Developing Bargain Hunting Skills

Military posts are often thought of as places where rough, scrappy civilians are turned into lean, mean, fighting machines.

But military posts are also where Military Brats learned the value of a dollar and how to stretch a dollar using shrewd bargain hunting skills taught by their parents.
Military pay has never been very good, especially when you factor in the number of hours military personnel actually work.

During most of the Cold War years, the military draft system procured a steady supply of military personnel, so even though pay was low, there was no shortage of labor.

Unlike civilians who could easily quit their job and and find another job in their field with a competitor that paid better, quitting was just not an option. This was especially true for soldiers with families who had passed the 10 year mark and were counting the months until they could retire.

Making what little money received in pay last from payday to the end of the month was a challenge both for soldiers and their spouses.

Opportunities for earning extra money was also a challenge. Commanding officers saw their soldiers as committed to their jobs 110% and working a second job was frowned upon. For many wives during the Cold War, raising the children was their full-time job. Part-time work opportunities on a post were very limited, and with most families having only one car, working off post was not an option.

Making payday dollars buy more required honing your bargain hunting skills, and many military families learned these skills “on the job”.

Dollar stretching
My bargain hunting training began at an early age.

In Mannheim, Germany, as a six year old, I remember waiting in line with my mother in the early morning hours so we could be one of the first into the property disposal building. I can’t remember if they opened once a month or on a weekly basis, but I do remember that once inside, the quiet discipline displayed outside broke down as men and women alike rushed into the large bargain area.

Unlike the PX which used neat aisles with racks displaying items from floor to eye level, the bargain area consisted of rows of tables, more like what one might see at a flea market or possibly a yard sale.

My mother would go for the large boxes of “damaged” laundry detergent boxes. Overzealous stockers at the Commissary would sometimes cut  through the cardboard shipping boxes and slice open the detergent boxes.

The damaged boxes were repaired with a strip of green “duct tape” and couldn’t be sold in the Commissary, but in the property disposal building they were practically given away.

My mother would quickly hoist the huge box into the shopping cart and then head over to other tables with clothing from the PX that needed minor repairs or were considered “seconds” or not quite up to the PX manager’s standards.

Sometimes there were boxes of models and toys that were selling for about a tenth of their regular price, but often the boxes showed signs of partial crushing  on one side and for a model kit, that meant bent pieces  and a lot of extra work.

I was an avid reader and sometimes I could find a hard-bound book, retired from the post library, for 5 or 10 cents. I used to have a copy of Mr. Roberts that had been repaired by the post librarian several times.

Finding Bargains on Post
With families constantly getting orders for a new duty station, and needing to stay within their moving weight allowance, many household items would be sold cheaply through the post newspaper. Most posts have a weekly paper, and the for sale section was always full of bargains.

Fort Knox had many bulletin boards where hand made flyers would be posted and sometimes typed on a typewriter, with small tear off tabs with a phone number.

When I was young, payday came once a month, and many of the soldiers who were single would get their pay and head over to the PX for some shopping. By mid-month many soldiers would be broke, and limited to only free, on-post activities, which were few.

Fancy and expensive 35 mm SLR cameras, stereos, reel to reel tape recorders, watches and other non-necessities were offered to the post community at bargain basement prices. You never knew what someone was going to sell and if you had saved some money and you were willing to wait for the right moment, you could find a real bargain.

When we lived in Bad Nauheim, Germany, there were always several German cars for sale as families moved back to the U.S. The standards for automotive glass in cars was different between the U.S. and Germany, making it somewhat impractical to ship back a car made for the German market.

Many cars were sold and resold, providing inexpensive transportation for many years. My first car was a 1959 VW Beetle “Bug” which I bought for $100 in 1974. A real bargain, even if it only lasted about 5 months before the transmission gave out.

The Post Exchange and Commissary
For most military families, the Post Exchange or “PX” and Commissary were where you bought everything from clothing and school supplies to groceries. The military practiced volume purchasing and since they were not for profit, both groceries and household items would be sold at cost to military personnel and their dependents.

Since military posts are considered to be federal property, the PXs and Commissary did not charge sales tax.

