21 Things to Look For Every Time You Go To a Yard Sale or Thrift Store

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yard sale thrift store

Sterling silver flatware

Even if you can only afford to buy a spoon or a fork at a time, sterling silver is known to have antimicrobial properties. Some people believe that simply using silver flatware as everyday eating utensils can ward off harmful microbes.  Typically, a single piece of silver, such as a spoon, will run about $50.  Buy from reputable sellers, such as established estate sale agents and thrift stores.

Survival related reference books

Peruse Amazon lists such as this one and become familiar with titles, authors, and subject areas.  Books about homesteading, gardening skills, primitive camping, wilderness survival, and so much more are very often found for just a couple of dollars, or less.  Other books to look for: Boy Scout manuals, Foxfire books, and issues of Backwoods Home magazines and anthologies.

Grain mill

A good mill can run upwards of $300 and more, but it’s not uncommon to find them in yard sales and thrift stores.  Familiarize yourself with good brand names, ask to test the mill with actual wheat (if possible), but otherwise, I’ve found mills in very good condition for less than $50. One of my favorites and the #1 manual grain mill I recommend, is the Wondermill Junior. You may not find it at a yard sale, but then again, who knows?

Camping equipment

Good quality tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, lanterns, cots, etc. are often sold at very low prices by people who thought camping was a great idea, tried it once or twice, and decided to stick with hotels!  Their loss is your gain!

Good quality knives

Look for brand names such as K-Bar,  Cold Steel, and Gerber and know how to spot quality.  A Swiss Army Knife is also a good find and you can never go wrong with the Mora brand for a low price, all purpose knife — if you need to buy one.

Homeschooling supplies

In a crisis, you may end up being your children’s teacher.  Workbooks, classic literature, flash cards, math manipulatives, textbooks, and even school supplies are very often for sale by homeschoolers who are moving up a grade or have decided to liquidate their stockpile of school supplies.

Winter wear

I once picked up a super heavy duty men’s winter coat for ten dollars.  I was thrilled because it looks like it’s never been worn and came in a dry cleaner’s bag.  Look for snow boots, winter gloves, and other pieces of winter wear, and if you have kids, buy this clothing in a size or two larger for future winters.

Boots

Work boots, riding boots, gardening boots, mucking boots, military boots, motorcycle boots, cowboy boots, hiking boots, desert boots — who knew there were so many different kinds of boots?  Check for quality construction and material as well as wear and tear.  When it comes to taking care of your feet, always go for quality.

Tools

There’s just something about old tools from the ’40s and ’50s that beats the heck out of today’s “Made in China” label.  Some sellers are savvy to the higher quality of their tools and may ask a bit more, but in the long run, it will be worth it.

Battery-operated appliances

I get a lot of questions about survival following an EMP or long-term power outage.  If you find battery powered fans, important appliances, and other tools, buy them, just to be ready for a power-down scenario.  Be sure to stock up on the appropriate batteries as well. Students in our Preppers University who purchased battery powered fans for the first time, claim it’s the smartest purchase they ever made — so these, you may not find at yard sales!

Food dehydrator

No need to be a snob about this.  I still use the inexpensive American Harvest dehydrator I bought a few years ago on Craigslist.  I spent $30 and got extra trays, fruit leather trays, and even a couple of screen trays.

Fishing equipment

I’ve seen top-quality fishing poles, nets, enormous collections of flies, rods, reels, you name it.  If part of your survival plan is to go fishing for food, estate, and yard sales are prime sources for supplies.

Emergency supplies

I’ve picked up emergency radios, lanterns, backpacks, water purification tablets, and paracord.  Most of what I have in my Vehicle Emergency Kit was found at these sales.  By the way, here’s a tip: often the best survival related supplies will be found out in the garage if you’re attending an estate sale.

Tough kids clothing

Believe it or not, when my son was quite young, I discovered that Gymboree made the toughest jeans on the market.  I don’t believe he ever wore a hole through the knees of his Gymboree jeans.  Kids are notoriously tough on clothes, so when you’re looking at second-hand clothing, go for brands and fabrics that will stand up to serious wear and tear.  Buy them in larger sizes, so you’ll be ready for growth spurts.

