Tuesday, 24 June 2008

New To Me

I buy clothes at thrift shops; I can't help myself. I'm a born cheapskate, descended from a long line of accomplished penny-pinchers.

My mother and her sisters took this to an extreme. On visits, my Aunt Margaret would happily present us with two dozen donuts, only a tiny bit stale, but 90% off the marked price, and my mother would lament the distance from our house of the shop where she purchased them. "That's a very, ah, colorful dress," people would tell my mother, clad in some newly-bought horror. And my mother, ever a sucker for wildly colorful shifts with oversized flowers, never failed to take this as a compliment. "Do you like it?" she would cry delightedly, "it was only 15 cents at Value Village!"

Although as a teenager I found my mother's admittedly cringe-worthy behavior horrifying, I've since learned to be proud of it; to accept it as not only my heritage, but my own personal make-up. In my youth, when I was making good money, I went through a brief period of only buying brand-new clothes from nice shops, but a mild financial setback has helped me get in touch with my real roots. It's great; there is something almost divine about finding a damn good bargain. I am friends with other cheapskates and we regularly compare notes and subtly compete.

I try not to brag about this too much, though; not everyone shares my passion. In fact, some people feel downright negative about buying clothes at thrift shops.

"You know where those clothes you buy come from?" a woman I once knew commented.

"Other people?" I ventured.

"Dead people," she said triumphantly. "After they've died, their families clean out their closets and take all their stuff to thrift shops."

This woman has been known to purchase china and books in thrift shops, but not clothes. Well, guess where some of that stuff comes from? You can eat off dead people's china and read their books, but you can't wear their clothes? I gently suggested this to my friend, but she wasn't buying it.

"It's the thought!" she snapped. "You put on some dead person's clothes" -- she shivered -- "and it's like they can come back and haunt you!"

I am philosophical about wearing the clothes of dead strangers. This world we live on is arguably a huge burial ground. Millions have come and gone before us, and while we may not walk over their graves every day, it's silly to feel so nervous about using their possessions. The past occupants of the house I live in are certainly dead, yet every day I walk through the rooms they once lived in. I look out the windows they had glazed and turn the original handles of their doors. Call me weird, but I find this strangely comforting. I often wonder about them and wish I could meet them (though admittedly, not in the wee small hours of the night).

I'm a practical person, too, and I have a horror of waste. All the work that goes into making even a factory-produced blouse or coat -- all the resources! No way do I want to see that trashed.

After I die, if my kids do anything as daft as burning my clothes or throwing them out, I swear, I'll come back and haunt them.



Brave Astronaut said...

My mother used to combine her love of shopping and being cheap by shopping at the outlets in Reading, Pennsylvania. She and three other women would take a day in early December and set out for the day to do their Christmas shopping.

The problem was that my mother didn't always adhere to wants or desires of her children. And since nothing was really returnable, you got stuck with a lot of ugly clothes (sorry, Mom). Sometimes the sizes would be wrong but she would be like, oh you'll grow into it. Yeah, that's great Mom, except I will have to shrink to get into this shirt.

And don't even get me started on one of her favorite stories about taking some kids sightseeing in New York and dealing with the "Sweatshirts - 10 dollars!" man in front of the Empire State Building.

Christy said...

Hah! It's best not to think about the origins of anything in too much detail, I think. Even a brand new wool sweater has it's history. That wool was once on a sheep who did sheepish things and very likely got sheepish detritus around the hindquarters. Ew. Or ewe.

The Quoibler said...


I come from a line of SPENDERS, but I got the THRIFT gene, fortunately! :)

I love getting something for next-to-nothing. I've vowed to never buy another new piece of furniture (there's so much out there already!)

With online auction sites and Craigslist, it's not tough to find anything you need. And who cares about "dead people"? I'm with you. After I'm gone, do as you like with my stuff, but just don't throw it away! That'd be a travesty!


debra said...

I am on my way to the local thrift store--today, the last Tuesday of the month, everything is half price.
I have purchased new shoes and nearly new clothes. I have told my children that we have no idea who tries on new clothing in the full-price stores, or what their hygienic habits are. A good washing and we're good to go!

Charles Gramlich said...

I buy most of my clothes this way too, and I love saving the money. so does Lana, and we often find neat bargains on china or glasses that she wants and that are cool. Thrift stores are the way to go. I'm sure my mom would have shopped there if there had been any near where I grew up in Arkansas.

