On Saturday night, I attended a party with some of my former high-school classmates. Many of the other guests were artists. I don’t know many artists, so it was fascinating to listen to their stories, especially about the economics of selling art during a recession. I learned a lot.

Later in the evening, I spent some time chatting with my friend Jonathan. He asked me about the blog. “What are you going to write about tomorrow?” he said.

“Well, I’d like to write about earning extra money,” I said. “That’s the topic for the podcast I’m doing Monday afternoon, and I think it would be fun to also post an article related to the subject. I’ve been picking the brains of these artists, hoping to find a story, but I haven’t found one yet.”

“I’ve got one,” Jonathan said. “Let me tell you how my mother earns extra money.”

Garage sale gold
“My mother makes money on eBay,” Jonathan said. “She likes to travel, but it’s not something she could normally afford to do. So, she’s found a way to generate extra cash that she saves just so she can off to Europe — to France or to Italy. Wherever she wants to go.”

“How does she do it?” I asked.

“She shops at garage sales,” Jonathan said. “She goes with my aunt. They each have certain things they know a lot about, and so they go from garage sale to garage sale, searching for hidden treasures. They buy them, take them home, and auction them on eBay. It’s simple, but it works.

“Here’s an example,” he said. “Recently, my mom bought a monkey perfume bottle for ten bucks. She sold it on eBay for $150.”

“A monkey perfume bottle?” I asked, completely baffled. Jonathan laughed.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. That’s the thing. People don’t know what they have, so if you’re educated about what certain things go for, you can get some great deals. Sometimes you have to play dumb, you know. If you find a great value, you don’t want to appear over-eager.”

“That reminds me of something that happened a few years ago,” I said. “A friend called to tell me about a nearby garage sale. This guy had a couple of boxes of comic books. Usually garage sale comic books are junk, but this guy had a bunch of great stuff from the late 1960s. He wanted $5 a piece for them, which was more than fair. I thought about making an offer of $100 or $200 for the entire lot. I was going to lie to him and say they were for my non-existent kid. I wanted to play dumb. But I didn’t have the guts. I left without buying anything. I should have at least made an offer. There were a couple of thousand dollars worth of comics there!”

“That happens all of the time,” Jonathan said. “My aunt once found a nice set of luggage marked at $100. She knew it was worth more, but she couldn’t bring herself to buy it. Her son told her to do it, but she didn’t. Later she saw the same set on eBay. One of her competitors had bought it. It sold for two grand!”

Competitive business
“Your mother and your aunt have competitors?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Jonathan. “A lot of people do this. There’s a group of them that go around from sale to sale. You get so you see the same people. Some of them are competitors. Other people have specialized niches. They know one thing really well, and they hunt at garage sales until they find it.”

“Interesting,” I said. “I remember once we were having a garage sale. I came home from work, and Kris pointed out a guy rummaging through my compact discs. I had hundreds of CDs for sale. Kris told me he’d been at it for about an hour. Eventually, he came up and tried to talk me down on prices, but I wouldn’t do it. I was shocked at the CDs he’d selected. It wasn’t the common stuff. He somehow knew every single hard-to-find or expensive disc that I’d accumulated over the past decade. Even the classical music. It hurt to sell that stuff.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan said. “There are a lot of people like that. Some are just collectors, but others are like my mom, who will just turn around and sell the stuff for a profit on eBay.”

He paused for a moment and then added, “My mom has no shame. She’s one of those who’s knocking on doors at 7am. She’ll read about a sale in the paper, and she’ll be there early, trying to get the best deals.”

“Don’t people get mad?” I asked. “When Kris and I hold sales, it drives us crazy when people show up early.”

“Sure, they get mad, but she doesn’t care. A lot of people turn her away, but many don’t. They may be mad, but they’re happy to take her money.”

Love it or leave it
“The thing is, my mom loves this,” Jonathan said. “She’d do the garage sales even if it wasn’t a way to earn extra money. There’s a lot of time my mom buys stuff and gets nothing. But she doesn’t care because she had a blast garage-saling for three days.

“A friend of mine is always trying to convince others to start side businesses. He says that you can’t do it for the money, though. You have to do something you enjoy. You have to take other stuff into consideration. If you do it just for the money, there’s a good chance you won’t stick with it because you’ll discover you don’t like it.”

I thought of a conversation I’d had earlier in the evening with one of the artists. He makes interesting clocks. He doesn’t actually make the mechanisms, but he creates artistic clockfaces. We talked about the economy, and he told me business has been rough lately. He doesn’t sell a lot even during the best of times, but the last few months have been even harder. But he keeps doing it because he loves it.

In the end, Jonathan summarized his mother’s strategy: “My mom doesn’t make a lot of money, but she has fun. And she’s able to earn enough to travel. She’s traveled to Turkey and Costa Rica and Switzerland.”

“And this is just off of garage sales?” I asked.

“Yup,” said Jonathan. “It’s garage-sale money.”

Join Jim and me later today for The Personal Finance Hour. We’ll be discussing other ways to earn extra money. Photo credits: Garage sale by M. Gifford, Matchbox cars by Daniel Spils, Switzerland by MK Media Productions.