Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Seven: Clothing

Well, we've finally made it to the end of Thrift Week. (Whew! Writing an entry every day is harder than I expected.) Our topic for the seventh and final day is clothing--or, as the Consumer Expenditures Survey puts it, "apparel and services"--which costs the average household $1,801 per year. Not surprisingly, clothing for women and girls accounts for the largest share of this expense ($718 per year), followed by clothing for men and boys ($427), footwear ($314), and "other apparel products and services" ($248). I assume "services" refers to dry cleaning and the like. The smallest item in the clothing budget is clothing for children under two, which costs the average family only $93 per year.

I'm going to hazard a guess that the reason clothes for young children cost so much less than clothes for older children and adults is not just that little bitty clothes require less fabric and therefore cost less; I suspect that many children under two years old are clothed largely, or at least partly, in hand-me-downs. Children this young grow out of their clothes long before they wear out, so naturally it makes sense to pass them down to a younger sibling or an acquaintance. However, what's less obvious is that many adults and older children, for one reason or another, also discard clothes before they're worn out. Kids over two may continue to outgrow their clothes while they're still in good condition; adults, as I can sadly attest, may also outgrow their clothes, or in other cases, shrink out of them. Also, picky adults may discard clothes in good condition because they're not the latest style, or because they've just grown tired of them. As a result, buying (or otherwise acquiring) secondhand can help adults and older kids dress themselves just as cheaply as the little ones. And as always, buying secondhand is a sustainable choice as well, because it saves resources and prevents waste.

The best way to find secondhand clothes will depend on your particular wardrobe needs. If you work in corporate America and need to look natty when you show up at the office, you may need to stick to the higher-end thrift shops and consignment shops. You may pay as much or more for a secondhand garment at one of these stores as you would for a new one at a cheaper retail store, such as Sears or J.C. Penney, but the piece will probably be of higher quality. (You can at least be sure that it won't fall apart after the first washing, since it's already had one.)

If you work in a more, ahem, casual environment, as I do, you have a wider range of options. No-frills thrift shops, like Goodwill, offer a wide range of clothes at anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of what they'd cost new. You do have to look each item over a bit more carefully before you buy, as it might have stains or other damage that would cause a consignment shop to reject it. Clothes at yard sales can be even cheaper--one or two dollars per garment or even less--but you usually can't try them on, so you have to size them up by eye only. (Of course, if it doesn't fit, you're only out a dollar, so "when in doubt, buy it" can be a reasonable approach.)

The only thing better than cheap, of course, is free, and there are several ways to get free clothes. Single garments or batches of items often show up on Freecycle, but of course, you don't get to try them on--or, in most cases, even look at them--before deciding whether to take them. Still, if you're willing to pick up a batch, keep what you like, and re-list the rest, you can get stuff you like this way without paying a penny. If you need to see what you're getting, you can get free clothes by having a clothing swap. (Some folks call these "naked lady parties," but there's no reason men can't have them too.) Just pull a bunch of items you don't want anymore out of your wardrobe, then get together with several friends who have all done the same, and pick out new-to-you clothes from what everyone's brought. The leftovers can go to Goodwill or some other organization.

A few other ways to save money and resources on clothing:
  • As much as possible, avoid clothes that require dry-cleaning. A dress that looked like a great bargain in the thrift shop may more than double its cost with the first cleaning. And the chemicals used by most dry-cleaners are appallingly toxic.
  • Give a darn! That is, repair holes to keep garments usable longer. Try to catch the holes while they're little--a stitch in time literally does save nine.
  • If you don't sew, or if an item is beyond your abilities to fix, consider taking it to a professional tailor or seamstress for repairs. You can also get a professional to alter clothes that no longer fit you and extend their useful life. It may not seem worth fixing a secondhand garment if the cost of the repair is more than what you originally paid for it, but it may look better if you compare the cost with what it would cost to replace. And even if it costs as much to fix as it would to replace, you're still saving natural resources. Repairing shoes is even more worthwhile--a good pair of shoes that's molded to your feet is a real treasure, something a new pair really can't replace.
Well, that wraps up our celebration of Thrift Week. Hope you've all enjoyed it. We now return to our regularly scheduled blogging.
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