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A First-Class Guide to Buying Second-Hand Holiday Gifts

You can do better than a stained T-shirt from Goodwill

In a perfect world, we’d all simply buy less for the holidays. We’d be more relaxed. We’d save money. We’d delay Earth’s metamorphosis into one large garbage ball.

But since we can’t seem to shake our spending habits — and since not buying anything would be totally lame — we can still participate in more responsible (and affordable) holiday shopping by looking for second-hand gifts. If you’re not normally thrifty, you’ll find everything you need to know about scoring something good below. Still, prepare to get your hands dirty.

First of All, Know Your Audience

While second-hand items can be perfectly fine, some people don’t like the idea of used goods, so make sure the person you’re shopping for isn’t one of them. Likewise, expect to be open about the fact that the gift isn’t new. “I think that makes it more personal, honestly, because it’s like, I went to this place that could have anything, and this specific thing made me think of you,” says Kevin, a thrifty guy from California.

That said, it may depend on the situation. “I gave a thrifted Bible for a baptism and didn’t mention it wasn’t brand new,” says Sara, who runs an Etsy store for used goods. “It was in perfect condition and was beautiful and ornate, and I didn’t think it mattered to mention it.”

Again, though, sometimes the idea that you hunted for something specific makes things more meaningful. For example, Sara recently snagged a 1990 Victoria’s Secret book for her friend who’s in marketing. “Just today, I sent my cousin a vintage curling iron,” she says. “It has metal prongs and wood handles and heats on the stove top. She’s a hairdresser, so I hope she likes it.”

Still, if you think the person you’re shopping for would puke at the thought of a used T-shirt, consider regifting unused goods as a different way to keep your shopping footprint low. “I keep a stockpile of unwanted items I receive and a list of their senders so that I can regift with ease,” says Aria, a vintage lover from Atlanta.

Begin Online

If you’re easily overwhelmed by congested shops, Sara recommends online services like Poshmark and thredUP. These sites allow you to easily search for brands you already know, and she says they make returns a breeze, which can’t be said for most second-hand stores.

If you’re willing to spend more time searching through posts, Sara also suggests eBay, and of course, Etsy. Nextdoor is another good platform if you want to buy locally. Likewise, Suz, a veteran second-hand shopper from D.C., says, “Facebook Marketplace is the new Craigslist.” That said, it requires some effort — she checks it every morning whenever she’s on the hunt for something specific. Once, she found an epic dining set after checking in daily for well after a month.

Sean, an adept vintage buyer from Pittsburg, says online shops like these have been useful for helping him come up with gift ideas in the past. For example, he knew someone who was into vintage dishes with a certain pattern on them, so he was able to find different ceramics with the same pattern online, which made for a great gift.

When you reach out to someone on a platform like Facebook Marketplace or Nextdoor, Suz also says it’s especially important to have a specific first message. For example, rather than vaguely asking if something’s available, say when you can pick it up or how much you’re willing to pay. That way, there will be less back-and-forth, and the seller will be more likely to pick you over other potential buyers.

Finally, if you’re using Facebook Marketplace or Nextdoor, Suz suggests expanding your search radius so you get more results. Even if you have to rent a U-Haul, she says you’ll still probably spend less on used gifts than new ones.

Look Everywhere

If you’re willing to get out there and hunt for the perfect gift, there are tons of options. For one, there are second-hand chains like Buffalo Exchange and Plato’s Closet, which Sara says are “well-curated” and are easier to navigate than, say, a crowded Goodwill. (Here’s our guide for getting that thrift store smell out of vintage clothes, just in case.)

There are also smaller, more local second-hand stores. “Check the thrift stores in the suburbs or rural areas,” says Sean. “Places in my city (and others) are typically more picked over for the best stuff. Wealthier suburbs and small college towns also tend to have good finds because of what people in those areas donate.”

“Estate sales can be very good for finds, but they usually end up being either a treasure trove or a complete bust,” Sean continues. “It helps to get there early.”

Likewise, flea markets are always full of surprises, but you need to know which stalls to look out for. “Just stay away from the stands that seem overly specialized, like one that just sells watches or only coins,” Sean says. “They tend to know what they have and price accordingly.”

“I found a fully-functional pocket watch at one for $20,” Sean continues. “I had no idea how old it was; I just thought it looked cool. I got home, looked up the serial number and it was from 1917. You’d never find something like that at a specialist shop or online for that price.”

Finally, if the person you’re shopping for is into electronics, Kevin says stores that sell used tech sometimes have cool stuff like vintage cameras and speakers. He suggests bringing some batteries to make sure anything you buy is in working order.

“For gifts, my favorite thing to do is go to the DVD/VHS section and see what they have in good condition,” Kevin says. “I think a fun novelty gift for someone who’s into movies is a VHS of a movie they like if it’s in good enough condition. I went to my local place a few weeks ago, and they had a perfect-condition VHS of Death Becomes Her, so I got that for my sister-in-law because I know she loves that movie. But if you’re gonna do that, you’ve gotta check the box to make sure it’s actually in there.”

Finally, Have an Open Mind

Above all else, Jennifer, a bargain seeker from Wisconsin, says second-hand shopping is all about being open to new finds. It’s okay to have a general item that you’re looking for, but the beauty of used shopping is discovering goods you didn’t even consider. Once you land on something, all you can really do is hope its recipient feels the same.