It’s Not Your Imagination—Secondhand Stuff IS More Expensive Than Ever

Have you noticed that secondhand stuff is more expensive than it used to be? Because I absolutely have!

Since I retired, I’ve been on a bit of a secondhand shopping spree. You see, I inherited almost all of my current furniture. I acquired it randomly from old roommates, friends moving across the country, my grandparents’ downsizing, and the legendary Allston Christmas. Now that work isn’t gobbling up my best hours, I finally have the bandwidth to upgrade these pieces. That rickety side table I found on the side of the road can now be transformed, Cinderella-like, into a charming antique that some sucker let go of for $50!

… Yet I’ve noticed something disturbing. The suckers have grown few and far between.

Dummies selling solid oak headboards they found in Grandma’s attic for a sawbuck are like fireflies. I remember vast clouds of them in my childhood… but now, I’m thrilled if I see a dozen in a season. Where have they gone?

Today, I’m explaining my hypothesis for why secondhand stuff is more expensive than it used to be. I see a variety of factors that have far-reaching impacts on everything we buy and sell. We love noticing inflection points when traditional personal finance wisdom shifts from the “useful” column to the “ok thanks Grandpa” column—and this is definitely one of those moments. Let’s explore the answer together!

Nostalgia for the golden age of secondhand shopping

I’ll start off by talking specifically to my fellow Millennials.

(If you don’t know if you’re a Millennial, here’s an easy test: Have you ever seen a file called “Bring Me To Life-Evanescence-FreeMP3-LinkinPark-LIVE_RARE_Porn_Facial.avi.exe” and thought “nothing ventured, nothing gained”? Congratulations! The smoking ruins of your family computer attest to your official Millennialness.)

This generation grew up in the late 80s through the early 00s—er, aughts, which was an era of breakneck consumerism. Relative to the economic stagnation of the 70s, regular middle class people suddenly had a lot of money. The United States was operating at a budget surplus, a thing we haven’t seen since. It coincided with globalization, which made the stuff we like to buy ridiculously affordable.

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

We didn’t appreciate it at the time, but these years were a golden age of secondhand shopping. To generalize: everyone had money. Shiny, brand-new goods were plentiful and cheap. And the cultural aesthetic was downright hostile to frugality. We bought the latest and greatest everything, and there was very little competition for a glut of barely-used secondhand goods.

If you weren’t around in the 80s and 90s, this was kinda the whole vibe?

That changed later on. First, we got kinda sick of the Gordon Gekkoness of it all. Grunge rose up as a reactionary movement, and became the dominant cultural aesthetic by the mid-90s. Thrift store shopping went from socially taboo to incredibly cool. Second, the economy cooled off. It started with the dot-com bust in the late 90s. Later, slowbalization and the Great Recession drove a completely unnecessary number of nails into our national prosperity’s coffin.

I was a preteen the first time I visited a consignment shop. I walked in with a $20 bill, and walked out with an armful of clothing so massive I could barely carry it all—and change! Truly, it’s just like the ancient poets said: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

Competition from our fellow poors

We’ve talked so extensively about wage stagnation and the decline in household purchasing power that I don’t even need to cite sources on those topics. I mean, I did—but only because .gov links boost our SEO! But seriously, we write about it all the time:

These days, many people struggle just to afford essentials like food, rent, healthcare, and transportation. Obviously we want to stretch any discretionary money as far as it can go. Buying used, aftermarket, refurbished, or secondhand goods is a fine way to do that.

… Until everyone is doing it.

The most basic principle of an economy is supply and demand. In recent years, the demand for secondhand stuff has risen. More people are competing for fewer items. Prices have risen accordingly.

You can see this clearly reflected in the used car market right now. Although their initial climb was attributed to pandemic-related supply chain interruptions, prices remain stubbornly high years later. That’s likely because people are hanging on to their older cars, trying to squeeze more life out of them. Who wouldn’t dread the cost of a new car when life already feels so unaffordable?