When we did venture off post on shopping excursions, we would often experience “sticker shock”, especially in small towns or in Germany during the 1970s when the dollar was weak.

The commissary in the 1960s and 1970s offered many “plain” or no-name cans of fruit, peanut butter, beans and other staple items. The cans would have bold stenciled letters on the can.

For a growing family on a tight budget, it did not matter to us whether a can had a fancy label or not. In fact, the plain cans reminded us of large C-Rations, and we thought C-Rations was a treat.

I must confess the large cans of “Peanut Butter” was a bit dry and not nearly as creamy as say, Peter Pan, but I would mix in a dab of “Maple Syrup” to make the dry peanut butter both sweeter and easier to spread.


Thrift shops
Thrift shops on post were another source of great bargains. My mother would not buy used clothing or shoes for us kids that someone else had worn, no matter how new they seemed to be. Lawn mowers, aquariums or other household appliances were another story.

In Germany thrift shops were where you bought used transformers. The apartments in Germany had 220 volt current, so to run U.S. made appliances, you had to have a step down transformer to bring 220 volts down to 110 volts. Transformers ranged in size depending on the amperage they could handle, and they were very expensive when purchased new, but very cheap when purchased used.

When I was attending high school in Frankfurt, Germany, I would take my lunch break and go over to the thrift shop that was near the school campus. I could get a bundle of practically new paperback science fiction books for 10 cents apiece. In 1973, a paperback went for 50 to 75 cents, and 10 cents for a paperback was a true bargain. Sometimes the bundle would contain a book or two I had already read, but such was life.

Do it yourself
Almost every military post has several “craft shops”, offering everything from photo labs, wood working, art classes, automotive repair and more.

For a soldier or military dependent on a limited budget, you could get help with making car repairs by using the automotive craft shop. From simple engine tune-ups to rebuilding an engine, the auto craft shops offered a place to work in, access to tools and expert advice.

Woodcraft shops were popular as well. From furniture refinishing to building new furniture from a set of plans, many dependents and off-duty soldiers put their high school woodshop skills to practical use, building fine furniture, boats and more.

Other crafts offered on post typically were jewelry making, ceramics, pottery making, radio control and line controlled model aircraft building and flying.

The great thing about craft shops was that you could not only stretch your dollar, but you could fill an afternoon or evening doing something that was fun, and get the satisfaction that comes from doing it yourself.

Junking
During the 1970s, Germany’s economy was picking up steam, and many Germans were buying new modular entertainment systems, stereos and other furniture on credit, and putting out on the street for the junk man antiques of all kinds.

I dated a girl whose family was really into junking, and I was “drafted” to help with the heavier finds. Driving through the small nearby towns in the evening before “junk day” would find us sorting through old furniture, and some true junk.

At first the stares and occasional comment by the Germans bothered me, as we stopped and dug through their neat pile of junk, but after a while I got into the spirit of it, and we weren’t breaking any laws.

Old writing desks, handsome veneered wardrobes from the 1930s and copper hot water bottles (which were used as feet warmers) were great finds. We also found irons that were heated on the stove or in a fireplace,

Occasionally we would find something with a Nazi swastika on it, such as an old tube radio in a handsome wooden cabinet.  As much as I loved old radios, I could not bring myself to ask to keep the radio.

The swastika—a symbol which to me symbolized pure evil—was carved on the front of the radio.  Every time I looked at the radio I thought of films I had seen of the starving and dead Jews in the concentration camps.

Over several months I helped my girlfriend’s parents to fill their storage room floor to ceiling with antiques. Needless to say, they were way over their household shipping allowance, but they gladly paid the difference.

A few months later I got a letter from the U.S. and learned my girlfriend’s mother had sold about half of the antiques for over $10,000 (close to $40,000 in today’s dollars), and kept the rest to furnish a house.

Yard sales
We weren’t allowed to have yard sales on post when I was growing up. As I was transitioning to civilian life in Columbus, Georgia, after striking out on my own, I discovered yard sales, and the joy of finding bargains.  I put my bargain hunting skills to work and made my mother and father proud.

