Making Nickels Squeak: Clothing Edition

Sharon April 9th, 2010

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?

Sharon

23 Responses to “Making Nickels Squeak: Clothing Edition”

  1. Jennie says:

    I find that if I keep my yard-sale-going relatives informed of my needs/wants they’ll keep an eye out and then there are two or three pairs of eyes hitting different sales and my chances go up. I do make sure they are looking for stuff for next year or the year after so there’s no rush for them to get the finds to me and it can wait for the next holiday visit.

    My mom is a big fan of estate auctions, lots of nice stuff can be found, maybe not so much clothing, but occasionally fabric stashes and notions and the like.
    -Jennie

  2. ET says:

    But when the nearest “populated area” is a 3+ hour drive across an international border or a 5 hour drive across 2 mountain passes, slim pickings at thrift stores are what you get.

    I keep clothes/stuff for a long time, do without or buy good quality new things.

  3. Sue in pacNW says:

    I like estate sales – consignment shops especially if we have to have “dress up” clothes. Humane Soc, St. Vincent de Paul are also good.

    Sue

  4. Kylie says:

    I’m betting you’ll mention this in a future post about more durable goods, but repetition is good right? I love freecycle.com because you can post both wants and offers. Not sure what it’s like in smaller places, but in Ithaca and NYC I’ve had great luck.

  5. AnneT says:

    I have widish feet, so most cheap shoes won’t fit. I also prize my feet and like good protection for the walking, gardening, hiking, kayaking, and bicycling. We also check out end-of-season sales at outlet centers when we travel near them. But I’ve also made good finds at our local Value Village (similar to Savers) here in Canada: a pair of Prophet walkers for $6 that I’ve worn for nigh on six years – they are starting to wear out so I was happy last fall to find a pair of brand new walkers in a zippy light blue and orange for $6 bucks.

    Our local YWCA has a shop called Y’s Buys, which is consignment, but reasonable. They also have the practice of marking things down to a dollar if they don’t sell and if they have a surplus of these, they have 2/$1 or 3/$1 days. I’ve gotten some great casual things at those.

    And when we do travel we always take in a few thrift shops. I found my perfect summer shirt — off-white loosely woven cotton shirt with easy roll-up sleeves and it even has black embrodiery on it — on our last trip. A great souvenir as you remember the places you wore it in!

  6. bakinchick says:

    Regarding teenagers/thrifty clothing choices: I grew up in a rural area where the re-use market was pretty slim. My mother thus bought me new, good quality, but basic clothing. As I got older and chafed under this system, she switched over to giving me X amount of money for a clothing budget and if I wanted to upgrade my wardrobe, it had to come from my own savings. That kind of freedom and responsibility probably did more to encourage my present thriftiness more than any speech from her. :)

  7. Julie says:

    Once again you make me feel satisfied with my choices in life. I am currently wearing entirely second hand clothing except my shoes and undies ( even I draw the line somewhere ) Anyway because of my “thrifty ways” I have retired from paid work in a house I own and am completely able to live within a small retirement income. Mind you I only had one child who is self supporting now and buys his own clothes (new I think but knows how to make his them last ;-)

  8. Claire says:

    I actually do wear pre-owned underwear – panties and bras – that got passed along to me after my DH’s aunt died. I’m hoping to have enough that I never have to buy any more new ones ;) .

    I rarely get to garage sales because I always seem to need to do gardening more. But on the few occasions that I do get to them, I’ve had remarkable luck in finding clothes that fit and look good. So far I’ve found a $5 pair of leather shoes (still wearing them after three years), a wool sweater for $1, shorts, wooden sandals, and a sweatshirt. Not bad for the occasional few hours spent garage-saling.

    I’ve also had good luck with hand-me-downs (the steel-toed shoes I use for gardening were given to me by my neighbor – too big for her) and even with free clothing found in the street (I’m wearing a pair of mens jeans my DH found in the street that were brand new and fit me perfectly!). Maybe the clothes found in the street are an artifact of urban living.

