Green Tips for Thrifty Parents

A pretty spring dress I found for Maya for $5.00

Recycling is the ultimate green thing to do, and for parents it’s a great way to save money for other things you’ll need.

To be honest, I’ve always loved thrift stores and second-hand clothing.  As a brand new “public interest” lawyer saddled under by student loans, I would organize my seasonal “wardrobe” (read: collection of old clothes) in time to try to trade it in for new duds at one of those snobby consignment shops in DC. It was one good way to get new clothes on a lean budget.

For kids’ clothes, of course, it makes even more sense. They wear everything for a nanosecond, and, based on what I see in the thrift stores and at yard sales, there’s a lot of aspirational cuteness involved in parents’ purchases.

We also pick up books – including library-quality hardcovers – from thrift stores, and church, school and library sales. I look for nicer books, and tend to also store away copies of kiddie lit classics like Little House on the Prairie when I come across them for a quarter, both because they’re a good deal and because I’m already sentimentally imagining sharing them with my girl.

Toys, obviously, are trickier. If some gizmo has been part of a safety recall, you would never find out about it. So I look for brands I know, and stay away from electronics (with metals that can degrade) and plastic stuff. If tempted, I check it over carefully for loose parts, choking hazards and overall quality. If a nicer item is being sold over the listserv, I’ll often check the reviews online to make sure it’s as good as it seems.

Cardboard puzzles are great choices, generally, if all the pieces are there, and there are excellent deals on popular games like Chutes & Ladders. (I would skip the “wooden” puzzles, as these are often made of fiberboard, which off-gasses formaldehyde.) I also pick up nice baskets for sorting all Maya’s stuff for pennies.

And of course, there’s furniture. If you can find solid wood items, that’s really a score. Craigslist is another good source for these, as are flea markets.

Here are some more tips for going green while thrifting:

The Don’ts

1)   Steer clear of bling. Cheap children’s and adult jewelry have been found to have lead and other toxic metals in them, as have those metal decorations on sweatshirts and jeans, as well as metal belt buckles on belts that are often sewn into pants for children.

2)   Avoid large decals. Most children’s and adult’s shirts with decorative decals use vinyl, or PVC (polyvinyl chloride). (This goes for new clothes too.) The older the shirt, the more likely it’s cracking and stuff is flaking off. Embroidered designs or clothes with the images woven into the fabric itself are better ways to go.

3)   Don’t buy pajamas unless they are clearly labeled “not flame resistant.” (Even I am not going to bother asking a company if a $2 pajama has chemical flame retardants in it.) Better to find a retailer with plain cotton pjs and layer those.

4)   Shoes are tricky – most cheap children’s shoes (including the ones we buy new) are “man-made materials,” i.e., plastic. They break down over time. On the other hand, I’ve seen some great like-new shoes that are leather at yard sales and picked those up.

5)   Raincoats and rainboots are also generally made of PVC (and there is PVC-free raingear available now), so I avoid those as well.

6)   I also tend to skip stuffed animals, plastic figures and old dolls. They all seem to multiply like rabbits whenever I’m not looking in the corners of Maya’s room, and there’s only a few she cares about. Dolls are mainly made of vinyl (PVC) and other plastics. Many stuffed animals are filled with plastic pellets, which could degrade, or foam or other petrochemical-based materials, and are dust and dirt magnets.

What to Look For

1)   Fancy dresses and coats tend to get very little wear and be in great shape (but check for stains!) – and are very expensive to buy new.

2)   For girls, jumpers are a great option. If they are big enough in the shoulders and arms, they may fit for several seasons, first as a dress and then as a shirt.

3)   Look several sizes ahead and buy the good labels across several seasons. The labels’ sizes can be completely off, so when I really have my act together, I bring a current dress of Maya’s and measure it against the other items, so that I can better identify what might fit both this year and next.

4)   Allow some time. Some stores are highly organized, but more often you find a jumble of sizes and seasons, and will need to go through it to see what’s really there. On occasion, Maya sleeps through this process. More often, I have to come back a few times. But when you do find things, you can buy a bunch at a time for not a lot of dough, which means fewer trips to the store.

5)   Some stores (like our local Value Village) have savings days or sticker programs where you can save even more. These may not be posted, so inquire.

6)   Costumes for the dress-up box are always great – funny hats and boas, as well as doll clothes from the baby items. The last time, I picked up a felt “Davy Crockett” raccoon cap Maya loves to prance around in for a quarter.

Of course, wash everything in environmentally friendly laundry soap.

It’s really great to watch Maya spill finger paint all over the shirt I bought for a buck. Do you have other tips for parents on recycling, thrifting, or finding things affordably?

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