Canning jars and supplies

Look for Ball brand jars in all sizes.  You can always buy the lids and rims at a grocery store or on Amazon.  Also look for things like a magnetic lid lifter, funnel, jar tongs, and large pots.  It would be a good idea to know the prices of new canning supplies.  Once I was at an estate sale, found a nice large water bath canning pot, but when I checked the price on Amazon, the yard sale price was higher!

Manual kitchen and household tools

Do you have a manual egg beater?  A flour sifter?  Enough manual can openers?  A manual meat grinder?  I’ve seen all of these and more at estate and yard sales.  During a long-term power outage, you’ll be glad to have them!

Cast iron cookware

Guess where I picked up my two best cast iron skillets?  Yep, at garage sales! I recommend frying pans in 2 or 3 different sizes, a couple of Dutch ovens in different sizes, a griddle, and then whatever other shapes and sizes you care to add to your collection, such as this biscuit pan!

Cookbooks

Specifically look for cookbooks that provide recipes for outdoor cooking, canning, Dutch oven cooking, and cooking with basic ingredients. Collecting old cookbooks is an enjoyable and rewarding hobby.

Good quality gardening tools and supplies

Often, in urban and suburban settings, gardening is a fad that comes and goes.  You will likely find everything you need for your garden just by shopping yard sales and Goodwill.

First aid and medical supplies

Boxes of surgical gloves, bandages, butterfly strips, surgical scissors, sterile gauze, and entire well-equipped first aid kits are sold at bargain prices.  Once I even saw an old Army first aid kit with a snake-bite kit and ammonia inhalants, circa 1955!  I prefer estate sales, and very often, the owner of the home was taken care of by a visiting nurse service.  I’ve found massive amounts of medical supplies in just these types of sales.  Don’t worry, I didn’t buy everything!  I left some for you!

Hunting supplies and firearms

In some yard/garage sales, you just might get lucky and spot hunting rifles and even handguns for sale.  If you see lots of hunting related items, quietly ask the homeowner if he/she also has firearms for sale.  There are plenty of other hunting supplies out there, though, including gun cleaning kits and decoys.  If you hit the right yard sale, you might feel like you’re in Cabela’s!

Guess where I picked up my two best cast iron skillets? Yep, at garage sales! Click To Tweet
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I'm the original Survival Mom, and have been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more for 9 years.

61 thoughts on “21 Things to Look For Every Time You Go To a Yard Sale or Thrift Store”

  1. When the final relative moved out of my great-grandmother’s house and it went up for sale, I asked if there was anything left that had been hers. I now have my very own beautifully-painted chamber pot and a large handful of tarnished silver spoons! They were worthless to everyone else and were to be tossed in the trash the next week, but I have them on display and can use them if the need arises.

    1. Besides yard sales and flea markets always check any local good will or charity thrift shops. It is sort a two fer. You get something and you are helping out an organization that does some good. They just opened a habitat for humanity resale store in Williamsburg and already have picked up some pretty good tools.

    2. I’ve been wondering if having sterling silver flatware would come in handy for bartering…..everyone says that gold and silver are important for those purposes so……does it matter what form your silver is in?

      1. Sterling silver…as opposed to NON-sterling silver? Is there a difference, or am I just splitting hairs?

        1. Matthew Montgomery

          The difference between Sterling and regular silver is the silver content. Sterling contains something like 92.5% silver and the rest being alloy (usually copper). Pure silver, or 99.999% content, is too fragile to make jewelry out of thus the alloys.

        2. Big difference. Any piece of flatware not marked Sterling is NOT silver. It is stainless steel or silver plate. Which is worth nothing, so if used for barter they won’t get you anything but a chuckle 🙂

      2. I read where sterling silver flatware was used for antimicrobial properties. I dug mine out and put them in with a load of dishes as I plan to use them daily and see if this is true. There may also be hints when you type in “uses for silver flatware”.

        1. I read somewhere that you should NOT put silver in the dishwasher at the same time as stainless.
          I don’t remember the exact reason, but think there is a chemical reaction that changes the finish on the silver. (blackens it, perhaps?)

          1. You can put all your sterling silver flatware in the dish washer if it is NOT touching any other kind of metal. A friend of mine uses her silverware daily and puts then in the dish washer with no harm done.

