A Case for Buying Secondhand First

A week ago, I decided to wash my coffee maker’s carafe. I noticed that it had a chip out ofcoffeepot it, but who cares? I submerged the carafe in the dishwater and–you guessed it–heard a loud crack. It exploded into several pieces, taking a bite out of my hand in the process. After applying several band-aids, I did a quick online search for a replacement, only to discover  that the carafe alone costs more than what I paid for the (cheapest Wal-mart model) coffee maker.

The next day, I noticed a back-to-college special on coffee makers at Target while shopping for other items. The model looked more solid than my old one, and cost only $5 more than the shoddy Wal-Mart model. I threw it in my cart. As I check out, the cashier commented, “Wow, those must be a good deal, because I’ve checked out four other people buying one today.” I felt a little smug.

I opened the coffee maker once I get home, and, sure enough, it was sturdier than my old one and had more features. There’s even a disc that purifies the water as the coffee is being made, making (according to the user manual) a purer tasting cup. The next morning, I poured my fancy coffee into a mug, and smiled about my great deal. Right?

… Maybe not so much.

Why I Should Have Bought a Secondhand Coffee Maker

A couple days in to using my coffee maker, I realized to my horror that I let Target trick me into making a ridiculous luxury purchase. I definitely should have tried to buy one secondhand. Why is that?

First, there is the financial aspect. Given the numerous secondhand shops around town, I assume I could have found a functional coffee maker. I’m guessing a used coffee maker would run me about $5. Buying secondhand, I could have purchased three coffee makers for the price of my fancy new one. Even if I got a dud, I’d still have another go at finding a good one. Adding the cost of time and gas if I had to visit different shops, I could still get two for the same price.

It’s not just about the money, though. This blog is also about practicing good stewardship, which is pursuing the greatest ethical good with our resources. Purchasing a new plastic widget when a perfectly serviceable used widget can be easily procured encourages waste and likely also terrible labor practices (as most plastic widgets are made by dreadfully underpaid laborers in other countries). There is an ethical cost to buying new. In some ways, buying secondhand allows us to wash our hands of some of these negative impacts. Once an item has already been purchased, the best thing we can do is extend its life.

One of the chief critiques I hear about shopping secondhand is, “I could get the item brand new on a department store sale for the same price.” First, these people are clearly savvier shoppers than me. Second, there is an implicit assumption that “new” means “better,” and price is the only metric that should be used to compare goods against one another. Given the ethical quandaries of buying new, all other things being equal, buying used should be the default mode of consumption.

So I Should Never Buy New Stuff?

There are some conditions when buying new might make sense, but they’re fewer than most people think. Here are some:

I need [thing], like, yesterday.

Most of the situations I can think of where we needed something immediately involve travel or household maintenance. Sometimes the need for an immediate purchase could be prevented by better planning, but there are occasions where you just need an item ASAP, regardless of where or how it is purchased. For instance, I can’t tell you how many packages of pacifiers we have bought on trips, not because I didn’t pack several, but because all of them were lost. (Those suckers bounce!) Sometimes you also just want the item the first minute it can possibly be obtained because of a hobby. I pre-ordered Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to participate in a zeitgeist, as long as you can recognize that desire for the luxury that it is.

Did I need my coffee maker right then? Even if I were a hardcore coffee addict who had to have her morning coffee to function, I could have used my work machine until I obtained a replacement from a secondhand shop (so I wouldn’t even have needed that cafe trip I “saved”). Definitely not a time-sensitive purchase.

I need [thing] to be in a specific condition or have specific features.

Some categories of items are more difficult to find used because we are looking for specific features, either because we truly need the feature in order to get a job done (I am thinking of certain tools), or because we simply think the feature is cool (a fancy planner instead of a sparser style). There is nothing wrong with needing or wanting specific features. Only you can determine if a feature will provide you enough use or joy to warrant it. It is important, however, to be wary of buying something new for features that won’t actually enhance your life.

If you routinely want specific characteristics (because your hobby is collecting obscure horror films, playing German strategy board games, or growing daisies the same color as Teletubbies) I recommend getting tapped into groups that share your hobby. You might be surprised at the burgeoning trade networks that exist for hobby-specific items.

I was patting myself on the back for the extra features I got in my new coffee maker, because they “proved” it was a great deal. Really, though, that fancy purifying disc makes no difference to me at all. There’s no reason why I couldn’t have purchased a simpler secondhand model.

The proceeds for [thing] go to a good cause.

