How to Save Money and Score Big At Garage Sales

How to Save Money and Score Big At Garage Sales

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I love garage sales and our house is full of garage sale finds, bought for a song (sorry, no dance).

Frugality is the topic of the month, and I happen to think that buying used is one of the most important strategies for saving money on a regular basis. Not only that, but you can’t get much greener than reusing something, saving it from the dump, and not needing to purchase a new item made with valuable resources (and complete with excess packaging).

These are some of my best tips for scoring big at garage sales this summer and saving yourself a ton of money in the process:

Finding sales.

There are lots of good ways to find sales… check Craigslist, look in your local newspaper for sale listings or maps, or simply drive around neighborhoods looking for signs (particulary nicer neighborhoods, as they will tend to have more quality items). If you’re looking for certain items (furniture, books, children’s clothes, etc.) then you may prefer a resource like Craigslist or one of the links below as the sale descriptions will help you narrow down which sales you should visit.

Three sites to help you locate sales:

Craigslist– On your local page, look under For Sale, and find Garage Sales. Not only will you find where sales are happening near you, but sometimes descriptions of what type of items are for sale are also included.
Yard Sale Treasure Map– I really like this site! You just type in where you live and you can give a mile radius that you want to find sales within. It will show you a google map with all of the upcoming sales pinpointed. If you click on the specific locations, most of them included a bit more detailed info about the sale. For Canada and USA.
Garage Sale Tracker– This seems to be for USA only. Search by zip code or city name.

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Image by Rubbermaid Products

Map out a route.

You’ll save a lot of time, energy and gas by pre-planning the sales that you want to visit and planning a route in an order that makes sense. You can always stop or make a quick detour if you see a sale that you didn’t know about beforehand, but a few minutes of planning is well worth it.

Know your area.

Where I live, most sales happen only on Saturdays, from about 8am-2pm, with slight time variations. Some sales also continue on to Sunday, though not all.

But in Washington state, when I garage sale with my mother-in-law, I was surprised to learn that sales are usually held on Fridays and Saturdays. Crystal has mentioned that Thursdays are big where she lives. Find out how the sales generally work where you live in order to make the most of them.

Write a list at the beginning of the season.

Know what you’re looking for. It’s easy to go to garage sales and come away with junk that you don’t really need because “it’s so cheap!”.

I hate to be a bubble burster, but who cares how cheap it is if you didn’t really need it in the first place? The point is to fulfill legitimate needs in a cost effective manner. Knowing what you’re looking ahead of time for will help you to maximize the time that you spend, avoid unnecessary impulse buys, and ensure that the things you really need don’t slip your mind while you’re out shopping.

I do this in particular with my children’s clothes, because with 3 kids to shop for, it’s easy to get mixed up and forget that the 6 year old needs capris and the toddler needs tee shirts, and not the other way around.

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Image by BobnRenee

Be prepared to bargain.

Garage sale prices aren’t set in stone. Ask them for their best price!

I find it best to group several items together and see if you can come up with discounted price for the whole lot. Don’t be afraid to ask. Just ask. The worst they can do is say no, and the best is that they can say yes.

All that said, don’t offer an insultingly low price. Think about what would be a win-win situation for both of you. It’s nice to get a good deal, but not at the expense of the seller. Bargain, but still be considerate.

Bring cash.

For two reasons, 1) You’ll need it to pay for the things that you want, and you don’t want to have to run out to get cash from the bank and risk losing an item to someone else, and 2) If you go with a set amount of cash, you’re more likely to stick within your budet and spend it more carefully.

I like to use this technique any time I go shopping for used goods, bringing only the cash that I want to spend in my pocket. It just keeps me very aware of how all those “cheap” prices are adding up, and helps me to prioritize what I really do and don’t need. As well, it’s a good idea to bring most of your cash in smaller bills and some coins, to prevent sellers from having to break large bills and make bargaining easier.

Go early.

The nicest items are usually scooped up quickly. In garage sale shopping, the early bird definitely gets the worm.

Learn what time sales open up in your area (for us it’s usually around 8am, but every sale is slightly different). But please, don’t be one of those people who come an hour before the sale is even open, while the sellers are still frantically getting set up. Just go at the appropriate time and you’ll have plenty of time to snag the good deals.