High demand + low supply = prices that make my eyes go all white.

The gig economy’s army of middlemen

“Middlemen?” Should that be “middlepeople?” Wait, nevermind, I just remembered—I don’t care.

In addition to the increased authentic demand for secondhand goods, there’s intense new artificial demand in the form of resellers.

If you browse the same secondhand sources frequently, you’ll see this happen all the time. A freecycle dresser gets snapped up quickly, only to reappear a few weeks later with a fresh coat of paint, nicely staged photos, the phrase “midcentury modern” in the description… and a $400 price tag. According to Instagram, the hashtag #FurnitureFlip has grown by 29% in 2022 alone. Semi-professional resellers and flippers trawl resale markets for hidden gems within their personal expertise.

When I was in high school, I sold a giant tub of Breyer horses to an older couple. When I mentioned I was keeping a few special ones, they wheedled me into selling those too. I agreed only when they emphasized how happy it would make their granddaughter, “who loves horses.” I got a weird feeling as they scurried off. Later, I found my Lippitt Pegasus on eBay. Bastards.

Objectively, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with this. (Well, maybe don’t take and resell things that people give in a spirit of charity. And maybe also don’t trick literal kids out of their literal toys?) Many people genuinely find activities like bargain hunting and refurbishing relaxing. And there is intense pressure to force our creativity and enjoyment into a side hustle. God forbid we enjoy leisure time without monetizing it!

But it undeniably adds pressure to an already tightening secondhand market. Yes, you’re competing against people who want the $20 secondhand rice cooker to make rice. But you’re also competing against people who know they could resell it in another market for $120 because it’s a stainless Zojirushi 10 cup, new in box.

Technology enabled price-fixing

Let’s say I’ve got a bluetooth headset I want to resell. The first thing I do is see how much others are charging for the same headset. Within five minutes, I can see the prices on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, eBay, Poshmark, Mercari, and Amazon.

I’m a digital native (by the skin of my teeth). This is an incredibly natural thing for me to do. But I suspect instantaneous access to pricing information is one of many factors responsible for driving up prices across every sector of the consumer marketplace.

When this happens on a wider scale, researchers call it algorithmic collusion. Classic collusion is a secret agreement between companies—often competitors—who wish to fix prices, divide the market, or otherwise enrich themselves by defrauding customers. Algorithmic collusion uses data and/or AI to achieve the same outcome without breaking the law. You don’t have to collect a bunch of fat cats into one room to fix prices over noontime martinis anymore. A single Google search tells you what every competitor is offering. Set a similar price. When customers complain about high prices, blame inflation! (Casual reminder that Jess called this super early on, and caught a lot of flack for it from disbelievers, but she’s since been proven 1,000% right.)

The kneecapping of competition

Crucially, this kneecaps the #1 factor that’s supposed to drive prices down: competition. If one seller’s prices are too high, you’re supposed to go to another seller. But if all sellers (and resellers) charge a very similar price, the incentive to comparison shop fails.

This is a growing issue, particularly in regards to rent. You may have seen news stories about RealPage, a rent-setting software accused of helping landlords collude to hike rents. That’s why between 2021 and 2022, rents rose by an average of 24% nationwide! Yes, in a single fucking year!!

You guys. I knew it was bad. But when I read that stat, I wanted to pull my face into a cone like Alec Baldwin in Beetlejuice, because I too have finally accepted that I am in Hell.

The resale market is godless, lawless, and utterly ungovernable

It’s not that hard for our government to prosecute collusion when it happens on a massive scale—or if the victims are themselves massive. 

Just last week, Kraft, General Mills, Kellogg, and Nestlé won millions of dollars in compensation for a price-fixing scheme. The jury determined that the country’s two largest egg producers (Cal-Maine Foods and Rose Acre Farms) conspired to inflate egg prices. Rookie mistake, trying to rip off the largest, most powerful titans of the food industry. If they’d stuck to shafting regular customers, they probably would’ve gotten away with it!

