Few people really enjoy wasting their hard-earned money, but many of us do it every day by buying new. We could do our pocketbooks, and the environment, a big favor by opting to be the second owner of some of the stuff we buy.
Obviously, some things are best purchased new; lingerie pops to mind (see my companion piece, "10 things you should never buy used" for more). But lots of other stuff depreciates quickly while still having plenty of useable life left. Here are 10 items where the cost vs. use equation strongly tilts toward buying used.
- Books, books, books. Now this is awkward, because I wrote a book. (Warning! Shameless plug ahead!) It's called, "Your Credit Score: How to Fix, Improve and Protect the 3-Digit Number that Shapes Your Financial Future," and of course, I'd love for you to go out and purchase a new copy. (End of shameless plug.)
But the reality is that most books don't get read more than once, if that, and they're astonishingly easy to find used at steep discounts -- if not absolutely free.
Your local library, for example, may allow you to reserve titles online and then deliver them to your nearest branch for pick-up. Used book stores abound, both in your town and online. If you're looking for a potboiler to get you through your next cross-country flight, just stop by almost any yard sale and pick up four for $1.
Exception: Reference books you'll use again and again. For example, I bought a deeply-discounted copy of Cheryl Mendelson's excellent "Home Comforts." That was after checking the book out at the library and running up a small fortune in fines because I couldn't bear to part with it.
- DVDs and CDs. Some online retailers, like MSN Shopping and Amazon.com, now surface used versions of many of the DVD movies they sell new. You can find similar deals for online CDs (yes, Virginia, some of us dinosaurs still buy CDs). Other good hunting grounds for purchase of used items: movie rental chains like Blockbuster; used record stores; yard sales.
Exception: When you simply must have the latest release by your favorite singer/director/actor, right now. It can take a few days or weeks for the used versions to show up, and perhaps a few months for the price to get discounted enough to compensate for the greater hassle you might face trying to return a defective or unsatisfactory purchase.
- Little kids' toys. Parents know: it's all but impossible to predict which toy will be a hit and which will lie forlorn at the bottom of the toy box. So rather than gamble at full price, cruise consignment shops and yard sales for bargains. My husband's latest score: a plastic Push, Pedal 'N Ride Trike (retails for $28, he paid $10) that looks like new after a brief scrub.
Better than cheap, though, is free. Some parents set up regular toy-swapping meets, or you might be lucky enough to score hand-me-downs from friends and relatives.
Exception: Some parents get away with giving used toys for birthdays and holidays, but most of us (and our kids) have been fairly well brainwashed into believing that gifts should be purchased new. Try to opt, though, for classics, like sturdy wooden toys.
- Jewelry. Fat markups on most gems (100% or more is fairly common) means that you'd be lucky to get one-third of what you paid at a retail store, should you ever need to sell.
So let somebody else get socked with that depreciation. Find a pawn shop that's been in business for awhile, get to know the owner and ask him or her for recommendations. Some readers have had good results buying via newspaper ads, but I'd want to take the piece to a jeweler for an appraisal first.
Exception: You want something custom-made. Even then, consider buying used stones and getting them reset.
- Sports equipment. We may buy everything from badminton rackets to weight sets fully intending to wear them out, but too often they wind up collecting dust. Buy someone else's good intention and you'll save some bucks.
Happy hunting grounds: yard sales, newspaper and online ads, resale stores like Play It Again Sports.
Exception: Shoes, baseball mitts and anything else that will mold to the wearer's body. In addition, some people shun buying anything used if it has a motor, like a treadmill. They worry they won't get enough use out of the piece before it dies. Given how little use most such devices get before they're sold, though, you might want to take the chance.
- Timeshares. You could call these a notoriously lousy investment if you could call them an investment at all, but you can't -- because what real investment is guaranteed to lose 30% to 70% right off the bat?
That is, unless you buy used. There's a huge number of folks who caved in to three hours of hard sell and are now desperate to dump their shares.
Exception: Some of the higher-end properties in exclusive resorts don't lose much value, and may offer benefits like frequent-flyer miles that could be worth the extra money if you buy from the developer. Before you buy, though, check resale values online; don't take an agent's word for how much depreciation to expect. Also, a relatively new type of expensive time share, called a fractional interest, may actually gain in value over time.
- Cars. The average new car loses 12.2% of its value in the first year, according to Edmunds.com; on a $20,000 car, that's $2,440, or more than $200 a month. Some cars depreciate even faster, depending on demand, incentives offered and other factors.
Why not let someone else take that hit? Not only will you be able to save money (or buy more car), but you'll pay less for insurance. Cars are better-built and last longer than ever before, which means you're less likely to get a lemon. Companies like CarFax allow you to trace a car's history. Many late-model used cars are still under warranty, and a trusted mechanic can give your potential purchase the once-over to spot any problems. Take a look at the Used Car Research section of MSN Autos for a lot of great information.
Exception: You can pay cash and you really, really want that new-car smell.
- Software and console games. Buy used, and you'll pay half or less what the software cost new. Console games like those for the Xbox and Sony PS2 that list for $50 new, for instance, can often be purchased used for $20 or less a year after release.
But it's more than just a matter of economy. Letting someone else be the early adopter also allows you to benefit from their experience. You'll find more reviews and information on software that's been out a year or more (and you won't be that far behind the leading edge). The bugs will have been identified along with any workarounds, although you may have to live with some problems that are fixed in later versions.
Exception: If you do a lot of work with graphics, multimedia or image editing and you have a newer, more powerful computer, you'll probably want the state-of-the-art version. Finally, some software restricts the number of computers on which it can be installed, which can make it difficult (but not impossible) to transfer the product license to a new owner.
- Office furniture. Built to take a beating and last a lifetime, good-quality office desks, filing cabinets and credenzas are relatively easy to find even when a recession isn't cratering the local economy.
Exception: Some people balk at buying used chairs for the same reason they won't buy a used catcher's mitt -- it's had too many hours to mold to someone else's body.
- Hand tools. Well-made tools with few or no moving parts -- like hammers, wrenches, shovels, hoes, etc. -- can last decades with proper maintenance and are relatively easy to find at yard sales. If you're not going to use a tool frequently, you may be able to rent it or borrow from a friend or neighbor rather than buying something else to clutter up your garage. (Some neighborhoods even run tool-sharing cooperatives.)
Exception: You're a hard-core do-it-yourselfer and you need power tools, especially cordless versions. These have a relatively limited life span and you may not know how much time they've got left. If the tool is cheap enough, of course, that may not matter, but most often you'll want to buy new if the power tool will get substantial use.
Liz Pulliam Weston's column appears every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. She also answers reader questions in the Your Money message board.