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In this age of super-cheap consumer goods, many of us have come to assume that when we need things, we should just pop out to the store or click a button and have it sent to our doorstep.

But the convenience and cheapness of our stuff has led to some unpleasant consequences — from pollution during production to overflowing landfills when cheaply-made items wear out.

Is your first thought when you find yourself in need of clothing or furniture to head to the mall or online retailer? You can save a lot of money and resources if you look first for “gently used” before you buy new. A shirt or pair of pants that might have cost $30 new may cost only a few dollars in “nearly new” condition at your local thrift store. If you’re handy, refinishing or painting wooden furniture is fun and satisfying — and you can create something far more unique and interesting than you might find in a big furniture store. All that saved cash can go to other important uses, like buying high-quality food or tickets to cultural events, working less, saving for college, or giving to charities you believe in. People who’ve embraced the simplicity movement also find that having less stuff means less time taking care of their belongings, which means more time for other things they care about.

Think Before You Buy

‘Reduce’ and ‘rethink’ are probably the most important of the 4Rs (though reusing and recycling are also good ideas). Reducing and rethinking purchases will not only help you shrink your footprint and save you money, it might also make you happier.

Before buying something, ask yourself if you really need it. If you do, you could start by seeing whether it could be borrowed. The sharing economy is thriving — take advantage of it and see if sharing means you don’t need to purchase it at all. For things you do need to purchase, go have some fun scavenging local secondhand stores.

Where to look for secondhand scores:

  • Garage and rummage sales
  • Thrift stores
  • Consignment stores
  • Vintage clothing and antique shops
  • Flea markets and swap meets
  • Building materials reuse shops
  • Craigslist
  • Freecycle
  • Online resellers

When our family needs various types of gear (kids’ bikes, snow pants, or scooters, for example), I use a local classified email list to see if someone in my community has something they’re ready to pass along. We also have some excellent re-sale shops in town, and the proceeds fund local non-profits.

When kids’ shoes get outgrown or worn out, we always start at the secondhand shops. I’ve found numerous pairs of almost-new shoes for three dollars that would have cost $20 or more had I gotten them new. We stop in every so often to check out new arrivals and grab the next sizes up if we see something great on the shelf, then we put it away till it fits. Garage sales have also served us well for kids’ clothes, toys, and furniture. And kids have a blast checking out toys while I rifle through clothing.

Things to Look for Secondhand

Kids’ stuff is a major category for secondhand shopping. Kids grow so fast, many of the clothes and shoes in resale shops still have tags on them. Sports equipment is another logical category to look for used, as kids sometimes lose interest in activities before they outgrow the gear. Look for skates, kneepads, rackets, and more at secondhand shops before buying new. Ditto for musical instruments.

Clothing: There are some great secondhand finds for adults also! How often have you purchased something that hangs in your closet for years before you decide you’ll never actually wear it? People donate all those unworn clothes. You can find quality sweaters, shirts, pants, coats, and more available at a fraction of their original cost.

: Older, well-built wooden furniture, even if it’s a little beat-up, can be easily repainted or refinished to make one-of-a-kind shelves, tables, and more. A solid wood piece spruced up with a fresh coat of varnish, paint or some decorative stenciling can be a fun weekend project, and it will last years longer than a cheaply-made piece constructed of particle board, which can off-gas formaldehyde into your home. Interesting garden ornaments and pots can often be found secondhand as well.

Books: Kids’ books, fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks, you name it! Your local secondhand bookshop has loads of great reads, as do many online booksellers. And don’t forget your local public library, a great way to get plenty of reading material for the whole family without buying anything at all. Or take a peek in one of the 40,000 Little Free Libraries that might be up in your neighborhood.

College textbooks: I worked with low-income college students for many years, and the cost of new textbooks was a serious burden for them. Some math and science books cost more than $200 each — and that’s just for one class! When new editions come out, there’s not much you can do, but for everything else, find used copies, which can cost up to 80% less. Several websites sell used textbooks, and students can also buy directly from each other if they plan ahead. Realizing that $1000 or more a year for books can be a hardship for students, many colleges now have book rental programs, as do some online retailers.

Kitchen supplies: Check secondhand shops for high-quality tableware, pots, and utensils. Unused or barely-used small appliances can also be found at yard sales and on Craigslist as people sell off unwanted wedding and holiday gifts.

Crafting/DIY project supplies: Find fabric remnants and decorations, scrapbooking materials, and an array of interesting odds and ends ripe for upcycling projects. Jars, baskets, and boxes can be put to use for making or packaging homemade gifts.

Building supplies: A number of organizations have started salvaging re-usable parts of buildings, from floor boards and siding to doors, windows, even plumbing! Habitat for Humanity now runs a number of “Restores” across North America that stock everything you might need for your next building project. Numerous other organizations have started deconstructing buildings slated for demolition, keeping reusable materials out of the landfill. Additional jobs are created running the reuse shops that sell the deconstructed material, and proceeds go to the non-profit.

There are also scores of for-profit salvage yards worth checking out for your next house project. Google “architectural salvage” in your area, and likely a number of stores will come up. Salvage yards are particularly wonderful if you have an older home, as you can find wood trim, old doors, stained-glass windows, and hardware more in keeping with historic architecture than what you can buy new.

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