    I go to one thrift store that is run by a nonprofit that uses the proceeds to pay for college scholarships for deserving students. The prices are high for a thrift, but still way lower than new (wool sweaters for $6-9; I got three and wore them all winter long), and the styles they carry appeal to me. My best find there was a pair of low-heeled leather pumps for summer that fit perfectly and go with my summer dresses, for $5. I’m pretty medium in size so there is a good selection of things that fit in this store, and each of the two locations are a short walk from someplace that I’m already going to.

    My mom gives my DH and I a gift card to either LL Bean or Lands End for Christmas, which we use to fill in the stuff we can’t find used – primarily long underwear, lined jeans (I live in lined jeans for at least 5 months of the year), and some pairs of shoes. I also get a few new clothes for free from Missouri Stream Team since I do volunteer water quality monitoring for them – T-shirts and sweatshirts – and the free clothes are a participation benefit.

    Between all the buying strategies above, careful clothes-washing and hang-drying to minimize wear, mending when needed, and in my case wearing only already beat-up clothing for gardening, each of us spends under $50/year on clothes, often much less – and we have full closets.

  9. Sandra says:

    Since beginning our sustainable house and not working as much for paid employment, I too, have been outfitting the family in clothes from thrift stores.

    The closest city to us is Kamloops BC (Canada) and we get there about once a week. We go to Value Village, Penny Pinchers, and the two or three church-based thrift stores.

    I have one tall slim son and two daughters who are tall and solid. My daughters have NEVER fit the current girls styles…slip pants with no hips and low rise waists. They are gorgeous girls, but by the time they were each 9 or 10, they were into women’s sizes. Only occasionally do I have to hem pants.

    I try to shop ahead by a season but the kids change size so much at these ages (9,10,11) that I’m hesitant to get to far ahead, especially in pants. I have been forrtunate for the the last twelve years to have hand me downs from all the other cousins, but now we are almost out of those!

    I do shop off season for things like winter jackets, bathing suits, sports gear, etc. Even at a retail store, the deals are quite amazing.

    My best finds recently have been a Gortex Sierra Designs jacket for my oldest daughter…$9.99. It will be great for kayaking trips and can be passed down to all my children in time.

    Because we blog about frugality, the environment and sustainable buildig, I’ve been paying attention recently to what I’m wearing each day and for the last few weeks I’ve noted that the only non-Thrift Store items on me have been my underwear. It’s been a long time since I bought something for myself at full retail price.

    I am also a big advocate of freecycle, but have never received clothes from anybody simply because I’ve been uncertain about sizes…

  10. GeekyGardener says:

    On a somewhat more splurge-worthy note, I recently found EXCELLENT suits that are machine washable. Yes, knock me over with a feather. I wear suite to work 2-3 days a week and buying these has saved a ton of drycleaning costs (for me and the environment). Not to be a commercial, but Jones New York was where I got mine. I am sure that if they make them, then others do as well. A side benefit is that is it wonderful to find out you have an “emergency” customer trip come up & know that you can wash & dry your suits after work … so you can arrive at the airport the next day.

    Another thing that is important is making clothes last. I wear my work clothes for 9 or 10 hours a day at the most. As soon as I get home I change into other (cheaper, more durable) clothes before I cook dinner, walk the dog, etc. And I’m likely to change clothes 3 times on weekends. “House/yard clothes” for housecleaning or yard work, then something nicer (and without bleach stains) for any errands or shopping, then back into house/yard clothes.

    The biggest challenge is putting laundry away when you have 3 classes of clothes & want to keep them all separate. But it’s worth it when you realize (as I did this week) that a favorite “wear to work” sweater has to be retired into weekend wear because it has simply worn out & the fabric along the seams is looking moth-eaten.

  11. Christina says:

    For ET who does not live near any populated area, eBay is the way to go – it’s your online thrift store, and though you obviously have shipping costs (monetary and other) you can get terrific stuff there for a fraction of the full price. Even the premium brands of clothes, new-with-tags, are usually less than 50% of retail.

  12. MEA says:

    I have size 10.5 US womens — I for them most part (b/c I can get away with boots and trousers –not high fashion boots, but lace up working type books– or sandals at work) I just look for mens shoes at garage sales.

