As most of you know, a huge supporting pillar in the National Parks adventure ahead of us is our budget. I think it’s the most common question I’ve gotten when I tell people about our trip: how will you afford that? Cole and I are young — about to turn 26 this summer — but I like to think that our financial age is a bit older. We both come from families that valued frugality and thriftiness. My mom was — and still is — the amazing money leader of our household, making sure we were always getting the best deal, and tracking the money that left our account. She also belongs to an investment group and helps make additional financial decisions for our household. Though I absolutely aspire to follow in my mom’s footsteps and be the money manager of my new family, it’s way more up Cole’s alley. Cole is the budgeting king: he tracks and categorizes each dollar that leaves our accounts and consistently strives for optimal finances.
Through our trials and errors of money management, Cole and I have seemed to find a system that works. So when it came time to talk about how we will afford this trip, we easily squeezed saving for it into our existing setup. After estimating and calculating approximately how much a year-long trip would cost us (hopefully under $20,000, which which is a big part of our trip rationalization), we simply started saving.
Saving took place in all areas of our lives. We’re not big spenders in general, so most of the saving was easy. I stopped all clothes shopping, which was easy once I realized I wouldn’t really need normal clothes on the trip. We went for nearby vacations (e.g. Buffalo National River in Arkansas and Finger Lakes State Park in Missouri). I also began meal planning, and saved money at the grocery store (even while transitioning to eating paleo).
But one expense could not be avoided. We needed gear on gear on gear for our trip. Nice gear. Quality gear. Not gear that would fall apart during the first leg of our trip. Through and after college, we had acquired a few quality items: a tent, one nice sleeping bag, backpacking packs, hiking boots, and a few other necessities. We were on a mission to find much more gear to complete our collection, and it had to be lightweight, packable, and durable.
In discovering the best bang for our buck, we learned quite a bit. We thought we’d share our five favorite ways to get cheap quality gear for relatively cheap. Here ya go!
1. The REI Garage Sale happens about three times a year, and it is like Christmas. REI throws an amazing event called a “Garage Sale.” It features tables and tables, racks and racks of used and/or returned items. We have scored big-ticket items such as our Half-Dome tent, sleeping pads, trekking poles, and coats at this sale for typically a 50% or more discount. This is not an event for the weak — arriving at least an hour early is a must for the best discounts, and there is a bit of a Black-Friday mentality when it comes to snagging the best items. And we definitely recommend going in with a strategy and a prioritized list of items, because it gets wild! However, we have always found that REI shoppers tend to be pretty mild-tempered when it comes to these sales. Everyone is looking for something different, so even if you don’t walk in first, you might score a huge item that you can’t believe someone else passed up.
Also, it’s helpful to call the REI store beforehand to find out how they organize the sale, how the line forms, how crowded it usually is and the amount of inventory they will have. We use this info to figure out our garage sale strategy and how early we want to get to the line! Our friends told us once how they went to camp out the night before at the front of the New Mexico store, but in the morning they found out the line was actually started around back of the store! In Kansas City the line also forms in the back. And about 1-2 hours before the sale opens, the employees hand out numbered tickets so we can go get breakfast and come back to our spot for the opening. Then they let in around 20-30 people at a time with 2-3 minute intervals in between. So we definitely wanted to be in that top 30 because those few minutes are crucial. St. Louis, on the other hand, lines up in the front and has none of those perks.
Pro Tip: Walk around for a bit after finding a few initial items. The early birds tend to grab and then examine their items off to the side, and often put quite a few things back after their first go-around.
2. Thrift Shopping – is one of the more underestimated forms of deal-snatching in my opinion. A lot of the outdoor clothes in my wardrobe actually come from thrift shopping. I start with the athletic gear section, if there is one, and work my way through, grabbing brands that I recognize or clothes that feel really high quality. I am picky at thrift shops, because I know I want gear that will last. Brands I often find include The North Face, Columbia, Reebok, Nike, Under Armour, and just about anything else you can think of. I thought I’d model a few of the outfits I have that are 100% thrifted (except for undergarments, shoes, and socks) so you can be inspired to go out and do a little thrifting. It’s recycling!
Pro Tip: From what I’ve read (and tested in the thrift shop field), the best finds come on Monday or Tuesday, after weekend drop-offs have been priced and placed. Shops are also much less crowded these days. Saturdays tend to provide bottom-of-the-barrel finds.
3. Steep and Cheap is perfect if you do want brand new items at a fraction of the cost and you are willing to play the flash deals game. The Steep and Cheap app and website feature a “current steal” — everything from camping equipment to luggage to clothing — which sticks around for ten minutes. The site also has fun features like custom alerts (to be notified of specific types of items) and on the app you can see what’s coming up in the next 7 steals and set an alert to notify you when it’s available.
The format of the site encourages impulse buys, but resist the urge! Most items will cycle through again, and after you have scoped the site a while you’ll be able to tell when something is truly a rare, stellar deal. Cole has put lots of items in the cart, only to let them expire because he wasn’t sure on the size or needed to do more research (or I talked him out of it!).
Pro Tip: Use the combined shipping option on the site to hold items for a week. During that week, you can continue shopping and combine the shipping for just o$1 per additional item.
4. TJ Maxx / Marshalls / Ross are a few of my favorite retail shops for their prices and crazy random finds. Again, if you want quality brands like Columbia or Merrell, but don’t want to front a huge cost, check here first! I have found all sorts of clothes and socks here for our trip, including a plaid dri-fit Under Armour shirt, Columbia winter coat, Marmot tee, and Columbia socks using these stores. It’s worth it to flip through the racks to find some random steals.
Pro Tip: Some items are duplicates, but others might just show up at random times and in random sizes. If you come across a great deal, you probably want to scoop it up right away!
5. thredUp is an online consignment shop that can benefit you if you are looking to buy or sell brand clothes. On the buying end, I love the search tools that allow you to filter particular brands, sizes, and types of clothes to find exactly what you are looking for. Since there is just one of everything, act fast! I have occasionally stuck something in my cart, went to buy it, and it was already gone. From my experience, the best use of this site is for browsing through specific types of clothing, such as athletic tops. So far, I have only purchased one Columbia hiking shirt, but I plan to do a bit more browsing soon.
Pro Tip: If you do try out the site, be sure to use my referral code 6YSIOB (or click the link) for $10 off your first purchase!
Read more about the gear we’re taking on our trip, our product recommendations and even some gear sponsors here!