Sometimes on a Saturday I would just drive around different neighborhoods in Columbus and see what a neighborhood offered. You could tell a lot about the family who were offering their deeply discounted, slightly used wares. From eight-track tapes to books and old housewares, a yard sale was a bargain hunter’s dream.

While I didn’t make much money working for a small printing company, I could always set aside five dollars from my pay check and then see how much value I could get for it.

Once I bought a 1950s Kodak 35 mm camera for $1.50, which worked perfectly and which I sold years later for $35 to a collector. On another occasion I bought  about 15 years of National Geographic magazines for $10.

I learned that you didn’t really have to bargain with sellers at yard sales. If you were the only potential customer and you looked at something and put it back, you would usually get an on the spot reduction, or an offer to buy three ice cube trays for 15 cents each and get the fourth one free.

Moving sales were always a great way to get inexpensive furniture. Motivated sellers would always offer great deals on chest of drawers, washing machines, dryers and other household appliances that the owners didn’t want to move across town or across the country.

Hauling away the newly acquired big bargains could be a real challenge unless you had a station wagon or a friend with a truck.

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3 Comments
  1. I enjoyed your article and you are correct, we military kids learned the value of a dollar!  I learned my bargaining skills, something that has served me well in life, when we lived on the economy in Izmir, Turkey from 1966-68. I would go to the vegetable and fruit market and bargain with the vendors. I learned enough Turkish to bargain. Deeply imbedded in me, I still remember my numbers in Turkish!

    I also remember shopping in Germany. I was in Pirmasens from 1969-72. The PX got in nice stuff  occasionally and it would quickly sell out. So my friend and I always walked through the PX on our way home from school.  Toy selection was sparse except towards Christmas time. My bike had been stolen, a British Raleigh Chopper that was originally bought for Christmas 1969 at the PX. I waited a year past the theft for one to show up in the PX!  I immediately told all the clerks it was mine, and ran all the way to my father’s office to drag him back to pay for it with money I saved and had him hold onto for me.

    As you mentioned, during our stay in Germany, the Mark went from 4 to a dollar to less than 2! That meant everything in town was more than twice as expensive!  I was a model car builder and when kits were $2 stateside, they were over $10 each in town. So I became a big customer to the AutoWorld catalog. I would put together an order of a kit or two, and brush paints and some accessories from my money I earned mowing our building’s lawn, sweeping and mopping our hallway and washing probably half the cars on our block each week.

    The orders took forever! Sometimes I’d have 3 or more orders stacked and waiting. Every day I’d walk past my father’s office on my way home to see if my order had come. They had a video camera on the door and I’d ring the bell. Usually a voice would answer, “No Thomas you have no mail today!” from one of the GIs. But when I got an order they’d buzz me in and all the young GIs wanted to see what I got! 

    So we learned the value of a dollar, how to work for a dollar and patience! We also valued what we had since it was hard to come by!

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  2. Ah, another thing to remember. You mentioned the sale of cars on post. When we got to Germany our trusty Plymouth Valiant was still enroute. So my father bought a very used VW Beetle from an ad on the PX bulletin board. Once the Valiant arrived, that became my father’s work car.

    The Beetle survived our three year stay without incident or major repair.  My father wanted to keep it until our last day, so he planned on just leaving it behind on the post Lemon Lot. There was an area that you could just leave a car with keys and title, and a young GI would get a free car. So that was his plan.

    On our second to last day in Pirmasens, we were living in the BOQ and a newly arrived officer asked me for some directions. I asked him if he needed a car, which he did. So I sold him the VW for $200 cash, him taking it upon our departure. I was 14 at the time and my father was so impressed, he let me keep the money!

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    • Hi Tom,

      Thank you for the replies to my essay. I must say I get quite nostalgic looking at VW Beetles on ebay and other websites . . . and I’m shocked that rusted, barely running VWs will go for $3,000 to $5,000 these days.

      I regret that I didn’t try harder to get my dad to bring my ’65 bug back as he sold the car he brought over, and he could have shipped back the bug at no cost. But then I would have have had to get to New York to drive it back and then replace all the glass in the car . . . I was making a little more than minimum wage in 1976 when my family came back, but given the double digit inflation at the time, I guess it was for the best.

      One of these days I’ll find a bug to tinker with.

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