I’ve shopped at plenty of yard sales in my time. I’ve also climbed in a few dumpsters. I’ve been to the Goodwill bulk bins more than once. I’ve been the recipient of at least a hundred pounds of hand-me-down clothing. I’ve bought and sold various things at flea markets. All this is to say that I’m no stranger to used clothing, and I’m an old hand at haggling over bargains. But I’ve said goodbye to all that.
Yard sales are probably the least efficient possible method of buying and selling anything. What bargain-hunters want are tools, electronics, sporting equipment, and valuable antiques. They’ll show up and knock at your door at 6 AM looking for those things unless you post a sign telling them not to. No early vultures! Er, birds. What most people try to sell at yard sales are clothes, kitchen stuff, old housewares, decorations, toys, and books. Sellers want close to the purchase price, and buyers want to pay the same 15 cents they would have paid in 1979. Buyers will try to offer you $3 for your dining table, or walk into your garage trying to buy the motorcycle or shop tools you use every day. The chance that a random passerby will fit in the clothes on offer, or be interested in specific old books, is very small.
The last time we held a yard sale, it felt like a necessity. We’d relocated to a new city with only two weeks’ notice, and while our rental house was freshly remodeled, it was a lot smaller than our old place. After unpacking, we had a lot of furniture and housewares that just wouldn’t fit. We were down the street from a huge flea market, so we figured we’d try to make some money. The result was that we sat in the driveway from breakfast time through dinner and made about $100.
What is the value of a summer Saturday? How much is it worth for two newlyweds to have a free day together, with no chores or obligations? What would we have paid for a day spent floating down the river in inner tubes, napping together, or having a picnic at the city park? We traded that time for about $5 an hour apiece. It would have been a better use of our time to go work at KFC for the day. It was hotter than the hinges of hell, and my favorite scissors accidentally got donated, and no fun was had.
What I’ve come to believe is that every material object has a useful lifespan. What I pay is the price of having it for the duration that I need it. I’ll throw away a pair of socks when the heels are worn through (and I probably should do it sooner). I’ll eat a banana and compost the peel. Stuff comes and goes. Why should I be more attached to books or clothes than I am to food, soap, sponges, or anything else that gets used up? Almost anything can be recycled, repaired, resold, or donated after I’m done with it. It can have another useful lifespan for another person, or in another form. If it sits in my house unused, I’m locking away its value. Sometimes the remainder of its usefulness is squandered because I couldn’t let go of it. It could have gone to someone else, but I clung to it until it expired, went out of style, or got all musty and funky. “Saving” things often means preventing them from truly being saved.
Frugality is an important, valuable skill. More people could have a better quality of life if we all worked harder to make the most out of our money and possessions. Landfills would be a lot smaller, for one thing. The hungry could be fed quite easily on what our culture wastes. We have to remember, though, that our time is also valuable. When we focus on scarcity, on trying to squeeze every last penny out of our old spatulas, we become blind to the possibilities of abundance. What else could we be doing with our time and space? A classic example of this is paying $1200 a year for a storage unit, when everything in it could be replaced with brand-new versions for less. Often, there is virtually no resale value for anything in these units. (I’ve cleaned out storage units that were full of stained mattresses, rusted-out and expired canned food, boxes of moldy paperbacks and damp, unopened junk mail, old phone books, obsolete electronics, and ruined old clothes). Multiply this times however many millions of storage units there are now. Where are our priorities?
Our time here on this earth is so precious. There may come a day when I would happily trade my right arm for one more summer Saturday with my husband, like the day we wasted trying to sell a few bar stools and an extra set of silverware. Shutting down that thought… What if we had just donated everything and created free space in the garage to make and sell $100 of something? What if we had shrugged it off and volunteered to serve at the soup kitchen that day instead? The $100 we made could have vanished in a month, on a cable subscription or a storage unit or a few trips to the movie theater or a bunch of soda, chips, and cookies.
Yard sales make me sad, partly because they bring out the greedy, stingy side of humanity, but mostly because I know most of the shoppers are genuinely hard up. I know because I lived that life and I’ve been that person. It’s just as much a waste of time for them, because transportation is harder and their leisure time is so much more valuable. You can earn a lot more from a side gig than you can save by scraping the barrel and hunting for the biggest bargains. The hardest part of escaping poverty is learning to think like a prosperous person, and yardsaling is simply not the best way to do that. That’s why I always donate stuff when it’s outlived its usefulness to me, now.
After our sad, wasted yard sale day in the biscuit-baking heat, we dropped off the ¾ of the stuff that didn’t get sold at the Goodwill. Weeks later, we learned we were being transferred again, and we had two weeks’ notice to move across country. Even more of our stuff was going to have to go – or so we thought. At the last minute, my husband managed to find a new job in our state. This eventually led to a promotion and a raise, and a lot of overtime and business travel, and our precious free time together became even more precious than before. It’s brought us closer together and reminded us that our relationship is important, while our possessions are trivial. We’ll never waste another hour at a yard sale again.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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