Remember last year, when just about everyone on the news was so quick to point out that we weren’t "officially" in a recession yet? That it was too early to say for sure? Well, welcome to the recession. Glad you could make it! We were going to serve chips and dip, but you know… Recession! Just what exactly does "recession" mean, and more importantly, what does it mean for our toys? Forget about the politics of bailouts and stimulus packages for a few moments while we focus on ways to stay the course with our hobbies. We’re collectors, and collectors don’t cut and run. Got it?
First of all, let’s operate under the assumption that we’re all still gainfully employed and earning at least the same salary we were bringing home last year. Let’s face it; many of us won’t be getting a raise this year, despite the increases in cost of living expenses. Anyone who’s been laid off or finds him/herself out of work, though, might need to put the collecting on hold for the time being. Of course, if you have a free place to stay and you can budget a few bucks out of your unemployment checks for plastic goodness, then stay with me.
So just what is a recession? The simplest explanation is that it’s a slowdown of economic activity, but more specifically, it is at least two consecutive quarters of declining GDP, the measurement of a country’s national output of goods and services. Our annual GDP shrunk by 6.2% from the third quarter to the fourth quarter of 2008, the sharpest drop in over twenty-six years. Consumer spending accounts for close to two-thirds of America’s GDP. Each of the last six months of 2008 resulted in a decline in retail sales, with a slight increase in January, mostly attributed to post-holiday sales after a disappointing December.
And what does that mean for us? Well, who does their duty as good consumers more effectively than us, the collectors? If you’re anything like me, it’s not just action figures, but also Blu-ray (or DVDs), comics, statues, t-shirts, and all kinds of licensed merchandise that sends us reaching for the wallet. While the rest of the country might be tightening up, we’re doing our part to get this economy back on its feet again. But the recession means rising production costs, which translates to increased retail prices. Profits are down, the dollar doesn’t go as far as it did a couple of years ago, and we end up paying more for the goods we buy. Both of the two largest toy manufacturers have seen jumps over the last year, and suddenly Wal-Mart, with their always low prices, is less competitive than Toys Я Us for some of the toy lines we collect. Are these the end times? Not quite. It’s been a while, but we experienced a couple of long recessions as recently as 1973-1975 and 1981-1982. We recovered from those, and we’ll recover from this, too. In the meantime, though, I thought some collectors might benefit from a few tips on weathering the economic storm while still adding to those treasured collections. Many of you are probably taking some, if not all, of these steps already, but there might be a thing or two that hadn’t occurred to you. With all the recent chatter about sticker shock over soaring prices, maybe we can find some ways to squeeze a bit more out of our paychecks.
- Go green…ish: Okay, so investing in a shiny new hybrid vehicle probably isn’t high on your list of things to do, unless you’re already in the market for a new car and you have a really long commute. But just to cut back on the gas you use in your hunts for toys? That’s a bit unrealistic. You can always take the smaller steps, though, like keeping up with your tire pressure, engine maintenance, and air filters. If your car is capable of getting better gas mileage, then maximize its potential. Here’s a list of gas mileage tips from the U.S. Department of Energy. Also, if you’re living in a two-car home, drive the compact instead of the gas-guzzler whenever it’s an option. Try leaving your car’s heat or air conditioning off when you can tolerate the climate, too.
- Skip the name brands: Some people feel like they need a recognizable name brand on everything they buy, but why spend the extra loot if you can get the same thing for less? I get generic tissue, paper towels, garbage bags, fabric softener, and dish detergent at a discount store right up the street from my house. It’s not out of the way, and for the five minutes it takes me to run in, grab the stuff, and checkout, I save over $10 a week (and sometimes more) vs. buying these products at my local grocery store. For families with children, the savings would be even higher. If you’re trying to squeeze a little extra out of your budget this week, go for your store’s brand of bread or breakfast cereal. Does your local supermarket have a repeat customer card? Sign up for it and look for the buy-one-get-one-free sales. Maybe you didn’t plan on having spaghetti night this week, but if you can get out of the store for several dollars less, why not? Everyone loves spaghetti.
- Buy local: Anyone notice the price of produce lately? If you have a local farmers’ market or food co-op, take advantage of the lower prices. Not only will you spend significantly less on your groceries, but you’ll also get fresh, locally grown food. Yum!