The smaller the industry, the harder it is to ensure fairness. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few examples that illustrate this.

Gamers may remember a controversy about price fixing in the used retro game market. This niche, unregulated industry created a miniature cartel, awarding bullshit grading and planting fake stories about massive auction sales. The cartel harassed private sellers into raising their eBay prices. Obviously, this artificially inflated prices for all customers and intentionally created a bubble. The people left holding the bag were individual enthusiasts who got excited to leverage something they loved as an investment vehicle. Which is gross.

One bad apple spoils the resale market

Sometimes all it takes is one bad actor. There’s a woman in my region who buys and resells horses (and not the cute plastic ones that were viciously swindled out of my loving, naive arms). They’re supposed to be reliable horses for kids and families—“schoolmasters.” But she has a long history of covering up serious medical and behavioral problems with drugs. When word gets out, she changes her name, the name of her business, and starts the process over again. Those bad actions drive up the price of real schoolmasters in my area, because the fear of being scammed leads people to pay for expensive tests and exams to verify their very expensive sports-equipment-slash-pet isn’t shloshed on literal horse tranquilizers. Which is double gross… possibly even triple-gross!

(BTW, groups with names like “New England Equestrian Rumors and Slander UNCENSORED” is one of the few reasons I keep my Facebook account open. Other social media platforms just aren’t toxic enough to contain this kind of high-octane hobby drama.)

Trying to regulate secondhand marketplaces is like trying to tell your rebellious teenage stepson to clean his room. You’ll simply be ignored, if not screamed at with the full-on “you can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my real dad.” Unscrupulous sellers want to enrich themselves with high prices, and secondhand marketplaces give them the privacy they need to misbehave.

The enshittification of firsthand products


noun: The condition or process of becoming inexplicably shittier and shittier over time.

– The Dictionary of Words I Swore I Coined but My Partner Gently Told Me I Did Not

Have you ever bought an item, loved it, bought another later… and the new item was noticeably shittier than the original? This phenomenon is called enshittification.

I bought my husband some shirts for his birthday. Half came with polished wooden buttons and beautifully sewn seams. The other half had cheap plastic buttons and lumpy seams that seemed ready to unravel in a warm spring breeze. I’d bought them exactly halfway through a production transition from Vietnam to China. The price was the same—but the new ones had been enshittified.

It’s probably the most common complaint I’ve seen in product reviews.

  • “These printers were better before they started including this mandatory firmware.”
  • “My first blanket lasted for 15 years, but the replacement is falling apart after one wash.”
  • “These pans are great if you can find a vintage one, from when they were still made of solid metal.”
  • “I miss the old jeans that were made in America.”

So many modern products aren’t as solid, reliable, durable, and easy to repair as they used to be. It’s unbelievably frustrating to contemplate the waste of money and the devastating environmental impact of brand new items falling apart. I don’t blame people for flocking to vintage alternatives.

The culture is with secondhand stuff

I alluded to this when I talked about Grunge as a reactionary movement. Every age has dominant aesthetics shaped by economics, politics, major events, culture, shifting values, and reactions to previous aesthetics. Here’s a few related things happening in our cultural right now:

  • Frugality and thrift are more respected as personal virtues. You can see this in trends like visible mending and trashion. I’d attribute that to a few decades of growing income inequality. Necessity being the mother of invention and all that…
  • Shoppers have anxieties over climate change. Secondhand shopping is an attractive alternative for people who are trying not to contribute to the whole melting planet situation.
  • Technology has made creativity more accessible. Between Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, knowledge about how to spot deals and repair or refurbish finds is easier to access than ever. 73% of Millennials are DIYers, and 55% use YouTube for DIY video tutorials.
  • The pandemic gave many people time to develop hands-on creative skills related to successfully shopping secondhand, like cooking, gardening, or tailoring clothing. Research confirms that people felt more creative and pursued more creative skill development when the pandemic gave them extra time.
  • Individuals are cool. Consumer trust in traditional economic structures is at a historic low. We have more faith in, and respect for, individual people over large groups or corporations. We trust them more as sellers.

