Okay, maybe the thought of gifting your children previously owned toys and gear is greeted with an eye roll or — let’s be honest — disgust. I get it; I used to be that way too. Using hand-me-down clothes and older siblings’ baseball cleats is one thing. But, what would I be saying with a used gift? That my kid isn’t important enough, not valuable enough, to receive a brand-spankin’ new toy? I mean, what kind of parent does that?
But then came private preschool bills (for two — my oldest are twins), a move to a state with a significantly higher cost of living, college savings funds, life insurance, health insurance, you-name-it insurance premiums, and then the birth of our third child. Over the course of these events, I wised up. Gifting my children gently used gifts says, “You are so important to me, that we aren’t going to be financially irresponsible and over-spend just to fit in with our culture’s idea of gift-giving.”
You see, kids are expensive (like you didn’t know that, right?). And, depending on the source, the average American family spends $271 per child over the holidays. Multiply that by three, then add everyone else we need to shop for — friends, parents, step-parents (times four), grandparents, the list goes on and on … and you’re talking a small fortune for our family. So, we buy smart and, for our kids, we buy gently used when we can. The end result is a savings of at least 50% of the retail price on lots of things our boys have on their Christmas lists. Here’s how we do it …
Make a List
Our kids are eager to tell us what they want for Christmas. They often go through the oodles of toy catalogs we get in the mail and circle their favorites. We write down their wish list and compare the retail cost to our per/child budget. Most of the time, their list exceeds what we are willing to spend, so we start bargain hunting.
We know the best deals to be had are on previously owned toys and gear, so we start there. Now, not everything we’d like to get them is a candidate for buying used. But we start with the bigger, more expensive items. Last year we wanted to get Jax a Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Learning House (on which we saved $50 by buying gently used). For the big boys it was a $100 programmable robot (which we found in perfect condition on Craigslist for $20!). This year ridiculously expensive baseball bats top their list.
Decide What You Want to Spend
Of course your goal is to stay within or under your Christmas budget. If you are buying used, expect to save at least 30% on high-quality name brands (e.g., Haba, Happe, Plan Toys, Aden + Anais, Melissa & Doug, etc.), 50% on most brands (e.g., Fisher-Price, Little Tikes, Playskool, etc.), and 80% on bargain brands (e.g., Garanimals, etc.)
Where to Shop
I like to get my shopping done quickly and efficiently — more time for baking and decorating! So these are my go-to venues for used gifts.
Online Resale Shops
ThredUp. If I’m looking for a specific clothing item that my kids really want and is pretty pricey new, I check ThredUp. I order school clothes and sports wear from them periodically. While the quality is always impressive, the colors in real life do not always mimic the pictures on the website.
Ebay. I’m not a huge fan of Ebay and rarely use it anymore. I’ve been burned several times and have been hesitant to go back. But there are deals to be had. Watch the shipping costs (some are crazy high) and the return policies.
Craigslist & Facebook Buy-Sell-Trade Groups (BST)
If I can’t find what I’m looking for at a reputable on-line store that guarantees quality, I look at BST groups or Craigslist. I like that I can see what I’m buying before I fork over the cash. But these venues do require a bit of leg work. Emailing, Facebooking or texting back and forth with the seller can be frustrating, and driving to the pick-up location can be a hassle. However, the savings can be incredible and worth the effort.
While I like my local BST group because folks in that group are generally geographically closer to me (aka: a shorter drive to pick it up), the selection is limited and the format can make it difficult to find something specific. Don’t belong to a Facebook BST group? Just search for “your city” “buy sell trade” and one is bound to come up.
I have the most success using Craigslist because of the larger selection of items and the greater geographic search region. Just go to craigslist.com and search in the big city (or cities) nearest you.
Okay, I realized I haven’t mentioned garage sales. If you start your Christmas shopping in the summer and you are confident you’ll know what your kids will want months down the road, then by all means shop garage sales. You’ll definitely get the best deals this way. If your kids are anything like mine, however, they change their minds a million times between July and December, so I don’t take the risk. But if you have an infant or toddler, stashing away garage sale finds for Christmas is a smart strategy.
Do’s and Don’ts
Buying off of these sites do not come without their risks. To protect yourself, follow these guidelines:
- Do your price negotiating via email, phone or text before you pick up the item. It’s a major hassle to have a price in mind that you’re willing to pay, only to drive all the way out there to have your offer rejected. Of course, if the condition of the item is below par when you see it up close, feel free to offer a lower price.
- Always arrange to meet in a public place. This just helps ensure that the seller is legit and not posting on Craigslist as a means of luring people into his or her home — if you get my drift.
- Exchange cell numbers. This is simply helpful if you or the seller are running late or get lost en route.
- Inspect the item in person before handing over your money. If it is electronic, make sure it works. If your’re buying a cell phone, iPad or computer that requires wi-fi, for example, arrange to meet at a Starbucks so you can test it before buying. You likely won’t get your money back if you get home and decide you don’t like it. If you are unimpressed with the quality or don’t want it for any reason, don’t feel compelled to go through with the buy. After all, you’re trying to save money here.
Most of the time, you’ll walk away with the item you wanted, but it’ll need a good cleaning. For reasons that continue to escape me, the vast majority of people who sell their goods on these trading sites don’t bother to clean them before handing them over to their new owner. But, it’s usually nothing a good scrub or Mr. Clean Magic Eraser can’t handle.
Storefront Resale Shops
If I lived in a larger city, these might be the places I start. But Once Upon a Child and Play It Again Sports, for example, are a good 45 minute drive. So, I try the other avenues first. Then I generally call these stores before hitting the road to make sure they have what I’m looking for in stock. While their prices are generally higher than those you’ll pay on Craigslist, I’ve had luck returning items that failed to work or we otherwise decided not to keep. But, again, I’ve found purchases often need a good scrub once you get them home.
What Not to Buy Used
For the most part, it’s fairly safe to buy gently used toys and gear that’s made of wood, durable plastic or washable fabric. These tend to clean up and sanitize easily. While some people may fear buying used electronics, I’ve never had a problem. I’ve bought used iPhones, computers, tablets, even an HDTV without issue. But I always make sure it works before I load it in my van for the drive home.
But, don’t buy used electronics if you can’t test them first or if you can’t return them if they fail upon getting them home. I also advise against buying plush toys that have an internal battery pack. You can’t throw them in the washer to clean them, and not thoroughly washing something that’s been previously owned does give me the heebie-jeebies – especially if it’s something my kids will want to cuddle.
And then there is the standard list of what not to buy used: most car seats, old cribs, crib mattresses, etc. For the 411 on that standard list, consult this article in SheKnows Parenting.
So there you have it. We save a bundle every Christmas by buying some of our kids’ must-have items (in their eyes anyway) from previous owners. Most of the time they don’t have a clue they aren’t new. But, when they do, they’ve come to understand that buying used is a smart way of saving money. We use this as one strategy to fight against our severely materialistic culture — one that we as parents can definitely get swept up in too. We want our kids to know that the amount we spend on their gift isn’t correlated to their value to us. Hopefully as they get older they, in turn, will resist the pressure to overspend on gifts and find other ways to communicate how much the people in their lives mean to them.
Still not sure if buying gently used is for you? If you are fully funding your kids’ college funds (to the recommended tune of $500/month/child), have 6-12 months of living expenses in cash savings, and are giving what you want to give to charity, etc., then it may not be worth the extra effort to find what you’re looking for gently used. But, if those recommended goals are still a way off, give shopping used a try and stash the difference away. You might find that getting these amazing deals is addictive, while realizing that the majority of the time, used is just as good as new.