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Never Buy Flea Market Computers

When I was 19 years old, I had just moved away to college. Most of my expenses were paid for with scholarships (at least for the first year or so). I had a couple thousand dollars saved up from my summer job, which I slowly chipped away at with Fun College Things like 2 a.m. diner meals, long coffee shop haunts, and pretty girls. I like to think I was savvy with that money — I could make it stretch the entire school year, if I was careful.

The Craved Computer

That year, a little flea market opened up just around the corner. To be honest, it was more of a derelict gas station that someone had dragged a couple of tables into and invited vendors to come sell whatever junk they could muster, but it was a fun place to rummage around in. Most of the wares were unremarkable — rusty garden tools, battered appliances, hand-me-down clothes.

But, on the very last table, there was a computer.

This wasn’t just any old junker computer. This was a computer with crisp blue LED accent lights, sleek lines and sharp edges. It had a special case. The specs shined — this computer was fast, it was mean, it was the kind of computer that a man could get stuff done with and look amazing doing it.

The very nice, very pretty lady selling the computer smiled at me and said, “It’s only 500 dollars.”

The school year was about three quarters over at this point, and I had just a little more than $500 of my summer money left. The smart thing to do would have been to walk away. I did, in fact — I wandered through the rest of the flea market again, and promptly came right back to that beautiful, insidious computer.

I already owned a computer. I had a perfectly functional laptop. It wasn’t top of the line, and it couldn’t run the latest games, but it worked for what I needed.

Good Advice Not Heeded…

I decided that I needed a sensible voice I could ignore, so I called my father. I told him about the computer. I told him about the processor and the graphics card and the RAM and the crisp blue LED accent lights. I told him about the price. I told him how much money I had.

“You already have a computer,” my father said.

“Well, yes,” I said. But I really wanted this computer.

“This purchase will use up all the money you have left,” he said.

“Correct again.”  But I


wanted this computer.

“If something is wrong with it, you don’t have any recourse,” he said.

“That is true,” I admitted.  But I


wanted this computer.

“It’s your decision,” my father said.

I hung up the phone, pulled out my checkbook, wrote a $500 check to a very pretty lady, and went back to my dorm room with a new computer.

Oh, Crap

It didn’t work. I plugged it in, hooked up the monitor and the keyboard and the mouse and pressed the power button. The crisp blue LEDs came on, the computer started to boot up, and then there was a pop! and a fizzle and the whole thing went dead.

There was a great big ball of ice in my stomach. I had just traded $500 that I worked hard all summer to earn on what was essentially a massive doorstop. I called my father again.

“Well, that’s not good,” he said. This was my father’s gentle synonym for “I told you so.”

A Little Luck

I packed the computer back into my car, raced back to the flea market, and found the pretty lady. I explained that the computer she’d sold me didn’t work, and I wanted my money back. I didn’t know if she’d agree — in all technicality, she had sold the computer as-is, and I never made any attempts to confirm that it worked before I bought it. She would have been well within her rights if she told me to go take a hike, and I’d never see that money again, with nothing to show for it.

After a little back and forth, she reluctantly handed over the check and took the computer back. I voided the check and went home to sulk at myself.

Lessons Learned

My father, to his credit, never brought the topic up again, and he didn’t need to. I knew every point along the way I’d gone wrong:

  • I got caught up in the thrill of making an impulse buy.
  • I let my wants take priority over my needs.
  • I spent money that I’d already earmarked for other purposes.
  • I didn’t take the time to make sure the computer even worked before I bought it.
  • I didn’t seriously consider the advice of people who had my best interest in mind.

I learned my lesson, but I got lucky. I could have lost that money entirely. Instead, I started watching what I was spending like a hawk, and even ended up ahead after the next summer.

What about you? Have you ever made a big financial blunder that taught you a valuable lesson? Tell me your story in the comments!

10 thoughts on “Never Buy Flea Market Computers”

  1. julien @cashsnail

    The main issue with computers (and mobile phone) is that the upgrade cycle is insane…
    And it’s so fragile that buying used doesn’t make much sense in my opinion. I prefer to buy 2/3 years after the trend to get much more bang for the buck 🙂

  2. Adam Kamerer

    Julien, I think it depends on the kind of work you do. I’m on my computer for hours every day, so a fast, powerful computer is important to me. I do try to find them at a great discount, and have had some good success with factory refurbished computers.

    I’ve also gone back to desktops for my primary computer — they seem to have more longevity than laptops, probably because they aren’t getting jostled around all the time. Easier to repair them, too.

  3. Christine

    Yikes!! Good thing you were able to get your check back!!!

  4. Adam Kamerer

    You’re telling me! In all honesty, I don’t think the lady was inclined to refund my money, but she had another customer looking at some of her other wares, so I think she was afraid I might cost her another sale if she didn’t.

  5. SavvyFinancialLatina

    Darn! I know this has happened to us a couple times when we have bought things at a garage sale. My parents usually go back and say it didn’t work. It’s always a coin toss. I’ve definitely had impulse buys at garage sales.

  6. Adam Kamerer

    I’ve learned the hard way to be very wary of any second-hand electronics. I never spend more than an amount I don’t mind losing if it doesn’t work out.

  7. a terrible husband...

    Also learned the hard way: Never buy frozen pork from the dollar store.


  8. Adam Kamerer

    Ouch. You don’t even have to explain that one. My wife and I got some dollar store ice cream a few months ago. Vanilla ice cream shouldn’t be yellowish green.

  9. Money Beagle

    I think at the very least I would have insisted on finding a way to get the computer plugged in, turned on and booted up to see that it was working before entertaining the idea of writing a check.

    Oh, and also, I thought you are always supposed to haggle at a flea market. 🙂

  10. Adam Kamerer

    Well. Yes. I know that NOW. I blame the ignorance of youth. 😀

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