7 money lessons I learned from thrift shopping

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Back-to-School Money Lessons

I've been an avid thrift-shopper for the past three decades. Beyond a simple hobby, I have to admit thrift-shopping is a bit of an obsession for me — it channels my inner treasure hunter and provides an endless source of entertainment. (I'm a cheap date.) And besides saving me thousands of dollars over the years, it's also helped me learn a few important financial principles, too. Here are seven money lessons I've learned from thrift-shopping.

1. Retail Markups Can Be Massive

Retail markup on common items is so steep it should make most store managers blush. Between wholesale and retail, eyeglasses can be marked up by as much as 1000%, jeans 350%, and furniture 400%. While I don't begrudge anyone turning a healthy profit, I don't want to be the one to pay it. Thrift-shopping helps maximize my budget by minimizing my exposure to excessive markups.

2. Depreciation Is a Powerful Force

Depreciation is the reduction in value an item experiences over time, usually due to wear and tear. But depreciation can happen without any wear at all. Drive that brand-new car off the lot and it's immediately transformed into a used car that's worth about 25% less. At a certain point, the downward force of depreciation becomes so significant that those of us who buy second-hand are getting great items at or below the manufacturer's cost of production.

3. Retail Discounts Aren't So Great

Considering retail markup can be a few hundred percent on some items, even the most generous discounts seem cheap by comparison. Why do we get such a charge out of saving 15% percent on an item selling 400% above wholesale? When we purchase a new item in a department store, we're not just covering excessive retail markup; we're also shouldering the biggest depreciation event — taking an item from coveted new status to scorned used status. Those of us who buy second-hand are side-stepping each of these forces and saving money in the process.

4. Value Is Arbitrary

Once we understand how retail mark-ups and depreciation work, it easier to grasp one essential truth: Value is an arbitrary thing. It's profoundly influenced by the retail industry, the marketing companies they employ, and our own tendency to favor new stuff over used stuff. Forget what you've been taught. Broaden your perception of value and save loads of cash.

5. Simplicity Saves Money

We live in a nation of excess and few places showcase that excess more clearly than thrift stores. Items are cast off as styles change, as technology changes, and as trends fade away. The next time you're in a second-hand store, consider the amount of cash all that inventory cost when new. It's a constant reminder to keep things simple, gravitate toward quality and classic styles, and avoid falling victim to expensive trends.

6. Planning Matters

Thrift-shopping is a game of chance and timing. To make of the most of it, you have to know what you need today and what you'll probably need six months from now. Once you're looking through a wider scope, you can spot bargains, seize deals, and avoid those last-minute — and expensive — buys at the department store.

7. There Are Business Opportunities Everywhere

Fact: People love to buy stuff, but not everyone has the time to hunt for what they want or the talent to spot a gem in a pile of junk. Enter the thrift-shoppers, the auction-goers, and the diehard flea market fans. Well before the Internet made selling a snap, I was flipping thrift-store finds to antique dealers and interior designers in Chicago. It turned something I loved to do anyway into a profitable business and helped me think more creatively and independently about income. (See also: 5 Things You Can Resell on eBay That Make the Most Money)

So, the next time you find yourself near a thrift store with the kids in tow, stop and take 30 minutes to browse around. It's not only a hotspot for bargains; it's the perfect place to learn about saving (and making) money.

Related: 15 things you should stop wasting your money on

15 things you can stop wasting your money on
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7 money lessons I learned from thrift shopping

1. Cable TV

With the advent of Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Apple TV, there's hardly a reason to splurge on a fancy DVR system or even basic cable — so long as you're willing to be patient.

Most shows are added at least 24-hours after airing and some networks won't give them up until eight days.

See some great alternatives to cable TV here.

Via Business Insider

Photo Credit: Getty

2. Bank fees

Banks love to slap you with fees at the drop of a hat, but that doesn't mean you've got to put up with it.

"Consider going with a credit union, which are better than banks in many ways, to avoid some of these fees," says Andrew Schrage, founder of MoneyCrashers.com.

"If you travel abroad often, make sure you use credit cards without foreign transaction fees, otherwise you'll be paying an extra 3% to 5% on all your purchases."

Via Business Insider

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3. Extended warranties

Retailers push hard to sell you extended warranties — and conveniently pump up their sales figures at the same time.

Don't do it, Schrage warns.

"The only instance I'd recommend a warranty is in the case of a laptop. Otherwise, the warranties themselves can often cost as much as simply buying a used or new replacement for your item, or repairing it," he adds.

Via Business Insider

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4. The roof over your head

If you're blowing most of your income on a loft in Midtown, you're making a big mistake, says Jeremy Gregg, executive director of the PLAN Fund.

His organization provides loans to low-income entrepreneurs, who Gregg says he often sees spend more than half their income on rent and utilities.

The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development recommends spending less than one-third of your income on housing.

Via Business Insider

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5. Unnecessary smartphone data

"Many of us (including me) pick a cell phone plan, then never check to see if it's the right one for us based on our usage," writes author of "I Will Teach You To Be Rich," Ramit Sethi. "Because the average cell phone bill is about $50, that's $600 per year of money you can optimize."