Mary Witzl said...

BA -- I actually started off today writing about my mother's inability to choose presents, but got sidetracked. And when it came to picking ugly clothes, my mother had what amounted to a gift. But the $10 Sweatshirt man she would have left alone. No way would she have forked out a whole $10 for a sweatshirt. Now, you'll have to blog about that story, though -- I don't see how you can't!

Ironically, my mother used to work in the Empire State Building, way back when. Back when she actually bought fancy clothes herself.

Christy -- I agree. Once you start thinking, nothing is safe. The meat people eat and its origins; the leather that is made into our shoes; the zillions of dead critters in the soil; the wee beasties that live under our fingernails. And yes, those sheep have dirty bottoms. Ewe are absolutely right.

Angelique -- Oh, furniture! I am always amazed at the brand new stuff that people buy and what they are willing to spend on it! I go for dead people's furniture when I can, otherwise known as antiques.

Glad to know you've got the thrift gene. I hope you've passed it on to your son!

Debra -- You make a good point, and it's just a matter of degree, as many of the things you see in thrift shops are nearly new. What amuses me is how our eldest, once a little embarrassed about being caught out, is now sold on charity shops after having seen what can be found in them. And I reckon she can't fight nature; it's in the blood.

Mary Witzl said...

Hi, Charles -- our posts crossed! I am thrilled to know that there are this many thrift shop patrons out there. I half worried that I'd get a chorus of "Ewww!" responses, but figured so what if I did...

If I became a millionaire, I'd still shop in thrift shops. Boy, would I love to prove that.

Kim Ayres said...

We're doubly fortunate as we have a friend who works in one and will put things aside she's pretty sure we'd want.

laura said...

I wanted to name my blog One Cheap Chick but someone beat me to it, I kid you not! I proudly state (far too often and loudly I'm sure) that I'm the cheapest person on the face of the earth! I once wore a $4.99 Good Will dress to a country club function where the yearly dues are far more than my yearly income. These clothes are already pre-shrunk so no surprises after the first wash, right? Hans will sit (on dead people's furniture) for hours doing the crosswords while I shop, and last month I talked him into trying on clothes. He ended up with 4 pairs of shorts for $6.00 total and said he'll never need to buy shorts again! I only hope I have better taste than our mothers!

Kara said...

i still buy most of my shit in thrift stores. value village is a fav (though they just closed the one close to me, the bastards). i also find that i get the most compliments on my old fashioned resale items. it's satisfying.

Tabitha said...

My mom is also a thrift shop bargain hunter. It didn't start that way by choice, but it's become an ingrained habit. I think she'd faint from sticker shock if she went into a regular clothing store these days. But she manages to find not only good deals, but great clothes too. So I say more power to her. :)

She's also good at sewing, and can find amazing deals on great fabric. So she's put together a pretty nice wardrobe for not much money.

debra said...

We've just returned from the thrift store--for our $18.43 (USD) we purchased: 2 new bath towels, a terra cotta bread baker, a pair of capris, a pair of jeans, a pr of shorts, 4 camisoles for #2 daughter, s zip-up sweatshirt(new), shirts (2 are new with tags), and a rain poncho----bright yellow with Mickey Mouse on the back (#2 daughter says she won't go near it or be seen close to it, but for $1, i will take it when we go to a cabin in the NY mountains).
Pretty good haul, yes?

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- That is ideal. Dina is good at looking out for clothes for our kids, and if they don't fit, it takes her no time at all to alter them. Wish I had that skill... The ladies at our local thrift store smile when they see me coming. They know I'm an easy mark.

Laura -- We ought to have a cheapskate competition! I am in AWE of you wearing a $4.99 Goodwill dress to a fancy function like that, and it is absolutely what I would do if only someone would invite me to a fancy function. I once wore a sew-up-the-side pleated skirt ($3.50) and a vintage fifties lace blouse (75 cents) to an office Christmas party at a posh place, so I guess we're about even.

I have better taste than my mother did, but, bless her, anybody does.

Kara -- Yay, another economizer! I used to get a lot of compliments on my thrift shops clothes. But then so did my mother. Hmmm. And I didn't know that there were other places called Value Village, either. I'm betting yours was cooler than ours.

Tabitha -- We know someone like your mother who has both sewing skill and an eye for fashion. I'm a good cook and I can embroider after a fashion, but I cannot sew worth beans. If only I could! But then I would never find the time to do all the things I really want to do...
I say more power to your mother too.

