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Confessions of a bargain hunter: It’s the thrill of the hunt

Few stories have been more perfectly suited for me to produce than this morning’s TODAY segment about a woman who has bought nothing new in the past five years... well, almost nothing new. Like those fast talkers say at the end of drug commercials, there are some exceptions: food, underwear, toiletries. My own caveat list is way more extensive, but I can certainly hold my own in the “new-to-me” fashion department thanks to an unknown size-8 actress.

In case you missed it, correspondent Kristen Dahlgren profiled Katy Wolk-Stanley, a part-time nurse and a wife and mother of two teenage boys from Portland, Ore., who writes a blog called The Non-Consumer Advocate. In 2007, Katy decided she’d acquire only used things. While it was her own choice, she’s well aware that in these tough economic times there are plenty of folks for whom frugality is not just a lifestyle, but a life saver.

I expected a house of horrors — decrepit furniture, smelly clothing and broken-down appliances — but instead, her home was lovely and homey. In fact, she’s got some better stuff than I do. I could have easily moved her second-hand $125 pink mohair couch into my living room, even if her husband complained it’s not comfy. He did seem perfectly happy in the green velvet side chair that Katy salvaged and reupholstered. As a chair freak I was insanely jealous of her sturdy oak dining room chairs, which she says came from a 1920s library — $75 for the set, although at least one had to be sacrificed for the good of the rest. And her 42-inch hand-me-down high-def TV beats the pixels out of my Goldstar 13-inch with the UHF dial and occasional color. (Mine was new. In 1986.)

But while Katy’s not buying anything new, that doesn’t mean she’s not shopping. We went to the place she scores most of her deals — her local Goodwill. Let me tell you, Katy is one picky shopper. I think she touched every single thing in the store. Finally she bought a 99-cent drinking glass. (Actually she had to borrow a buck because she forgot to bring money; she must have been flustered by being filmed for NBC. Our cameraman floated her a loan, interest-free; another deal for Katy.)

Second-hand shopping is often more about the thrill of the hunt than actually bagging a bargain. It’s the urban equivalent of being on a fossil-collecting field trip, carefully sifting through the dirt with a tiny brush until you find a $250 tissue box holder for $6.99. And I’m kicking myself for not buying it.

I know that feeling because I come from a long line of thrift shoppers. Grandma Belle called it “antique-ing,” thus giving it that allure of propriety. The instinct passed on to my mom, whose purchase of a $300 Steinweg baby grand piano from a long-gone thrift shop in the East Village of New York City remains the family benchmark (alas, the accompanying bench cost just as much). Our Steinweg is a gorgeous instrument despite the fact that it’s a distant cousin to the more popular Steinway (then again, so is my Beethoven’s “Fur Elise" compared to, say, Van Cliburn’s).

Katy and I also share the best part of cut-rate treasures: the pleasure of relating each possession’s provenance. Katy gave us a docent tour of her stuff: a salvaged chair, an abandoned side table, this mirror from her mom, that bed from an angry divorcee, the painting, the upright piano, the bricks for the patio... each had a tale to tell.

But that’s not just Katy. I’m guessing plenty of our viewers take part in the great oral tradition of sharing the price you paid versus actual retail price.

Which brings me to my best story. At the swanky Daytime Emmy Awards this year I should have won Best Bargain of the Night, because my dress still had its original label. I wore a cast-off from a local thrift store that gets clothing from the nearby movie studios.

What I wore? A $420 dress from Neiman Marcus. What did it cost me? $12. Being able to tell everyone? Priceless. But of course, not as priceless as TODAY winning an Emmy.

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