If it weren’t for having an older cousin, I might have been naked as a child. Okay, that could be a bit of an overstatement, but let’s just say a large portion of my clothes were hand-me-downs. Without the outfit from my relatives, who knows how much more struggle my mom would have had to carry to find me properly fitting, seasonally appropriate clothing.
You see, like many single mothers with two children, we were broke. My mom worked hard to ensure that we had all of our basic needs provided for despite making a low wage at her government job.
My mom’s sister, my auntie Jean, looked out for me like I was her own daughter. She went out of her way to ensure I had birthday gifts, clothes, and even money. We never had to ask for help; she did so proactively.
The hand-me-downs that clothed my back served as a barrier between me and the painful manifestation of economic struggle. Despite there being days my mother would literally choose between having food for herself and feeding us, I never looked the part.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of times I overheard giggles as I debuted last season’s wardrobe. But I was awkward enough that the clothes being a little old was the least of my worries.
The early memories of having no money impacted me in many ways. Some of those effects have been positive, like a healthy dose of understanding for those who are less fortunate. Other aspects have been more of an uphill battle, like the debilitating anxiety that comes any time I spend a dollar.
That concoction of emotions has left me with a hearty appreciation for all things second-hand.
I never forgot my aunt’s generosity. There were even times she sent new clothes! But I took a particular interest, even then, in getting clothes that I knew someone had lovingly sent my way. Second-hand clothes had a scent, a comfy fit, and an attached set of memories. I was grateful for them.
In college, I basically lived in the thrift store. While other college freshmen were enamored with brand names and high price tags, I was falling for the world of thrift. On one hand, I practically lived at Goodwill because it provided access to a wide range of clothes that I couldn’t find anywhere else. But more than anything else, on a broke college student budget, there wasn’t much else I could afford. It was hard enough to go to the store and get anything other than instant noodles for dinner, let alone spend money on new clothes.
Hand-me-downs and second-hand clothes provided an inexplicable benefit when my husband and I were broke millennial newlyweds trying to make it work on a military A1C budget (spoiler: you’re getting paid beans) with college debt, car notes and a bunch of other random bills.
Naturally, the importance of having access to affordable clothes (and other household items) multiplied when we had that same budget and found out we were expecting our first child.
I was elated to discover that our local community had free clothing giveaways a few times a year. Between the clothing giveaways, second-hand clothing stores like Once Upon a child, and the friends that sent their older children’s clothes my way, I was comforted.
Knowing that there was always a network of friends, strangers, and community organizations to fill our clothing needs until we had the ability to do it on our own preserved my peace of mind.
Although I look back on second-hand clothes fondly, there were plenty of times throughout my life where I wished I had the money to afford new clothes.
As a teen, I wondered what those around me with think of me if they knew that the overwhelming majority of my clothes had been gifted from relatives. In college, it was a little bit difficult to make sure I wore business casual when my clothing selection was limited to the styles that were present at the local thrift store. And when our first child was born, there were many moments that I would fall in love with a brand-new outfit in the store but realize that it wasn’t practical to spend money on clothes when we had bills and food to purchase on a tight budget.
Nowadays, thrift store shopping is on trend. It’s not taboo. But for many of us, second-hand shops, consignment, and thrift stores are nothing new. Bargain shopping is “cool.” But many folks don’t understand that there are plenty of individuals for whom thrift store shopping isn’t a luxury or a trend; it’s an absolute necessity.
There’s nothing trendy about having to look for clothes that fit with an almost nonexistent budget and trying to save as much money as you can to keep the bills paid. There is nothing cool about being uncertain if you can afford to buy a brand new coat to face the Midwest winters because your car payment is due and you haven’t found a job yet. And a lot of folks don’t get that mandatory dress codes for work events can further ostracize people with already limited options.
Our family has been fortunate enough to move past the necessity of secondhand shopping. Our family has made great strides in the last few years financially. But I know had it not been for second-hand clothing, pots, and pans, and just about everything else you can think of we would have never made it.
Those experiences taught me important life lessons. For that reason, I do my best to keep our clothes in a donation rotation. Getting new secondhand clothes when we have the opportunity and making sure that we send as many second-hand clothes back to those places as we can.
As an adult, with two children and a husband, I’ve become particularly invested in the importance of directly contributing to the cycle of the hand-me-down movement. I understand first hand the ways that second-hand clothes change lives and save folks while they are in a bind (see that joke there).
Perhaps with time, my children will decide to forego all things thrift and opt into the brand name contagion.
But I know all too well that secondhand clothing is a huge blessing.