Second hand sales are a fabulous resource for parents. They offer clothes, kid equipment (like cribs, strollers and baby carriers), kids’ books and toys that are lightly used for a fraction of their original cost. Over 29 years of parenting, almost all my kids’ clothes have come from consignment shops. I like them not just for the cost savings, but because it’s better for the environment, more efficient for me, and helps me be a more relaxed parent.
There are lots of options for second hand items, including consignment shops, thrift stores, and online exchanges, so I include tips below for each.
Why buy used?
Here’s what I bought in June 2022 at at a local consignment shop (Small Threads in Kirkland): a dress shirt, three polos, three t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, and a pair of pants for $72.56. (Disclaimer – my 11 year old chose the pug t-shirt, not me! But it was cheap enough that I could say yes to his whim.) They’re all used, of course, but in fine shape.
Brands I saw at the shop included: Abercrombie Kids, Gap, Old Navy, Gymboree, Oshkosh, Carter’s, Eddie Bauer, Lands’ End Janie & Jack, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein. At my local consignment shops, the prices are typically $3.00 – 10.00 per item for children’s pants and shirts. Cost savings is similar on coats, shoes, toys, and more. (At thrift stores, the cost might range $2 – 5.)
Pre-Vetted for Durability
I find that children’s clothes range a great deal in quality. Some will last through many children and countless washes, and others look awful after their first time through the laundry – they get “pills” all over them, or their colors run, or they have knees that tear out at the first tumble, or collars or cuffs that get all squashed up never to go flat again. At a consignment store, everything is still in good shape after being used, so I know my kid can’t do much worse to them.
The photo at the top of this post is what I bought a couple years ago at Small Threads in Issaquah, WA. I got 6 shirts, and four pairs of pants for $36.23. All of them were in his regular rotation until he outgrew them and we passed them on to the next owner.
Children’s toys have a similar pattern – some are junk that break after one use. If it lasted long enough to be at a consignment shop, you know it’s likely to survive your child’s use. (Note: second hand toys are sometimes missing something from the original set… if that’s a set of six dolls that’s missing one, that’s probably OK. If it’s a puzzle that’s missing some pieces, that can be disappointing for some kids.)
Better for the Environment
Most kids’ clothes are made from cotton. Cotton is terrible for the environment – it takes about 2500 liters of water – 660 gallons – to produce enough cotton for one shirt! Cotton is just 2.4% of the world’s crops, but of the pesticides used on the planet each year, 16% are used in the production of cotton. Let’s get as much use as we can out of every cotton shirt! For toys, we are producing a HUGE amount of plastic toys every day. For most of them, a child is done playing with them long before they show any signs of wear and tear, so it’s great if they can be passed on to new users instead of the landfill.
More Efficient Shopping Experience
I don’t enjoy shopping. I especially don’t enjoy shopping when I have to take a small child with me to the store! As a working mom, I have limited time, and there’s other things I’d far rather do with it. If I walk into a kids’ clothing store, they have one rack that has a couple styles of shirt, then I walk to another rack with a couple more and another rack with a couple more. If I walk all around the store, they might have a dozen different shirt styles. And they might not all be available in a size 6. If I want more options, I have to walk through the mall till the next viable store.
At the consignment shop, I can walk to the size 6 boys rack, and flip through about 40 different shirts and 30 pairs of pants, all in size 6. I am able to pick out 6 shirts and 4 pants in about 15 minutes. (And unlike mall clothing stores, most consignment shops have some consignment toys stationed around the clothing racks so kids can play while their parent shops.)
Makes me a Better Parent
I still remember 20-some years ago, when I bought my kids two really special matching outfits from Gymboree for a portrait session that were pretty pricey for my budget at the time. Even after the photos were taken, I was protective of those clothes… my preschooler and toddler really wanted to wear them but when they did, I’d spend the day saying “no, you can’t play with that, it’s too messy” and “no, you can’t eat / drink that – I don’t want you to spill it on your clothes.” I didn’t like being that fretful parent.
When my kids wear cheap consignment clothes, I’m a relaxed parent. I let them finger-paint, play in the mud, eat nachos, and more. I don’t worry about stains and just let them be kids.
- Stain tip: There’s a lot of good stain removers out there – I personally find Shout works great for us. But here’s the key with stains… never ever put stained clothes in a dryer. The heat will set the stain forever!! So, I spray a stain – wash it. If the stain didn’t come out, I spray it again and wash it again the next time I do laundry. It doesn’t go in the dryer till the stain is gone. It’s very rare when I end up with a permanent stain.
The Sell them Back option
I donate my kids’ clothes and their toys when we’re done with them or I give them away on my Buy Nothing group. However, you can re-sell them to someone else by bringing them back to the consignment shop. You can get cash for the these items, or you can get a larger payment with store credit that you then roll into supplies for the next age group. Here’s tips on how to make money selling consignment, and more tips.
What about Teenagers?
