Ok, this might be ambitious of me, but I'm setting out to make a definitive guide to mailing cards. I think this post is packed with a lot of good tips that can save you money and keep your trading partners/buyers happy. My goal is for collectors to bookmark this and share the link with prospective new trading partners and maybe even sellers, being like, "Let's follow the guidelines in this link for shipping." Just trying to get everybody on the same page and prevent shipping horror stories. Plus, ever-rising postage costs are a major threat to many in the hobby, so saving a buck here and there definitely helps.
Let's breakdown some tips for mailing cards safely and cheaply.
Step 1 - Deciding on a package -- key here is RE-USE
Using a new bubble mailer might look nice, but they ain't free and let's be honest, when you receive cards in the mail, you don't give a crap what the packaging looks like as look as the cards are in there safe and sound, right?
When you receive a bubble mailer in the mail, carefully cut it open on one side to make it easier to reuse later. Use a permanent black marker to completely black out the addresses and old postage (or peel off, if applicable), and it should be fine. Once re-packed, one or two good pieces of clear packing tape over the opening should sufficiently seal it back up. You should pick your battles here; some packages are easier to reuse than others. Occasionally you'll get one that will be a big hassle to get into reusable shape for whatever reason, and you'll just have to trash it.
Need packaging? Cardboard for Cardboard
Another smart option for packaging when you don't have any mailers handy: cereal boxes! Yes, taking an empty box from cereal or crackers or a frozen dinner or something like that and turning it inside out is a great method for shipping cards. It uses some tape (again, clear packing tape is a must) but is essentially free and works as a sturdy, lightweight package with very little chance of damage to the contents. Plus it's good for the environment to repurpose a box like that rather than buying a new bubble mailer.
|Boom: free packaging at your fingertips|
Big mailing? Make it a Priority
If you're sending a big box of cards, you might consider going via Priority Mail. You can get free Priority Mail boxes and envelopes from most local post offices and you can even order them for free on usps.com (In my experience, the packaging is free and shipping is free too.. all totally free! They want you to use them! All you need to do is create an account at usps.com and then they will happily deliver free Priority Mail packaging to your door for you to use.) Priority Mail is typically more expensive than First Class, though often you can take advantage of flat-rate boxes and envelopes and actually save money. It's a good idea to learn about the various options on usps.com to get an idea of what packaging methods you can use, but again, I suggest flat-rate Priority Mail envelopes/boxes for large mailings (14 ounces and over). I've got a good example coming up later in this post. The "Calculate a Price" feature on the site also comes in handy. Another obvious advantage to Priority Mail is it typically takes only 2 or 3 days for delivery, about half the time of First Class.
PWE if you please
The Plain White Envelope method for sending cards is a great one for shooting a few cards to a trader buddy. Other than meeting up in person, it's the cheapest way to exchange cards. One Forever stamp will cover up to an ounce (let's say roughly 8 standard cards), and you can often get away with a bit over an ounce, but when in doubt, throw on another stamp to play it safe. Nothing worse than sending cards that end up arriving "postage due" for the recipient.
More PWE tips:
- Try to keep the envelope smooth all around, not lumpy. If it's lumpy, the post office may charge an additional "non machinable" fee, which I think is like 20¢ or something. Also if it's lumpy, there's greater chance it'll get stuck in the sorting machines and potentially damage/lose the cards. I will often crop an envelope down to the size I need so there's not a lot of empty space, sealing the side with a piece of packing tape.
- Be wary of sending memorabilia cards and other thick cards in PWEs. Envelopes will get slightly bent in the mechanical sorting process, and bending relic cards often results in creases around the memorabilia pocket area. You want to be sure your PWE can be bent a little without damaging the contents. Better to mail relics and other thick cards in bubble mailers or boxes to play it safe. And definitely don't send a slabbed/graded card in a PWE, as that's just asking for trouble.
- Keep the thickness of the envelope to 1/4 inch or less, otherwise it will count as parcel rate which is more expensive and will likely arrive "postage due" or get returned to you for "insufficient postage" if you try to get away with using just a stamp or two. Spread out the cards in an envelope, don't stack them all up together. Using a cut 9-pocket page (i.e. cut into a row of 3 pockets) is a common method traders use.
|Prepping a typical PWE to send out.|
- It's considerate to confirm with the other party that you're planning to send via PWE before you both send. If the other guy is sending in a package, he might be upset if he receives the cards from you in an envelope. Likewise, if you're selling, it's not cool to charge $3.50 for shipping and then mail in a PWE with a Forever stamp.