  2. Vickie Harrell

    Thank you so much for that…I know I should make a list…but I’ve never done it…thank you for putting it down for us !

  3. Great article! So happy you posted this!

    Things I scan for when I come upon a yard sale/garage sale/estate sale:

    -Candles I don’t care if they are warped or previously used a smidge, the uglier they are the cheaper you can get them. They have no shelf life and are great for emergencies. I doubt anyone will care that the heat warped them, were used, or they lost their smell when the SHTF)
    -Old oil lamps and wicks.
    -Canning Jars (Be careful to check for chips on the tops, and have a price of what new ones run in your area. My cut off for price is less than 50 cents because I can buy brand new with rings and lids for near that.)
    -Any human powered cooking tool. Hand mixers, mills, etc.
    -I also look for any well made metal utensils for cooking over a fire. Cast Iron, Heavy metal pots, Metal spatulas, spoons, etc. The heavy, well made ones are getting very hard to find. You are going to wish you had those when all your plastic utensils melt.
    -Gardening stuff. I look for small pots to start seedlings in that are well made and re-usable. Large containers/pots fit for container gardening. Also back ups for hoes, shovels, rakes. Again I know in my head what new ones run so I can make sure that I am not overspending.
    -I keep a look out for 5 gallon buckets too, because these can be used for a myriad of things: carrying water, storage, container gardening.

    I know I get strange looks when I ask whoever is having the sale if they have the above items. But occasionally I luck out and they have them stuck back because they didn’t think anyone would buy them. Most yard salers want toys, clothes and mostly the junk that would be completely useless in a post SHTF world.

    1. Egg cartons are great for starting your seedlings and are free just keep saving them ask neighbors and friends to save thiers for you too..Milk cartons cut off at the bottom Makes a great minieture green house for one plant so save them up ..Plant early and before last frost just wrap black plastic around them or tar paper

    2. Another fantastic use for egg cartons, preferably the cardboard type. ‘FIRE STARTERS’
      Collect dryer lint.
      Pack into each egg holder.
      Pour melted candles, wax over lint.
      While still warm add more lint and pack well.
      Pour more melted candles, wax over entire top.
      Allow to dry and close carton for storage.
      I use wide marker to label front of carton. FIRE STARTER
      When needed take care to not get burned.
      Cut or pull each cup from carton so waxed lint is in egg carton cup and light with match.
      These each will burn hot for at least 20 min.
      Easy way to be sure your fire will start easily.

  4. Great list, I too love yard sales and thrift store shopping. People just don’t know what they have.

    I am slowly amassing my camping supplies one piece of a time, whenever I find myself at the thrift store, I have a store rotation (different sections that I check) that I go through as well. One of my never-fail finds is fleece sleeping bags, sometimes called fleece liners. They’ll add 10 degrees to the temp rating of any sleeping bag. So if you don’t have the best bags just yet, you can make due with what you have.

    If you ever find yourself sheltering other people in your home, the fleece bags are perfect on a foam pad on the floor. We went winter camping this Feb. and had some nice bags but they were the satin-y inside and that just feels colder to me, so the liners came in handy to add to the cozy factor in 15 degree weather.

    Thanks so much for the post…even though you just increased my yard sale competition 🙂

  5. I enjoyed your article. I love going to garage sales. I found two lanterns with duracell batteries for $8.00. These lanterns go for $10.00 apiece without batteries. Thanks for the info.

  6. A great way to get items free and make extra money ,is to clean rentals.Rental companies just want to get rid of the stuff left behind by people when they leave.They will often tell you to trash it or keep whatever you want.Tear downs can be good for that too.When my husband was helping to teardown an ols student mobile home park the boss told him he could keep anything he found.The people had all moved out months before.He ended up with a lot of tools and camping equipment that had been stored under the trailers and forgotten.

  7. By the way libraries often give away their discards to anyone who wants them.I’ve found all kinds of great books that way.Educational,kids,crafts gardening and just plain entertaining.

  8. Good artical, I’ve bought guns at yard sales -they are not advertized- so ask. We seem to have yard sales as a part time business around here in Tampa bay and you can go thru a tank of gas looking.

