This post is from GRS staff writer Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Frugal Cool blog for MSN Money, and writes about frugality and intentional living at Surviving And Thriving.

While consulting a professional about writing-related aches and pains, I was asked to describe my work station. When he heard that I used a laptop flat on the desk he told me that changes must be made. Among other things, he wanted me to get the screen up at eye level by purchasing a computer monitor stand from an office-supply store.

My frugal hackles went up. What, PAY for something that I could likely cobble together myself?

And that’s why my computer monitor stand is made of 16 phone books.

That’s right: 16 phone books, stacked in two papery pillars on my desk. The space between the two stacks theoretically allows air to circulate, preventing the laptop from overheating. But just in case, I set the computer on a couple of small pieces of scrap wood atop the books.

Yes, it’s about as attractive as the ass-end of an ugly dog. But it’s a successful frugal hack because:

  • It works! No more sore neck.
  • The only person who sees it is me, and I don’t care what it looks like.
  • It allowed me to turn a nuisance into an asset.

Turn lemons into lemonade
And phone books are a nuisance, a pulpy plague on the landscape. It used to be only once every 12 months that publishers hired guys to fling bundles of books at the homes of folks who probably didn’t ask for them. But now these shrink-wrapped directory bombs litter doorsteps and driveways off and on all year.

How do you think I obtained 16 of the things so easily? My neighbors completely ignored the books set in the apartment building lobby. Or next to their doors: Sometimes the bundle-throwers finagle access to the building and drop directories at every apartment entrance. After the books had gathered dust for a couple of months, I figured it was OK to glean them.

Theoretically you can opt out of delivery by visiting YellowPagesGoesGreen.org. However, that site notes current USPS regs may not permit opt-outs in certain (mostly rural) regions. If that’s the case, try calling individual phone-service providers to request being taken off mail- or private-delivery services.

In the meantime, don’t toss all your phone books. They can be useful.

Bugs, hazardous waste, and puppy pee
You didn’t ask for them. They show up anyway. Time to get creative.

  • When nature calls: Got a weekend cabin? Building an off-the-grid home but can’t yet afford a composting toilet? Since the Sears Roebuck catalog is no more, stash a phone book in the outhouse.
  • Hazmat response: Keep a book in the garage and tear out pages to soak up oil, antifreeze or other unpleasant spills. Unlike paper towels or shop rags, they’re free.
  • Speaking of unpleasant spills: Use pages to soak up pet urine or to pick up the, um, carpet bombs.
  • Greening the cat box: Step-by-step instructions for making your own cat litter appear at a blog called The Greenists. Try it with phone-book pages instead of newsprint.
  • Wood stove/fireplace owners: Use a few pages to help get the fire started.
  • Gardeners: Mulch beds with phone-book pages.
  • Gardeners, part 2: Kneel on the skinnier phone books while weeding.
  • Flower gardeners: Press blossoms between the pages.
  • iFold: Use phone-book pages for origami projects.
  • Crafty folks: Use pages for papier-mache or decoupage.
  • Crafty folks, part 2: Use the phone book as a work surface when cutting, gluing, or painting small projects.
  • Pest control: See a bug you want to kill? Drop a phone book on it.
  • Strength training: Want to build your cycling or climbing muscles? Fill your bike saddlebag or your backpack with phone books and get moving.
  • Hot stuff: Got more cooking projects than trivets? Turn a phone book into a hot pad.

Cuts, wraps, and lifts
Let’s get really creative, shall we? (I prefer that term to “weird” or “obsessive.”)

  • Pack it up: Use crumpled or shredded phone-book pages versus foam packing peanuts when mailing fragile items.
  • Pump it up: Blogger Ed Kohler used a phone book to support his bike pump while working on a tire.
  • Cut it up: The nimble and inventive Mr. Kohler found a second use for phone books — as a cutting board for cheese, while staying in a hotel.
  • Wrap it up: Want to reduce your reliance on commercial gift wrap? Cover small gifts in phone-book pages for an effect that’s both frugal and eco-friendly. Bonus points if the wrap matches the contents, e.g., the new necklace concealed by the “jewelers” page.
  • Jack it up: A guy I know was called upon to change a relative’s flat, but discovered the tire jack wouldn’t raise the vehicle far enough off the ground. It needed a block under it. He used the Yellow Pages.
  • Clean it up: Use phone-book pages instead of newspaper to wash mirrors and windows.
  • Prop it up: Mike Lieberman, aka the Urban Organic Gardener, used phone books to lift container gardens up off the cold metal fire escape when he lived in New York City. “The most use a phone book has gotten in years,” he observed.

A few of us still DO use them
Sometimes, a phone book is only a phone book.

  • Leave one in the car: If you forget the address of a business you want to patronize, pull the directory out of the trunk. (Not everyone has a smart phone to use for looking up addresses. You need a phone book in the car anyway in case you get a flat tire, right?)
  • Getting around: Some directories have city maps. Cut them out and staple them together for quick reference if you get lost or are see a garage-sale sign. (Not everyone has GPS, either.)
Fun/creepy fact: Horror writer Stephen King recalled an odd kid in his rural hometown who obsessively read the obituary pages, crossing each deceased’s name out of the local phone book. With anecdotes like that, who needs fiction???
  • Pack one when you move. You might need to find the number for a business or medical facility in your previous town. Technically you could look it up online, but not everyone has the Internet at home. Those of us who have it might not have it when we need it; my ISP went kerplunk for part of the day last week.

Kid stuff
In finding new uses for phone books, you’re not just teaching your children to be resourceful. You’re also teaching them to recycle.

  • Sit up straight, Junior: Make a booster seat with directories and duct tape.
  • Real cut-ups: Blogger Lisa Hoover has found several educational properties in phone books. Their “hundreds of pictures, logos and drawings” make them a natural for cut-and-glue art projects. You could also set a task such as “Find the letter ‘P’ in five ads” or “Look for pictures of insects and animals” — granted, that’s more fun to do with glossy mags, but education is where you find it. (Bonus: Kids will be delightfully grossed out by the bug drawings and photos in exterminator ads.)
  • Build a fort!: Someone once suggested wrapping directories with paper or duct tape for use over-sized building blocks. Storage space will dictate how many you could keep on hand, but you wouldn’t necessarily need scores of the things. I remember playing quite happily with a few pieces of scrap lumber, which became everything from a doll’s table to a bridge for toy cars. Ditto phone books.

One more shot at usefulness
In an ideal world you won’t get any more directories after you’ve opted out. However, that choice might not take effect right away, i.e., phone books already scheduled to be tossed on your doorstep will probably still end up there.

If you can’t use them, please put them in the recycle bin. And if there’s no recycling in your area, try one or more of the ideas noted above. It won’t change the fact that you’re throwing the paper away versus turning it into more paper through recycling. But it will at least give the pages one more use before they’re sent to the landfill.

Besides, think of the paper towels you won’t need every time you drip while changing the oil, or until the puppy gets the hang of housebreaking.

Or of the money you’ll save on outhouse paper. I will concede, however, that the Sears catalog would be a lot more fun to read while you wait.

This article is about Frugality