Australian Economy

As cost of living bites, more Australians are seeking second-hand bargains — many of them online

Celine didn’t expect to end up haggling over second-hand clothes, and she certainly won’t be telling her book club.

But desperate times have called for desperate measures — even for “solid middle class” Central Coast homeowners, with an engineer’s pay cheque and a respectable combined income.

“I would be really embarrassed if people knew,” said Celine, whose name has been changed.

“I never thought we’d be in this predicament. As middle-income earners, it really should be much easier.”

The mother of four never used to buy much second-hand, but now she constantly hunts for deals and freebies — everything from clothes and shoes, to bed linen, furniture and home improvements.

“I picked up curtain rods for free this morning, because the curtains are black with mould after all the wet,” she said.

As cost of living bites, the second-hand economy appears to be booming — and many Australians are coming to it for the first time.

Despite the economic downturn, resale platforms like Gumtree, eBay and Facebook Marketplace are reporting increased activity in some categories, as are other neighbourhood gifting and sharing groups.

Necessity and hardship appear to be leading us towards a new era of second-hand buying and selling.

Cost of living pinch ‘sharper’ than GFC

For many Australians, the pinch began some time in the past two years.

Unemployment rose with the pandemic, and then inflation went up as well. In mid-2021, inflation overtook wage growth, so that the real value of a typical worker’s pay packet declined.

It’s been declining ever since. Annual inflation is now at 5.1 per cent and growing at its fastest pace in 20 years, driven largely by fuel prices (up 35 per cent) and building materials (up 15.4 per cent).

In May, Anglicare modelling showed just how tight the pinch had become:

  • A full-time minimum wage worker is left with $29 after essential weekly expenses, not including the cost of health care or utility bills
  • A family of four, with two full-time minimum wage workers, has no income left after expenses
  • A single parent on the minimum wage is short $195 per week, even when accessing benefits

The struggle to break even this downturn was generally harder than during the Global Financial Crisis of the late noughties, said Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers.

It’s sharper. It’s much sharper,” she said.

“We’ve got the recession, we’ve got the pandemic, we’ve got a much greater level of insecure work than we had 10 or 15 years ago.”

Christian Olea walks down an aisle at a Salvation Army op shop.
The fall in the average real wage last year was the worst this century (outside of when the GST was introduced).(ABC News: Claudia Chiu)

What’s striking about the downturn, she said, was that families who had never accessed charity services were turning up at Anglicare depots, hoping to avoid being seen by anyone they know. 

“It is now very typical to find families that are working and even two-income families who cannot make the weekly or fortnightly pay cycle,” she said.

The rise of the ‘second-hand economy’

In the past decade or so, the second-hand economy has grown enormously.

The classifieds platform Gumtree, which publishes an annual snapshot of the economy, estimates the value of second-hand goods sold in Australia almost doubled from 2011-2021.

A fan, vase, radio, rotary phone and tableware are displayed on a wooden table with low-price stickers.
Retrostyled homewares have become fashionable again.(Getty: James Worrell)

A big reason for this was consumers wanting to avoid the waste and emissions associated with buying new, said Louise Grimmer, an online shopping expert at the University of Tasmania.

It’s also just easier to buy and sell stuff second-hand now, she added.

“Online marketplaces have really allowed for more and more consumers to buy and sell second-hand items.”

With prices going up, these marketplaces are going to be even more popular, she said.

Early figures appear to bear this out.

Facebook Marketplace has seen a 72 per cent increase in second-hand listings in Australia in the first half of 2022, compared to the same period last year, according to its owner, Meta.

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