  9. Elizabeth Conley

    Survival is also a here and now issue. I get a lot of food storage containers from yard sales because modern plastic containers are of questionable safety. Old fashioned glass and ceramic bottles and jars are safer, and much cheeper at the thrift store than anywhere else. We don’t store them for our rainy day – we use ’em ever day.

  10. It’s also a good idea to get to the yard sale early in the day. There are a lot of knowledgeable people out there looking for the same stuff that you are.

  11. Silver plated flatware is just as germicidal and much cheaper.
    You can probably buy a whole cased set for the price of one or two sterling forks.
    I would say buy the sterling if it is priced at a bargain for silver.
    But if you want useful and beautiful flatware that kills germs on contact…silver plate is great!

  12. Just in case somebody can’t tell the difference between Sterling & silver Plate:

    1. Sterling is ALWAYS marked either sterling or 925
    2. When silver plate oxidises it developes an oily sheen, sterling just turns flat black.

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  15. I always look for old wool blankets, wool will keep you warm even if wet. I like them under my sleeping bags camping, they can keep your animals warm. Also wool sweaters can be turned into felt. I cut out shoe and boot liners to keep feet warm. Also can be made into tea costs or hot pads.
    We have the Goodwill bin store in Portland or “last chance” store where everything goes that doesn’t sell in the GW stores, lots of smelly nasty stuff, but real gems to be found. Most stuff is sold by weight, glass is $.29 lb, more you buy the cheaper it is. I got lots of canning jars, books, wool sweaters etc.
    I wear gloves, and the people watching is a blast little rRussian ladies, moms, business men in suits punkers, you name it, it’s a Hoot if you aren’t to fussy. I’m sure there must be otherGw outlets in other larger towns. Oh once saw a smoker and lots of dehydrators there. Check it out. Be aware stuff is only out two hours then it’s gone forever, somedays it’s great others it’s not, but it is entertaining. Makes you aware how much crap people have, and your money can be better spent. I hope some readers try this,

  16. If I hit up a yard sale and ask the homeowner if he has any firearms for sale that’s not exactly on the up and up is it? And what is this Cabela’s? The only Cabela’s I know is an Italian restaurant.

    1. It all depends on where you are. If you are in a liberal ruined (I mean ran) area, there may be laws against it, but in most places, there are not. And Cabelas is a sporting goods store much like Bass Pro Shops-which you probably have never heard of either. Both of these stores sell hunting, fishing and camping supplies.

  17. I look for sewing supplies, also yarn,, crochet hooks and knitting needles,, fabric and patterns i vacuum seal these thing to prevent dry rot,,,,,,,,,,, someday you may need to make your own clothes gloves,, hats ect,, and it would be nice to have the items you need to do this,, dont you think!! (and who cares if the patterns are older or the yarn and fabric arent the most wonder colors,,) I also look for books on the subject,, sewing, knitting, crochet ect…and believe it or not people who know these crafts may someday be very very important, ( could very well be a way to barter to get items your family needs.

    1. Helen, like you, I also sew. I have numerous patterns that are somewhat basic patterns in multiple sizes, that I can copy over onto tissue paper for various sizes, so the original pattern isn’t damaged. I am always on the look out for material, which isn’t found often since so few sew, today. HOWEVER, there are some things that families with young children could probably find, that would make clothes for them.

      Any dress that has a full skirt probably has enough material in it to make at least a skirt, if not a top & straight skirt. New Look patterns have a lot of straight skirt patterns that only use 1 yd of material. The legs of large women or men’s jeans are usually large enough to cut a pair of pants out for a small child. You just have to like the fabric…you can usually find a pattern. I recently was able to make a short cocktail dress for my daughter out of a bridesmaid dress that had a train that she worn in a wedding. It had all that I needed, including zipper and boning and even the interfacing.

      For those who don’t sew, please consider learning. You have no idea what may be ahead of you and if you will be able afford to buy clothing. Just knowing how to mend it may be a Godsend, let alone how to make it, from scratch….especially, those of you who have young children that grow out of their clothes, fast! .