I believe that all of these softer cultural factors are helping to drive greater consumption of secondhand goods across the board.

What’s the solution?

“Ya can’t time the market!” You’ve probably heard this said in the context of making investments in the stock market. But I think it holds true for every kind of purchase.

Markets change all the time. If you don’t need the item, don’t get it! But if you’re trying to get something you need, it doesn’t make sense to wait for the secondhand market to cool.

… Plus, I don’t think it will. As long as income inequality is trending in the wrong direction, the market for secondhand goods will remain strong. And the technological factors aren’t going anywhere.

If you have the luxury of time, and can patiently wait for the right deals, you can still save a lot of money buying secondhand. But in general, I don’t think buying secondhand is the amazing money-saving hack it used to be. The river of high-quality flea market, garage sale, and thrift store bargains has dried to an unreliable trickle.

For me, I’ll continue to shop secondhand as often as I can, even if it doesn’t save me much money. I value the quality of vintage items, and want to lessen my personal impact on climate change. All we can do is spend our money in line with our values, whenever possible.

What are YOUR secondhand markets like?

On my last trip to a thrift store, I found an item with its original price tag—and its original price was lower than its resale price. Maybe it was a really old, pre-inflation price! Maybe! But as Sister Aloysius says, “I have doubts… I have such doubts…

So have y’all noticed this trend? Or am I completely out here on my own?

Tell me about your experiences shopping secondhand recently. Where have you been finding good deals? Which marketplaces are officially overrun with delusional grifters? The vibe for me has been very “I paid $500 for this couch in 1997, and you can brush my seven cats’ hair off of it and haul it down my nine flights of stairs for the low-low price of $425 if you say pretty please.” And I’m officially losing it.

24 thoughts to “It’s Not Your Imagination—Secondhand Stuff IS More Expensive Than Ever”

  1. I’m so glad this isn’t just me! Ten years ago I got all my furniture in Craigslist for a song and I thought I was doing the old lady thing of remembering the past as better than it was. At this point I’m secondhand shopping for the environment, not for my wallet.

  2. The thrift store that I frequent has prices that intentionally drop over time. So if an item doesn’t sell by a certain date, the price drops 10%. And if it still doesn’t sell, then a week later the price drops another 10%, and so on for about 4 weeks until it hits a minimum price. All of this info is available on the tag — the date of each drop, and what the new price will be. So if you notice a piece you like but it’s still a little pricier than you’d like, you can try coming back the next week to see if it’s still there. It also means that I’ve gotten lots of pieces of good quality, stylish clothing for 5 or 10 bucks each, which is really nice.

  3. Thanks for this, as depressing as it is! I’d seen this evolution but kept thinking it was just me in my high cost-of-living urban area, esp. when I see a few friends still showing off the great thrift scores they find in small towns. All I can find secondhand locally is junk from Target & Walmart, not the well made vintage goods from 20 years ago (I mean, yeah, I’m old but now I feel *really* old!).

  4. Blegh, dealing with this right now– 7 or 8 years ago I treated myself to an “expensive pair of boots” ($90 marked down to $45) from “the rich people store” (J.C. Penney) and lovingly cared for my perfect special angel babies until I literally wore a couple holes in them. And the cobbler said they’re in spots he can’t fix, so as the rainy season rolled in I was forced to get a new pair.

    So my options were:
    1. Go on eBay to see if I can buy a lightly used pair of the exact same ones (I can! for $150. ouch.)
    2. Thrift around to see if I can find a decent replacement (after a few months, I did! for $60 at goodwill, with an even worse hole in the side than my busted boots. ouch.)
    3. Gamble on buying new when I don’t feel confident I’ll be able to get that quality at that price again.

