I can admit it: I’m addicted to old cardboard. And unfortunately, as an English teacher raising two expensive kids, I don’t really have anything I call “expendable income.” This could be a problem, but I found a solution! Actually, I have found many solutions. For the last 2 years I have been conducting a collection experiment: can I keep building my vintage personal collection on a $0 budget? Fortunately, the answer is yes! Vintage collecting on a budget can still yield a satisfying personal collection.

And no-budget collecting doesn’t have to mean low-end either. I picked up a Hank rookie last year along lots of other cool stuff on the $0 plan.

The Vintage on a Budget Strategy is Not for Everyone . . .

No-budget collecting isn’t for everyone. It does take patience, experience, and smarts to collect this way. And if I had loads of cash laying around, I probably wouldn’t be so strict. But I’m here to show you how it can be done.

I’ll separate these strategies into “Beginner,” “Intermediate,” and “Advanced” categories. The Beginner strategies are safe and low-budget but not always $0. The Intermediate strategies can be pulled off with varying levels of risk depending on price point. The Advanced strategies have some risk and require the most expertise, but have the biggest potential payoffs for your PC.

So, how does it work? Let’s get started:

Beginner Strategies

OK, you can’t truly collect for $0 out of pocket unless you have something to start with: an old shoebox of beat up vintage, some modern Bowman Chrome cards, or some junk for a garage sale to kick-start your efforts. These strategies mostly assume you have something of value to work with!

During COVID, I sold a bunch of Jordans that suddenly had value, for example. That was the seed money for the “$0 new money” experiment.

Endless stacks of near junk rookies

  1. Sell modern for vintage. Most modern is tanking. If you went though your “retail rippin’” phase, sell every last card and start over with vintage. It’s never too late to extract whatever value you can from this stuff.
  2. Sell junk for vintage. Most vintage collectors have some near-junk-era cards around just by virtue of mostly being, well, middle-aged. There’s nothing wrong with a bunch of Mattingly, Clemens, and Puckett rookies—but personally, I sold most of that in my collection to buy true vintage. And in fact I’m still selling lots of modern and near-junk to consolidate.
  3. Buy low grade. It goes without saying that iconic cards in low grade can be had for a fraction of the price of higher grade. You can often find low grade cards of great HOF players in the $5 bin at a card show. Bundle and save—offer $20 for 5 or 6 cards, and see if you can find a sneaky bargain to help recoup.
  4. Buy Oddballs and Subsets. If you can’t afford a ’56 Mays, look for Leaders cards, team cards, or fun, cheap oddballs like 1969 Topps Deckle Edge. In low grade, these cards are ridiculously fun and cheap.

Intermediate Strategies

Perfect candidate for a lot buy

  1. Trades. Trading “up” from many cards to one or “down” from one card to many is a good way to focus your collection, or to expand its horizons. Trades are at least “intermediate” because you have to understand the values coming and going. People will often “pay up” when trading multiple cards for one card, so if you are open to receiving many cards back for one nicer card, this is a good way to build equity.
  2. Set breaks. Buy a 1970’s set, for example, and sell off commons in lots, stars as individuals, and keep the ’71 Clemente for your efforts. This is an Intermediate strategy because you have to buy right, based on condition, to profit.
  3. Lots. Buy a nice lot—sell enough individuals to recoup, and keep or trade the profit. And look for lots at auctions especially—they are less appealing because most people are shopping for an individual card rather than a lot. The more random it is, the better for you! Even at big auctions like REA, sometimes lots can sneak in way under value.

Advanced Strategies

Buy to grade? If the price is right!

  1. Become a freaking expert at something. Pick a player, or a set, or a genre, and just go to town. Learn more about it than just about everyone else: know the high #’s, the SP’s, the weird variations, which cards are tough to find centered or high grade, and use your expertise to strike fast when you see something that’s underpriced. This takes time, of course—but you might be closer than you think to being a Master Cardhound. Personally, I’ve become something of an expert at removing cards pasted into scrapbooks. It can be high stakes (not all cards can be removed—there are lots of variables), but the risk/reward scale starts to tip in your favor more often the more you know about your particular niche.
  2. Buy Raw and Grade: Again, this is not for the faint of heart. It takes experience to gauge grades—especially from pictures online. Don’t be afraid to be a pest and ask for more or better pics. Use resources like VCP and 130point.com to get up to date on graded comps. And then just buy right. This is where some patience is needed: if you need a card to grade “7” to make a good profit, you need to buy at “raw EX” or “raw EX-MT” comps. Overpaying for raw (which is very common) kills this strategy fast.
  3. Will work for cards! If you are an established seller, start taking on consignments. I take on friend deals for 10% net, but prefer payment in cards. By far this is my most profitable strategy lately. You need to keep good records and be prepared to file a Schedule C since all of that cash hitting your Paypal isn’t actually net income! Ideally, the cards you take on will be raw and grading candidates—so you can start to roll various strategies together simultaneously.

Final Thought . . .

This last one isn’t really a strategy—more of a suggestion if part of your aim is to build equity: don’t get too attached to anything. Just this week, I sold the cherished Aaron rookie to go after some really rare Cuban cards (which are raw, gradable, and in lot form). The deal just checks too many boxes, and if the aim is to grow for $0, sometimes that means parting with one cherished card to chase after some equity and growth. And I can always find another ’54 Aaron—I’ll just need to figure out how to afford it!

And it goes without saying that when doing any business online, you need to stay safe and not take unnecessary risks. Cardhound (Join now! There’s a free option!) has written extensively about this many times including here and here.