  13. Laura in So Cal says:

    I second the suggestion of E-bay. Since my son was 18 months, and my hand me down source dried up, I’ve bought clothing “lots” where someone is selling “Size 4T, 38 pieces, spring/summer”. Even with the shipping, the prices were less than my local Goodwill or Children’s consignment shop. They were more expensive than yard sales, but it was much less time consuming.

    I’ve also bought used shoes on E-bay although now that my son is 6, it is much harder (kids destroy shoes at this age). My son has a wide foot and needs a wide shoe, so I usually buy 1 new pair from our local Stride Rite outlet store to be his “school shoes” and one used Stride Rite pair on E-bay to be his “play shoes”. The new pair usually is still wearable by the time he finishes with it, so I hand it down to a friend whose son is a year younger for his “play” shoes.

    I also use the buy ahead method and currently have 99% of his size 6 clothes already even though he is currently wearing size 5. I probably have 75% of his size 7 clothes and 50% of sizes 8-10 and 10-12, etc.

    I would say that about 1/2 of the clothing is dead (either has holes, rips, or significant staining) after my son wears it, so I agree with Sharon’s “2 kids” assessment of how long things last. The 1/2 that is still usable gets handed down or donated to Goodwill.

    Laura in So Cal

  14. Laura in So Cal says:

    Forgot to add that we’ve averaged about $380/yr for clothing & shoes for my son. This includes everything and is for both new and used items. We did receive significant hand-me-downs and bought almost nothing for his 1st year and have received occassional small amounts of hand me downs since.

    Laura in So Cal

  15. Mitty says:

    I second (or third) the idea of taking in yard sales and thrift shops while traveling. We often vacation in Maine, where yard sale prices are much cheaper than in my local area. While visiting friends in Vermont, I am able to find more of the high quality items that the wealthy summer residents have cast off. For those in more remote areas, one idea is to partner with one or two families at church or social group to pass along clothes. While your middle size kid is benefiting from their big kid’s cast-offs, their little kid is wearing your kid’s out-grown clothing. This worked for us when we lived in a place with few yard sales. The Tightwad Gazette does have awesome suggestions for clothing care as well as the thrifty lifestyle in general. I’ve found it very helpful.

  16. Evey says:

    I am very luckly to currently be living within blocks of two Goodwills and a Salvation Army store. Alas, this will end this summer when I move to rural WV. My Goodwills let you return anything within 1 week for a full refund. This allows me to purchase clothes for my DH, take them up over the weekend for him to try on, and return them if they don’t fit/he hates them. I find the trick to getting high quality clothes is to stop by once a week. I’ve bought him many $40 shirts, LL Bean and such, that appear to be brand new, for $3.50 each. I just bought myself a very stylish jacket for job interviews for $4.50. It appears to be brand new but needed 3 stiches to hold one of the lapels in place. It is also washable as I will not buy anything that needs to be drycleaned.
    Earlier this year I got a 100% Irish wool XL sweater for $1 that I plan to unravel and reknit as per Sharon’s inspiration. How about a bit more information on how best to do this and make the best use of teh yarn?

  17. Julia says:

    There were 6 kids in my family and while we were upper middle class, getting hand-me-downs really helped and my siblings and I loved them. It was like Christmas morning when one of my mom’s friends would drop off a bag! To this day I associate used clothing with love and buy 90% of my own used although I do go for new shoes and undies!

  18. Michelle says:

    I’ve found in my area (Baltimore suburbs) that there are a lot of consignment sales targeted to kids. They aren’t all the time, but usually spring and fall. Three are upcoming in the next month– I think I’ve found them through a Facebook ad, a flyer in the library and a referral from a relative. I’d suggest an Internet search to find some in other areas. And I always do an inventory of what we have and need and then shop with a list of things (for this season, it will be T shirts and shorts, lightweight pajamas and bathing suits in 4T, slippers and shoes in 8 or 9, also food-related toys for Christmas).

