How to Buy Used Stuff

by Greg Karp


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Excerpted with permission from The 1-2-3 Money Plan: The Three Most Important Steps to Saving and Spending Smart by Gregory Karp (FT Press; $17.99)

Buying used stuff can elicit extreme opinions, usually from people who rarely, if ever, buy anything secondhand. But buying every item in your life as new just isn't being smart with money.

Maybe nowhere is the argument for buying used items more persuasive than in buying cars. New cars can lose 30 percent of their value in the first year of ownership. So, if you're talking about a $30,000 vehicle, the difference between a new car and one-year-old car is $9,000. If $9,000 is a lot of money in your world, this discussion about buying used stuff is for you.

How to Buy Used Stuff, 1-2-3

  1. Get over the "yuck" factor.
  2. Evaluate price and quality.
  3. Keep it simple.

1. Get Over the "Yuck" Factor

The first step in saving money with used items is to break through a mental barrier. It might not be pleasant to read it in black and white, but some people think used merchandise is:

  • Broken/tattered
  • Dirty/smelly
  • Not worth my time/Only for poor people

So, I'm here to tell you that buying something used doesn't make you an inferior person. I don't think of myself as generally inferior, and I'm not poor. But I regularly stop by a local consignment shop to see what men's clothing they have. I bought a suit for $25 that I wear during television appearances. I bought a pullover windbreaker for $2. I splurged on two pricey silk neckties, $8 each. How do you get over a mental barrier about buying used? Just do it.

This is another of the rare occasions where I advise you to spend money to save money. Go to a local thrift store or consignment shop and buy a used piece of clothing that you will wear, even if it's only a scarf or belt. Alternatively, buy a set of drinking glasses or plates. The point is to buy something used that you have a very personal interaction with. This way, you can confront your fears about buying used merchandise. If you have a pleasant experience, your aversion to buying used stuff will dissipate, if not disappear. You will get over the "yuck" factor.

Then a whole new world of retail opens up to you. You can consider used items from eBay.com, Craigslist.com, Freecycle.org, garage sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and newspaper classified ads.

Add to your barrier-breaking errands a stop by a local dollar store. The merchandise isn't used, but it is cheap. Dollar stores can be ideal outlets for junk food, such as cookies, pretzels, and chips. I've bought such things as an iPod case, calculator, greeting cards, and printer USB cord at a dollar store. Just avoid cheap electric or electronic items for fear of a fire hazard.

2. Evaluate Price and Quality

Buying something used might mean settling for a product of lower quality than you can get new. That's fine for many purchases. Nobody can reasonably expect to buy the best of everything.

On the other hand, buying used might mean you can afford something of higher quality. If you have $500 to spend on a living room sofa, do you think a new one from Ikea or an Ethan Allen model purchased used is of higher quality? So buying used sometimes means you can get a superior product.

Similarly, buying used might get you a luxury brand with more features. Go back to the automobile example. Would you rather have a new Chevrolet Cobalt subcompact or a two-year-old Honda Accord? Or, for that matter, a six-year-old Lexus ES 300 or BMW 3 Series? They all cost the same.

But, it's true that buying used items can be more of a hassle than buying new. So, it's always important to evaluate prices and quality.

3. Keep It Simple

Some items are not functionally different whether new or used, assuming they are undamaged. These include movie DVDs, music CDs and video games. A simple garden shovel or hammer is preferable to buy used, rather than a rototiller or circular saw. The simpler, the better. Fewer things to go wrong.

Other examples of great used purchases include kids clothing, toys, and musical instruments, considering they might be used for a short time. Consider simple sports equipment, such as golf clubs, assuming you're not worried about custom fitting.

Of course, automobiles don't exactly fit into the category of a "simple" machine, but cars are so reliable nowadays. Many go 150,000 miles with only routine maintenance. So a corollary of the "simple" rule is to favor used items when they're reliable.

An often-overlooked source of free used items is your local public library. Besides books, many have a wide variety of periodicals, movie videos, and music CDs.


Greg Karp is the author of The 1-2-3 Money Plan. You can learn more from Greg by checking out his blog at Gregkarp.com

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