    I ended up going for 3– I saved up, waited for black friday at the rich people store (this time Nordstrom, I’m taking the gamble that they’re more likely to stock items with higher construction quality) and got *two* pairs like some kind of god-king because I wasn’t sure which one I’d like better, figured I could return whichever one didn’t work out. One was $190 marked down to $70, the other was $250 marked down to $100 (tho I now see its currently listed at $85. bastards.)

    And I’m glad I did that, bc the $70 is definitely a better-feeling leather, and seems to have much sturdier construction overall! Which gives me a hunch the $100 one is in part just paying for a name, rather than higher quality construction or materials. To the returns with you.

    But all this to say– even though I’m operating on a shorter time window than you discuss here, I definitely feel the combined crunch of fewer options in the thrifting sphere + decreased trust in quality of new items. And it kinda has this cyclical effect– I really want to hold on to the things I have for as long as I can, because I feel like quality of new items and availability of used items will just continue to get worse over time. Looking back, making $45 J.C. Penny boots last 8 years feels like winning the lottery. As cost goes up, value continues to go down. Cowabummer, dude 🙁

  5. Thanks for your insight on this! Growing up, thrifting was the dirty secret my family kept in a upper middle class area. I got some really high quality, new with tags clothing from recognizable brands and designers that way. I no longer live in that area, but thrifting seems much worse now. I’m glad it’s not as stigmatized as it once was, but I miss my $1.99 new with tags Anthropologie and hello BCBG dress for $5! It’s so much harder to find those hidden gems now- I’ve even seen thrift stores that specifically pull designer items aside and mark them up. Paying $10 for a worn Target tee just doesn’t hit the same.

    1. SAME. I went to a K-12 private school in a very wealthy area. My family was not poor but I received a lot of financial aid and definitely did not have as much money as most of my classmates. The local thrift stores in the mid-late 90s helped 12-year-old me acquire coveted items like Abercrombie jeans for $4. (Thankfully the time I got to high school my friend group was primarily anti-mainstream theater kids who loved to frequent the thrift stores and used CD shops, so I didn’t feel like I had to lie about where I bought something.)

      I live in a big city now, so I have some decent thrift and consignment options, but it’s definitely not the same. For example, I recently saw a Madewell shirt with a big rip down the front on sale for TWENTY DOLLARS at one of my local stores!

  6. I’m below-the-poverty-line low income, and for the necessity frugal among us many have migrated to “[area] Buy Nothing” or eco-focused facebook groups. The folks posting are usually offering things they no longer need in the hope that someone will give them a second life, and so usually offer for free or for trade. There’s a mutual aid element to it philosophically — folks generally aren’t trying to turn a profit, and sometimes aren’t even trying to break even. I’m sure there are some disingenuous actors in these groups but they haven’t taken over yet.

    1. Same here. A couple of BN members did get called out for accepting items and immediately posting them on Facebook Marketplace.

      For the most part, the group is a great bunch of folks of varying financial situations sharing and caring. My partner and I have gotten so many great items, and we’ve been able to de-clutter by sharing items that we no longer need but are still in great shape.

      I truly don’t know how some people are managing in this economy.

    2. I would love to do this but facebook is such an unusable cesspool that I can’t manage to deal with it anymore.
      *Gen X rant*
      Nobody bothers to make a web page anymore! You groups get off my lawn!


      All these thrifty people online like “I got this amazing thing for super cheap at the thrift store” and I’m like GIRL your thrift stores must be in a WAY different place than my local ones.

  7. Ugh, god yes. Even the slightly cheaper thrift stores around here caught on that Savers had basically double prices, and they caught up. It’s hard out there for a pimp–I mean, thrifter.

    I still find a few good finds, but it is much less rare these days. Like y’all noted, the internet has made it easier to resell, so the folks that do that for a living typically get the best stuff first.