- Another courteous move is to include a little note in your mailing. Even just a little post-it saying like, "Sean, Enjoy the cards. -Jon" ..It gives a personal touch, plus can help them keep track of which cards were from whom if they have cards from multiple sources accumulating on their desk.
Recapping packaging options:
- Re-use mailers when possible or repurpose inside-out cardboard boxes (cereal boxes, etc)
- Consider Priority Mail flat-rate boxes/envelopes for large mailings
- PWEs are good for a few, low-value cards
- keep the envelope smooth, under 1/4" thich, and weighing around an ounce or less
Step 2 - Preparing the card(s) -- key here is to keep them safe, but don't over-do it
The worst sin in the world of shipping cards is tossing a loose card unprotected into an envelope or package. Many of us have been the victim of a clueless seller unfamiliar with the importance of condition on sports cards.
But these days it seems a more common hassle is the other extreme: sellers going overboard with "protecting" the card, with no consideration for how the recipient is supposed to free it. They'll often wrap up a card with layers upon layers of tape and bubble wrap like it's going deep sea diving or something. While it might technically get through the postal system safely that way, it's wasteful for the seller and a pain in the butt for the person who just wants to see their new card. Getting scissors or a knife involved to cut out a card from it's prison can be dangerous, as a slight misstep could possibly damage the card. So remember: One solid piece of tape (preferably blue tape, and with a pull-tab) will usually do the job just fine; Don't go nuts with tape!
Team bags are great for packaging cards. They're little plastic baggies that typically hold up to a dozen cards or so. If you're sending a good card, the best method is (1) put the card in a penny sleeve, (2) put that into a top-loader, (3) then put that into a team bag and seal the bag. That's usually all you'll need to be golden. (Alternately, magnetic one-touch cases are great, but more expensive.) If it's a relic card, slabbed card, or otherwise very valuable card, you might want to include additional padding around it (bubble wrap, cut up pieces of cardboard, putting packing peanuts into the package, etc.) Like with bubble mailers, I have never bought a new pack of team bags in my life, though I always have an ample supply of used ones around that I've gotten from past trades and purchases.
Sending a bunch of cards in a box? It's best to keep them secure within the box, not sliding all around, potentially damaging edges and corners. Fill up any open space with bubble wrap, paper towel pieces, or whatever.
Recapping the preparation of cards:
- Consider the recipient and make it easy for them to free their card. Don't go nuts with tape. And make pull tabs with the tape you use! Preferably use blue painters tape; Scotch tape is harder to get off and will likely ruin the top-loader.
- Be extra careful with memorabilia cards, thick cards, graded cards, and other non-standard cards that are among the most susceptible to damage.
- Keep cards secure and not sliding around within the packaging.
Step 3 - Postage - the key here is don't overpay
Ok, you've got your cards packed up safely and sensibly, now it's time to slap on the postage. The "old school" method is to just go down to the post office when you've got a chance during their business hours, wait in line, and have the person behind the counter sort it out for you and charge you for the postage. The problem with this is not only is it a hassle of an errand added to your day, but you can save money by printing postage at home.
First thing you need here is a kitchen scale. You might already have one in a kitchen drawer (consider asking your significant other if they've got one, if you're not sure). If not, you can buy one online for about ten bucks. Assuming you send out packages on a regular basis, it'll "pay for itself" pretty quickly. I used to borrow my wife's scale all the time to weigh packages. Then one day I rinsed it off and neglected to take the batteries out first.. whoops. Seemed like it died, so my wife bought a new one. But then a few days later, the old scale dried out and was working fine again.. Woo, now I've got my own scale for cards! ha. And you'll also need a printer, of course. (If you've got a printer at work you can use [without getting in trouble], even better; less ink and paper for you to worry about.) And some tape or glue to affix the printing label to the package is needed. If you're an active card collector, chances are you've got a PayPal account, right? Well, that also entitles you to cheaper postage. Here's the PayPal "create postage label" link. It's significantly cheaper than going to the post office and will save you a lot of time, too. And yes, you can do this with trades too; it doesn't have to be tied to any other PayPal transaction (sale). You just sign in, click that link (again), enter the recipient's address, select mailing option (default is Priority, so you may need to change it to First Class), the weight of the package (rounded up to the nearest ounce), print, affix, and then just drop it off into any convenient outgoing mailbox in your area. Chances are your work has an outgoing mail area you can use, or there's probably a sidewalk mailbox on a corner near you. If you live in a good neighborhood, you could probably even leave it by your personal mailbox for your letter-carrier to pick up while delivering mail.
