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How To Shop Second-Hand Without Wasting Time Or Money


The furniture in my parents’ house doesn’t match. The frames on their walls are random sizes. The lack of uniformity doesn’t matter, though, because it harmonizes, and the vibe is aesthetically pleasing as well as welcoming.

My parents have spent the last few decades raising a large family on a Lutheran pastor’s salary. Their decor is not the result of expendable income. My mother is a garage-sale queen and a thrift-store champ. She knows how to find beauty in things that others no longer want. She knows how to make thrift work.

Growing up in a household furnished second-hand is a little like growing up in a family that hunts big game or forages for truffles. It becomes both a hobby and a way of life. Just as a truffle hunter learns to pay attention to scents, a garage sale family notices the posterboard sale signs and learns to make the all-important evaluation: pull over or drive on?

Don’t think my mom is the kind of crazy person you see on reality shows about folks who bid on storage pods or hoard junk. Thrifting and garage-saling isn’t about acquiring shabby stuff you don’t need. It’s about exercising care and creativity.

It saves money, of course; and the self-discipline needed to do that is a healthy exercise for all of us. It teaches long-term planning and appreciation for our belongings when we must hunt for them instead of merely plunking down money full-price. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s a way to be “green” without imposing restrictions on others.

My generation tends to be busy—too rushed, we might think, to sacrifice the time needed to comb through the detritus of a zillion garage sales in hopes of finding a new dresser or lamp. It’s true that some seasons of life are more conducive to this way of shopping than are others. Yet even millennial garage-salers can learn to shop smart. Here are my top tips on how to do it.

Shop in Upscale Neighborhoods

Rich people have good cast-offs. When second-hand stores and church rummage sales are in wealthy neighborhoods, you will often find wonderful items, including vintage pieces and better brands of clothing. Estate sales in upper-middle-class neighborhoods are often fantastic treasure troves of good-quality furniture, not least because it was probably all purchased years ago when more things were made out of real wood. In all honesty, I rarely bother with garage sales in poorer parts of town.

Pop In, Pop Out

If you have time to scroll through your favorite Web sites to check for sales or new products, you probably have time to pop into the Goodwill next to your bank. You probably have time to park at the curb and give a garage sale the once-over. The key is to learn how to scout in a time-efficient manner.

Put your shoulders back and walk with purpose. You are a mighty thrift hunter. Your eyes, which have already developed the habit of absorbing online visual information very quickly, will now learn to scan other people’s used goods with the same speed. Zero in on the categories that apply to you (Children’s clothes? Lamps? Kitchenware? Wooden furniture?). Flip through racks as needed. You can wash your hands later.

If you know you don’t really want it, don’t bother trying to convince yourself it’s a bargain. Some people stick with looking only for like-new items. Others are more interested in those wonderful, solidly built things that nobody makes anymore. With time, you’ll become more and more skilled at spotting quality (more on that later) and at gauging how good the prices are.

Why not choose a few Saturday mornings a year to devote to bargain-hunting? You may want to plan your route ahead of time. Here’s an app that might come in handy. You can do some “pre-scouting” by checking out the pictures often included in online listings for people’s sales. Even if you won’t want the particular items in the pictures, looking at them will give you a sense of how big the sale is and whether the prices are reasonable.

Be Friendly and Chatty

When my mom goes to a garage sale, she chats a bit with the sellers and asks questions about the various items. By the time she’s ready to begin bargaining for her purchases, she has already developed a positive relationship and gets good deals. Note that people will often throw extra items in almost for free if you buy big things or a significant number of things.

Look for Value and Quality

With practice, you can develop the ability to quickly recognize high-end products that are expensive to purchase new. Look for things made out of real wool (you can learn to identify these by touch as you go down a rack of clothing). Look for things made out of real metal or real wood. Don’t you want to feel like someone out of “Downton Abbey” by owning a few silver candlesticks or a tray full of English bone china? That stuff has enough charm to transform anyone’s apartment.

Remember that you can use second-hand items for creative purposes. My children love playing in the sandbox with old kitchenware. It beats flimsy plastic sand pails hands-down. If you are a crafter, you can also learn to recognize things that can reasonably be up-cycled or refurbished. I love to buy 100 percent wool sweaters. I felt them in the washing machine then use them as fodder for toys, blankets, bags, and other crafts.

Know What to Buy Before You Need It

The thrifting lifestyle demands a more holistic way of shopping, because you can’t always count on finding what you want when you want it. Sometimes this means you will have to get the bargains when they are available and store them in the garage. If you know your baby will need a dresser eventually, and you find an awesome one before he’s born, snag it. Sometimes, instead, it means you’ll have to temporarily settle for an item that’s not very pretty. That’s okay, though, because with these prices you can always upgrade as you go.

I shop ahead for children’s clothes. If I find a good-quality garment—especially something expensive like a winter coat or hard to find like boys’ jeans—I purchase it. I organize the clothes by size on a shelf in my closet, and pull them out as my children grow or the season changes. This would be more space-consuming if I had more kids, but for now it works. Thrift store clothing can also make great dress-up or Halloween costumes. Don’t leave really wonderful fake-fur hats or tutus behind.

Classic children’s books are also a wonderful investment even if your kids aren’t ready for them yet. Besides, at a quarter each, it won’t matter as much if the baby runs amok and tears out the pages. I also recommend snapping up supplies like stickers, paint brushes, and un-opened craft items until you have a stash of these at home. They make good distractions—er, foster creativity—on rainy days.

But Be Realistic

We all know the lurking, Marie-Kondo-destroying danger of second-hand shopping. The stuff is so cheap. After all, it only cost 50 cents! Or a dollar! Or both of them for 20 bucks! Yet, alas, our houses can only hold so much stuff before we go crazy. To return to the analogies of hunting and truffle-gathering: let’s not bag everything on four legs, nor eat everything that smells musty. We need standards. No cheap junk that was first sold at Target unless you have a very specific purpose for it, okay?

Realistically consider how much work each item needs. I am happy to buy wooden pieces that can be wiped down. I stay away from most upholstered furniture because it would be more difficult to sanitize it (although I have sprayed an armchair or two with Lysol then let them sit out in the fresh air for a day or two).

Realistically, I won’t get around to taking clothes to the dry cleaners, but since second-hand prices are low I’m willing to take the risk of using a cold gentle cycle in the washing machine and seeing what happens. Don’t forget to smell what you buy. The odor of cigarettes is hard to get rid of. Books with mold can spread their plague and destroy other titles.

In addition, be realistic about your own skills and time management. No matter how many fantastic tutorials you find on Pinterest, you can’t recover every chair with good bones. I’d suggest setting a limit for yourself—only one or two pieces-in-progress at a time.

If you overdo it, you can always donate a bag of items at the back door of Goodwill before going in the front and finding something new.

Yes, This Kind of Shopping Takes Time

It’s a lifestyle. That’s why you have to learn to fit it in around the edges of your life. That’s why you want to get good at it!