  19. curiousalexa says:

    I hate shopping too much to even do yard sales. I am one of the people who says give me a store I can go in, find, and get out. I’m not an easy fit, so yard or thrift items are too likely to miss. Searching for clothing gives me the heebie-jeebies! Tools, otoh… [laugh]

    Wrangler jeans fit me well (farm store). Socks and underwear I buy the highest quality I can, once every 3-4 years. All my socks are black Thorlos (REI, on sale with multi-pair discounts), all my underwear are jockey (from the outlet). And then I wear them out and buy a new batch. I only wish I could find dependable bras to do that with! Bonus – I *always* have matching pairs of socks! [g]

    I happened to be in Boston for an event. I needed some new jeans (wore out the others) so popped into Filenes Basement and Marshalls. OMG! They wanted anywhere from 40 to 100 dollars for a pair of men’s jeans! And that was the *discounted* price. I about died of shock, and patiently waited to get back to Tractor Supply Co…

  20. Beth says:

    I love buying on the cheap and I’ve always had good luck with clearance racks, but of course those are new. I have been buying more thrift store clothes lately. Have got some nice shoes too. I have been wearing a pink “crochet” thrift store sweater this spring and get complements on it each time I wear it. I also have been wearing a used (forget where I got it) vintage pin with it and I got a complement on that too :) .

    I have had some good luck with washing clothes that are supposed to be dry cleaned. But most of my clothes aren’t worth the $10 it would cost. I’d rather gamble and wash them. Washed on the handwash setting of my washer a wool coat and then a cotton coat (did not put them in the dryer), they washed great :) .

    For recycling sweaters:

    http://www.ravelry.com/groups/thrifty-knitters/pages/How-to-Recycle-Harvest-Yarn—Resources

  21. Deb says:

    Having been raised on thrift sale and
    Goodwill clothes, my adult kids now think a gift certificate to Goodwill is the best birthday present.

    I also look at them for things like material, sewing supplies, yarn and buttons. Blouses in pretty fabric can become part of a quilt with the buttons saved for some other use. I found a sewing ham in the housewares section ov St Vincent de Pauls once for a quarter–the ladies had no clue what it was.

    Our best Goodwill find was a Woolrich mens coat, all wool, never been worn, tags still on for $5.

    I had a son with no backside to speak of. I’d make a tag at the back to cinch them in a little that I could remove when he grew. And if you double prepatch the inside of the knees before they wear thru, it saves on patching time later on.

  22. Rebecca Kilde says:

    I have three girls, and we rarely buy new. Here’s a couple other ideas.

    We meet with our homeschool group once a week, and we’ve started a free table. We clear it off once a month and start over. Since we’ve got 40 kids or so in our group, plus all their parents, this works really well. It’s fun to see stuff I put on the table last year show up again for somebody else to enjoy. Clothing with a story: gotta love that.

    Also, a good friend turned me on to the joys of patching. Holes are no longer a problem. Put a patch on it! My youngest daughter’s favorite coat has a plethora of beautiful, colorful patches. (It was a hand-me-over. I know at least three other kids who wore that coat.)

    A friend of mine and her partner in Portland, Oregon, have started celebrating International Darning Day in January or February. (She made it up. Beats president’s day, really.) She has a big party, and people come over and patch, darn, mend, whatever. If you don’t know how, people there can help you. Cool, huh?

    Also, I’m proud to have a daughter who loves to alter and sew clothes. What fun. And also a frugalista sister who is really the queen of second-hand, disguised.

    Happy Spring from rural Wisconsin.

  23. Stephanie says:

    Our sources for hand me downs dried up for both kids last year. Most of their clothes come from thrift stores, yard sales, consignment shops, ebay and some retail (on sale) when it just can’t be found elsewhere. I look three sizes ahead for both kids. My stepson is 8 and finding stuff for him is becoming more difficult since as kids get older they are harder on their clothes. My daughter is moving into 2t’s and there is plenty around. I feel kind of bad that when I go looking I am usually coming home with multiple items for her and perhaps one or two for him. I am also picky and only pick up items that are stylish and in good shape. I keep a list of what both kids need and start looking going from least expensive source to most expensive- that way if we end up paying retail it is because I truly could not find it anywhere else. My stepson’s wardrobe is probably 50% new at this point and my daughter’s is probably 90% used (that would be higher except for generous grandparents). The kids don’t care and we get complements all the time on their clothes.

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