Selling Old Stuff

November 3, 2011

(Skip to “The Guides” at the end of the post for actual good advice about selling your used stuff online.)

I’ve been on a real purging binge since early October, particularly since Fall Cleaning Weekend. I read Elaine St. James’s Living the Simple Life and have since started Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life (the 2008 revised edition). Both books just make me want to get rid of everything I own. Forget no new stuff. I am ready to part with all unessential stuff—new, old, what have you.

In this spirit, I decided a couple weeks ago that it was time to unload my tandem kayak once and for all. Since I have no experience with selling on eBay and the boat is too large to ship (economically, anyway), I opted to post an ad on Craigslist.

This wasn’t my first foray into the wilds of Craigslist sales. A few years ago I hawked kombucha starter kits on the site—until I saturated the market (after only two sales). Next I posted ads for a couple twin-size quilts that I hadn’t been able to sell at a garage sale. These ads generated only one response—from a woman who lived a couple hours away and was interested not in actually buying the quilts but in checking out their craftsmanship. I guess the photos and descriptions I posted didn’t make it clear the quilts were store-bought. Ugh.

At any rate, I didn’t have especially high hopes for my kayak ad. And, based on the Craigslist and eBay selling guides I’ve read in the last couple days, my ad didn’t exactly guarantee my chances for a great sale. I did only the minimal necessary research: i.e., I found the description of the kayak on the manufacturer’s website and I read one or two other ads in Craigslist’s boat sales section. I modeled the title of my ad on those of other ads; it included the make and model of the boat, the price, and the location.

Among the other boat listings I didn’t see any ads for comparable kayaks that I could base the price for my kayak on, but I already had a number in mind. While I was preparing for a garage sale a couple years ago, I read something that said you should price all items for sale at around 50 percent of their original cost. That’s more or less the rule of thumb I used. Seemed fair for a boat that is ten years old.

In my ad copy I expanded on the title, and using that write-up on the manufacturer’s website, I outlined the selling points of the boat. I didn’t include a photo, and it turns out I also wasn’t particularly thorough in my description. I forgot to mention the boat’s age and the disrepair of the rudder. But I think I hit the high notes, and I offered the buyer paddles, life jackets, and a cockpit cover at no extra charge.

I received a handful of responses the day the ad went up, but based on my previous Craigslist experiences, I decided to be picky about whom I replied to. Most of the e-mails I received were littered with misspellings, asked for information already addressed in the ad, or were from folks who lived more than an hour away. There was one guy who offered me only 40 percent of my asking price—as if! I wanted to deal with a buyer who was reliable and conscientious (a diamond in the rough in the Craigslist crowd?). I decided to sit on it a few days and kept my fingers crossed for a well-written inquiry.

In the last twenty-four hours of my ad’s seven-day lifespan, I received an e-mail from a woman interested in buying the kayak for her parents for their sixtieth birthdays. She asked if she could see the boat and suggested specific days and times that would be convenient for her to stop by. She even used capitals at the beginnings of sentences and periods at the ends! Overjoyed at this stroke of luck, I responded and set up an appointment to show off the merchandise.

So here’s where I really messed up: I failed to prepare the kayak for sale before my potential buyer came over. When we walked down to the lake, we found that the cockpit cover had come off in one of this summer’s crazy storms, and the boat was full of rainwater and who knows what else. I apologized and assured the woman that I would clean out the kayak if she decided to buy it.

And for whatever reason, she did decide to buy the thing. Amazing. She offered me a reasonable price, gave me a 50-percent deposit in cash to hold the boat, and had her brother come to pick it up (and bring the rest of the moola)—all within five days. It was a ridiculously easy transaction, and I’m a few hundred dollars richer because of it.

As I work through step 2 of the nine-step program outlined in Your Money or Your Life, I will be taking an inventory of my possessions and their worth. Depending on my findings, I could be spending a lot more time on Craigslist and maybe eBay in the next few months. And if so, I’ll start to play by the rules. Below you’ll find the most promising online selling guides I’ve found so far. Happy hawking!