Go late.

Though a lot of the high quality items may be gone, but the time sellers are getting ready to close up shop, they are far more open to bargaining and giving serious discounts rather than having to deal with all of the leftover items that haven’t sold. I’ve often been offered 50% off at the end of a sale, or sometimes even been told to just take something for free.

Look for free stuff.

Many garage sales put out boxes at the end of the driveway with items that are free for the taking. Keep your eyes out for things that are being given away. I have gotten tomato cages, tons of canning jars, serving trays and other genuinely useful items this way.

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Image by D’Arcy Norman

Sometimes it’s nice to go by yourself.

Although we find it fun to garage sale together as a family, I generally prefer to go by myself. The main reason is that I can get quickly in and out of a sale if there’s nothing good there, rather than taking the time to get 3 kids in and out of carseats.

My kids try hard to obey, but I still find that they get into stuff at sales, since everything is laying right there at a child’s level. I also have the problem of sellers oh-so-generously offering my kids free stuff that I don’t really want them to have- toys, stuffed animals, random junk that they just don’t need and I don’t want to add to our belongings.

And if you’re a power garage sale shopper (like my mother-in-law!) you might find that you can really power through the sales and maximize your time best if you’re not having to worry about mid-morning blood sugar lows, naptimes and that sort of thing.

Group sales are ideal.

If you can find sales that are neighborhood sales, multi-family or church/community center sales, make those first on your list. More items in one place means efficient shopping. As a bonus, these types of sales often benefit non-profit groups or are raising money for great causes.

Go prepared.

Have your cash ready the night before. Bring a bottle of water. Ditto on some sort of snack. If you’re shopping for furniture, have measurements on paper and a measuring tape in the car. Have the list of items you’re looking for. Bring a map or list of the sales you want to stop at.

Anything you can do to make the experience smoother and more pleasant will make you more willing to take the time and effort in the future, rather than giving up on the potential savings because of a bad experience.

I know I’m not the only garage sale shopper out there. Frugal mamas, tell us how you save money through garage sales!

Top image by E. Bartholomew

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  1. As a SAHM on a tight budget, I really need to take advantage of garage sales, but it seems that I when I have some extra money to spend, I don’t have the time or if I have the time I don’t have the extra money ): I love these tips though, it never occurred to me to make a garage sale list! One of these days I’ll get it together…

    1. @dawn, Perhaps when you do have a bit of extra money you could tuck it away into a “garage sale fund” and try to forget about it (I know, easier said than done!). But that way you’d have a bit of money set aside for when you are ready to do it.

  2. I always carry a list of my children’s sizes (including shoes…especially shoes).
    Before I buy any pants for the boys I make sure the zippers zip or button. I have before gone home thinking I had made some deals and found out that the zipper was faulty or the snap would not snap.

    I also carry a list of family member’s birthday so I can scan ahead.

    I think garage sales/yard sales….are great places to find sports equipment that maybe was used once before a child moved on to a different interest!

    Garage sales/yard sales are great places to find children’s books.

  3. yes yes! I am such a die-hard garage sale shopped but had put it on hold for a number of years when my children were very little (the carseat thing…so true!). This past Friday we went to a neighborhood sale, got through 1/3 of the neighborhood in 2 1/2 hours and there were literally 2 sales per block….SUCH a great way to hit the sales. I had even found 2 things I was going to pay $20 for (new) and found them for $3 a piece…love it!
    Have fun this year!
    Sarah M

  4. In my area, there are a few sales that happen yearly (and one bi-yearly!) that I know will have things that I can use for my 5 kiddos. One of them is a Christian School sale which happens in the spring and the fall. I mark the dates on my calendar and make lists on note cards for each child. I then show up 1/2 hour to 45 minutes early and wait in line! Then….when the door opens….I’m off!

  5. I love yard sales! I go with my mother-in-law and my daughter a few times a month. My daughter told up she wants to be a “yard sale-er” when she grows up. 🙂 Some of my favorite things to find at yard sales are fabric remnants (I’ve redone many chairs with cute fabric I’ve found), buttons, glass mason jars, and craft supplies for the kids. Most of our furniture is from yard sales. If the tone of it doesn’t match the house, then I just paint it.
    I think one of my favorite things about yard sales is that it allows us to get some of the stuff that we want, even on a very limited budget. For instance, I wanted a food processor, but didn’t have the money to go out and buy a new one. I started looking for one at a yard sale, and found one for $2. Score!
    Great post, Stephanie! Thanks!

