What are the best things to collect? I can’t answer that question specifically for you. That’s kind of like trying to tell you who to marry. But I can tell you what to look for. And then you’ll know the answer when you find it.
Collectibles markets are fickle
If anyone ever tells you there’s a collectible that only increases in value, he’s lying. All markets are cyclical, and collectibles are no exception to that. The difference between collectibles and other markets is that sometimes collectibles don’t come back. My sons show little or no interest in the things my dad was interested in collecting. Times change and generations change.
Approach collecting like you would another hobby, as a consumable. Not an investment. Chances are you can get some of your money back out of it if you need to, but don’t expect to use your collection to fund your retirement. My baseball card collection is worth about what it was worth in the 1980s, but it would take me a lot longer to find someone willing to buy it now.
Collect something you can afford
So rule number one is to make sure you can afford whatever it is you want to collect. The best things to collect start with what you can afford. I met two brothers in the 1990s who were collecting 1980s video games when everyone regarded them as junk. They were college students with part time jobs, trying to fund an education and keep a roof over their head in addition to a hobby. Those Atari cartridges nobody wanted were perfect. They could while away a Saturday afternoon hitting every flea market and thrift store in town, buy every cartridge in sight, and probably spend less than they would have spent seeing a movie.
Those 1980s video games cost a lot more now than they did in the 1990s, but if you can afford them, don’t worry about it. Remember, their value as potential investments is a secondary concern at best.
Sometimes we have to scale back our standards to afford something. Maybe you like Hot Wheels cars. You probably can’t afford to collect mint-in-package Hot Wheels Redlines. Some collectors buy beat-up Redlines and restore them. That’s certainly increases the level of activity involved. For some of them, rescuing a car that’s nearly destroyed is a big part of the fun. They might pay $2 for a beater car that looks like it spent 40 years in someone’s sandbox and put $25 worth of parts and paint into it, but the result, if they do a good job, looks just as good as an original that might be worth $80.
Collect something that takes you to your happy place
In the 2000 movie High Fidelity, based on a novel by Nick Hornby, the main character collected records. At the beginning of the movie, he wondered if he listened to pop music because he was depressed, or if he was depressed because he listened to pop music.
Of course, if his obsession had been healthy, it probably would have been a lousy story. You’re not trying to make a good story, though. You’re trying to live a fulfilling life, and your hobbies should contribute to that. If what you collect takes you to dark places, you probably need to find something else to collect. I’m not saying stop collecting that thing that takes you to dark places necessarily. But don’t live there. Balance it with something that takes you to nice places. For a guy who thinks his collection might be making him depressed, the best thing to collect is something else.
I love dark, brooding post-punk music from the late 1970s and early 1980s. But my mood improved considerably when I stopped actively collecting it and cut way back on how much I listened to it. That’s OK. I’m no less me for having taken on different interests from that. My collection of vintage trains takes me to a happy place that never existed, but everyone who sees my layout wishes it had.
My baseball card collection takes me to a different kind of happy place. Maybe I can’t solve every problem at work, but I know what all of my favorite baseball teams from every era should have done differently. I’ll never be able to prove my ideas would have worked, but baseball gives me a problem to solve when I need one.
What takes you to a happy place is probably different than me, and that’s okay. It may be something that reminds you of your childhood. It may be something that reminds you of another person. Whatever helps you escape the rigors of your day to day responsibilities for a bit so you can recharge.
Be wary of made-for collectibles
Things that were designed and made solely to be collectibles rarely have much staying power. They usually don’t retain their value very well and tend to go out of fashion rather quickly. If you buy it new in the box in a boutique instead of at a flea market, it’s more likely to be a fad.
That said, past-their-prime collectibles tend to be rather affordable. So it may just be a matter of timing and perspective.
Don’t be afraid to specialize
Specialization is what you can do to keep a collection under control. Most people don’t have the money or space to collect everything, so they specialize. By collecting the subset they like the most, or can afford, they can build and enjoy a collection while still living within their means. When you collect things that can’t really be restored as a matter of practicality, specializing is a way to keep the cost down.
Specializing also helps keep your collection from being just like everyone else’s. You can specialize in a particular time period, manufacturer, place of manufacture, color or pattern, or whatever suits you. Your collection is a reflection of you and your personality. Some people collect the boxes the stuff came in. Hey, the box is rarer than the item, usually.
The best things to collect are self-funding
Sometimes your hobby can become self-funding, but it doesn’t have to. Over the course of collecting, you may accumulate duplicates that you can sell off to fund future purchases. For some people that makes the hobby more enjoyable. For others, it makes the hobby too much like work. It’s supposed to be fun, so do what works for you.
Even if you don’t sell, make sure you leave behind information about your collection so your survivors can liquidate it if needed.
The journey is part of it
For many collectors, the pursuit is the best part. They enjoy the time visiting shops, estate sales, garage sales, or wherever else they find the things they collect. If nothing else, an estate sale provides an opportunity to see the collectible one last time in its natural environment. But frequently it’s cheaper to buy the item from the estate and bypass a middleman. And it turns out that nostalgia is good for you.