The Guides

Lifehacker’s A Seller’s Guide to Craigslist 
Zen Habit’s A Minimalist’s Guide to eBay: The Least You Need to Know to Get Started
Man vs. Debt’s How I Paid Off $15,000 in 9 Months by Selling My “Stuff” on Ebay
Sell It Now—How to Make Hundreds of Dollars in 37 Minutes

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Spring/Fall Cleaning Series, Part 2

On Wednesday, I finished Elaine St. James’s third book about simplifying, Living the Simple Life. Around the time I picked this book up from the library, I also scheduled my first—and, I hope, annual—Fall Cleaning Day: Monday, October 10. My office was closed for Columbus Day, and Channing was out of the house at work all day, so it seemed like a great time to finally tackle the paper, office supply, workout gear, and crafting station insanity that was our office (note the past tense!).

And, then, inspired by some tips from Living the Simple Life, I started my fall cleaning a day early.

Fall Cleaning Day Eve, October 9

The first clutter nooks I tackled were my closet and dresser. I had actually cleaned out both of these clothing and accessory receptacles in January, in an initial, short-lived burst of purging mania. (And I mean mania. When I declutter, I am quick and brutal, but only occasionally methodical. Generally, I toss items into the donate pile with wild abandon, and I never look back. I highly recommend this approach.) Since it had been only nine months since my last purging spree, I assumed these would be easy jobs—and I was right. I cleared the closet of spring and summer wear I hadn’t touched that season and pulled a twin-size duvet off the top shelf for Freecycling (neither Channing nor I had any idea why we had this duvet in the first place). Channing gave a dress I had worn only once to his colleague; I’m donating the rest of the stuff. Tip 1: If you haven’t used it in a year, toss it.

Cleaning out the dresser was a slightly more delicate task. Channing and I share a relatively small, hand-me-down dresser with eight wide drawers—four for him, four for me. Keeping my drawers less than overstuffed is an extremely difficult task for me, so I knew I needed to make some hard and fast decisions. Taking some advice from Ms. St. James’s book, I thought about what I really needed in terms the two categories of clothes I store in the dresser, i.e., running/biking clothes and lounge wear. I decided to get rid of all but two or three of each clothing item (three running tees, two long sleeve tees, two pairs of running tights, etc.), and then I tossed some extra worn-out t-shirts in the discard pile for good measure. Oh, I also finally parted with a couple slips and some jewelry that I’ve worn maybe once in the last eight years. Tip 2: Be honest about how many items you actually need.

My next project was our linen closet, which was bursting with towels we never use. The biggest clutter culprit was our ridiculously extensive collection of dish towels. Channing and I each entered our relationship with a decent supply of dish towels, and since 2008, when we moved in together, we’ve received at least one set of kitchen towels as a gift every Christmas. These towels were taking up an entire shelf of the linen closet and were threatening to encroach on a second shelf. Number of towels we actually use? Maybe a quarter of our supply. On this go-round I cut the collection in half. I will revisit the issue in the spring. Tip 3: Don’t worry about purging every single unessential thing on the first try. You can go back for a second round.

The linen closet also houses bath towels, hand towels, washcloths, beach towels, sheets, and assorted blankets. I kept all of the sheets because we have only one extra set. I also kept most of the blankets—all but one or two of them are Channing’s, and he wasn’t present to approve discards. Per a suggestion in Living the Simple Life, I kept four bath towel sets—one each for me and Channing plus two extras for guests or for us when we can’t do the laundry right away. And I donated or Freecycled all but two of the beach towels. Tip 4, from Living the Simple Life: Keep enough for everyone in the household plus two. This isn’t just a towel rule; it can be applied to any shared household item, for example, dishes and flatware.

Last, I tackled our understair storage. Or rather, I tackled the excess of reusable shopping bags we store under the stairs. I figure I rarely use more than five shopping bags in one outing, so I Freecycled all but seven of the bags (you know, just in case). This effectively cut our supply in half. Oh, then on a whim I grabbed the old newspaper and back issues of Outside magazine from under the coffee table. The newspaper went in the recycle bin, and the magazines went to my friend Sarah. Tip 5: Give your old stuff new life by giving it to a friend or neighbor.

All of this decluttering took about an hour.

