Skeptical about buying things used? So was I.

Submitted by Greg on Thu, 01/10/2013 - 05:49

A few years ago, my wife told me about a group of people who make a pledge to not buy new things for a whole year. There are exceptions on their list, of course; there is no such thing as used food or fuel, or other consumables, and it is expected that certain important items like underwear will still be purchased new, but for the most part, the rule was to buy it used or do without.  Having been used to buying nearly everything new my whole life, with only a few exceptions, the idea did not sound particularly practical, or even feasible. On the other hand, it did seem like we were buying more than we needed.  We had just moved from a large house to a much smaller one, and in the process of moving, we decided to downsize to make room.  We took everything that we didn't need and put it in the garage; we didn't think that we'd have too much stuff to get rid of, but we kept finding more stuff that we didn't need, and before long we had half the garage full.  We had a big garage sale and sold as much as we could, but at the end of the day, it seemed like the garage was still half full of stuff we didn't need. We called a charity to have someone come by and pick up what was left, and all of that stuff filled up most of the truck.  The odd thing was that it didn't really seem like we had been buying so much.  We had only lived in that house for five years, and the place we were in before was even smaller than our new house. Where did it all come from?  I'm still not sure that I know.

After talking it over, we decided that we were going to stop buying things we didn't need, and try as a first step to make do with what we already had. If we did need something else, we would try to buy it used first.  If we couldn't find something we needed used after a reasonable amount of time, then we would buy it new.  That was the only rule; just try.

Setting out, I thought that we would probably still end up buying most things that we needed new. I didn't have a lot of faith in our ability to find arbitrary items used, and I also had the preconceived notion that the things that you could buy in a thrift store were invariably so worn out that they wouldn't be good for much more than donating back to the thrift store.  It is certainly true that there are some things for sale in a thrift store that are worn out and not worth buying; however, it is also true that you can find a lot of things that are still in excellent condition and good working order -- and of course there is no obligation to buy the things that are no good.  Thrift stores are also pretty good about taking back things that turn out to be non-working after you get them home, so it's not a very risky proposition.  Just buy what looks good.

We didn't put a time limit on our experiment; we just started buying used, and have been doing so quite successfully for a few years now.  I've gotten quite a few really good things second hand. I recently found a used DVD R/W that my wife needed for just a few dollars.  The organizer that I put my mail (physical) in came from a thrift store, as did the little lamp on my desk.  Some thrift purchases are unexpected.  The little framed picture that I have hung next to my monitor (shown above) is one of my favorites, and it just happened to catch my eye one day when I was looking for something else.

We haven't lived entirely without new purchases; Barbara has blogged on some of the items that we still ended up buying new in her post The Red List.  We've also bought a lot of items used, and it has had a measurable impact on our spending, for the better.  Barbara shared a list from one trip in her post Thift Shopping Works, where she estimated the surprisingly large savings from one particularly good trip - and we've had others like it. Sometimes it takes patience to find the things you are looking for, but at the same time, who hasn't on occasion also gotten lost for an hour in a big box store that seemed to defy any sort of organizational logic?  Shopping for new stuff can take a long time too.

It is true that when you buy something at a thrift store, you don't get that shiny, fresh-out-of-the-box, mint condition newness that consumers have been conditioned to expect.  However, I have found that the difference between mint-new and a good used purchase is about a month of ownership.  After that, you can't really tell the difference between something that "used to be new" and something that used to be new when someone else owned it.  There are also some advantages to getting the item second hand as well.  For one thing, we no longer have to contend with the challenge of getting rid of all of the styrofoam packaging that new goods are packed in.  Additionally, it seems more and more that new things are being made with cheap plastic that smells terrible for the first week or so after being opened  - something we're glad to do without when we buy used.

Overall, our experiences with buying as much used and as little new things as possible has been working better than expected. We're saving money, finding new and interesting things, and best of all, it comes with a sense of accomplishment that we have significantly reduced our consumption with comparatively little effort.  Give it a try, and see how far it takes you.