Another occasion when buying new makes sense is when there are positive ethical reasons to do so. Some people enjoy shopping at Mom and Pop stores to boost their local economy. Recently, I purchased two fair trade shirts from ByTavi because I loved them, and the proceeds went to help prevent Cambodian women and children from entering the sex trade. What causes are most beneficial can be a complicated and personal question, one that is simultaneously informed by the price difference between secondhand goods and ethical new purchases. I think any attempts to make our consumption do the least harm, even if imperfect, are good attempts.

So how did my coffee maker stack up? It put more money in Target’s coffers and aided a manufacturing plant in a country that I can’t even seem to discern. Hard to feel good about that one.

Do you think buying secondhand should be the go-to shopping option? Are there other reasons why you would not buy something secondhand?

9 Replies to “A Case for Buying Secondhand First”

  1. youmeanme

    I tend to go to second hand shops first, though I do my pricing research as I have found somethings to be comparatively priced new. Not all are charity shops which can make it interesting. Mostly it’s about knowing my brands.

    • Ms. Steward

      Question: One of the things I’m arguing is that even if the item is the same price as new, there’s still ethical pros to buying secondhand. Would you always buy the item new if it was the same price? (I think most people would, I’m just curious as to the reasons why. Do they go beyond, “because it’s new and has less potential for problems, duh”?) 😀

      Yes, the proceeds from secondhand shops not all going to great things (I’ve seen Goodwill, for instance, come under a lot of fire) is definitely an item of concern to me. I’m trying to make an effort to shop at charitable places instead, although I wonder if the labor practices involved in manufacturing mean Goodwill is still a better choice than new (all other things being equal). It’s all such a tricky issue!

  2. ths117

    A great read, Ms. Steward! As we have provisioned our new home, we ended up purchasing a variety of things new, and some things used — which was interesting, given how much time I have spent thinking about reuse and the resale economy. One of the things that I found pushing me towards buying new was simply a lack of selection in the secondhand places we checked. We knew what we were looking for, and those things didn’t happen to be there on that pass. There was also the opportunity cost of TIME — not having the time to check a bunch of different places and wait and come back. I often find that secondhand shopping (actually, most shopping in general) works most practically for me on the principle of serendipity and at the “long-term wants” level. (I am not the only person — historically — who has felt that way.) My husband did, on the other hand, find about 20 button down shirts for work in great condition and in styles and colors that he liked on that same day. I’m always willing to start in resale for clothing – simply because there’s so much more of it.

    • Ms. Steward

      Regarding the time conundrum, I tried to imply this in the article, but we’re really lucky here in our town because if I can’t find it at the absolute nearest secondhand shop, there are three others if I’m willing to go all the way to “the other side of town,” less than 10 miles. That would not be the case for everyone. In the case of, say, my hometown, it’s more like “cursory glance at local Goodwill,” “on to other store to buy one.” Been there, done that. It’s certainly not worth it to drive an hour away on the offhand chance another secondhand shop will have the item.

      I agree that I have had more luck with serendipity or long-term wants, but again, that’s often because in the short-term I forget to look, when I feel fairly positive one of the many secondhand shops would have had a coffeemaker.

  3. Steve Goodwin

    We buy secondhand quite a bit or just wait for hand-me-downs. For example, last week we got a queen sized bed mattress, frame and box spring for free because a member of our family was replacing theirs. We have done clothing swaps with friends to get “new” clothes to us, we take giveaways for kids clothes or go to garage sales and buy kids clothes by the garbage bag for super cheap!!! We bought our kitchen table from a coworker. It’s funny looking around my house how many hand-me-downs we really have LOL! And we love the stuff!

    • Ms. Steward

      Same here, Steve! Almost the entirety of our house is hand-me-down furniture, which was very lucky and a function of my family’s hoarding problem (seriously… I think we bought about 3 things). Much of it is not my style, but I also enjoy the challenge of learning to live with it and enjoy it anyway. Plus, my Bean destroying it is less painful that way. 😉 Probably I will someday write about my nemesis, the pink couch.

      • Steve Goodwin

        Haha, sounds pretty much like us. When we moved into our house, the only thing that we actually bought new was our sofa set (now 6 1/2 years old) and that was basically our celebration for everything that we’d been doing! Secondhand purchases can really go a long way to helping you move forward on more important matters. As you grow and build more margin, you can replace that stuff later and not feel pressured to do it right away!

        • Ms. Steward

          That’s the beauty of it–someday we’ll end up replacing the sofa with a sleeper sofa, whenever we have another kid and therefore no longer a guest room (which may be a while, since if a second child is also a girl, and even still perhaps for a while if not, we might have Bean and Baby 2 bunk together). And I know the day it is replaced, I will be EVEN HAPPIER for having lived with that pink eyesore for x years.

          It’s an ongoing talisman of the important things in life. 🙂

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