Fall Cleaning Day, October 10

The big day arrived, and I started early, with what I knew would be the most difficult and time-consuming job of the day: the office storage closet. First, I pulled my magazine file off the shelf. This file holds copies of magazines my writing has been published in. Taking some advice from Channing, who has eliminated nearly all of his paper records in favor of digital record storage, I decided to scan my clippings from each issue and recycle the actual magazines.  Bye-bye, magazine file.  Tip 5: Making digital copies of paper files reduces physical clutter.

Next I started going through our junk drawer and office supplies. I donated our rubber-band ball to Channing’s office, I gave some craft paper to Sarah to use in her classroom, and I Freecycled some (empty) notebooks. I chucked a couple pens that were past their prime and generally reorganized our supply of printer paper, card stock, and envelopes. I discovered a new yellow ink cartridge and loaded it in the printer, so we can now print stuff again, and I gathered all of my empty old ink cartridges so that I can mail them to the recycler. Tip 6: You probably don’t need all the pens, rubber bands, and paperclips scattered around your house. Collect them and donate them to the supply closet at your work.

I found a huge box of cassette tapes that I had forgotten about in the closet. I’ve set it aside for PC Recycler’s next recycling event. I also found that exercise equipment I mentioned a couple weeks ago—and promptly Freecycled it. Tip 7: Looking for a place to recycle something unusual? Try Earth911.com.

I needed a break from the closet so I moved on to our bookshelves—not just those in the office, but those in our living room and kitchen too. (While I was in the kitchen, I pulled out my bamboo steam basket and posted it on Freecycle—wild abandon, I tell you.) I cleared three shopping bags worth of books off our various shelves, including a collection of Shakespeare paperbacks from my school days (I have a Shakespeare app on my iPad) and my three hardcover Harry Potters (5, 6, and 7).*  The three Harrys will go to the elementary school where Mom works. Sarah went through the other books and pulled out some for herself, plus The Outsiders for her middle school students. I donated the remainder to the library on Thursday. Tip 8: Parting with books is surprisingly easy. Ask yourself, when am I ever going to read this again? And then send those you opt to purge to a good home—this will make you feel better.

The living room bookshelves also hold Channing’s vinyl—which I didn’t touch—and our DVDs. I’m planning to take DVDs of Gilmore Girls, season 2, and the Dick Cavett Show to the Record and Tape Exchange in hopes of making a good trade. Channing is going to offer his Rolling Stones DVD to my dad. Tip 9: If there is an independent record store near you that makes trades, take advantage!

Finally, I tackled my paper files, which I had stored in a green crate the size of one standard file drawer. Most of the stuff in my files was so old I could just shred and recycle it. (I took out the paper recycling three times on Fall Cleaning Day.) Other items needed to be scanned for digital archiving. I did end up keeping a handful of paper records, like printouts of my tax forms from the last three years, but I am able to store what’s left in the magazine file, which is about a quarter of the size of the green crate. I not only had financial records, old leases, and car insurance invoices; I also found high school and college papers and a notebook from the Romanticism class I took in 1999—twelve years ago! I tossed it all. Good riddance. Tip 10: Whether you keep your personal files on paper or digitally, I’d recommend a clean sweep now to ensure everything’s up to date and to remove obsolete records; then do quick, regular maintenance sweeps every three to six months to keep the time you spend on your files to a minimum.

The work isn’t done—we still have all of Channing’s office crap to go through—but I’ve felt a lot lighter this week. Every small step toward eliminating clutter counts.

*Full disclosure: I will probably buy the complete set of Harry Potter ebooks when they are released next year. Is anyone else excited about Pottermore?

Fear and Decluttering

June 9, 2011

Spring Cleaning Series, Part 1 1/2

Leigh Glenn was one of the “Not Buying It” participants in early 2009. This is a guest post about her efforts to pare down paper and other things.

Binders and stacks of periodicals—Handwoven, ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) News, and Ecologist—dot the floor of a room that I’ve converted into an office/craft room. As I Freecycle the back issues, I’ve come to realize that I’m a “ninfomaniac”: Acquiring information turns me on, makes me feel warm and safe. I’ve spent more than 20 years denying that my paper tiger ever needing taming—or ever could be tamed. Only recently have I recognized that my home environment influences how I feel and how I view the world. This and a desire to live free of clutter have prompted me to take stock—of all the paper and, more importantly, of how I’ve gotten here.