- Thin out the herd: Do you have toys or other collectibles that aren’t doing it for you like when you first acquired them? You probably do, but you keep them, anyway. If there’s a market for them out there, you might try selling off some of your stuff on eBay. You’re probably better off holding most of those POTF2 STAR WARS figures, as those don’t fetch much these days. If you have something sitting around that’s got a bit of value, though, and you’re not enjoying it as much as you once did, why not clear out some space and pick up some extra funds for your collection at the same time? Or maybe you have duplicates of some of your collectibles in a box or drawer somewhere. Consumer confidence is at a record low, but collector confidence might surprise you. Just a few weeks ago, I listed auctions for a bunch of loose G.I. JOE figures and vehicles. Most were just extras I had in my collection room, with only a couple of items I expected to go for even twenty bucks. I figured I’d be lucky to get $60 for all of it, but after opening all of my auctions at 99 cents, I cleared just over $200. If it’s something you won’t miss, and you’d like a little extra spending money, give it a shot. Use the completed auctions search on eBay to get an idea of what people are getting for similar items.
- Loosen up: It’s not always the case, but you can often do much better buying loose action figures on eBay than you will with carded figures at retail. I know there are some who won’t be able to let go of the experience of opening the package, but not me. I’ll happily take them loose, as long as they’re in good shape. I just like to look for someone selling in lots or with several items of interest, because then you’re still getting a deal when you include the shipping charges. I’m also keen on used Blu-ray movies, too. I didn’t hesitate to buy new copies of The Dark Knight, Iron Man, or Hellboy II, but sometimes I feel like I could go either way on a new release. If what costs $25 is $15 used, we’ve got a deal.
- Get rewarded: Now this one is a little tricky, because I don’t want to encourage anyone to take on additional debt as a means of supporting a hobby. Only you know yourself and your spending habits, but if you’re disciplined, and if you have a good credit rating, you can earn yourself some free toys just by going about your normal routine. How? Chase, one of the few banks that are actually doing pretty well these days, offers an Amazon.com VISA card, which allows
you to ea
rn rewards points for every dollar you spend. While they’re not exactly the kings of low interest rates, Chase is still lending, which means they’re still issuing cards. The trick is to just buy what you would usually buy – groceries, gas, comics, toys, movies, whatever – within your current budget, and pay off the balance every month. I use this card for everything I can, from groceries and gas to supplies from my veterinarian’s office. I pay my wireless and cable bills with it every month, and I even paid my car insurance premium and state auto taxes with it. When I went to NYC in December, I used it for everything from my hotel room to riding the subway. Other than a couple of falafels from street vendors and a few bucks for a guy whose sign said he needed money to get drunk (I’m a sucker for an honest sales pitch), I put the whole trip on my Amazon.com VISA, and just paid off the entire thing when my statement arrived.
So how does that get you free toys? For every 2,500 points you earn, you can get a $25 Amazon.com certificate to spend on the site. While Amazon.com doesn’t have the best selection of collectible toys for sale themselves, several online retailers also sell their products on the site, and that means you can get some of your favorite action figures and collectibles just by using this piece of plastic in place of your debit card or cash. The certificates are as valid for orders from these retailers are they are with Amazon.com itself. $2,500 seems like a lot when you first look at the number, but when you add up all of your expenses that can be charged to the card, it really doesn’t take long to get there. When I started using the card for my groceries, I was amazed at how quickly I was earning the certificates, and I’m only shopping for two people. If you’re feeding a whole family, taking them out to eat, and going to the movies, why use a debit card? You’re spending the money, anyway, so get something for it. You can start get rewarded with free toys, comics (Amazon.com has a solid selection of hardcovers and trade paperbacks at fantastic prices), movies, or anything else sold on the site. Remember to stick to the plan, though: Only use it for what’s within your budget, and pay off the balance every month. That’s how you come out on top of the game.
Now these are just a few suggestions that I’ve found useful in my quest to be thrifty. I try to keep my living expenses in check, because I like having plenty of spending money for my collectibles and other hobbies. If anyone has any supplementary tips to share, I’d love to see them. Have we hit the bottom? Is our economy – not just in America, but the global economy – on the road to recovery yet? Probably not. There’s a good chance things will get worse before they get better, and even when they do, get used to the higher prices you’re seeing on goods and services. The prices of action figures have remained fairly steady over the last decade, and what would usually be gradual increases are hitting all at once. Don’t expect them to drop again. If we’re really lucky, maybe we won’t see another increase for a few years.
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