Smart Second-hand Buying

Consumer spending is on the rise again. Recent rises in average incomes means the lure of new and shiny things is more attractive than at any time since the economic crash of 2008. Figures released recently by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic show that the average expenditure per consumer rose 2.4% to $57,311 in 2016. In the same time-period, the Consumer Price Index increased by 1.3 percent, and average pre-tax income per consumer unit increased 7.2 percent to $74,664. So things are looking up. Our strengthening economy means that consumer’s income is rising quicker than prices leading to an increase in consumer spending.

According to Bloomberg, U.S. consumer confidence has risen to it’s highest level for 17 years. Americans are much more confident about job prospects and the economy generally against a background of falling unemployment and a bullish stock market. Looking even further back, it’s clear that consumerism has been on the rise for many decades now. Average consumer expenditure statistics since 1990 reveal that the American public’s love affair with shopping shows no sign of abating.

Average annual consumer expenditures of consumer units in the United States from 1990 to 2016


But a brightening economic climate is no reason for profligacy, particularly if you are at the lower end of income or the higher end of outgoings. There is never a bad time to save money and buying second-hand can be a super-smart way to ease pressure on expenditure. It doesn’t have to leave you surrounded by shabbiness either. With clever, targeted shopping you can live a life of relative luxury without breaking the bank.

The second-hand sector is one of the fastest growing in retail and for good reason. Any stigma that may have been attached to buying previously-owned items has been blown away by a rise in positive feelings towards recycling, a reaction against the similarity of goods on offer from commercial retailers and an economic pragmatism born of uncertain times.

According to research the resale industry just for clothes and accessories is now approaching $4 billion. There are over 25,000 resale, consignment and not for profit shops spread throughout the U.S. and roughly 16 - 18 percent of Americans find themselves shopping at thrift stores in a given year.

But the second-hand world is not just about clothing and jewelry. Resale revenue is good in durable goods such as automobiles, furniture and household appliances. Research by Dun & Bradstreet shows that in total the resale industry is estimated to bring in revenues of around $17 billion dollars. The industry has seen average growth figures of seven percent a year for two years running and according to IBISWorld will continue to increase at an yearly rate of almost three percent up to the year 2021.

While that is incredible news for the resale industry, there is still room for improvement. Recent figures reveal that American households spent a whopping $11.6 trillion in 2016. A third of that expenditure was spent on goods, both durable and nondurable. When you consider the size of the sums spent on new goods nationwide, that still leaves a lot of room for the country as a whole to save money by buying secondhand.

In this guide we are going to take a look at who benefits most from secondhand shopping, what the smart things are to buy second-hand, where to find them and what to do with them when you have them.


Who should think about buying second-hand?

Despite strong economic signs, there are still many people and families struggling to make ends meet. Buying some goods second-hand, especially big or frequent purchases can make the difference between ending the month in the black or sinking deep into the red. Anyone can reap the rewards of second-hand shopping but there are a few groups in society who particularly benefit from taking thrift shopping seriously:


  • Families: Prospective parents are faced with a huge list of items to buy in preparation for their new arrivals which translates to large bills essential baby wares and continued costs throughout the child’s life. An incredible forty-three percent of all children in the United States now live in low-income families, according to a report from the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP). And when you consider that, according to the report, supporting a family of four in Boston, Massachusetts needs an annual income of about $85,000, it is a good idea to extend second-hand usage beyond hand-me-downs between siblings.

  • Students: College attendees generally have low incomes and face large fees with the prospect of being in a great deal of debt by the time they finish their studies. To date, student loans amount to around $1.45 trillion with the average amount of debt for 2016 graduates increasing 6% from the previous year to $37,172. There are many things worth buying second-hand to help ease the financial burden that studying imposes:

  • Elderly People: Older people often have reduced disposable incomes from their working heydays. As pensions are a fixed income, they can be vulnerable to big shifts in the cost of living. Recent rises in the consumer price index are the biggest since 2013, so anything that keeps costs down for pensioners is a boon.

  • Low Income Households: This almost goes without saying. If your income is low then you should attempt to reduce outgoings as much as possible. The US Census Bureau puts the official poverty rate at 12.7%. Or to put it another way, that is 40.6 million people living in poverty. Buying key items secondhand can make a huge difference on household bills each month.  

What should I buy secondhand?

There are some things that are highly suitable for second hand buying and some that, for a variety of reasons, are are safest to buy new. Here is a collection of eleven things you should definitely consider buying pre-owned:


  1. Cars: This is an item that the vast majority of people buy second-hand without blinking an eye. Buying second hand cars makes a lot of sense. Not just because they are a high-value item, but also because new cars lose an incredible amount of value as soon as you buy them. On average a car loses 19% of its value in the first year alone. It makes much more financial sense to buy an older model which loses value at a slower rate. Just make sure you take someone who knows what they are looking for in used vehicles if you do not have the knowledge yourself.

