A Life Without Debt: Tips for Buying Used

In order to avoid debt, it is crucial that we get the best price and value for our money on almost everything we buy. Over the years we’ve found that buying many items used makes this much easier than if we were buying things at retail prices. This was particularly true when we were young and had very little money to spend on big ticket items like furniture, appliances, and cars. We don’t buy everything used, however. There are some items that we’ve found to be good buys when purchased used and other things that aren’t so great. So what are some of the best things to buy used and how do you make sure you aren’t getting burned with someone else’s junk? Here are some tips and ideas.

Things that are good to buy used:

Things that you aren’t sure you’ll like and don’t want to sink much money into: Video games, DVD’s, music, and books are all good candidates for a used buy. If it turns out that it isn’t good or you don’t like it, you haven’t put much money into it. If you can rent or borrow the item first, that’s even better, but if buying is your only choice then used is the way to go.

Cars and any other motor vehicle like an RV, motorcycle, etc: Used vehicles are definitely the way to go if you want to avoid a payment. They are much cheaper than new and they don’t depreciate at an alarming rate. They’re also cheaper to insure and carry lower property taxes. Many dealers even offer some form of warranty or guarantee on their used cars so you can get help if you need it.

Clothes and handbags: In our local thrift and consignment stores we can find many great clothes, including designer labels, some with the tags still on. Even those that have been worn are usually in great repair, as if they’d been worn only once or twice. Handbags are often like new, as well. It’s very easy to find many items that are in great condition and selling for a couple of bucks. We avoid shoes, however, because we both have very picky feet. It’s hard to tell, on the surface, how much life a shoe has left in it. It may look great on the top side, but it may have lost its support and padding. Additionally, shoes can be hard to clean and disinfect and you have to be wary of athletes’ foot and other foot fungi.

Electronics Buying used TV’s, computers, DVD players and other electronics can be a little tricky, but if you know what you’re looking for you can get a great deal. Many people sell their old computers and other electronics because they upgrade to the newest models frequently. If you know your models and your needs, you can get a great deal if you buy used. Familiarize yourself with the features you need and ask questions of the seller to make certain you understand the specifications of the product.

Certain appliances: Some appliances aren’t worth buying used unless you have an immediate need or are in a very tight budget crunch. We shy away from anything that runs on gas in particular as it’s not worth the risk that the owner properly maintained the appliance. Unless you’re a trained appliance repairman it’s probably best to let anything that can go boom stay in the junk heap. However, it is possible to find used stoves, refrigerators, blenders, mixers, and washer and dryers in good condition and for a great price. Freezers (chest or upright) seem to be the best appliance to buy used. Many are bought and only used for a little while before the owner decides they don’t like the space the unit takes up or that it’s not saving them the money they thought it would. They are also popular castoffs at moving sales as people downsize and can’t fit the freezer in the new place.

Exercise equipment: New Year’s resolutions often lead people to buy treadmills, elliptical machines, and home gyms that end up as plant stands three months later. When they turn up at the yard sale it can be a great time for you to swoop in a buy barely used equipment at a bargain price.

Furniture: I refrain from buying anything soft like upholstered sofas, pillows, and bedding because you don’t know what’s living in there. The effort required to completely strip and reupholster the furniture and buy new stuffing isn’t worth it. I might as well buy new. But anything that’s wood – tables, chairs, bookcases – is great to buy used. Much is in good condition to begin with and some needs a little love in the form of refinishing, but a great piece at a great price is worth it.

Glassware and dishes: I’ve picked up some very nice china and dishes at rock bottom prices over the years at estate sales and flea markets. Dishes and glasses are easy to clean up and are very practical. Since tableware can be expensive if bought new, the used route is great if you’re furnishing your first place.

How to avoid getting burned on a used purchase:

Thoroughly check over any merchandise before you buy: Check clothes for stains and damage. Check CD’s, DVD’s, and video games for scratches that may impede playback, or buy from a website with a “guaranteed to play” clause. Plug in anything electronic and make sure it works.

Thoroughly check over a car before you buy: Take it to your mechanic and have it looked over. Any reputable seller should grant you this if you ask. Check for signs of water damage and any exterior damage. Get the CARFAX report on the vehicle. Take it on an extended test drive and drive at all speeds to see how it handles.

Know how much repairs are going to cost before you buy: If a car needs some work, get an estimate before you buy to make sure you can cover it. If you’re going to have to refinish some furniture, know how much you’ll need in terms of supplies and time to determine if it’s worth it. Do those clothes need professional cleaning, or can you just run them through your washer at home? If you really want the item but it’s going to require a lot of money to repair, make a lower offer to cover what you’ll have to put out.

Be careful with eBay, Craigslist, and other online sites: These can be great sources for used items, but you can also get burned in a scam, by an unethical seller, or by someone who just never gets around to shipping you your stuff. If you do go this route, try to deal with sellers with high feedback (eBay) or sellers who live near you and will allow you to check out the merchandise before you buy. Know that websites are basically unregulated commerce. You may or may not get what you pay for and you have to be willing to take a certain amount of risk when you deal with unknown sellers and merchandise.

Ask the seller why they’re getting rid of the item: You may or may not get an honest answer, which is why you have to do your own research, but if the person is honest enough to admit that there’s something wrong with the item it can save you a lot of headaches and time.

If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably a scam: Anytime you see an ad, whether online or in the local paper advertising something for a ridiculously low price, or if they want you to wire money, or if there are third parties involved, it is likely a scam. You can look into it, but proceed with extreme caution. Sometimes people sell things dirt cheap just to get rid of them, but more than likely it’s some form of scam.

Know your prices: Sometimes people try to sell used items for not much less than new (in some cases more). This is particularly true with cars and RV’s. The seller is asking what he needs to make in order to pay off his loan and not what the car is really worth. Others overvalue their old computers or electronics. And some people just list a higher price figuring some sucker will pay it. Know what the item sells for new and find some comparable used items so you know what is an appropriate price to pay. Unless the item is a collectible, the used price should be substantially less than the new price. Don’t get suckered into paying more than the item is worth, thinking that because it’s used you’re automatically getting a deal.

The used market is a great place to buy many things. The used market lets you save a lot of money so you don’t have to take on debt to buy expensive things like furniture, cars, or electronics. There are pitfalls, but you can minimize those by doing careful research and testing the items before you buy.

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2 Responses to A Life Without Debt: Tips for Buying Used

  1. Reader says:

    So essentially, it’s all a gamble!

  2. Megan says:


    Sure it’s a gamble. Just like debt and living outside of your means is a gamble. Everything’s a gamble, if you want to be that way about it.

    I found the article very informative. I have never thought to simply ask why someone is getting rid of something-will definitely do that in the future.

    We are driving a 94 Chrysler LHS that we purchased in 2006 for $1200. Four years later, it’s still going strong (knock on wood.) We’re building up our emergency fund right now and will build up a car replacement fund in the first half of 2011. I’m hoping our car lasts at least until we get enough in our emergency fund for repairs/replacement. (Will replace w/ a $3k car.)

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