Surviving a Children’s Consignment Sale

Even if you get all your baby clothes free, there comes a time when the hand-me-downs dry up and you have to buy your kids some clothes. Yard sales, Craigslist, and Goodwill are the cheapest options, but time-consuming because of limited selection (you have to go so many places), while new stores are obviously ridiculously expensive.

For me, those big semi-annual children’s consignment sales are a good balance. A decent sized one will have enough selection that you can get a lot of what you need for the season, and it’s possible to find some good deals.

But… it’s taken me five years to get the hang of the damn things. In hopes of sparing someone else a few traumatic experiences, here are my rules for survival:

1. Know the setup.

These sales are generally held in enormous warehouse spaces. They are cavernous. For people like me who do not consider shopping a recreational activity, this can be disheartening. Buck up. You can survive it for ninety minutes.

Also understand how these things are run. They are largely staffed by volunteers who gave up a few hours of their time in exchange for getting into the sale early, favorable rates on their own consignments, or other perks. They are kindly, but no almost nothing. Then there are a couple of women actually running the thing; they are elusive, but accessible in a pinch.

Unlike a traditional consignment store, at these sales, prices are set by the consignor, not the person running it. These people are also in charge of placing their own merchandise. Some people have an inflated idea what their kids’ old clothes are worth. Have a working knowledge of retail prices and if someone wants more than 50%, except in unusual cases, put it back and go on to the next thing.

 

I have been consignment sales in several states, and they all use the same kind of tagging software. Be ready for safety pins. Lots of 'em.

I have been to consignment sales in several states, and they all use the same kind of tagging software. Be ready for safety pins. Lots of ’em.

 

2. Know your kids’ sizes.

It’s not enough to know that your kid is 3 and should be in 3T. Little Brother is three and a half; he can still wear some of his 24 month pants (since he does not wear diapers anymore), while some 3T clothes are too narrow for him. Big Brother, too, is short and stocky; I have to be careful lest I buy him pants that are too tight and too long.

I have been known to attend sales with a dressmaker’s measuring tape around my neck, but, well, I lost it. So this time, I took a piece of string sized for each child and held it up to each pair of pants I considered. I was able to weed out a couple with tiny waists.

Proving that these pants are similar in size to some that I know fit Little Brother.

Proving that these pants are similar in size to some that I know fit Little Brother.

3. Make a list.

Start by inventorying your kids’ existing wardrobes. What still fits from last year? What hand-me-downs have they grown into? Yes, make them try stuff on. What are the gaps?

Then make a list of what you need–how many shirts and pairs of pants, and, when helpful, some idea of color. You probably don’t want to accidentally wind up with four pairs of nearly identical navy pants, for instance, or you might want black to go with a particular shirt. Nor do you want to wind up like me some years, with four pairs of pajamas but only four long-sleeved daytime shirts for one kid.

Little Brother's list. His is shorter because he gets hand-me-downs. Big Brother, for instance, also needed a light jacket and some PJs.

Little Brother’s list. His is shorter because he gets hand-me-downs. Big Brother, for instance, also needed a light jacket and some PJs.

4. Choose your time.

Many sales have a half-price last day that can be great if you need a bunch of clothes (all the good strollers and whatnot will be long gone) and aren’t that picky. Otherwise, after the beginning of the sale, generally the crowds and selection dwindle together. If you need some very specific items, gird your loins and go early. If you are worried about having a panic attack in the baby bathtub section (TIP: You don’t actually need one of these; you have a sink right?), go later. I chose to go on day 2 (Friday) of a four-day sale. Reasonable selection, smaller crowds, and they had sent me a ten-dollar-off coupon good for just that day.

5. Secure your children.

I have tried various methods for this:

  • Carrying a baby on my front or back. This is extremely uncomfortable for shopping racks above shoulder-level. Don’t.
  • Baby in a stroller. OK, but once he finishes the Cheerios you put in his cupholder, he’ll be ready to leave.
  • Sharing kid duties with another mom. OK, but trying to keep them from destroying the toys was stressful, and I felt rushed when the other mom was watching my tots.
  • Leaving them at home with Dad. Obviously the ideal solution, but due to the timing of the sales, not always possible.
  • Distracting them with my cell phone. This one was largely a winner, although it only worked because Big Brother was at school. I pre-downloaded a Duplo train game and it kept Little Brother engaged.

6. Be prepared for error.

You will buy at least one thing that doesn’t fit, is dirtier than you realized, has a hole you didn’t see, whatever. It’s okay. If you’ve done it right otherwise, you’ve still saved money. Donate it to Goodwill and move on with your life.

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Little Brother picked out this great astronaut costume, but it is quite small (he is squeezed into it with great effort). I held it up to him at the sale, but apparently didn’t look closely enough. That was the fail for this trip.

7. Finish your list.

You will not find everything you need at one sale. If your area has multiples, go to another. When I have had a selection of sales, I have sometimes gone to half-price day of the first sale for bargains, and then the first day of the second sale to finish my list. Otherwise, fill in gaps from permanent consignment stores, online shopping (I have found some good deals on eBay), or whatever department store near you has the best sales. I still need uniform-appropriate pants for both kids, so I’ll try eBay and Schoola, and if I still don’t find them, I’ll just grab some at Walmart. Target if I’m feeling fancy.

Do you go to consignment sales? How do you save money on kids’ clothes?

 

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About frugalparagon

I'm a part-time librarian and mom to two small boys. I blog about striving for the long-term goal of financial independence while running a tight ship at home.

2 responses to “Surviving a Children’s Consignment Sale”

  1. Tarynkay says :

    Now that my son is 4 and the hand me downs have indeed dried up, I go to a couple of them a year. But like you, this is something I endure rather than enjoy. My sister, on the other hand, LOVES consignment sales. She goes to as many as possible. She finds loads of them on consignment mommies dot com. I just give her my list of sizes and needs and she picks things up for me. It works out beautifully. So my recommendation is to find a friend who loves this sort of thing and offer to watch her kids while she goes and picks stuff up for everyone.

    • frugalparagon says :

      Some people are just such good shoppers! I’ll have to look around for a friend like that :-). My sister came with me to one, but found the event traumatic and now orders all her kid’s clothing online at Old Navy.

      When I lived back home, I was the go-to person. I would sometimes pick up a few things for my mother to keep at her house for my young niece. I actually had more success with girls’ clothes–there seem to be more people with girls who get carried away buying clothes!

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