My oldest child wasn’t that picky about clothes and was happy to wear whatever appeared in the drawer. But my second child was very picky about her clothes. By the time she was about 12, she was doing all her own shopping. I would give her a budget at the start of the school year, and she could decide how to spend it. Usually I’d talk her into consignment stores. But one year, she decided she really wanted the brand new designer pants. So she blew her whole budget on one new pair of pants, and otherwise had to wear all the clothes she already owned, whether or not they fit her current style. In all the future years, she’d go to consignment shops, and buy 6 – 8 new items – mostly by the designers she’d want to wear – but for a fraction of what they would have cost new.
What is a second hand seller?
There are multiple types of second-hand sellers that sell used items. They include:
Consignment stores / pawn shops.
- In a consignment shop, people have asked the shop to sell their stuff for them – if it sells, the store gets part of the money and gives the other part to the seller. If it doesn’t sell in a set amount of time, they ask the seller to pick it up. Most towns have a consignment shop – search online. Some are huge with lots of stock, some are small and you’re less likely to find what you need.
- In a pawn shop model, the seller brings items to the store – the store buys what they want – if they think they can re-sell an item for $10, they’ll give the seller $5. Half Price Books and Plato’s Closet follow a pawn shop model. (Learn the difference between these models from the seller’s point of view.)
Everything in a consignment shop had to meet the shop’s standards for quality, so in general, it’s all in quite good shape and fashionable. (I’ve seen Plato’s Closet reject half to two thirds of the items sellers bring in, taking only the very best.)
Pop-Up Events and Thrift
Pop-Up / Short Term Events, like Garage sales, yard sales, swap meets, flea markets – where people sell their own stuff or other folks’ stuff for a couple days in the yard or at a swap meet. (Just Between Friends is a nationwide group that does huge events full of kids’ clothes. They can be a bit of a zoo, but people get lots of good stuff there.) You can get really good deals on stuff and you can find treasures – wacky delights you didn’t even know you were looking for till you found them. On the other hand, you can find a lot of junk you have no desire to own. Personally, the only time I garage saled was when it was a lovely sunny day in spring and I wasn’t quite ready to go home but didn’t have any ideas for what to do with my kids. We’d see a garage sale and go off on a quest to see what we’d find. Never anything substantial, but a fun little diversion.
Thrift shops – where all the goods they sell were donated to them. Anything that’s deemed “acceptable” is out on the shelves, so that means there’s a wide range of quality. There might be a barely worn Gap sweater from this year’s line next to an almost worn-out t-shirt from an 5k run that happened a decade ago. If you’re willing to sort through a lot of junk, you can get some good deals. Note: some thrift shops donate all their proceeds to a charity, but some (like our local Value Village) are for-profit businesses.
Craig’s List / ebay / Vinted / classifieds / Facebook marketplace – people list specific items that you can search for. Helpful if you know exactly what you’re looking for. My son outgrew his favorite pair of shoes, and the company no longer made them, but we found a new pair in a larger size on ebay.
Buy Nothing Groups: The Buy Nothing Project has created a huge network of Facebook-based local groups where folks who have things to give away post them to the group and where others ask for what they need. On my Buy Nothing group at this moment, people are giving away: an unused case for an iPhone 6, a bicycle seat, a glass-topped end table, a bag of size 3T boys’ clothes, company for evening walks on a local trail for other women who don’t feel comfortable walking alone, size 9 heels from 9 West, wood toddler toys, and so on. And there’s someone who’s due in a month who is asking for a crib, crib sheets, and a stroller. It’s pretty hit or miss what’s posted, but you may luck out. And if you have stuff to give away, it’s nice to give directly to a neighbor rather than donating to a thrift shop.
Tips for second hand shopping
- The nicer the neighborhood – the better the used goods. At a garage sale in some parts of town, you’ll find things from Target and Walmart that the sellers are trying to eke as much money out of selling as they can. In another part of town, you’ll find items from Pottery Barn and Williams and Sonoma that they’re willing to sell for any amount you feel like offering.
- Inspect items thoroughly before buying, especially at thrift shops. Look for the subtle holes or small stains that a quick inspection wouldn’t have picked up.
- Be careful of recalls and hazards. In a used goods sale, you might find items that have hazards such as lead paint, or safety recalls. Here’s more info on safety and second hand items.
- Don’t buy stuff just because it’s cheap. A lot of people get really excited about “look at this doo-hickey that sells for $50 in a store and I got it for $5!!” And in that excitement they don’t stop to think about whether they really need a doo-hickey and are now stuck with it. (Note: lots of parents find that they have so many toys that it’s overwhelming for them – and we know kids don’t learn well in environments that are too cluttered – read here for tips on How Much is Enough – How Much is Too Much.)
If you’re looking for money saving ideas for parents, you may also be interested in my series Cheap Dates with Toddlers which offers lots of free and cheap ideas for what to do with little ones.
I love this post and strongly agree with everything you wrote! I’d just add that in addition to Buy Nothing, many kids’ buy/sell/trade groups are on Facebook and I’ve found a ton of items through those groups and through Facebook’s Marketplace feature. I much prefer this to Craigslist, as you can see people’s photos and real names, and there’s more of a sense of trust and a bit less flakiness.
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