How to have a yard sale in a pandemic
Stephanie Hayes | Don’t price anything. Put out a bucket. Watch magic happen.
A scene from Stephanie's pay what you can yard sale in October 2020.
A scene from Stephanie's pay what you can yard sale in October 2020. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 8, 2020

The mass of objects, henceforth known as The Pile, began with the most noble intentions.

It was March, early in the pandemic. The fastest way to hate your house is to spend every moment there. Suddenly, items that once blended in developed empty smiles and dead eyes. “Why did you ever buy me?” they said in a Victorian child’s voice.

“Let’s each put a couple things in the dining room for charity every day,” I suggested. It was a way to declutter without a ton of pressure. I was a walking issue of Real Simple, Marie Kondo on the verge of greatness. My stepdaughter, a fourth-grade Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, pushed for a yard sale. Fine! Whatever got everyone cleaning!

What with Florida being Florida, it soon became clear that this was not a temporary quarantine. The child needed a better setting for virtual school. We needed an office. We would empty the larger “guest room,” move her in, and put an office in her room. Simple! Real! Simple!

Did you just twitch at the words “guest room?” If you are like us, the guest room is less for guests and more for storing ephemera from past relationships and deceased relatives, for shoving untold thingamajigs into closets. The guest room holds secrets. The guest room is a lie.

The Pile grew into an amorphous blob, eating its own flesh. Making matters worse, my husband had been working from the dining room table. As The Pile grew, he was literally working inside The Pile. I studied a little psychology in college and from what I remember, this is not great.

We had a few workers over, a plumber and some door installers. The first time, we were overly apologetic for The Pile. “We’re getting ready for a yard sale!!!!!!” we chirped. “Sorry for the mess!!!!!” When the last worker came, it was a lethargic, “Mmphhf yard salllheh sry fnnh.”

The death knell was when the liquor cabinet shelves started to bow (quarantine!). Husband took all the bottles out to reinforce things. Reader, please imagine this man sitting inside The Pile, utterly surrounded by booze like some kind of demented Last Supper.

It was time for the yard sale! We had put it off as the state’s COVID-19 numbers continued to spike. Inviting dozens of strangers to haggle breathlessly and hand over sweaty money did not sound cool.

We set rules. Everything would be “pay what you can.” We would write instructions on signs. We would put a bucket at the front of the driveway. We would sit at the other end, VERY FAR AWAY, wearing masks.

That morning, we dumped everything onto tarps. It was the fastest I’ve ever gotten ready for one of these things. No rolls of tiny price stickers, no meticulous sorting, no color-coded system, no cash box.

Yard sale people apparently don’t read the signs. They began asking for prices. We yelled, “PAY WHAT YOU WANT, PUT IT IN THE BUCKET,” which was like, “FBI, DON’T MOVE.” This seemed to confuse them, then delight them. Once they realized they could take items with abandon, they stuck around. Those Desperate Housewives DVDs are more appealing when you set the price!

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No one stole from the bucket, but we emptied it here and there. We appeared to be a charity. “What are you collecting for?” one woman said. “Ourselves?” I replied. I mention it in case this bucket model might work for your next fundraiser.

The most surprising thing, though, is that we made more money this way than at any other yard sale. People mostly paid $5 an armful, but we got a noticeable cache of $20 bills. We’re not bound for Vegas or anything, but it was more than expected.

Maybe a little trust went a long way. Maybe everyone is spread so thin, so tasked with sacrifice that generosity is a kind of salve. I still believe people’s default is to give more than they take. At this point in 2020, it was a pleasant reminder.

We took the rest of the stuff to charity and gave a few items to our neighbor for his yard sale. Keep the money from it, we told him. We’re getting out of this game and enjoying the dining room floor for a while.

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