  2. Bicycles: It can be tempting to buy the latest shiny bike as soon as it hits the stores, but bear in mind that, like cars, bicycles depreciate rapidly in value during the first year. You can pick up some fantastic bargains buying second-hand, especially during the colder months when pedal-power often seems less appealing.

  3. Books: Buying second-hand textbooks is a great way for new students to save money on what can be a large expense over the length of studies. Given that many books are only used for a single semester, the market in used textbooks is huge. There are also great deals on recreational second-hand books to be found in thrift stores or online book marketplaces.

  4. Clothes: For the fashion-conscious, there are great opportunities to create an individual look on a budget by mixing a few vintage pieces in with essential clothing items. It doesn’t just save money either. With an estimated 10.5 million tons of clothing going into landfills every year, buying second-hand is as good for the planet as it is your wallet. It also makes perfect sense to buy second-hand for children who have a tendency to outgrow their clothing quicker than you can replace it.

  5. Wedding Clothing: A bride’s dress is often one of the most expensive parts of a wedding despite the fact it only gets worn once. Budget-conscious brides can find top-quality second-hand dresses online and if they look after them on the day can resell them, only losing a fraction of the value. You can even pick up groom’s tuxedo’s cheaply in such stores.

  6. Furniture: Perhaps because of the market in antiques, furniture is one of the items people are most likely to consider purchasing second-hand. Around 40% of Americans have purchased or imagine themselves purchasing second hand furniture. It is particularly good for students who have to purchase a lot of new items in a short space of time -  dorm rooms or shared houses may have some furniture such as a bed or desk, but there will likely be a lot of other goods needed and big savings to be found.

  7. Dishes and Cookware: For many students and young people moving into a new house, it will be the first time living away from home. Thankfully, collections of plates, pans, mugs and glasses can be bought from most thrift or discount stores. Even better, parents and other family members often have old sets they no longer use.

  8. Small Appliances: Kettles and Toasters are essential items for any students or new families and second-hand ones can be picked up really cheap online or in stores. Cheap, new equipment have a tendency to burn out so it can pay to buy second-hand units that were top of the range and therefore more expensive when they were new.

  9. Children’s Toys: You can find many affordable used toys at a variety of different places, even the humble yard sale. And it helps to instill second-hand buying habits in your children from an early age.  Young ones in particular will not care whether a toy comes in a shiny new box or not. In fact they are often just as likely to play with the box than the toy.

  10. Games, DVD’s, Music: Digital entertainment can take a large portion of a household’s budget. So why not get more for your money. Online marketplaces, thrift shops and even car boot sales can be excellent places to pick up new console games, movies or CD’s at a fraction of their original prices.

  11. Televisions: Buying second-hand TV’s is a good way to save a chunk of money. Look to buy when new TV ranges have come out. Like when the leap to HD or 4K happened for example. Early adopters will pick up the new technology and hope to recoup some money by selling their previous set.


What shouldn’t I buy?

  • Baby Car Seats: Baby car seats are a definite no-no for second-hand purchasing. Remember that most car seats expire six years after manufacture, and while the expiration date is easy to check (it’s usually printed on a label on the seat), it's still a bad idea to buy used car seats. You don’t know whether they have been in an accident or dropped. It’s not worth entrusting the safety of your child to an item of unknown provenance. The non-profit organization Consumer Reports makes an excellent case for not buying these items new.

  • Helmets: Likewise with motorbike or bicycle helmets. It can be difficult to tell whether it has been in an accident, and how close or even past its expiry date the helmet is. Even in the most expensive helmets, the metals can degrade to the point where they are at dangerous levels should you be in an accident. Your head is way too important to risk.

  • Mattresses: Your mattress should be something you spend as much money on as you can afford. People spend almost half their lives in bed so it is really important for it to be comfortable and healthy. With an average lifespan of just 5 to 7 years, you may end up with one that offers a distinct a lack of support for your back. Second-hand mattresses also come loaded with dust-mites and may even have bedbugs which is not worth the risk.

  • Underwear and swim-suits: It should go without saying that swimwear and skimpies should not be bought pre-owned. It’s not even just the grossness of wearing someone else’s underwear - you could catch a fungal infection or worse if you are unlucky.

  • Laptops: While there are big savings to be had on laptops and other related technologies (such as tablets), if you don’t know much about them, it can be dangerous. Unless you are buying a refurbished laptop with a guarantee from a reputable dealer, there can be a high chance of something going wrong. If your laptop crashes out, it can be really expensive to fix if you are no expert.

Where should I look for second-hand goods?

