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Desperation de-cluttering: Selling stuff to pay the bills

Financial fire sales are becoming more common online.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 2, 2009 2:27AM

I recently wrote an essay about why getting rid of some of the clutter in your life could help you save money. Then I read an Associated Press article about people who are emptying closets and attics just to keep the wolf from the door.

Online auctions are bristling with family heirlooms, home electronics and designer duds. Craigslist ads are getting increasingly frantic, like the one in which a teen begged on behalf of her unemployed mom for people to "please buy anything you can to help out." One cash-strapped Wisconsin woman put her diamond engagement ring up for grabs. 

Craigslist has noted a 70% increase in for-sale listings since July 2007. Well, of course it has: There's no charge to sell an item on Craigslist.

You'll never get rich
These sellers are not likely to make anything close to what they originally paid. A Pennsylvania woman sold more than 80 items through, including some Dooney & Bourke handbags. A glance at that company's Web site revealed purses upward of $400 apiece. 

The Pennsylvania seller earned $1,000 total. Do the math: The average price per item was $12.50.

Nancy Baughman, who runs an online auction site, said her customer base is mostly middle class and largely desperate. "This is not about downsizing. It's about needing gas money," Baughman told the Associated Press.

It's tempting to assume these sellers are in trouble because they've been financially irresponsible. Maybe they maxed out their credit cards or borrowed against inflated-value homes to buy whatever they wanted. 

Or maybe not. Even hard-working and prudent people can wind up in debt. Job loss or illness can knock anybody off the game board.

Even so, I'm inclined to think that at least some of these sellers had been financially foolish and now are paying the price, so to speak. But they were only doing what they've been programmed to do: Acquire, acquire, acquire. In the United States, nothing succeeds like excess: the latest fashions, the hottest car, the grandest vacations, the biggest house, the priciest furniture.

'I wish I had the money instead'
That March de-clutter essay drew a comment from a rueful reader who bought her first home 25 years ago. "I started buying stuff to decorate and make our home beautiful. Each move and new home needed different things.

"Now with the economy and looking to downsize in retirement -- I wish I had done things different. A few cherished pieces, not a six-bedroom houseful. As I clean or look at my treasures I wish I had the money now instead."

I expect those desperate online sellers feel the same way. What good is a designer handbag if you can't pay your electric bill?

They're an object lesson for the rest of us. If you don't have a budget, create one that works and stick to it. Make a plan to pay off any consumer debt pronto. Start an emergency fund. If there's even the barest possibility of layoffs at your workplace, think about how you'd handle unemployment.

Finally, get in the habit of evaluating any planned purchase. Do you really need it? Can you really afford it? Will it improve the quality of your life? Can you put it off for a few months? If you do need it, what's the most cost-effective way of getting it?

These days, it seems, your best bet is an online auction.

Published May 2, 2008



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