An antique collection can save the day when times get hard

As a writer, I know all about surviving on a shoestring budget. My income is enough to pay my monthly expenses  and that’s about it. If my column happens not to run for a month, I find myself wondering how I’m going to pay my phone bill. If the car breaks down or some other financial calamity occurs, I can quickly find myself in real trouble.  That’s when my collecting habit saves the day. My collection acts like a savings account.

I can hear some of you thinking, “Wait a minute. This guy is always talking about buying a $150 piece of stoneware or a $500 kitchen cabinet and he lives on a shoestring budget?”

Yes. I do. My antique collection and my habit of regularly adding to it give the illusion of wealth. The truth is, my only wealth is my antiques. My collection was built by buying and selling, buying and selling, and keeping. The only way I can afford to slap down $150 for a piece of early stoneware is by selling something already in my collection. Simply put, I’ve been spending the same money over and over again for years.

A lot of what I’ve purchased has appreciated in value. I often keep a piece for years before I decide to part with it. By the time I’m willing to sell a piece, it’s usually worth far more than I paid. That’s how my collection was able to grow, even though I usually have little cash to spare. It’s also how I pay unexpected bills and finance vacations.

Your collection can act like a savings account, too. Most collectors have items they no longer want. Most of us also end up buying things at auction we don’t really need. This can be due to a momentary bout of insanity or the necessity of buying a box lot to get one desired piece. Add it all together and most collectors have quite a few pieces they can part with painlessly. 

Antiques can save the day when times get hard, but it’s best to think ahead. Don’t wait until the electricity bill is overdue to try to sell your antiques. Yes, antiques can be sold quickly, but to do so they will have to be sold cheaply.  That’s not a good way to raise funds. I keep $1,000 in what I call my “auction fund.” That fund exists for two purposes – snatching up incredible bargains at auction I couldn’t otherwise afford and paying bills when I’m out of cash.

I can hear your skepticism. Right now you’re thinking, “And just how am I supposed to raise $1,000 for such a fund?” By selling the antiques you don’t want, of course.  You need not have $1,000 in such a fund, either. Perhaps $500 or even less will be enough. The key is to start building it so it will be there when you need it.

The best way to raise funds is to set up at a local flea market. Flea markets vary widely in quality, so be sure to select one that generally offers a good selection of antiques and collectibles. If you set up at a flea market that is predominantly filled with tee-shirts, sunglasses, and socks, your antiques and collectibles probably won’t sell well. Do not try to sell your antiques at a yard or garage sale unless you’re willing to sell for bargain prices. Even then, sales may be slow. Flea markets are your best bet.

Don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up at a flea market? There are other ways to sell antiques. Some shops or malls will sell on commission, especially if you have quality pieces. There are even consignment shops where everything is sold on commission. The good news is there is no monthly fee as there would be if you had a booth in an antique mall.

Taking your excess pieces to an auction is another possibility. Sometimes auctioneers need extra pieces to fill out a sale. If so, they’ll be happy to add yours in. There may well be an auction house in your area that has regular sales.  This can be a great place to dispose of unwanted antiques and collectibles. Just remember, the auctioneer or auction house will charge a commission of about 20-25 percent.  Try to avoid any auction house that charges a buyer’s premium. This is a percentage charged to the buyer, which will run anywhere from 5-25 percent. Even though it is not you, but the buyer who pays the premium, it equals money out of your pocket. Most bidders will take the premium into account when bidding and will bid less.

The good news about selling at auction is that everything goes. This is nearly impossible with any other avenue of selling. The bad news is there is no guarantee that your items will bring as much as you desire. I’ve sold many antiques and collectibles at auction. Sometimes, I’ve been delighted with the selling prices. At other times, I’ve been appalled.

Two quick examples will suffice. I’ve watched a motion lamp which I considered of little value sell for about $400. I also watched as my $2,500 Victorian cylinder desk sold for only $265! There are no guarantees when selling at auction. The results are generally good, however. What really matters is not individual selling prices, but whether or not the seller is happy with the bottom line when the sale is over.

Keep your emergency fund in its own separate checking or savings account. Or, just keep it as part of an existing account, but keep track of it in a separate account book.  When one of the kids need braces (you’ll need a BIG emergency fund to cover that) or the car breaks down, the funds will be there to save the day. Or, perhaps, you’ll attend a auction where a circa 1900 kitchen cabinet worth $650 sells for $275. You’ll have the cash to snap it up. I did!

Once the fund is established, focus on replacing any funds used. If I dip into my auction fund, the next money I raise goes right back into the fund. I pay the fund first. I can’t always keep $1,000 in my auction fund, but whenever the balance is low, I strive to get it back up as soon as possible.

If I’m planning a little vacation and know I’ll need $500 or $1,000, I try to overload the fund. I sell at flea markets and deposit the earned cash into the fund even though there’s already the usual $1,000 there. That way, when I draw out the vacation money, my fund isn’t left in desperate straights. Thinking ahead is key.

An antique collection can save the day when times get hard. When I began my collection I never knew that someday it would keep my head above the water when I was hit with one unexpected bill after another. There have been times when I’ve been forced to part with pieces I’d much rather keep. Even then there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that a stoneware churn, antique bed, or marble-top table that I’ve enjoyed is helping me through tough times. It’s also a wonderful excuse for buying more antiques when I can afford them!

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