  18. Hand tools. Seems there’s normally some type of old tool somebody is discarding. I really look for older hand tools. If the lights go out or the grid goes down, those rechargeable cordless tools that we love so much will be just about useless. I like to acquire and use hand tools on small projects just to enhance skill in their use. Hand drills, saws, etc… can’t go wrong and they normally sell really cheap!

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  20. My husband’s cousin found a brand-new, Cold War-era home Geiger counter at an estate sale for $5.00. I just saw a similar one at an antique store for $450.00…

  21. I can’t tell you all the good things I have found at yard sales, which happen to be my favorite spring/summer pass time, but I will tell you the best yard sale finds: At a “low rent” housing area, I was told there were things in a storage shed. One of the items was a large “coffee maker,” which was priced $5.00….I bought it, the lady said you must drink a lot of coffee….I just smiled, because I knew that Berkey was not a coffee maker. A 4 filter Big Berkey water purifier, never used…
    At a different yard sale” 2(two) 3# down bags, both new, $3.00 each, a large electric grain mill, with a manual handle, $15.00, value on it was over $300………
    2 large Marine Recon internal frame packs, new, $10 each
    Other great finds: 50# of assorted candles for $5, and a plastic bin with about 100 lantern mantles, $1.00…….I still keep looking! Lamp fuels, the colored kind, partial and full bottles, rarely over $1.00, I have gallons of the stuff! So much fun!

  22. Hey dear…I’ve been hunting for a grain mill forever. However I don’t know which one to go for. The price range of the hand crank ones are wildly different and without serious testing, how do you know which one is the right one to get? I can also find a couple electric ones fairly priced vs the new ones but there again, looking for the non electric version…any ideas? Keep up the great work!

    1. Amy, I really like the Junior Wondermill. It is so heavy-duty that you could really hurt someone with it, such as a home intruder, not your husband!! It can grind nuts, herbs, and all types of grains, while other mills are meant only for wheat.

  23. Fun to read this again, lots of yard sales this weekend.
    I recently finished Master Food Preservers course so I’d like to add some comments on food preserving equipment .
    1. Don’t buy canning lids that are old. Recommendations are to buy new lids each year, they last five years. Seals dry out and then when you use them don’t seal, you could lose all your product.
    2. Do a little research on dehydrators, do they have temperature dial ? No? Don’t buy it, and test it if you can.
    3. Pressure canners with gauges need to be tested each year by extension office. If not you are at risk of botulism in your food. But replacement dials are only about $20.00. Also seals and plugs need checking and can be replaced.
    Look for “All American” pressure canners – they are seal less and have clamps that hold lid on, also pressure canners that are weighted not with gauge, should have a 5-10-15 lb. weight on oy. These don’t need to be tested.
    4. When looking at canning books don’t buy any before 1987 because USDA recommendations on canning have changed. The newer the better. I’d buy new books or check USDA sites for information.
    5. Canning jars have a “use” life of 12 years, so if you buy older use them for other things.
    6. Vacuum sealer are easy to find, if you use the canning jar device to seal stuff in old jars I got replacement hose on amazon, I bought extras cause they break.
    Hope this is useful.
    I encourage everyone to talk to your extension office about Food Preservation classes, WSU has a current on-line class that is only $25.00 and covers all kinds of Food Preservation. And you do it your own pace.
    7. And oh yeah grandmas pickle recipie from 100 years ago is likely not safe to use anymore.

  24. Thanks to Kelly (and everyone) for your thoughtful helpful comments! I am fairly new at this, and i really like the idea of taking a course and not just winging it. I don’t can, but would like to learn. I store certain canned goods, water, and treats in my basement, and like the feeling of keeping lint to use to start fires!

    This is all so interesting!

    I’m not one for guns, but to each their own!

  25. Lauralee Hensley

    I also heard that in the past people often put a silver coin in their milk to help keep it from spoiling sooner. They also had their kids suck of hold a silver spoon in their mouths a lot during each day that a flu or plague was going around. Seems the children that did that rarely got ill. Some say that is where the expression “BORN WITH A SILVER SPOON IN THEIR MOUTHS” came from.

  26. Lauralee Hensley

    Sorry meant to type suck on a silver spoon, not suck of hold a silver spoon. Guess it is bedtime and I should be sleeping and not typing.

