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My Thrifting Habit

Is it turning my son into a materialist?

Confession: I like to thrift. I mean, I really like to thrift. There is something about the combination of endless novelty, potential treasures and bargains, learning about history and identifying objects that is positively intoxicating for me. My husband and son enjoy it as well, and it has become a regular fun family activity. Between Marketplace and the many excellent second-hand stores on the Island, we’ve found many treasures with which to furnish and decorate our home in a way that makes us happy.

But, at what point do we have too much? I know Maximalist design is all the rage right now, but we’re running out of space, and spending money on things we don’t need is still spending money, even if the money spent is a fraction of what said things are worth. I’m also acutely aware of the privilege of our position—we can choose to shop second-hand and are lucky to have a little bit of disposable income with which to do so, whereas many don’t have the choice.

All that said, stay tuned as I try to justify my thrifting habit and talk myself out of the niggling idea that we are turning our son into a materialist. Wish me luck.

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I started thrifting for clothing about 15 years ago as a way to save money and also find unique pieces that felt more “me” than trending fashions. Over the years I began branching out, peeking into other corners: kitchenware, art, jewellery, books, etc. Now I cannot leave a store without giving the entire place a good once—or twice—over to make sure I haven’t missed anything amazing.

When my son was younger, a weekly solo thrifting trip to the local shops was a wonderful way for me to unwind and get out of my overactive brain for a bit. As he got older, my son became intensely curious about what I was doing so I started to bring him with me once in awhile. I won’t lie; this was incredibly stressful—my tactile little guy reached for everything shiny in sight as I inwardly screamed, “Not the crystal!” Fortunately (miraculously?) we’ve had only one breakage incident, and his dad was beside him for that one, so perhaps all my anxiety has been for naught. At any rate, my now seven-year-old has learned to be remarkably careful and respectful in all stores.

However, he has also caught the thrifting bug. It happened after Santa brought him a Hulk action figure. He became focused on hunting for other Marvel characters he didn’t have, then for rarer figures and now if our house is ever invaded he’s accrued quite an army of super heroes to defend it. And stuffies. Oh my goodness, the stuffies. You might be thinking, well why did you buy them for him? Excellent point, and I will answer it honestly: because they were super cheap and if he was happy it bought me time to look at things I wanted to look at.

A few months ago I had to nip in the bud what had become an expectation of toys with every trip. This wasn’t because of his overstuffed bedroom, but because he started being so focussed on getting “something” that he was picking up any old object, even if he didn’t really want it or if it were of poor quality. This led to some tense exchanges and a couple of public meltdowns, but it was also a great teaching opportunity—my son has learned to be discriminating in his purchases and also that it is perfectly OK to leave a store empty-handed. He sees me do it all the time. The real fun of thrifting is in the hunt, not necessarily the acquisition.

Now, although the acquisition continues (more slowly), it is better stuff. My husband and I are interested in the history behind objects, and also in learning about quality materials and construction. My son is privy to all of this discussion and the discoveries we make through our research. He’s actually got a fabulous eye for spotting collectible objects and identifying them: “Oh Mama, there is a Blue Mountain Pottery swan over there, but remember, you said you were cut off!” That’s my boy…

He sees first-hand how older, vintage items are often constructed with more quality and care than modern fast-fashion/fast-breaking/fast-to-the-trash merchandise. I doubt that he will ever be one to rush out to buy the latest and most hyped products, since he has seen how temporary and wasteful they are.

My son witnesses the cycle of Stuff and knows that just because something is “old” or slightly worn, or wasn’t someone else’s cup of tea, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value for someone else. Instead of ending up in the landfill, it can enjoy another lifetime of usefulness. Points for Planet Earth!

All this material does build up though, and we have had to start culling our collections. This has been great practice for my son, who used to have an incredibly hard time giving up any of his possessions, even if they didn’t fit or were broken. He gets the opportunity to assess, on a fairly regular basis, what is important to him (what “brings him joy”) and what can continue forward in its life-cycle: passed to a friend, back to the thrift store, repurposed, upcycled or in some rare cases, disposed of.

When we first encouraged my son to part with some objects, one of our arguments was that the money the stores raised from selling things helped to support important charities and organizations in the community. This continues to open the door for more in-depth discussions of how these places make a positive difference for people who are having a hard time.

Financial literacy is in the school curriculum, and my son has already learned much about it (especially once he started making purchases with his own money). Coin values, change, taxes, comparison shopping and coupons are all things with which he gets plenty of practice and experience. Oh, and bargaining. Last summer at a garage sale I almost choked when I overheard him ask the seller if she would take half price for an item. He must get that from his dad.

So let’s see. I’ve explored how frequent trips to the thrift store have helped my son learn to be careful with breakables, to look for quality and assess needs/wants/attachments, how to identify collectible and rare objects as well as the materials with which things are constructed, how to use money, how to save money, how to save the planet and how to help the community. Maybe, just maybe, my addiction is actually a positive thing, helping my son become, not a materialist, but material literate.

At any rate, this is what I’ll keep telling myself.

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