Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

For What It's Worth
by Casey Kelly Barton

The notion of relative worth is on my mind these days. Maybe it crept in when I bought my son a Polo shirt -- that coveted status item of my adolescence -- at a thrift store for 75 cents. Or maybe it took hold when I auctioned a surplus toy on eBay and sold it for more than it would have cost new. It was definitely well-rooted by the time someone gave me a pair of OshKosh overalls at a garage sale because they were missing a clasp. I got another clasp free from the manufacturer and fixed them. My son won't wear them. So now what are they worth? That will depend on what I get when I sell them.

A thing is worth what someone will pay for it, and almost everything ends up in the discount bin eventually. This is a lesson I have learned well since I began my adventure in frugality about a year and a half ago. At the time, I just wanted to save money so we could move to a house in the country. I had no idea my efforts would lead me to question every transaction, to see the world in a new and comparative light. When Grandma sends my boy a new outfit I know she probably paid $20 for, I thank her and then imagine the 20 to 30 pieces of clothing I could have bought him with the same money. It's a skewed but comfortingly abundant vision of the world. Abundant because we live in a society awash in stuff that people are done with -- clothes, books, puzzles and toys get outgrown, homes get redecorated and the old lamps, placemats and baskets (there must be ten billion baskets on planet Earth) have to go somewhere. 

As long as I've got pocket change, we're covered, at least when it comes to clothing, toys and small household items. This is a boon to cheap people like me but, come selling time, a source of disappointment and even consternation to people who believe a thing must be worth a relatively high percentage of what a retailer charged them for it in the first place. I've noticed this is more of an issue at yard sales in higher-end neighborhoods. People in working class neighborhoods know what to charge at a yard sale because they probably go to yard sales themselves. But those who don't hunt for stuff on the cheap only know what they paid for things retail and try to price their garage-sale items accordingly. As a reformed mall rat and graduate of a super-snobby high school who once paid $32 for a single bath towel (which now functions as a dog mat), it has been instructive to me to watch these folks learn that no one cares what the original price was.

I once watched a woman stand in the driveway of her lushly landscaped luxury home, trying to sell a set of faded drapes to a couple of older ladies who were looking them over. The shoppers spoke no English, and the woman hosting the sale spoke no Spanish, so she compensated by amplifying her spiel.

"THESE ARE LAURA ASHLEY," she hollered slowly. "VERY EXPENSIVE!"

I think she wanted somewhere between ten and twenty dollars. No deal. She was also selling a plastic dollhouse for $50. There were some shelves out, but the fellow in the driveway said they weren't for sale. "You can buy them at Target," he added, blissfully oblivious to the point.

So what happens to all that stuff that doesn't sell at Ritzy Oaks yard sales? A lot of it goes to thrift stores, and they price it to move. Just the other day at a charity-store clearance I bought two dresses, two blouses, a pair of pants, a 100-piece puzzle (yes, all the pieces were there -- I counted), a toy workbench, a Beanie Baby turkey and, of course, a basket, for just under $4.50. I wore one of my new fifty-cent dresses out to dinner recently. After we got home, I checked in the mirror to make sure it really did look pretty good. "Just think," I crowed, trying to put it into some kind of context, "for the cost of two tampons in a public restroom, I got this fabulous dress." My son stared up at me from the bathtub. My husband, supervising the bath, looked up from his book. "Please leave this room," he said.

So what is something worth? How much of your time and effort should you spend acquiring things or the money to buy them? On the one hand, retail shopping is instant, uncomplicated gratification. On the other, the patience you need for successful thrifting is rewarded by things like that fifty-cent dress.

And what, exactly, is my child learning from watching his mother pore over, and haggle over, other people's discards? Not too long ago we trash-picked a neighbor's tossed-out plastic wagon (yes, we asked first), cleaned it up and donated it to a church. Next trash day, I remarked on a fan someone had set out at the curb. "Well," he said, exasperated at my slowness, "let's go get it!"

Having my three-year-old refer to trash pick-up day as "trash-picking day" and watching him try to haggle with a thrift-store manager over the cost of a train set are fruits of my effort to show him that the worth of most items really is relative. Perhaps as he grows, the idea of a shirt being more valuable for its embroidered logo will seem ridiculous to him. I hope he'll do something with his money as a young adult besides try to buy an identity at the mall. Maybe I'm naive and he'll morph into a status-oriented consumer just like I did for awhile, despite having frugal parents myself. But I hope he won't spend $32 on a bath towel, feeling like that confers something special on him, when all it meant for me, ultimately, was that I didn't know what anything was really worth.
Casey Kelly Barton lives, writes and trolls for bargains in Round Rock, Texas. Her work has appeared on austinmama.com and in Texas Highways, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, and DogFancy.