KANSAS CITY -- Looks like Santa's got a new bag this holiday season. With spending money tight for so many people, second-hand gifts are getting a strong second look.
Savvy shoppers call them "well-loved treasures": stuff you can buy at swap meets, estate sales, moving sales, auctions, antique and vintage shops, consignment and thrift stores, and on Web sites.
Online message boards are brimming with frugal buyers who have decided to give only gifts from second-hand sources this year. "My entire Xmas list cost me $160. If I'd bought it all retail it would have been $1,700," boasts one thrifty Mrs. on her blog.
Even re-gifting seems to be taking on a certain cachet -- just as long as everyone is in on the game. And Black Friday madness has hit thrift stores nationwide, with shops keeping extended hours.
Lydia Friz is a pro at shopping for second-hand gifts. She shopped the Urban Mining Homewares sale earlier this month. At the First Friday vintage market she bought her mom a set of eight china bowls, daintily sized for ice cream. Total cost: $24.
She also found a pretty glass perfume bottle for $8, a Christmas gift for her sister-in-law, a fragrance buff.
"I keep my eye out for a couple of months" before Christmas, she said. "I don't want to be going to the mall on Christmas Eve and just be picking up something random."
Susan Hartnett, one of the four owners of the Urban Mining co-op in Kansas City, said there are more benefits to shopping second hand than just being "green."
Vintage photographs and fantastic silks, for example, are brought back to life and become one-of-a-kind gifts.
"You can find amazing things that are really specific to a person," Ms. Hartnett said. "It's not special to anyone just sitting in here. But once you give it as a gift to a loved one, then it becomes a re-heirloom, in a way."
Want to shop second hand but don't know how? Here's some advice.
For some people, there is still an "ick" factor when it comes to second hand shopping. Someone's eaten off these plates! Someone's worn this coat!
Ease up. Think: "I'm going to score a great find. I'm going to save lots of money. I'm helping to save the planet."
If you've never been to an estate sale or thrift store, go with someone who knows his or her way around. "Then you feel a little more comfortable," said Nancy Sinovic Price, owner of Blue Tape Sales & Service, which runs estate and moving sales around Kansas City.
"I think it's a different feel now because people who've never been to an estate sale are going 'This is kind of cool.' And if they find just one thing, it kind of gives them the itch to go to another house. Then all of a sudden they're shopping in a thrift store, because all of it is pre-used stuff."
Make a list:
Put careful thought into who you are buying for before you shop. That's particularly important because you often can't return something you've bought from a second hand source.
Do not pass off a second-hand gift as new. And don't ever choose something solely because the price was right.
Consider how recipients decorate or their interests: vintage pie server for the baker, an old map of a traveler's favorite destination, antique beer bottles for the amateur beer maker, perhaps.
On the other hand, if you think the person you're buying for won't appreciate or like something previously used -- and you know who they are -- don't even bother.
Do your homework:
Save yourself time and gas money by scoping out the sales before you hit the road.
"Check the ad in the newspaper. Check the Web site of the people doing the estate sale," said Kelly Kraus of Parkville, Mo., who one early morning last week shopped a Blue Tape estate sale in Overland Park, Kan. "A lot of times they'll have pictures online."
Befriending a store's staff is a must, too, if you want to score the best deals. Introduce yourself to them, and visit the store often. Knowing the person who prices things is, well, priceless.
Don't be afraid to ask the staff to help you choose a gift, said Ms. Hartnett at Urban Mining. "They can guide you to the perfect item, and they know what it is." Part of the charm of a pre-used gift is passing along its history, too, she said.
Clean it up:
When Ronda Simpson's daughters were starting out on their own, the retired nurse from Overland Park would buy them used pots and pans, silverware, and other housewares at estate sales. She cleaned everything very carefully.
"Make sure you don't buy something that's too dirty, cracked, or broken," said Ms. Kraus, who regularly shops estate sales. "A lot of these sales have new stuff that's never been taken out of the boxes. ... We all have stuff in our homes that we bought with the intention of using but haven't. There's somebody out there looking for that."
Think kid stuff:
Toys are some of the most popular second-hand items people buy during the holidays. (What 2-year-old can tell a new toy from used?) Some thrift stores hold back a lot of toys just for the Christmas shopping season.
Craigslist and newspaper classified ads are two of the most useful tools for finding toys made by popular brands, such as Little Tikes and Step2, Ms. Sinovic Price said.
"If there's a little bit of wear, all you have to do is get some Fantastik, a little bit of Soft Scrub, and all of a sudden you can get something for $10, $20, as opposed to $100."
Make sure the toys aren't broken or otherwise unsafe, and haven't been recalled. Check with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, cpsc.gov.
Think of presentation:
Any gift can be made to look like a treasure.
Amanda Williams once bought her mom a gold candle holder for $3 at an antique store and packed it in a pretty box with a candle made by a local company. "I'm an aesthetician, so I think about those things," said Ms. Williams, who lives in Kansas City.
Haggle, haggle, haggle:
"Almost everything can be haggled," Ms. Simpson said.
Even vintage and thrift shops will sometimes haggle with customers. But many people are willing to pay the full sticker price at stores run by charities.
Prices at estate and yard sales are typically reduced on the second day. "But if you find something that is particularly wonderful, that isn't unreasonably priced and it's not something you would find very often, then don't pass it up."
Where to start?
Local second-hand stores: Find them at Narts.org, the Web site of the Association of Resale Professionals.
Govdeals.com and govsales.gov: The government updates daily with thousands of items, including coffeemakers and Cartier watches.
Shopgoodwill.com: An online auction site that works like eBay. Registration is free; 5 percent handling fee, plus shipping.
Choose sellers with ratings of at least 98 percent.
Pay with a credit (not debit) card so you have purchase protection.
When shopping for electronics, search for "NWT" (new with tags) or "NIB" (new in box).
For home furnishings or clothes, search "EUC" for "excellent used condition," or "MNT" for "mint."
Don't forget to factor in the cost of shipping.
Source: Carmen Wong Ulrich, host of CNBC's "On the Money" and author of "Generation Debt: Take Control of Your Money."