Spring has officially arrived in Iowa—I spotted the first garage sale last week. Some people mistakenly think the first robin is the true sign of spring’s arrival, but for those of us who are garage sale fanatics, it is that bright pink poster tacked to a pole.

I am a seasoned garage sale planner, participating in other people’s sales when I lived in the country and holding two a year for several years since we moved to town, regularly making over $1000 for a few days of work. I used to have enough surplus stockpile from my coupon shopping trips that I could actually fill a large table and a shelf or two at my annual sales with extra health-and-beauty and cleaning products I’d gotten for free with my coupons. People informed me that they waited for my garage sale to stock up on products like toilet paper, deodorant or toothpaste. They counted on my sales, and even seemed upset if I didn’t have a basic like toothpaste for sale. It was as if they thought I ran a store of some sort and didn’t understand the concept of a coupon-clipper who took advantage of available sales and deals, which of course would vary widely between sales.

I’ve learned some valuable lessons regarding holding a successful garage sale. If you are eager to begin your spring cleaning and want to hold a sale of your own, here are the top ten tips from this seasoned pro:

  • Pair up with other families to hold a multi-family sale. You will net more interest, and traffic, if you have a wide variety of merchandise for sale. People love multi-family sales and you are more likely to attract a wide range of age groups if you are advertising baby merchandise along with your antiques and collectibles. Maybe Grandma will pick up some baby clothes for the newest addition while she is perusing your fine china and glassware. You can also share the cost of advertising, and the work, if more than one family participates.

  • Plan ahead. If you know you are going to have a sale in May, don’t wait until a week before to begin cleaning out your closets. I give myself at least a month of cleaning and organizing around the house, setting things aside for my upcoming sale. Yes, I might have a hallway full of boxes for a while, but if I begin organizing early, I know I will have had enough time to get through the cluttered areas in my house before my sale, and a better selection when the day arrives. If you can, store the boxes in your garage to get them out of your house. Also, make sure to price the items as you find them instead of waiting until the last minute. Clean out your garage and prepare the area where you will be holding the sale. Have tables available. Sometimes you can borrow card tables or folding tables from friends or a church for the day.

  • Price everything. No one likes to ask the price on something. There are customers (and I am one of them) who will just walk away from a sale rather than ask the price of each item. So make sure everything is clearly labeled. This is especially true when you are selling more than one person’s merchandise. Make sure each person codes their items with initials or different types of tags. My oldest daughter, also a garage sale pro, always uses yellow price stickers and I use white on our toys, books, and household miscellaneous. I pin white string tags to clothing and she makes do with masking tape that has her initials on it. We keep separate sheets labeled with our name at the top to keep a running tally of each of our sales. The only time it is appropriate not to use a price label is when you have a large group of the same item. If you have twenty identical toothbrushes or two dozen pairs of baby socks, it is perfectly acceptable to put them in a bin that has the price clearly listed, rather than pricing each one individually.

  • Set up an eye-pleasing display. Display your items with the buyer in mind; hanging clothing when you can, using tables instead of boxes so the buyer doesn’t have to bend down or rifle through a mess to find something. Set out the larger furniture items and colorful toys at the end of the driveway to entice people to stop. I can’t tell you how many garage sales I wasn’t intending to stop at but did because of what was displayed closest to the road.

  • Advertise, advertise, advertise. Besides running an ad in the local penny saver or newspaper, check Facebook and Yahoo e-mail lists to see if there is a garage sale listing for your area. Our small town actually has a Facebook page and a Yahoo list specifically designed to advertise upcoming sales. Some of these are listed by county, others by town, but they are a great place to let the people who are obviously interested in garage sales know that you are having one. Advertise on your local Craigslist garage sale listings.

  • Post signs in prominent places. In our town, the signs advertising your sale can be even more important than the ads you run. I know several people who have held successful garage sales without ever running an ad, just by placing bright colored signs at all the main intersections in their neighborhood. While I like the idea of advertising everywhere I can, one year I did have to depend on signage to bring in the customers when storms were predicted for the day of my sale. I make heavy use of my yard and driveway in displaying merchandise at my garage sales so when I saw that rain might ruin my upcoming sale, instead of delaying it, I bumped up the starting day and just posted signs all over town. I still got a lot of traffic that first unadvertised day, which proved to me just how important good signage can be. Make sure your signs state the address, and not just an arrow pointing in the general direction, and that the words are big enough for drivers to read quickly and easily.

  • Have enough change on hand and keep it in a safe place. I always pick up change at my local bank the day before our sales, usually at least $75 worth, in various denominations of both bills (have lots of one dollar bills on hand!) and coins. I purchased a metal money box at our local discount store just for the purpose of having garage sales and members of my extended family have borrowed it for their own purposes. The box has a separate place for bills and change. If you don’t want to invest in a money box, any container with a lid will do. Make sure it has a lid though, to lessen the chance of theft or the wind blowing some bills away. Never leave your money box unattended. Even if you run inside to go to the bathroom or grab a cup of coffee, take it with you, or have someone at the check-out area watch it. As the bills from sales add up, occasionally remove some of them and put them in a safe place inside the house.

  • Make sure you have help. I’ve always tried to have at least two adults tending the check-out area, but my teens are a whiz at making change, too. We homeschool and there is nothing like garage sales to teach young people to add, subtract, and count back change. My daughter Emily’s first employer was pleased that she didn’t need the register to tell her how much change to give back to customers and amazed that she also knew how to count back the change as she handed it back. I credit our many garage sales for giving her hands-on experience with those concepts.

  • Be ready to wheel-and-deal. For some buyers, half the fun of garage sales is the wheeling and dealing that makes them feel like they scored an amazing deal. I’ve had buyers that have dickered over something priced at a dime, and left my sale feeling great because they saved an additional nickel. Keep in mind that whatever is left after your sale you will have to box up and deal with. If someone is willing to cart away a box of books for ten dollars, maybe you should consider that offer instead of having unsold books left at the end of your sale. We often have a half-price morning on the last day of our three-day sale.

  • Have fun already. Holding a garage sale can be a social event. My mother used to come to my garage sales just to sit on my porch, drinking copious amounts of coffee and observing the people who came. She would strike up conversations with many of them as she noted their purchases, and talking shop with other quilters, artists, or antique collectors. I have had some wonderful literary-charged conversations with book-lovers who were purchasing stacks of my paperbacks. I’ve also enjoyed some great conversations with my daughters or sisters who participated in the sale. Sometimes we play music in the background or have picnic lunches outside during a slow period of the day. We almost always splurge on pizza at the end of the first day. And even though we inevitably have leftover items to deal with after our sale is over, we usually have a cleaner, more organized house and some money in our pockets when the day is done.


Mary Potter Kenyon, graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, and mother of eight, is the author of the Familius published books, “Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America’s Extreme Obsession,” and “Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage.” Her upcoming book, “Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace” will be released in October.
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Coupon Crazy examines the phenomena of avid coupon use and the socio-cultural and socioeconomic factors that construct it. By delving into the history of couponing, refunding, the science of shop...
Coupon Crazy

Mary Potter Kenyon

Mary Potter Kenyon graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in psychology and is a reporter for the Manchester Press newspaper. She is widely published in magazines, newspapers, and anthologies and a popular speaker and workshop prese... Read More




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