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Making nickels squeak: clothing edition

Due to the weirdly warm weather (which has now departed for a few days of normalish April weather) that we had last week, I saw a spring sight to gladden the heart of almost anyone – a yard sale. It wasn’t at a time I could shop, and it wasn’t like I wanted anything they had – but still, the re-emergence of yard sales is like the return of the redwing blackbirds, a sign of hope.

All of which means I thought I’d start a series on how to live as much as possible on the waste of our highly productive, industrial society, without buying new stuff or using new resources. It is also about living cheaply. For some people this is an absolute necessity, for others doing so allows them to work shorter hours or save more money. Regardless, though, not buying as much cheap new crap seems like a good thing for all of us – and one very basic principle for fixing the planet.

One of the reasons our family lives as well as it does is that I don’t buy a lot new – there are a few things out there it is worth paying good money for, and buying new on. Large refrigeration appliances, for example, will be dramatically more efficient than old ones in most cases (unless you happen across a Sunfrost). Good crayons, rather than cheapies with lead in them are well worth the money. There are other examples. My theory, however, is that unless you can make a credible case for buying new, I don’t, well…buy it. Most lightly used things are a tiny fraction of the price vastly better than what you could get for a comparable cost somewhere else, assuming you do a fairly skillful job of sorting out the garbage. Sometimes they are actually free.

Moreover, every time you go and buy something new, you are saying to the company that manufactured it “please go make one more, plus the packaging, and ship it over here.” Well, this is a problem. All of those things have an ecological impact, and a heavy one. Now if everyone did this, eventually we probably would have to buy more things new, because the pool of used stuff would get smaller, but realistically, we’re a long way from that being a serious problem.

With four fast growing kids, I honestly can’t afford to buy new clothes for them. But that’s generally ok with me, since I hate shopping malls and other stores. Over the last decade of parenthood, with the exception of a few pajamas, socks, shoes and underpants, we’ve bought nothing new for our kids. My mother, mother in law, sisters and great aunt do buy a few new things for each kid every year – and yet the used culture thing is sufficiently common here that once when Grandma arrived bringing new t-shirts, then-four-year-old Isaiah asked “did you get it at Goodwill?”

The vast majority of our supply of kids clothing comes from three places – gifts from friends of ours with slightly larger children, thrift shops like Goodwill, Savers and the Salvation Army and yard sales.

Now in a previous thread a while back, several people mentioned that they had trouble finding what their kids (or they) needed at thrift shops. This can be a real problem, and is one fo the reasons why I think this post may be useful – because shopping used for your kids is very different than going out once a year for back-to-school shopping. In order to do it successfully, you have to plan ahead.

In any given year, I may or may not find a lot of good stuff in any particular size. Some years I hit the motherlode, some years I don’t do that well at all. But the reason I’m able to do this is that I purchase clothing for two to three years ahead of the largest size needed in my household. That means that when my sons were babies, I was buying toddler clothes, along, of course, with things that fit them. Right now I’m buying up to the very top of boys sizes, since Eli is a very tall young man (5′ at 10) – up to size 20. He’s currently wearing 12 pants and 14 shirts, which is pretty amazing to me. Many were things I purchased several years ago.

This insulates me from any given year’s supply – while I can fairly reliably count on Goodwill to fill in the major gaps in my kids’ clothing supply, at several bucks apiece, I’d rather buy at yard sales (where most clothes are under a dollar) or get pass-downs (although as he gets bigger it is harder to find people with children larger than my son - I was so thrilled when kind friends sent me a box of summer stuff that was bigger than Eli last year, just as I was determining I’d have to go hunting for more – thanks Claudia!!!)

If you are buying for adults, it makes sense to take measurements (a trick I got from Chile) and bring them along with you. With kids this is one of those “you have to run too fast just to keep up” things. But it is worth remembering not all kids are the same. Most of my children were born, sadly, with no behinds. Baby ain’t got back. Thus, they require extremely slim pants, or you get the gift of seeing them hitching them up as they run. Asher, on the other hand, was born with some back. The same pants that barely stay up on Isaiah fit him just fine, maybe even a little tight. Fortunately, most children’s pants now are beginning to use the brilliant invention of the adjustable waist. They are now common enough that they are readily available in many thrift shops and at yard sales. I buy almost no pants without these neat little tabs – that way, buttless or no, my kids have pants that stay up (the primary thing one wants pants to do).