Debra -- I want to go shopping with you! That is an incredible haul, and for one dollar, even I would wear Mickey Mouse. Is your terra cotta bread baker the same thing as a baking stone, for pizza? I've always wanted one...

Robert the Skeptic said...

Back in college, my roommate came home with a day-old wedding cake from the bakery. I guess somebody's wedding fell through and my roommate didn't want to see it go to waste.

So we had this multi-tiered wedding cake in our dorm room, nibbling on it daily for what seemed like weeks. We finally had to throw the remainder of the thing out.

To this day I can't stand the sight if a wedding cake, it still gives me nausea.

When my wife and I got married, we had a sheet carrot cake. The guests ate the whole thing... every last crumb.

Travis Erwin said...

It's not like they died while wearing the clothes.

debra said...

it is a terra cotta breadpan---ready to use!
I also just bought a hard rock maple hutch for the kitchen from a woman who advertised on craigslist.com. She is newly divorced and downsizing. I paid $50(USD). Solid wood. Old. Works for me :-)

Barbara Martin said...

On occasion I have shopped at thrift stores, but being tall puts a damper on finding shirts or sweaters with sleeves long enough or trouser legs long enough. Skirts aren't so bad.

I check out thrift places to look at old furniture, and sometimes you can find a gem there, unnoticed amongst the junk.

Mary Witzl said...

Robert -- That is a wonderful story! I feel sorry for whoever the cake was destined for, but maybe it was for the best. And what a great image: a multi-tiered wedding cake being slowly devoured by a dorm room full of lads! May I use that someday? Feel free to say no.

We were once given a truckload full of eggs, some cracked, from a wreck that occurred on the freeway near a cultural center where my father volunteered. Boy, did I get sick of omelettes.

Travis -- Ewww, for a minute there, my own squeamishness kicked in. But heck, as long as they were cleaned, I'd wear 'em anyway. Though I'd draw the line at anything, um, long-term or stained.

Debra -- We could definitely share some notes. I've been baking my own bread for a long time and go through a fair number of bread pans. And I love anything that is solid wood.

Barbara -- During my years in Japan, I had a rough time finding anything with long enough sleeves or legs. I'm only moderately tall in the U.S., but VERY tall in Japan, and clothes were a real headache. So I do sympathize. But finding gems is all the more satisfying when you don't expect to find them.

Carole said...

I do like bargains, but if I have to shop for them I won't do it. I hate the shopping part of bargains. If I could never go into any store ever, I would like that, but to have to go and really look through things to find something that fits and I like makes me crazy. So I end up buying something off the rack at a department store because it is the first thing I see and it comes in my size and it takes three minutes and I can go home again.

Eryl Shields said...

I'm a charity shop junkie and would wear something even if I knew someone had been bludgeoned to death in it, in the hope that they would haunt me and tell me their story.

Also, I figure that if 99per cent of my possessions are dirt cheap it's OK to occasionally splash out on something scandalously expensive on the odd trip up to town.

Your mother sounds great, I love those floral shift dresses and have a friend who wears them all the time, so I call them Polly dresses now. She always looks great but they make me look like a cleaning lady.

Stephanie Reed said...

Stef from the Blue Boards here. Thanks for commenting about my cardinals and my fox. We have an English friend who stopped dead in his tracks when he saw his first cardinal. I hope I never take their beauty for granted.

Loved your line "You can eat off dead people's china and read their books, but you can't wear their clothes?"

Thanks again!

Alice said...

Most of our clothing comes from the thrift stores too. The kids destroy in a day, so there's no reason to spend full price on clothing for them.

And not ONCE have I ever thought I was wearing dead people's clothing until I read this. Thanks!

A Paperback Writer said...

As I've said before, Mormons are really big on "hand up not hand out" welfare, and the LDS Church runs a chain of thrift stores. Most goods are donated, although there are new mattresses and new furniture made by Church-trained refugees (of any religious background, anyone who needs job skills). The prices are low because the Church is not doing it to make money, but to help people afford goods and to train people with usable job skills. The stores are officially called Desert Industries, but everyone calls them the D.I.
Not all the donations come from dead people, and nearly everyone has shopped there at one time or another. It's like shopping at a giant, clean garage sale. (All items are cleaned and repaired before being put out for sale.)
I grew up in a very wealthy neighborhood, but no one there thought it was at all odd to buy clothes for Halloween or school play costumes there. Nor were they ashamed to buy dishes and silverware there when their kids went off to college dorms and such.
Many, many kids where I teach buy most of their clothes at the D.I -- and one teacher (who is very into recycling) refuses to buy clothes (except shoes) anywhere else.
I have purchased many books at the DI and various other things, including some clothes.
If you ever visit Utah, Mary, I need to take you to the DI. You'd have a great deal of fun.