More than a decade ago, when I used to subscribe to the Post, I didn’t have time to read much during the week, so I let the newspapers stack up. I’d spend Sundays reading through the previous week’s, or even the previous month’s, trying to “get caught up.” I remember ending Sundays and looking to the workweek ahead feeling drained. Still, I never suspected that feeling compelled to acquire information had anything to do with the energy loss. Nor did I suspect that I had a problem.

I may not be a hoarder like those on TV, but the underlying tendencies are the same. Acquiring and letting go are simply two sides of the same coin—one seems to help allay fears around lacking something or depriving oneself, the other seems to trigger such fears. Info acquisition has made me feel smart, and where I haven’t felt smart, I’ve rested on the fact that at least I had the information I needed—somewhere, if only I could find it!

What else? Take the Handwovens or the ALBC News. In the past, I’d dream of weaving something great as well as having enough land to help conserve some particular domestic breed of animal—Dexter cattle or Karakul sheep. But my loom gathers dust and I don’t have the money for land. Still, parting with these makes me feel a sort of loss, a giving up of dreams. As with fears around feeling stupid, I can linger in that space if I choose, but I choose not to. I’ve begun to cultivate a faith that, as I give these up, I’m making more room to activate new dreams, new knowledge, or old dreams I’ve yet to realize. And therein lies the major fear: that I’m somehow so inept, so lacking in tenacity, that I cannot develop a goal, make a plan to work it, and make a dream come true. Clutter-free space and the ability to develop a goal go hand in hand. The clutter makes me feel as though I never get anywhere on anything because of the “unfinished business” reminders scattered everywhere. It’s time to cut losses and welcome gains.

That may be the deeper spiritual significance of endeavors like “Not Buying It” or the “No Stuff Experiment.” If clutter is just another word for “unused stuff,” the very process of decluttering helps me by getting rid of the useless. And once I’ve done that, I can focus on those activities I truly enjoy and want in my life.

I have a long way to go. But the feeling of being swamped with stuff—coupled with an unsteady income—has spurred me to stop buying all but necessities, such as food, food-related items, or those things that will deepen my knowledge of human health and ecology. The process of trying to pare down has proven to me, time and again, that it’s far too easy to bring things in and often very difficult to push them out. Better not to buy in the first place—or at least to have multiple “stops” built into the process.

 

The Junk Mail Nuisance

March 29, 2011

One hundred billion pieces of junk mail, including catalogs, credit card offers, and other unsolicited advertisements, are delivered in the United States every year. That’s about eight hundred pieces per household—or 30–40 percent of our mail. Mail-order catalogs alone make up more than 20 percent of this total. Enough catalogs are distributed each year for every man, woman, and child to have sixty of their very own. The kicker is an estimated 44 percent of junk mail is trashed before it is even opened. A friend of mine who worked in the ad industry for several years told me companies account for that percentage of throwaways. They figure they have to send out at least three mailings to reach just one new customer.

To make enough paper for those 100 billion pieces of mail, 100 million trees are felled and processed. This is equivalent to clear-cutting the Rocky Mountain National Park (more than 265,000 acres) every four months. Of course, we cut down trees for various other manufacturing and development purposes as well—at the rate of 7 million hectares per year. This deforestation comes at great cost: forests create oxygen, sequester carbon dioxide, provide habitat for hundreds of species, filter freshwater, maintain the Earth’s hydrologic cycle, regulate climate, and prevent erosion of topsoil. Deforestation accounts for a whopping 25 percent of the carbon emissions caused by human activity. And, at this point, less than 5 percent of old growth forests (i.e., the most productive forests) remain in the United States.

The environmental damage caused by the paper industry—and the junk mail industry in particular—extends beyond deforestation. Taking logging, production, delivery, and disposal into account, the junk mail industry emits greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 9 million cars. If more companies printed direct mail on recycled paper, they would cut these emissions significantly. Manufacturing a ton of virgin paper requires 17 million BTUs more than producing a ton of 100-percent-recycled paper.*

As a general rule—but especially since I started the experiment—I try to limit the advertising that comes my way. (No need for any extra temptation to buy! As an average American, I’ll probably spend a total of a year of my life watching commercials alone—never mind all the advertisements I’m exposed to in magazines, in newspapers, on websites, in Metro stations…) I’ve found it particularly easy to trim the number of catalogs I receive, primarily thanks to Catalog Choice, one of several online services that help folks reduce unwanted mail, save natural resources, and protect their privacy. (I’ve included websites for two other such companies with the references at the end of this post.)

