Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tightwad Gazette Revisited: On Used Things and Hacks

In Tightwad Gazette III, Amy Dacyczyn wrote:
"Even frugal parents who bring home yard-sale toys for their kids still give them only new toys for Christmas.  The new merchandise is given with more honor and enthusiasm, even when the quality is the same.  Kids learn that new is better...."
In the same article ("A New Way to Look at Used Things"),  she wrote:
"Conversely, it's also wrong to assume that used is always a better value.  Each has benefits."
And on one of our Abundance posts a few years ago (linked below), Alison commented:
"This is one of my pet peeves as well. I'd love to be like my grandparents, using household items 40 and 60 years after purchase but as you all have pointed out, that's not easy to do these days even if you are well-intentioned and determined."
Has anything changed since Amy's mid-90's musings on the mystique of new stuff?

As far as we Squirrels are concerned, no.  In fact, I'd say we're even more likely to be spending our money on certain types of used things than we were back then, thanks to Ebay, online used booksellers, and so on. "Vintage" has become a funkier cousin of "used."  And in some ways it is easier now to hang on to older things we still have, because it's now easier to find parts to fix them. 

I think our family has even moved to a level of used-stuff-appreciation beyond what we might have considered normal fifteen years ago...particularly in the area of gift-giving to each other, or in acquiring what you might call more frivolous, optional, or hobby items.  That comes partly out of the fact that what's out there in new stuff (for instance, toys) in our price range is pretty junky.  If you have a lot of money to spend, there are things out there of higher quality; but if you have to choose, say, between one new $10 item from the discount department store, and $10 worth of nice thrift-shopped stuff,  the used stuff usually wins out, and not just because you can get more of it.  When we're buying gifts for people outside our own family, though, we almost always buy something new, unless we know them really well.

And that's the catch.  I don't think our way of looking at stuff is very well accepted outside of the circle of people like Frugal Hacks fans and Treehouse readers.  If you're reading this, the odds are that you're probably a bit out of the mainstream too.  If you go, for instance, onto a forum discussing the Tightwad Gazette books, you'll read a lot of "ughs" and "that's borderline child abuse" and so on, especially from parents who I think are a bit younger than I am.  When we talk to people starting families, they take it for granted that they'll be buying all-new baby gear. Ecology is big and all that, but at the same time, kids growing up in this century are more conditioned than ever to be entitled to all the new toys that they want.  And that includes toys for grownups--electronics, huge amounts of clothing and shoes, new furniture whenever the old stuff gets a bit tired, fancy sports and exercise equipment whenever we make a new fitness resolution, and so on.

Amy pointed out some of the benefits of used stuff, when you can find it:  that, as I said, you can simply get more of what you want (a big bucket of used Lego vs. a small new package), or that you can find an older, better-made item from a used source.  I've heard people complain about newer slow cookers, that they often cook too hot and burn food, and that older ones are actually better.  As the commenter to our post said, you might find something older and still working, and find that it keeps on going practically forever.  (In the case of our older cars, though, current legislation forced them off the road even though they were still running fine.)  Or you might find that you can solve a problem or have more fun without buying anything at all...or just choose to keep using something even if it's no longer shiny or perfect.  I've posted about some of Crayons' "toy hacks," such as the time she took her own toys and set up something similar to a widely-advertised dolls' winter cabin.  At Christmas time, she set up one of her dolls in a shoebox sleigh, tied to (yard-saled) plastic horses...Mama Squirrel contributed a dollar store "snow blanket" for the snow.

And as Amy says, there are times when we buy new because that makes sense.  We bought some homeschooling books new this year because they were what we needed, and because we chose to support a family-run homeschool store with our purchases.   We bought Crayons' new boots at the discount department store, because we didn't have any bigger ones that fit her and we didn't feel like fooling with used boots.  We bought brand-new heavy-duty plastic shelving for storage (on sale), because we were tired of restacking cardboard boxes and we had no source of comparable used shelving.  We bought a couple of new snow shovels (for obvious reasons).  

But we'll keep on buying as much as we can used...both for our own needs, and just to prove that, often, you can get more for less.

Related posts:
Second-Hand Pants Song (link to You-tube video)
Abundance Post: Make It Do
Abundance Post: Wear it Out
Postscript to Wearing it Out


Tzivia said...

I love used, BUT... the reason the newer slow cookers are hotter, I believe, is because the manufacturer decided the low setting was not a safe temperature for food. It's okay for mulling wine, but I wouldn't necessarily want to leave chicken in an older crockpot for 10-12 hours...
OTOH, if you're making steel-cut oatmeal in a slow cooker, probably the older ones ARE better!

Birdie said...

We love used stuff here for the same reasons you mentioned. Our money just goes so much further. My children started expressing a preference for used clothing and toys about four to five years ago when they began to be old enough to realize just how much better quality we can afford when we buy used.

However, we do mostly give new gifts outside of the immediate family.