Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Are garage sales obsolete?

Last weekend we participated in a garage sale with some other members of our family. Unfortunately it was mostly a bust. Our gross sales were about $150, and that was split among four households. I'd estimate that we sold about 1% of the goods we offered for sale. It was nice to get rid of the stuff, but still, we were disappointed.

I have to wonder what went wrong. Very few shoppers came. The ones that did bought a pretty decent amount of stuff, so I don't think there was a problem with the goods or the way we laid them out. I think the sale was well advertised and there were no weather problems, so I think it was simply lack of interest in garage sales.

My hypothesis is that three trends are killing garage sales.

The first is fuel prices. The value proposition of a garage sale gets a lot worse when it costs a few dollars to drive to it. So I bet some garage sale veterans are (rationally) choosing to go garage-saling less.

The second trend is the rise of eBay, Craigslist, and Freecycle. All three are more convenient than garage sales since they let you shop for precisely what you want instead of sifting through a pile of everything. Most people probably prefer Craigslist and Freecycle for nearly-free stuff, and eBay and thrift stores for more valuable used items. That leaves a very narrow gap for garage sales to fill.

Finally I think this is part of the broader trend of Generation Y's preference for electronically-mediated interactions. Craigslist and eBay are fully Web 2.0-ified, but a garage sale is a purely in-person, face-to-face, analog affair. Our sale's customers support this idea, at least anecdotally. Almost all our customers were middle aged or older; we only had one group under the age of thirty, and the neighborhood kids ignored us entirely.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Products vs projects

A key mindset in frugality or simple living is to think in terms of utility rather than products. Our consumer-driven society is oriented to solving all wants by purchasing retail goods. The frugal mindset turns this on its head, and looks for means to ends. Buying something is but one of many solutions. It's push vs. pull. Marketing pushes: "you should be worried about identity theft and insurance solves that." Frugalers pull: "I need news. Talk to my neighbor? Blogs? Get a radio from Freecycle? Watch TV at the pub? If all else fails buy a newspaper or pay for cable."

This principle is manifested in a lot of bulleted money saving tips: brew your own coffee, buy used cars, use the library, and so on. The common thread is to identify the need, separate the core necessity (e.g. a book to read) from the unneeded frills (e.g. ability to keep the book permanently after it's read), and find the minimal solution that meets the core need.

When the "pull" mentality becomes an instinct these lists of tips become redundant because you automatically do this stuff as a matter of course. You might notice one or two clever ideas you hadn't thought of, but that's trimming around the edges. Detailed budgets become redundant as well. There's no need to monitor and ration your book expenditures (for instance) when you're already avoiding time-wasters and maximizing your library usage.

There's also a sense of calm that comes from acquiring things in response to only your own impulses and not the implied expectations of others. Those marketing messages work by instilling insecurities and providing solutions to them. Next time you see an ad, ask yourself "what is this ad designed to make me insecure about?" It's a relief to block out all those seeds for insecurity.

This all crystalized for me while watching a Linux machine install itself. Bear with me here. Historically Linux software had utilitarian, descriptive names. The Editing Macros are "emacs". The C Pre-Processor is "cpp". Free software isn't meant to be sold, so its name is just a utilitarian identifier. Indeed, the developers are sensitive about calling their work projects, never products. It's the "pull" mentality, and it's refreshing.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Frugal Entertainment: Pub Trivia

My favorite frugal entertainment activity is Trivia Night at our local pub. $2 will buy your way in to participating in the trivia event, in which teams of up to 8 people battle it out to be crowned "King/Queen with the most useless knowledge". I am a connoisseur of all things pop culture related, and thanks to wikipedia, Kevin has more obscure knowledge than he will ever need. Lucky for us, we have friends with similar mental prowesses, and most nights, we make a damn fine team (especially with entire categories devoted to knowledge of swords).

The pot for winning an evening of trivia can range from $60 to $120, depending on how many teams are playing that evening. If your team is lucky (and knowledgeable enough) to win, you walk away with a profit from partaking in this experience (or breaking even, at the very least). And even if you don't win, you have an enjoyable evening drinking and commiserating with like minded people. Always a positive in my book. Try for a listing of pubs that hold trivia nights in your neck of the woods!

Monday, June 2, 2008

GLOwing weekend

Early in graduate school, a friend and I termed the phrase "General Life Organization" (GLO), pronounced "glow". GLOwing means catching up on all the loose threads: running errands, catching up on housework, computer maintenance, paperwork, setting up furniture, and all those kinds of low-priority tasks that pile up.

We spent this weekend "GLOwing". I'd been under rapid-fire deadlines for the past two weeks so the entropy was stacking up. Things reached a breaking point when one of our book shelves tipped, triggering a "bookvalanche" that made a huge mess. Our biggest accomplishment was reorganizing our office space, including identifying a huge pile of books to get rid of. We also stocked up on food at Costco and the farmer's market, bought some much-needed clothes, made a thrift store run, organized our recipes into a binder, replaced a flaky network cable, and got about 90% of the way through merging our two always-on Linux computers into one machine.

I'd estimate we're getting rid of 4 linear feet of books. Most of them are old textbooks, which turned out to be worthless. Lesson learned: if a textbook isn't worth keeping forever, sell it ASAP. I'm getting rid of all my roleplaying game books from high school; those have a little sentimental value but I learned that I can buy PDF copies of the few that I care about. I'm pretty happy to convert bulky, rarely-read books into a PDF file on my computer. We're trying to unload the books on Amazon and an upcoming family garage sale, and will donate whatever's left over.

Sifting through the books wasn't fun. In many of the borderline cases we'd either feel frustrated by the money we once spent, or anxious that we might want the book "someday" for some reason. But seeing that heap of clutter leaving the house was well worth it. It's a couple hundred pounds of material that we are no longer responsible for, won't have to move, and someone else can benefit from. Our bookshelves were overflowing, and now we have ample space. Now we're on the warpath for more clutter to jettison. My pile of spare computer parts is the next target.