  6. You are making me wish it was Saturday! I love garage sales, but don’t get to them often because of children in the house. I am going to have to make it a priority as my children are in need of some clothing.

  7. I love yard sales too. I do find though that they aren’t as quality where I currently live as they have been in other places I have lived. And sometimes its just hit and miss no matter where you live! Yard sales just started here. I always look for the words such as “baby items” or “children’s items” in the ads since they usually have the clothes I am looking for.

    We’ve found a lot of things we need over the years through yard saling and being patient. Last year I even bought unsprayed apples from someone’s front yard at a yard sale!

    Watch out for electric appliances- make sure they do plug in. I feel awkward asking but I never will again after being assured it worked and then coming home and it didn’t- at least it was $3 at a charity sale so it went to a good cause. Ask to plug things in. This also happened to me with a fan at another sale that when tested did not work. Check snaps and zippers etc.

    I also bring my list of what my kids need with me and that really helps. Although its harder to find older kid’s stuff now than it was baby stuff. I also second the idea of going to large sales. I love the ones that are all in the school gym or block sales since there is much more in one spot. The other good ones are often “moving sales” since people don’t want to move their stuff so they are getting rid of it. Those sales are even more likely though to attract early buyers since they are usually heavily based on furniture. I have also found good things at “day care closing” yard sales since they want to get rid of lots of children’s stuff (almost all my craft stuff has come from a few of those sales) and they often have other things like outdoor play stuff etc. there.

    I also prefer to go without my kids since then I can concentrate. Or we go as a whole family and my husband watches the kids for the most part. I’m glad I am not the only one whose children are offered stuff and having to deal with saying no.

  8. I LOVE garage sales! I keep a running list through the winter of anything we might need (or like to have if we can get it cheap!). I’ve even started shopping for clothes for myself now too. If they end up not fitting I just take them to the resale shop downtonwn so I don’t worry about paying even $5 for a shirt that doesn’t end up fitting right. I have not let having 3 little ones stop me from garage sale-ing–no way! 🙂 It’s how I buy most of their clothes (besides Mom2Mom). I’ve had some amazing finds (thank you Lord!) like my ergo baby carrier for $4!!! $4 for brand new curtains from restoration hardware which I resold on ebay for $180!
    I too stick to the sub sales now that i have little ones b/c I don’t want to waste time/gas/patience running from sale to sale only to be disappointed by no good finds.
    this past weekend i got a nice grill for my husband for $35 (happy early father’s day!) and a mosquito magnet for $20 (w/propane tank w/propane in it and the tablets that go w/the magnet!) the tank alone was worth $20, and great looking booster seat for my daughter ($2)!
    I always pray b/f I head out that the Lord would open my eyes to the good deals!!!

  9. Great tips! I love garage sales, but do tend to sometimes pick up stuff that I don’t really need. I think your advice will help me prepare better for future shopping!

  10. Lately, I have found lots of great bargains at estate sales!! They are my favorite! It is fascinating in a bitter-sweet way to see items that have been accumulated over a person’s lifetime.

    1. @Kim, I love estate sales too! They are great for larger items like furniture, appliances, complete sets of dishes, linens etc. We’ve gotten a deep freeze, dresser, several side/end tables and lots of kitchen knick knacks. They also seem better organized. We’re on a mailing list of a woman who runs estate sales and she’s always sending out notices that list what items will be for sale.
      I will admit they aren’t the best for children’s things.

    2. @Kim,
      I love estate sales! I find that they have much higher quality items. The prices can be higher as well, but often the second day of the sale everything is 50% off. (Check before, but this is how they work in my area.) I only have real wood furniture in my house (no particleboard with toxic glues) and find that estate sales are the best place for quality wood furniture at fair prices.

  11. Two weeks ago I was able to find a large box full of quart sized mason jars for $2. I have to buy lids and give them a good cleaning, but I thought it was a mighty good deal.