When buying a new cell phone, Sethi likes to pay a little bit more upfront by choosing the unlimited data and text messaging plan. He then sets a three-month check-in on his calendar, and analyzes his spending patterns after a few months to see where he can cut back.

You can use this method for any usage-based services, he says.

Via Business Insider

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6. Online shipping

Nearly all retailers offer some sort of option that gets your purchases to your doorstep without additional fees.

Zappos and L.L. Bean are among the rarest breed of businesses offering free shipping on every single purchase, but most companies will demand a minimum purchase.

To help track down deals on shipping, use Freeshipping.org. The site stores information on expiration dates, tells you much to spend to qualify, and lets you search by store name or product.

Otherwise, check out CouponSherpa or Retailmenot, which offer discount codes for free shipping.

Via Business Insider

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

7. Cheap art

Environmental designer Pablo Solomon says picking up knockoff prints and other art is a great way to blow cash for no good reason.

"Nothing sends me through the roof like the art sold on cruise ships and at resorts," Solomon says. "(They're) basically glorified posters being sold as originals."

The best way to score deals on art is to track up and comers, he says. You can nab their art early on and laugh your way to the bank after they've made it big.

Via Business Insider

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8. Fast food

You're only hurting yourself (and your wallet) if you're feeding yourself out of the bodega around the corner from your home or office.

"I am shocked at how many people live paycheck-to-paycheck and yet routinely spend $10 per day on fast food and convenience store food," Gregg says.

If you're looking for an alternative to brown-bagging it, check out how to shop for the healthiest foods at the grocery store for the least amount of money, and start preparing your own food.

Via Business Insider

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9. Piecemeal insurance

Buying overpriced insurance for things like accidental death and diseases is an easy way to blow your funds.

"Instead of buying piecemeal insurance policies, get good term life insurance and disability insurance," says Sally Herigstad, a certified public accountant and Creditcard.com columnist.

Take a look at the types of insurance you should buy at every age.

Via Business Insider

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10. Lousy gifts

Personal finance expert Dani Johnson suggests you think twice before rushing out to buy Dad another tie this Christmas.

"You should make a pact with your friends and family to give back instead," Johnson says. "Pool a percentage of money you were going to spend on gifts and give a secret blessing to somebody who is truly in need."

If you want to buy a great gift without completely breaking the bank, check out these holiday gift ideas for under $50.

Via Business Insider

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11. Weight loss traps

Weight loss pills and supplements marketed as miracles for overweight couch potatoes are most likely traps.

"Not only are there enough pills and potions that you could start a new one each week, but the negative effects on your health outweighs the money you will waste," says nutritionist Rania Batayneh.

"This is a billion dollar industry and the truth is that a lean body does not come in a pill," Batayneh says.

Via Business Insider

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12. Lottery tickets

"Sure, you can (buy a lottery ticket) every once in a while just for fun, but never make a lottery purchase with any real expectation of winning," Schrage warns.

"The odds are significantly stacked against you, and why waste your hard-earned money on lottery tickets when you could be saving for retirement or treating yourself to a nice meal?"

Via Business Insider

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13. Brand new cars

"People get bored with cars quickly. They always want a new car and so they're always dealing with a car payment," says certified financial planner Michael Egan. "But it's a hugely depreciating asset. You don't want to be putting a lot of money into something that's going to be worth nothing after a certain number of years."

Look for used car options, which could save you a substantial amount of money. Check out Kelley Blue Book to get an idea of how much you should pay for a used car.

Another option is leasing a car. You can determine whether or not this is a good option for you by following this flow chart.

Via Business Insider

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14. Subscriptions

Subscriptions — to magazines, newspapers, and the gym — can add up, and oftentimes, we don't use them as much as we had originally planned.

Sethi recommends implementing what he calls the 'à la carte' method, which takes advantage of psychology to cut our costs.

"Cancel all the discretionary subscriptions you can: your magazines, TiVo, cable — even your gym," Sethi explains in "I Will Teach You To Be Rich." "Then, buy what you need à la carte. Instead of paying for a ton of channels you never watch on cable, buy only the episodes you watch for $1.99 each off iTunes. Buy a day pass for the gym each time you go."

It works for three reasons, Sethi writes: You're likely overpaying already, you're forced to be conscious about your spending, and you value what you pay for.

Via Business Insider

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15. A morning latte

Author of "The Automatic Millionaire," David Bach, coined the term, "The Latte Factor," which basically says that if you ditch your $4 latte every morning, you'd have quite a bit of money to contribute towards savings — about $30 a week, or $120 a month). Over the course of a few decades, that money could grow substantially.

Rather, invest in a nice coffee maker, even if the price tag is a bit steep. Oftentimes, spending more on high quality items can help you save in the long run.

It can seem counterintuitive to make purchases to save, but that's what some of the most successful money-savers do. They're not just buying things, they're investing in things — tools and services — that will eventually save them money over time.

Via Business Insider

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Are you a thrift-shopper? How has it changed how you think about money?

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