The holiday season can test a frugal person’s patience: There are so many temptations to spend. Sure, we all want to enjoy the festive nature this time of year, but where do you draw the line? And how fugal is too frugal?

Michelle wrote with a terrific question. She has the sort of dilemma I can picture myself facing. Here’s her story:

Like you, I am a big proponent of thrift store shopping. It saves money, and it’s just more fun going to the mall — at least for me. Because I live in the New York City area, I’m fortunate in that many of the area thrift stores are filled with fantastic stuff, including designer and name-brand quality clothes, many of which are barely worn.

On a recent thrift-store trip, I picked up two designer handbags as Christmas gifts for my college-aged nieces, but now I’m having second thoughts.

  • On the one hand, there’s no way they would ever really acquire Coach and Kate Spade handbags on their own.
  • On the other hand, I don’t know if they share my acceptance and love for thrifting, and they may not react well to the thought of being gifted someone else’s cast-offs.

Since new versions of these bags are clearly out my budget, there’s no way to pass these things off as anything other than second-hand. What do you think? Is it tacky to purchase gifts at a thrift store?

My initial response to Michelle’s question is that of course it’s okay to purchase gifts at a thrift store — I do it all the time! But maybe that’s because of the way my family has set up its gift exchange.

In my family, adults exchange $5 gifts: Each of us buys something costing no more than five bucks for every other adult. This arbitrary budget forces folks to get creative. And because of that, thrift stores are actually a fantastic place to find presents. Garage sales, too. (And I’ve spent many hours trolling Amazon for fun bargains.)

Here’s my favorite example: Several years ago, I found a set of nice drafting pens for ten bucks at a garage sale. My brother used to draw house plans (though he no longer does), and I thought these would make a great Christmas gift. I haggled the price down to five bucks. Back home, I researched the actual price for the pens. They normally sold for about $70. Score! (I’m not sure if Jeff has ever used them, but this is the best $5 gift I’ve ever given.)

Obviously, not everyone is in a situation where giving bargain buys from garage sales and thrift stores is socially acceptable. But I’m willing to wager that there are plenty of people out there for whom this sort of thing is okay, at least to some degree.

But this is the sort of question where I definitely need to poll a wider audience. Not everyone shares my love of buying used. In fact, many GRS readers deplore thrift stores. Instead of steering Michelle down my own (possibly misguided) path, it’s probably best to field responses from a variety of perspectives.

What do you think? When is it okay to purchase gifts from a thrift store? Is it always okay? Never okay? And what about Michelle’s specific situation: Should she feel any shame in giving used designer handbags to her nieces this Christmas?

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