    I’m still buying used as much as possible for environmental / ethical purposes, and I’ve also gotten much more into repurposing and reusing too. I had a bag of shirts I was gonna take to the thrift store…but then decided to turn them into a braided rag rug, for example. I’ve cut up other old clothes for rags, hankies, etc. And my husband is excited to start visibly patching holes on his fave shirts.

    1. The stuff at thrift stores around here is all junk, and also they’ve closed all their fitting rooms and won’t publicly post their refund policy, so fuck you if those pants don’t fit.

  8. I’d noticed prices going up, especially at Goodwill. Glad to know it isn’t my imagination.

    Value Village (“Savers” in many areas) has occasional half-off days here in Anchorage. When visiting my daughter in Phoenix, she and I try to hop over to Savers on Mondays because it’s half-price day. EVERY Monday. Bastards.

    Partner scored an unbelievable deal on a pair of barely worn Firehose jeans from Duluth Trading Company: $6 at Value Village. He was very happy and hopes to keep them going 4-evah.

    Lately, I’ve gotten clothes, housewares and such from my local Buy Nothing group. Very grateful for those folks.

  9. Yes thank you for voicing this! I’ll say that most 2nd hand items are still less expensive than new and better quality. I just can’t even find new clothes that fit me (petite/curvy where are you) but sifting through the thrift stores is a challenge! And yes I have 2 pairs of pants that have been on my dresser needing to be hemmed for 1+ years .

  10. I was out in one of the trendier/”hip” shopping parts of San Francisco yesterday (Valencia St) and there was a very trendy looking curated little kitchenwares shop selling vintage pyrex dishes. I didn’t look at the prices but I’m sure it was excessive compared to the original cost or what it would be in a thrift store.

  11. Enshittification: I bought a fleece lined, zip down, light weight jacket at the chain store where I buy brand-new brand named sneakers for much less than retail, many months before I would need to wear it. I didn’t pay attention to the brand on the jacket. Many months later, I tried to zip it up for the first time, and the cheap plastic zipper was defective. It still works as a house jacket, but that was quite annoying. I went to one of the big 2nd hand stores, and bought a better coat, with a metal zipper, for half of the cost of the one with the bad zipper.

  12. I thought it was because I was shopping secondhand online rather than in person — I usually am shopping for something specific and don’t have time to really go through the thrift selection, so I figured I was stuck. Gotta pay money in exchange for time and you can shop poshmark and ebay for exact items…. but it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a thrift store in person. Sounds like it may not even be worth it when I DO have time….

    1. Depending on what folks are looking for they might want to check out estate and frequent a few sales in their area to see what is available. I have scored some amazing finds on second hand kitchen items and furniture as well as garden tools and sheets and towels. If you go on the last day of the sale the sellers will take almost anything to get rid of unsold inventory. A fun and super frugal way to acquire what you need…

  13. I can totally relate to the struggle of finding those hidden gems in the secondhand market. The article makes a great point about the shift in the landscape of secondhand shopping, especially for us Millennials who grew up in the golden age of thrift store finds. It’s fascinating to see how economic changes and shifts in cultural aesthetics have influenced the availability and pricing of used items. I’ve found that sites like EMUCoupon have been helpful in finding deals and making secondhand shopping more budget-friendly. Have you noticed a similar change in the secondhand market, and do you have any favorite platforms for scoring affordable finds?

  14. OfferUp has me squinting at people pricing used items up near new prices. The whole point of low pricing on used stuff is supposed to make up for the lack of guarantee that it works or is on the condition promised. Sure, you might know it works, but get your head out of your own armpit for a minute and think like a buyer who doesn’t.

    Also infuriating is the fact that many “high quality” companies are making stuff with the same crappy standards as everything else and slapping a high “luxury” price tag on it. It’s impossible to tell the real quality of stuff anymore without digging super deep into the manufacturing/materials/ingredients, which is exhausting and drains time.

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