I’m going to give each family member a different colored highlighter and tell them to make a mark on, say, ten things they want to do on the trip, and that it’s a good idea to mark things other people have marked if you’re really interested because that will probably cinch that it happens.
A few dozen canning jars: I like to preserve foods, of course, but there are many other nice uses for canning jars, such as small item storage (think screws in the garage, for example, or a pen holder). I came across a bunch of completely unused canning jars with rings at a secondhand store for $1 per flat, which seemed like an absurdly good deal, so I picked up three of them.
Secondhand stores are wonderful places for picking up all kinds of useful things at very low prices. Just approach it with the right mindset – stop by when you have a few general things in mind that you might need – and you’ll often walk away happy.
- Related: The Magic of Buying Used Stuff
More by Trent Hamm:
- How to Find the Best Thrift Stores in Your Area
- Some Reflections on ‘My Year of No Shopping’
- Eight Little Things to Always Remember When You’re Shopping
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