Oh -- another popular thing to do with stuff you no longer need: give it to a high school drama department. They always need out-dated clothes, as well as old telephones, rugs, paintings, vases, etc. I've given tons of stuff (some from dead people -- the mother of one of my neighbors passed away a few years ago, and the neighbor gave me all of the woman's business suits from the 1950s!!! The high school drama department was able to outfit an entire female section of a cast for "Pillow Talk" with those suits! The neighbor was very proud.) Back when I was still married, my in-laws quit square dancing and didn't want to keep their many outfits any longer. The high school was thrilled. And one former student of mine donated her wedding dress. It was used when the school did Cinderella.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Shall we start a women-who-hate-shopping club? I hate the whole process of having to pick stuff out, go through the whole 'Is this my color, will this make my XYZ look ABC?' routine, then wait for a cubicle and mess around with fasteners and tags and plastic hangers. Then there are those horrible mirrors that make me look unnaturally old and awful (I was thrilled to see they even make my kids look bad -- not just me!) and the indignity of trying on things that are too small. And finally, if you win, i.e. find something that suits you and fits you, you lose by having to pay for it. Yep, I definitely want a tee shirt.

Eryl -- That is such a great line! And yes, that is exactly how I feel, though not in the wee small hours of the night. You're also right about splashing out on really good stuff, and I reserve the right to do that, theoretically. In practice, I have seldom been moved enough by an article of clothing to fork out big-time, but it could happen!

Stephanie -- Thank you for visiting my blog, and how I envy you having a cardinal nest! My husband could not get over them either. He was also taken with redwing blackbirds, mockingbirds and bluebirds.

Alice -- Oops, sorry if that was information overload! I'm betting that a lot of stuff you find at thrift shops is unwanted Christmas presents, but no doubt there are donations from the wardrobes of the deceased. But then think of all the dead people we are all, every one of us, related to...

APW -- The Desert Industries sound like such a great idea on all levels. People get jobs, they learn skills, and others find good deals or get rid of what they don't need. Win-win.

Thrift shops are GREAT places for parents. When our kids were little, I started a collection of dress-up stuff and I would recommend this over just about any toys. You can fill a chest for almost nothing with things just like you've described -- old matron of honor dresses, fifties suits, feather boas, etc. This kept our kids and their friends occupied for ages, dressing up and acting out. I'll bet that we spent less for all our stuff than we would have buying Barbies and all their gear, though admittedly, our stuff took up more space. I've loaned out our five or six used kimono and obi to the school for a dance the kids did there, and I'm just hoping that some day the local theatre will put on The Mikado again. They'll HAVE to give me a call...

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh, yes, Mary -- a dress -up box!
I had all my aunt's old fancy dresses from the 50s, and played hours and hours with them. (And, of course, they were very handy in high school when we did The Pajama Game.... and again when I was in Guys and Dolls about 5 years ago in a community theatre. All those hats and gloves... oh my.)

Susie said...

Hello there,
I've enjoyed catching up on some of your posts as we've been gone the past week or so.

I really loved this post! My husband comes from a frugal family and I'd like to think I've become thrifty as well. We like to joke about our frugality quite a bit. One of our favorite stories is about my father-in-law, Chris. He ordered a magazine called The Tightwad Gazette and really enjoyed the ideas the magazine gave him on saving money and reusing household items,etc. In the end he decided to no longer subscribe. The reason? It cost too much :)

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- Weren't those hats and gloves great? There is something so elegant about them, whether you are adjusting a hat on your head or delicately pulling on gloves. It's so sad that they aren't worn much anymore. If I were a trend setter, I'd try and do something about that.

Susie -- Good for your father-in-law, and welcome to our frugal club! I probably wouldn't buy the Tightwad Gazette either, but I'd definitely borrow it from someone if I could. The unfortunate thing about cheapskates is that we're not really a marketable force, are we? Or at least, not a very big one.