Is it okay to make money by selling things that were free (or cheap)?



I have been pondering this topic for a little while.

I began to think about it after I volunteered at our school jumble sale this year. For the first time I experienced the semi-professional haggling skills of customers who were going on to sell their bargains at car boot sales etc for a far higher price.

Then the lovely blogger, Ruby, from Quiet Radicals posed the question on twitter: is it ok for people to buy cheap items in charity shops – and then sell them on for higher prices to make a personal profit?

This really got me thinking. If the item at a school jumble sale, or charity shop, is on sale to make money for a good cause is it wrong for the purchaser to later sell it for more? Especially if this ‘profit’ is then kept for personal gain?

I guess you could say ‘good luck’ to anyone who has the ambition and drive to make money from selling other people’s cast-offs. Whether these cast-offs were donated to help a charity, accidentally left behind, or given for free should be irrelevant. When we donate we should no longer have any say in what happens to that item. It is now down to the charity shopper, freecycler, skip-diver etc to use their initiative to turn a profit.

And yet, I feel slightly uncomfortable about this. I recently wrote a magazine article on upcycling and the skill and materials that are involved in improving old, discarded items is something I approve of. These people have taken time, and spent their money and labour on making something better.

I guess it’s when something is bought for a cheap price/for free and then sold on at a higher price without anything being done to it, is where I struggle. I also think that items bought from charity shops should only be sold to make money for that charity.

A few months ago I bought a t-shirt online that was too small. Instead of having to return the t-shirt, Redbubble said I could keep it (as well as being sent a larger size). They said: “there’s no need to send it back. Feel free to give it to a friend, donate it to your favorite charity, whatever you want..”

Redbubble label

For a brief moment I thought I could sell it on and make some money. However it didn’t feel right. I’ve essentially got that t-shirt for free and it would be so much nicer to pass it onto a friend, as friends have done to me. Maybe I’m just wired a little differently, or the pursuit of profit just isn’t my thing.

But what do you think? Am I being too puritan about this? Should people be able to sell these items for more than they bought them for in the first place?

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10 thoughts on “Is it okay to make money by selling things that were free (or cheap)?

  1. At the Leeds Community Clothing Exchange there is a rule against people getting clothes as a means to selling them on. I think it would be difficult to stop someone doing this on an ad hoc basis (ie if an individual came across one item they realised they could sell on for a profit). But it would be very much not in the right spirit to do this routinely.

    In the case you mention with the T-shirt that was too small, I think you were right to feel icky. After their generosity, it would seem underhand to profit from a ‘mistake’ in such a way.

      • They would have had to reimburse the postage and it would have been an administrative faff, if nothing else. Better to create goodwill.

        I had a similarity situation, where my first plastic greenhouse was damaged in high winds. They offered to send me a cover and new poles. I accepted the cover as the original had got ripped beyond usability but I felt it would be unreasonable to take the poles since only one or two were a bit bent.

  2. Barbara says:

    I don’t sell things but it’s probably a bit of not being stuffed (and
    not having the financial necessity of having to be stuffed) and taking
    the easy way out. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight recently and had clothes
    that no longer fit but I would rather donate them to a op shop (as we
    call them here) than go through the ringmarole of trying to sell them
    for whatever I could get.

    • Yes I definitely feel I am not wired to spend lots of time and effort to make a (small) profit by selling things this way. I occasionally use our local Facebook sales site but absolutely hate using eBay. It’s good that you donated your clothes to charity as well – if no one did that they wouldn’t have any stock to sell for good causes.

  3. I don’t do this because it would exhaust me, but I know people who do it for a living. I think these people serve a valuable role because their resales are usually done on Etsy or eBay and they save people who have neither the time nor inclination to dig through charity and thrift shops. In this sense the resellers have added value to items by preselecting and cleaning them. Great topic.

    Oh, also, if someone gives me something, they usually say I can do whatever I want with it, which is very kind. If I simply can’t wear it, I shall pass it on to someone else or donate it.

  4. I have rather a jaded opinion about this. I used to give away a lot of things on Freecycle. After some time, I realized that the same three or four people ALWAYS contacted me the moment I posted something. Didn’t matter if it was a pair of old ski gloves, books, an occasional table or a rope of canning rings. Those folks wanted it, and they wanted it now. One of the guys came round with a car filled with junk in the back seat. One of the women slipped and said, “Oh this will be great in this week’s yard sale.” She hustled back into her car without making eye contact.

    I began to notice the every-weekend yard sales in our neighborhood. Always the same households, always piles of disparate stuff, week in and week out. And one day, as I passed one of the houses, the owner and another man outside were laughing. “Yeah, Freecycle.”

    It feels kind of yukky to me, but I suppose it’s one way to make money when one’s options are limited.

  5. I don’t know if you have car boot sales in the US (basically a collective yard sale where you sell out of the back of your car)? I’ve done a couple and each time the people who have snagged bargains from me the moment I turn up have then gone onto sell these items at higher prices. I guess if they can be bothered to do this then good luck but, like you, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth…

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