I’ve heard people say that the thrift shops and yard sales near them never have anything good – this isn’t wholly true in my region, but it is certainly the case that affluent suburbia produces high quality used kids clothes than my rural neighborhood. I figure that since there are no clothing stores near me anyway, I would have to go to town to buy children’s clothing, so I can either go to town and have the fun of yard saling and hit Goodwill, or I can spend forty times as much and be miserable at the mall. I consider an investment in a trip towards a populated area, with lots of sales going on to be worthwhile periodically.

In our rural areas, we have a custom well worth adopting. Most small towns around here realize that if you hold a yard sale on a normal weekend, you aren’t going to get a lot of traffic, so once a year they have town-wide yard sales. These are awesome, and often coincide with homecoming, festivals, etc… This way, you can park your car, walk around and have a good time with yard sales of sufficient density that it makes it worth your while. If you have to take kids yard saling, I recommend alloting them a dollar or two to spend themselves, so that they don’t get annoying. This is also worth doing for things like bikes, canning jars, tools, etc… If you live in a small comunity, starting a town-wide yard sale (or in a larger one, a neighborhood-wide one) is a really good way of both upping your sales and also making yard saling more fun.

Some folks report they have difficulties finding certain sizes or things they need. Maternity clothes are often hard to find – I think these are best located through other parents – ask around for someone your approximate size willing to lend out her stuff. For those of us who are longer or larger than average, buying mens clothes can be the way to get good stuff- this is tough if what you need are ball gowns, but if you need day to day clothes, I advise the mens department. Even though they make women’s Carharts and other clothing, I also find that mens come up much more often.

For smaller folk, and people of unusual proportions, it can be hard to find what you need – again, this is why I think a diversity of places to shop is worth exploring. When I go to Boston to visit family, for example, I always take a trip to the local thrift shops. And every once in a while you find something amazing – I have very large feet (10 womens) and never find shoes, but last year found a pair of brand new size 10 LL Bean boots at a yard sale – for 50 cents. My husband’s dress shoes were brand new at 120 dollars, and unworn, were being sold for $10 – and a perfect fit. Neither of us expected to find anything like this.

Periodically you will find the motherlode in a particular size, and this is awesome, particularly if you have children who are close together in age. Right now we have the annoying situation that Isaiah (average height, very skinny) and Asher (very tall for his age, a bit more solidly built) are actually wearing exactly the same size clothes, despite a two year age difference. While I have an ample supply of 6 pants and 7 shirts, I am finding things a bit tight with two kids, but am grateful that I had some extras. I also find that a few extra things in smaller sizes allows you to compensate for the inevitable irremovable stains acquired by children over the course of usage.

Finding really good quality stuff can be hard – there are things that wear like iron – I just retired a sweatshirt my mother bought used at a consignment shop when Eli was three, so it had been worn by at least one previous child. After going through four additional children, most of whom wore it more than one year, it still is good enough to pass down to someone else. But I do find, for those with multiple children, that most things are made to last for two kids. Oshkosh, Hanna Anderssen, LL Bean and Lands End are pretty reliable for three or more, however, so if you can find it, buy it.

What about picky kids, who care what they wear? I’m fortunate that my sons really don’t. In that case, you’ll have to take them along – the only one of my children who has any preference at all is Isaiah, and he’s turned into a fine young shopper – he has an eye for good stuff. My deal is that if you have opinions, you have to put in the time. Four out of five of the males in my life have determined they don’t care enough about what I pick to actually do any of the work ;-) . With older teenagers, you might consider giving them their clothing budget and seeing what they come up with!

I know people have strong opinions on used shoes – my take is the one endorsed by the National Academy of Podiatrists – that used shoes are fine as long as they are not heavily worn and are clean. We pass shoes down here – since sometimes they wear them for such a short period they don’t have a chance to get worn, this is useful. I often find barely worn or unworn kids and adult shoes and boots in the box, and these tend to be the ones I focus on – I find that I still have to buy some of them new to keep up, but I do find some and it saves money.

The Tightwad Gazette is a wonderful resource if you aren’t good at cleaning and repairing clothing – I’ve found it very helpful to use strategies they suggest to take very minor problems and make them effectively go away. People often get rid of things that need very little.

The biggest strategic issues in buying clothes cheaply have been making time to come to population centers to shop, knowing what will wear well, trying a variety of sources, and most of all, anticipating future needs and being prepared to take advantage of them. What have you found to be useful?

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: flickr/daftgirly

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