Catalog Choice offers a free service and a donation-based unlisting service. The free service allows you, once you’ve created an account, to opt-out of mailings from individual companies. The service will contact the junk-mail vendor on your behalf to request removal from its mailing list. Catalog Choice has a list of more than three thousand companies that it will contact for you. This list is continually expanding, and I find that these days I can opt-out of nearly every catalog I receive via this site. For a $20 donation, Catalog Choice will remove your name from marketing lists created by third-party data brokers that trade your personal information to companies based on your buying history and behavioral characteristics. Obviously this will slash your annual junk-mail poundage even more.

If I can’t find a company on Catalog Choice, I call it directly. A phone number is usually provided on the mailing—even the coupon mags list phone numbers. In the rare case I can’t find contact information on the mailing, I look for a customer service number or e-mail on the company’s website. Tracking down this information and making calls took some time initially. I spent fifteen minutes on the phone with Comcast a few months ago, and I’m not even a subscriber! But now I don’t receive two postcards (one for me and one for the previous tenant) every time the company launches a mailing campaign. I also don’t receive Red Plum coupon newspapers or Clipper Magazine. It’s been months since I received a credit card offer. This means I take out the paper recycling less often. I spend less time shredding letters with my address on them. It takes only a minute or two to look through the daily mail. And, best of all, I’m not enticed to visit the mall just because I saw an appealing spread in a catalog or had coupons delivered to my home.

 

Sources

Most of the statistics I cite are from Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health—And a Vision for Change (New York: Free Press, 2010), pp. 8 and 9.

Environmental Paper Network, “Increasing Paper Efficiency,” fact sheet, January 2008.

Environmental Paper Network, “Understanding Recycled Fiber,” fact sheet, June 2007.

Susan Kinsella, et al., The State of the Paper Industry, ed. Jennifer Roberts (Asheville, NC: Environmental Paper Network, 2007).

Todd Paglia, “Subsidizing Junk Mail in the Great Recession,” Huffington Post, January 29, 2010.

Other Junk Mail Opt-Out Websites

DMAchoice.org

41pounds.org

 

*People have told me that recycling paper uses more energy than creating new paper from scratch. It turns out this is a myth. Many conventional paper mills purchase less power from the grid than do recycled paper mills because they burn tree waste to generate the bulk of their power. This may seem like a good idea, but in fact, burning tree waste is as environmentally damaging as many other sources of power. And once you factor in this power source, it becomes clear that recycled paper uses significantly less power than conventional paper production. For more information about recycled paper, see this report by the Environmental Paper Network.

Living More with Less

February 10, 2011

Melissa opened our Voluntary Simplicity meeting on Sunday with a three-minute meditation, a perfect way to transition from our lives’ hurry-scurry to a discussion about “living more with less.” For the last couple weeks, she has been meditating for fifteen minutes every day—most of us had trouble sitting quietly for three!

The discussion topic, “living more with less,” specifically meant living more with less stuff, a concept we are clearly interested in. Judy, our facilitator, opened the conversation with the question, Is the idea of living with less attractive to you or does it cause anxiety? For me, one month into the No Stuff Experiment, living with less is extremely attractive. I purged my closet and dresser of items I no longer wore or had multiples of the second week in January, and for the first time in months (or maybe years), I don’t feel lacking for clothes.

Perhaps this has something to do with what Barry Schwartz calls “the paradox of choice.” Essentially Schwartz argues that the overabundance of choices we face as American consumers has caused our happiness to decline, via paralysis in decision making, escalation of expectations, and shift of blame for imperfect outcomes to the consumer. (To hear his argument in detail, watch his TED talk.) Because I have eliminated the option of buying new clothes, I no longer find myself stressing over the number, quality, or style of items in my closet. I not only have to make do, but I find myself better appreciating what I have.

