Children are often protected by their parents from the financial realities of family life. When I was very young, my own mother and father were embarrassed by how tight their money was after they both left the Army in the late 1960s. Because they never discussed anything in front of me, I didn’t understand how close to the poverty line we were. Our sole income came from a rather eclectic, low-paying series of jobs my dad had while sporadically attending college and moving us from place to place when the work dried up. My mom stayed home with me and my sister, who was born in the early ‘70s, and although we children didn’t realize it at the time, we grew up as “thrift shop kids.” That was a condition born out of pure necessity, but as I transitioned into adulthood I saw things in a new light. I realized there is no shame in buying things secondhand and in fact, there is value in making a conscious choice to purposely live that way.
As a kid in the early 1970s, I wanted so many things. Mostly, I wanted toys I’d seen advertised during my favorite Saturday morning cartoons. But I also loved to thumb through the thick, shiny-paged Sears catalog my parents would stash under the bright yellow phone book in our telephone table. Inside that heavy book of treasures there were other things I pined for: scooters, skate boards, bicycles, roller skates, and best of all, a Lite Brite. Oh, how I wanted that Lite Brite. I asked for it many times, but my mom would always say, “We’ll see,” and let the subject drop. I did receive a bicycle when I was in kindergarten. Unbeknownst to me, my father bartered for the worn-out Schwinn and fixed it up before calling me outside one day with a twinkle in his eye. When I saw my “new” bike sitting in our driveway, I was overjoyed. My dad gave me a few riding lessons, and then I was off. It was the era of Evel Knievel and his daring feats of vehicular exhibitionism, and within weeks I’d taught myself how to do tricks such as balancing and riding with no hands, popping wheelies, jumping over small objects, and even spinning my handlebars around while my front wheel was in the air, much to the envy of my friends who were afraid to try such stunts. The Lite Brite didn’t appear under our Christmas tree until a year later, after my mom happily discovered a nearly-complete set at a local thrift store. She carefully re-glued and painted the slightly worn edges of the box and added a few pieces she’d found at a yard sale to make it look as new as possible. That was my favorite toy for quite a while.
This parental subterfuge – acquiring secondhand items but presenting them as new and never letting on what a financial struggle it was – went on for years. Back then my parents weren’t trying to save the environment or anything like that by buying used things. They were just creatively utilizing the little money they had to do the best they could for our family. In high school, it finally dawned on me that we had always had used clothes, used furniture and used cars. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice it before.
A few years later when I headed off to college several states away from my family in the South, I felt lucky to be there at all. I’d received a lot of financial aid, and my parents told me I would need to be careful about spending any money. I worked in the school cafeteria as part of my financial aid package, and anything earned went straight toward paying off my tuition. But I also babysat for my professors on the side, and that helped put a little money in my bank account. So, when I infrequently needed or just wanted something I would keep my parents’ words of caution in my thoughts as I bypassed the local retail stores. At that point in the mid 1980s, it was trendy for young women to wear certain things like oversized men’s suit coats with the sleeves rolled up, and not many people at my liberal arts school cared about the source of a person’s wardrobe. Even so, being in college was a big deal and for perhaps the first time in my life, I really wanted to fit in. By shopping very selectively at thrift stores and yard sales, I could fashionably stay on trend and keep myself warm during the chilly Ohio weather while spending very little money.
During that period, I also started paying more attention to environmental issues, including predictions about the impact the overuse of resources would have on our planet and our future. I came to see thrift stores and yard sales as a valuable resource, not just a financial necessity. By buying only secondhand, I felt I was contributing toward the weak but important global effort to make a positive impact on the health of our planet. In the 35-plus years since then, I have continued a concerted effort to make do or only buy secondhand whenever possible. Along the way I’ve taught my husband and children the importance of reducing our environmental footprint through recycling and reusing what we can, and they understand practicing active secondhand consumption rather than purchasing new helps with the conservation of resources and the reduction of waste being dumped in landfills. And from the beginning I have made sure to explain to them there is no shame in making that choice.
The list is extensive, but some examples of previously-used items we have purchased or found for free through various websites or local sources include clothing, furniture, garden and landscaping materials, school supplies, kitchenware and much more. Safety is always a concern, so each item is checked for suspect materials or a manufacturer’s recall. When there is something we need that we don’t already have or can easily make ourselves, it has become part of our family routine to first explore our non-retail options. More often than not, we find an acceptable source or solution that does not require a new-purchase expenditure. We also donate items back into the community in case anyone else might find them useful. Thankfully, with our cost and environmentally-conscious spending habits, we have been able to save for more important things we definitely need, such as used cars, local family staycations, college tuition or emergency medical expenses. As my children get older, I am grateful to see them making their own savvy choices about how to responsibly spend their money. The full circle from all of my parents’ secret financial worries throughout my childhood to my own children’s unashamed use of secondhand materials as a positive lifestyle and planet-friendly habit is complete.