Clothing is a good example. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average "consumer unit" (i.e., household) spends $1,604 per year on "apparel and services," with "services" meaning things like dry cleaning, alterations, and repairs. Brian and I, over the last two years, have spent about $350 a year—about 22 percent of the average. Admittedly, our "consumer unit" is a little bit smaller than the average size of 2.5 people, but still, the amount the average household spent per person was around $640, nearly twice what we spent between us. And the main reason our clothing budget is so much lower than the average is that we get most of our clothes secondhand—at thrift shops, at yard sales, or occasionally as hand-me-downs from friends and relatives who no longer want them. Only when we need to replace a worn-out item right away, and we've already exhausted all available secondhand sources, do we buy new.
Some folks, in fact, would argue that we go too far with our secondhand shopping. You see, we occasionally buy shoes secondhand as well when we happen to find a suitable pair—something that many frugal-living experts, including the folks at Money Talks News and Wise Bread, say you should never do. Why not? Wise Bread gives two reasons: first, you might catch athlete's foot or some other sort of fungus, and second, used shoes will be broken in to someone else's feet, so they'll never fit you exactly right—which could unleash a whole host of foot-related medical problems.
Against this argument, there's the opinion of the Grand Panjandrum of frugality, Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!). She writes in The Complete Tightwad Gazette that she consulted two experts to ask whether secondhand shoes are harmful for kids. One doctor argued that secondhand shoes were harmful mainly because "the only way to insure proper fit is with the help of a trained salesperson"—which would make buying new, cheap shoes off the shelf just as unacceptable as buying used ones. The second expert claimed that secondhand shoes are acceptable as long as they fit properly—meaning "there is about a thumb width between the end of the big toe and the end of the shoe," and the little toe isn't jammed up against the side—and they're in good condition, meaning "not badly worn along the outside edge of the heel or sole." As for athlete's foot, she covers that in a separate article. The expert she consulted for that one says it's "theoretically possible" to catch it from used shoes, but the chance is "virtually nil," and you can eliminate it completely by either running the shoes through the washer and dryer or splaying them wide open and letting them dry out thoroughly in the sun.
So the only real argument against buying shoes secondhand, then, is that the insole may already be broken in to the shape of the previous owner's foot. And, as we've learned, this is a problem you won't necessarily spot with a quick trying-on. At a yard sale last summer, for instance, Brian found a pair of secondhand Skechers sneakers in good condition, with plenty of tread on the sole, and they seemed to fit him just fine when he tried them on. After taking them out for a walk into the city, however, he began to notice that there was an odd sort of ridge on the inside of one of them, which was rubbing uncomfortably against his foot as he walked.
Now, given that these shoes only cost us a couple of bucks, most folks at this point would probably have just written them off as a bad buy. But it seemed to me that if the only problem with these shoes was the shape of the insole, putting in a new insole would probably take care of it. So on our way back from our walk, we stopped at the local Rite Aid and picked up a pair of plain, non-molded insoles for $2.69. Since the shoes were reasonably roomy, we chose the "double thick" variety to put as much cushioning as possible between his tootsies and the existing insole. And once he got them in place, he suddenly found that the shoes were perfectly comfortable once again. A new pair of shoes in a similar style would have cost him around $60; this pair cost us under $5, including the shoes themselves and the new insoles. So with this little hack, we saved around $55.
This is just one way we've hacked secondhand clothing to make it fit better. Another example came up just this week, when I found a pair of black lightweight jeans at the thrift shop for $1. They fit reasonably well in the hips and thighs, but they had an awkward gap at the back of the waist—a problem I seem to encounter with most brands of jeans. But since they were wearable, and since I was particularly in need of new jeans, I bought them anyway. Once I got them home, I figured, I could take a look at them and see if I could figure out some way of taking them in.
When I tried them on at home and fiddled around with them a bit, pinching together the material of the waistband, I found that I didn't need to remove that much material to make them fit properly. In fact, all I really needed to eliminate was about an inch of fabric between the two back belt loops. And I realized that I could do this reasonably well without even getting out my sewing box. I simply took a black plastic twist tie and threaded it through the two belt loops, then pulled them snugly together and twisted the tie to hold them there. And presto, the uncomfortable gap was eliminated. I can simply remove the twist tie before tossing these in the laundry—but even if I forget to do that, it'll probably come through the wash cycle undamaged.
This pair of jeans cost me $1, and a new pair of relaxed fit jeans from L.L. Bean—the only brand I've found that actually fits me more or less properly without alteration—would have cost $40. (No extra cost for tax or shipping, since Bean offers free shipping on all its orders and New Jersey doesn't charge sales tax for clothing.) So this second little hack saved us $39.
So, in just one week, we saved nearly $100 with two little clothing hacks that didn't take more than five minutes to complete. Not bad, eh?