  12. Great ideas! I just wrote a blog myself about garage sale-ing, which is my favorite summer thing to do. I love having the list of sizes of things I need, so then I don’t end up with 14 of the same size of something. And for those who think they can’t garage sale with kids, just be creative! I have 3 little ones, and it has never stopped me because of the deals I can find. It is a great teaching time for self-control (not too expensive usually if they break something) and listening skills. Keeping aware of your child’s limits is also necessary too. Know when to just go home!

  13. When I was young (5-10 or so) my mom and aunt would garage and estate sale All Morning Long! The best idea they had, though, was to give me $1-$2 in quarters. I knew exactly how much money I had, it was entirely my decision to buy or not buy each item, and there was NO asking mom for more. Any cousins that came along got the same amount. Sometimes we blew it on donuts at the first sale of the morning and I’m sure there were a lot of junky purchases made. But it kept me out of Mom’s hair!

    Now that I’m pregnant we are trying to get an entirely used/second-hand layette. I agree that making a list of what you are looking for helps keep you focused! My husband and I often garage sale together and the list helps him feel like he’s more involved, too. He checks out yard tools and such, but if there’s buckets of kid’s clothes he can look through them and easily see if it’s on the list (I’ve also included our approx. ‘budget’ for each item or set of items so he can determine if it’s a good deal or not)

  14. I totally envy you moms that get up early and go garage sale shopping. In my heart I long to do this, but I can’t possible imagine getting up even earlier on a Saturday morning. Maybe I will get some motivation this summer though!

  15. I love garage sales! I recently scored a great deal on high quality garden tools for our community garden plot.

  16. Excellent post! We have found great deals at garage sales over the years, such as an older Vita-Mix. Garage saling is a great way to stretch the budget!!

  17. A friend who enjoys yard saleing as much as myself brings her kids over, and then we chip in on a sitter for a few hours early Friday morning. The gal is great, I usually pay her in groceries or personal care items from couponing. We all end up getting what we wanted, and enjoying some great fellowship as well! 🙂

  18. Garage sales are our main source of clothing for our boys and I get such high quality items.

    In our area, as sales close, many people post on craigslist that everything is free. I keep an eye out in the late afternoon and if the sale is close, we run over. We have gotten many nice items this way.

    Another tip. If you have a little extra cash and find something priced far below it’s value, you can make money reselling it. We have had success doing this, especially with small furniture items and baby things we know will be popular. It is a slight risk but has worked great for us.

    Happy Sale-ing!

  19. I lost my first response to this post, so hopefully this entry is not a repeat! My son and I are garage sale addicts. He’s been going with me since he was a baby, and now at 46 months, he loves it as much as I do. We have saved hundreds of dollars on his wardrobe, books, and toys. I manage to distract him when necessary long enough for the seller to conceal future gift items – all his 3d birthday gifts and some Christmas gifts were garage sale finds.

    He is learning life skills and interacts sociably with the sellers and other shoppers – something that does not happen in a big retail environment. He is learning frugality and good money sense – and how to recognize treasures amidst the junk. I remind him each time before we get out of the car that if I say “No” to an item, we will talk about it once back in the car because it might be too dirty, broken, or the seller wants too much money for the item. He is learning to negotiate not because I try to reduce the price with the seller, but because we talk about why waiting for a better item is wise, or we discuss the reasons for rejecting an item. He’s had enough gratification from waiting in the past that he knows this is sometimes necessary and wise.

    When he points out items of interest at retailers, I remind him that we find those items at garage sales. This teaches him delayed gratification as well. He accepts the answer well. He sees me passing up things in hopes of finding them at garage sales, too (such as jewelry, glass storage, or other kitchen gadgets). There is something about that lonely or one-of-a-kind toy at garage sales that generate an emotional experience for a more intentional purpose than the impersonal experience of buying a lifeless glossy item from the big retailer’s shelf.

  20. Another tip is to scan the entire sale before starting to look at specific items. A general sweep of the whole area can help you spot an item before it’s gone. I’m still kicking myself for missing a $5 Kirby vaccuum and a $4 flat screen monitor that were snapped up while I was busy looking at specific junk on a table. Arrghh!

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