Postage rates frequently change, but as of today, a standard small package of cards (weighing 4 ounces or less) would cost you $3.50 if you stood in line at the post office, but the same package would be only $2.66 if you printed out your own postage at home through Paypal.com. That's a savings of 84 cents per package, and that'll add up quickly if you do a few trades per month. If you did 30 similar trades over the course of a year, that's over $25 you'd save. You're also potentially saving several hours of going to the post office and waiting in line.
Here's a good example of some cards I recently mailed:
This is a mostly-filled 400-count box of cards weighing 1 lb 7.4 oz that I sent off to Matthew Scott. Had I just taped up this box and mailed it as-is, taken it down to the post office and stood in line, postage would cost nearly $13.
But by just putting the box into a flat-rate Priority Mail padded envelope (which was free) and printing off my own postage label through Paypal, postage was only $7.10. That's a savings of over $5 on just this one package!
Stamps.com can also be used for these cheaper postage rates, though I believe they charge for their service, whereas PayPal is free. I use Stamps.com for work (I ship several hundred packages each month), where it comes in handy doing many mailings at once. But for personal use, I find PayPal to be the best way to go. You also get these cheaper rates than retail when you create shipping labels through eBay, but of course that doesn't do much good if you're sending a trade.
In conclusion, here are some Do's and Don'ts to save money on safely mailing cards:
Don't spend money on new bubble mailers.
DO: Reuse old bubble mailers or make your own mailers with an inside-out cereal box and some clear packing tape.
Don't send big lots of cards in regular boxes.
DO: Use Flat-Rate Priority Mail packaging for sending big lots of cards.
Don't stand in line at the post office.
DO: Print postage at home using a kitchen scale and PayPal.com.
Don't send a small number of cheap cards in a box or package.
DO: Send in a plain white envelope when possible to save on postage. Make sure the cards are secure and the envelope isn't lumpy or thicker than 1/4".
Don't tape the hell out of a card and make it a chore for the recipient to get out.
DO: Package cards in a safe and smart way, with team bags and pull tabs.
DO: Package cards in a safe and smart way, with team bags and pull tabs.
PayPal postage label link (for purchasing postage for all non-PWE mailings)
USPS.com (for calculating postage options)
Priority Mail flat-rate packaging (for ordering free boxes/envelopes for large mailings)
Kitchen Scales (for weighing your outgoing mail)
Penny Sleeves (step 1 for protecting cards)
Top Loaders (step 2 for protecting cards)
Team Bags (step 3 for protecting cards)
Magnetic One-Touch cases (an option for protecting valuable cards)
Bubble Mailers (I recommend reusing them, but if you must buy them new, here's a link)
Clear packing tape (for sealing mailers and affixing postage labels)
Blue Painters tape (to keep cards together and to put over toploaders so cards don't slip out)
Fine Point Sharpies (for blacking out old addresses on used packages)
Ultra Fine Point Sharpies (for addressing packages)
Envelopes (for mailing PWEs)
Stamps (for PWEs)
So there you have it: My guide for mailing cards safely and cheaply. I hope you were able to pick up at least a couple tips you can use. Maybe even consider bookmarking this post for future reference. Please comment below if you have additional tips or any questions, etc. and I can update the post if necessary with additions or clarifications.
Thanks and happy trading!
P.S. A couple bonus tips for card collectors that might not be in the scope of this post but are still important to know:
- eBay Bucks. If you buy cards (or anything) on eBay with any regularity, you should really be sure to have eBay Bucks enabled. Basically you earn "store credit" on every purchase. Learn more (and activate) here. You may also consider signing up for "general email promotion offers" (go to My eBay in the upper right, then >Account>Communication Preferences, then check the box for "General email promotions" and click save) which means eBay will spam you with dumb email crap but occasionally there will be offers where you can "activate offer" to get a higher rate of eBay Bucks on purchases over a limited period. All the emails are annoying, but it could definitely be worth your time for big purchases.
- Informed Delivery. The US Postal Service has this relatively new thing where they will email you a heads-up on your mail for the day. It's not perfect (some things you get don't show up in the email, and some things in the email arrive later than they say), but it's still somewhat handy to get an idea of what mail you can expect to arrive. Here's the link.