Others in the group have similarly found freedom in minimizing their stuff. Nan gave away most of her possessions when she moved from Virginia to Colorado in spring 2009. Being able to fit her life in her car has allowed her to visit friends all over the country, some for a week or two, some for a few months. Judy recently moved all of the furniture out of her living space so that she and her husband could install new flooring. She loved the openness of the space so much that she has moved very little back in.

Although none of us are ready to give up the variety of choices we currently have in the marketplace, we are hoping that Voluntary Simplicity will provide us a practical means of approaching the abundance. Again the word “deliberate” surfaced in our conversation. We talked about shopping in a more deliberate manner, taking inventory of what we have, thinking about a purchase before making it, and recognizing the true cost of material goods. (If you haven’t already, check out The Story of Stuff.) Early in our discussion, Mary pointed out that there are many ways to disengage from consumer culture. By the end of the meeting, we’d determined that there are many ways to engage thoughtfully as well.

Thanks to Helene, Judy, Mary, Melissa, Nan, and Sally for all the great ideas and stories they shared on Sunday. Many found their way into this post.

Downsizing

January 18, 2011

Around the time that we gave up buying in 2009, Channing and I realized our four-bedroom townhouse was not just too big for two people, it was downright burdensome. It turns out downsizing and decluttering go hand in hand with such experiments. When you opt not to buy anything new, you end up reevaluating the worth of what you already have.

The burdensome house had been built in 1968, making it a charming remnant of early Reston. On our initial walk-through, we had been wooed by the built-in bookshelves, wood floors, his and hers offices, and space for a garden out back. What we didn’t factor in when we signed the lease was the time it takes to clean 2,300 square feet (some corners of which had been accumulating dust for forty years) and to maintain a front and backyard (however modest). We were childless and in our twenties. We had better things to do than clean house and attempt to conquer unruly weeds.

Of course, we didn’t get around to house hunting until a year or so after the first round of not buying anything ended, and even then we were looking primarily at three-bedroom townhouses. We wanted to downsize but were afraid to give up the space we had become accustomed to. That we even bothered to look at the two-bedroom condo we eventually leased was kind of a fluke. Channing had tacked it on the list of properties to check out solely because I had lived in the neighborhood before and he thought it would be fun to visit old haunts. And so, thanks to a kitchen full of three-year-old appliances, new carpets, and some pretty lake views, we opted to cut our square footage in half.

In the month leading up to the big move, we started to Freecycle like crazy. To date we have unloaded an entire apartment’s worth of furniture, including 1 full-size bed and mattress, 2 dressers, 2 or 3 bookshelves, 1 comfy chair, 2 desks, 1 armoire, 1 blue couch, 1 TV, 4 kitchen stools, and 1 dining room table with 4 chairs. Once I realized the kitchen had been designed for aesthetics and not functionality or storage, I gave away our second set of dishes, a set of glasses, several mugs, a tea kettle, and a fondue pot. We made four sizable material donations to charity, including seven boxes of books. We gave our entire combined CD collection to my dad (after putting most of the music in our shared iTunes library). We recycled our DVD cases and put the discs in the folders that had once housed those CDs. We generally streamlined our lives.

Still, now six months into our lease, we are not living like paupers. We could not even be considered minimalists. We each have our own bathroom (plus a half bath for guests). We have overflowing bookshelves in the living room, kitchen, and dining room. I have countless sweaters in my closet. Between us we have one desktop computer, a laptop, two iPads, and three iPods. We get (and enjoy) HBO. According to the Center for Sustainable Economy, if everyone in the world lived the way we do, we would need 4.62 earths. (You can calculate your ecological footprint here.)

Yet, with this one move we have reduced our utilities expenses by more than 60% and our household’s carbon emissions by about 42%. (To estimate our carbon emissions, I used EPA’s carbon calculator.) Environmentally speaking, it seems we have made a good choice.

Channing and I agree that the pros of this move far outweigh the cons. It would be nice to have a guest room again, and Channing occasionally misses his office (aka man cave). But we do not miss the old neighborhood or any of that old stuff, and we have plans to continue downshifting and decluttering over the course of the year. We are rethinking our subscriptions to the Washington Post and various magazines. Channing is anxious to donate more books to the library. We are reevaluating our affinity for premium cable programming. And, much to my mother’s chagrin, I’m even considering selling my car. Given the right set of circumstances and enough motivation, we may become minimalists yet.