There are many places for today’s budget-conscious shopper to find a second-hand bargain:


  • Thrift Stores: The number of thrift stores in the US increased dramatically during the recession and as millennials are far more likely to buy second hand goods than previous generations, that trend looks set to continue. That means you are never far away from second-hand stores that sell all manner of goods from clothes and accessories to books and DVDs.

  • Online Marketplaces: There has also been a steady growth in online second-hand marketplaces. These sites mean that you can shop for pre-owned items from the comfort of your own home. Some of the best include

  • eBay: Online marketplace and auction room which sells pretty much anything. You can buy items outright or place bids on ongoing auctions.

  • Craigslist: An online classified ads website with sections for jobs, housing, personals, for sale, items wanted, services, community, gigs, résumés, and discussion forums.

  • This site searches a lot of other sites, including eBay and Craigslist and presents the results all on one page so you don’t have to search multiple sites.

  • has both new and used cars with a bunch of excellent features like quick links to the car’s Carfax reports and direct messaging of owners.

  • ThredUp: This is the largest second-hand clothing website. Its simple layout and good pictures makes it easy to strike a fashionable bargain.

  • if you are looking for tech, like smartphones or tablets, swappa is a great resource. It has low transaction fees so prices can often be a bit lower.


  • Yard Sales and Car Boots: It’s always worth stopping off whenever you see a sign for one of these. You never know what you might find and there are often great deals to be had. You can often negotiate on price, ensuring you save as much money as possible.

  • Social Media: It is worth keeping an eye out on social media for items for sale. Friends often post about things they or their friends are selling. There are also for sale groups on Facebook, often organised by area or by particular goods.

What should I look out for?

To really have second-hand smarts you need to be clever about the items you buy. Buying second-hand often means there is no guarantee. Items are sold as seen and you have to make sure you are getting quality goods. There are a lot of horror stories about spending money on thing that turn out not to be what is advertised or that break. Unscrupulous people will sell things that they know are broken so it pays to know what you are looking for.

There are different areas of concern to look out for depending on the item you are buying. It’s worth reading buying guides tailored towards the particular thing you are in the market for. There are tons of online car buying guides for example that you should definitely read before purchasing a second-hand vehicle. They can really help to avoid common pitfalls in that market.

However there are a few basic rules for buying second-hand that you should always follow, no matter what the desired item:

  1. Research the market: Use the internet to become an armchair expert on the things you are looking at buying. All knowledge helps. Failing that, get a friend who is an expert in the field to help you make purchasing decisions.

  2. Pick quality: Wherever you can, ensure that anything you buy second-hand was the market leader or top of the range when new. Look at online reviews for goods before you buy them to see what other user’s concerns were and to get a sense for how durable the goods are.

  3. Examine closely: Look for signs of damage or wear and tear, particularly with things you are entrusting your life to, like vehicles. Look at seams of clothes or fasteners (as they are often the first things to go). Check for signs of insect infestation in furniture. Again, take an expert with you if you are unsure of what you are looking for.

  4. Know prices: It can be difficult to know if you are getting a good deal so make sure you know what is a reasonable price for the make, model and year of the things you are buying before you enter into any negotiations on price.


What Precautions should I take?

You should always make sure that you are personally and financially safe during any second-hand transaction. Though it is always best to meet a seller face to face, you should always try to have a friend with you where possible, or failing that meet in a public place. Also, never take large amounts of cash with you to see the item. Wait until you are more sure of the situation before withdrawing large sums of money.

The case for buying goods online is very different, however. Often the seller is too far away to meet in person so you are unable to meet the seller or inspect the item. In this case you should pay great attention to the confidence levels and interaction reviews of the seller in question. Where possible, only buy from users with high trust levels. If you need to, don’t be shy to ask for additional pictures of the items you are purchasing.

As an online buyer, you also often have to pay money in advance of receiving an item. This runs the risk of never receiving the item or receiving it in a very different state than the one advertised. You should consider using a payment service such as PayPal who will often provide compensation in cases such as these,whereas payment via debit or credit card is not as protected.

An additional safety net for second hand car buying is to run an HPI check before handing over any cash for a vehicle. It helps alert you to any clocked, stolen or insurance write-offs and can save you a great deal of money.


What to do when you have second hand goods?

Once you have bought your new items and saved a whole bunch of money it doesn’t stop there. Many people ‘upcycle’ goods they have bought and transform them into ‘good as new’ items with just a few cost-effective touches. Think about spraying an old car or painting old furniture to give them a new lease of life. There are plenty of ideas online for taking old, shabby things and giving them a bit of sparkle. You could even sell your customized items for more money than you bought them for once you have no use for them.

Buying second-hand may seem daunting at first, but with a bit of practise you’ll be saving yourself a great deal of money and perhaps even learn a few new skills along the way.



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