  27. I recently purchased a very nice food saver and bags for $5. We’ve also purchased a brand new tent, cast iron cookware, a hatchet, canning equipment, a food dehydrator, and so much more including a huge box of MRE’s. I love yard sales, auctions and flea markets. We also stop at the local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores wherever we go.

  28. The pressure canner for the jars is another thing. It can be used for cooking to safe fuel, sterilzer anything and for canning. I makem sterile water and saw where someone even cut up a sheet, rolled it and put it in jars for sterile bandqges.

  29. Hi! Just found this on Pinterest and wanted to add my 2 cents 🙂 I can’t help but add that you should look for knife blocks 🙂 I just did a project where I turned a knife block into a DIY crayon holder for my kids, but you can use it for crochet hooks, makeup brushes, markers, etc. 🙂

    Here’s the link to the project:

    http://www.thriftdiving.com/diy-crayon-holder-from-a-knife-block/

    I also always look for lamps that can easily be spray painted, metal cabinets, and wire baskets. love those!

    Serena @ Thrift Diving

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  32. I love my Family Grain Mill, made by Messerschmidt (airplanes). I got it in 1996, and it’s still going strong. It’s manual, but you can get a motor base too, it has grain flaker, a veg slicer, meat grinder and a couple more attachments you can get. The manual grinder (base, body, burrs for grain) is still around or under $200 at Homestead Products, where I got mine.

    AquaRain water filter is as good as Berky, and costs a lot less, we’ve been using ours since 1994 for everyday water, filling with tap water.

    Mark Hansen wrote Black Pot for Beginners, Dutch Oven Breads, Best of the Black Pot… and has a great blog, Marksblackpot com with info & recipes. It’s written for outdoor DO use, but if you look at the heat & coals chart, pg 77, or the one Lodge has, take his number of coals, size of DO, and you have the temp to cook at for indoors. Great recipes and info. My favorite DO books.

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  34. As for fire arms, do read and know for sure the laws pertaining to them in any state you might travel in or through. There are different laws for each state even on how to store them in your vehicle. I know those of you from Tx and Itah are probably scratching your heard now but in NJ an historical pistol from a flea market can be enough to cause some confusion. Major cities are especially full of regulations for permits snd restrictions. Thought I’d add this so your that garage sale hunting shotgun find or even the one uncle ned left you does not get you into sny unmecessary trouble. The police are a little more nervous too since they have been targeted in the last year. Not being political. Just saying know your gun carry and travel laws. I told a friend like the VP said “get a shotgun”. Store it safely. Know your state laws.

  35. I also collect pkgs of heirloom seeds in a tin cannister and lid and have planted heirloom apple trees. Ideally I hope to get a small farm to grow more organic foods and herbs while interest rates are so low. A fresh water spring is a great thing too. You dont need to live on it if you can find somone trustworthy! to manage it or watch over it for you. If you buy a home or land make sure it has resale value and do take advantage of the current rates and get a 10 yr mrtg. not 30. Do this if you know you can always have some kind of income to pay it off. With lower real estate prices you might check to see if your taxes need lowering. Dont expect the county to do it for you. Some maybe even most states have farm tax assesing but check the rules. Some also give a one time payment for farm preservation. Save your heirloom seeds. Grow fruit tree or other valuable tree seedings.

  36. Whether you are a prepper or not, if you can find a treadle sewing machine, snap it up! Estate sales may be a good place to try. Most people today don’t sew let alone use a non-electric unit. The Amish use them so you can still purchase them brand new (Sears ?) and get replacement parts. When something happens to the grid, you can make your clothing and repairs or do that for others as barter.

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  38. You sort of mentioned it with “tools” but if you can find old rusted axes or splitting mauls, those sorts of tools, the rust can easily be cleaned off or a handle can be replaced and then you’ve got a pretty much new tool cheaply.

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  40. I found a King Kutter at a sale. It’s the manual slicer most like a Cuisinart! I love it. I also have also French coffee press that makes great coffee with no electricity.

  41. Tools are another great item! I found that yard sales are great for something you want “two” of. sometimes It’s nice to have 2 of something, but you don’t afford to buy 2 of them. It’s great to find them at garage sales. And I love how many preparedness items you can snag away too!

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