27 frugal uses for a dead phone book

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.

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J Marie
J Marie
8 years ago

These are all great ideas. Too bad I put my phone books in the recycle bin last week!

Smart Military Money
Smart Military Money
8 years ago

What a list! Those bike-related uses are fantastic. I wish I thought of them.

Was it the need for a laptop booster that prompted you to see the myriad uses for a phone book? Or just getting a stack together?

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago

I’d written on this subject before, but added a few new ones to my previous list o’uses. The phone-book computer stand was one example.

YellowPagesUnited
YellowPagesUnited
6 years ago

There is an artist in Philadelphia that uses old phone books to make incredible sculptures of celebrity’s faces. Google “Alex Queral” and his sculptures will pop right up. Truly an amazing use of dead phone books.

Sydney Rene
Sydney Rene
8 years ago

Thanks to the USA networks fabulous show Burn Notice, I now know that phone books can be used to armor a vehicle in preparation for a gun fight. Yet another use for the phone book. Especially the thick ones. I’m pretty sure it’d be an epic bad idea to try this with my small town phone pamphlet.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Sydney Rene

I just remembered one: Make a valuables safe out of the phone book the way you can with a regular book, i.e., cut a chunk out of the middle (leaving a margin) and put important stuff in there. Burglars probably won’t have time to page through every book on your shelf or to pick up and shake the phone directory.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
8 years ago

I hadn’t thought of keeping one in my car trunk. It would be good for looking up addresses or cleaning up! Thanks 🙂

Slccom
Slccom
8 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Not in the trunk — behind the passenger seat. When you need it, you let your passenger figure out where you are going.

Modest Money
Modest Money
8 years ago

Yes these big phone books can be such a waste. I can’t remember the last time I actually used one to look anything up. I do have 2 propped up under my broken couch. I’ve been too lazy to do a proper fix, but it works fine with the phone books putting it back at the proper height.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Modest Money

I once propped up a broken couch with scrap lumber. The skirt covered it — nobody could see.

Staying out of Debt
Staying out of Debt
8 years ago

They must be the thick type of phone book. Where I am in a small town the phone books are smaller then a For Dummies book. But I’d never think of using 16 for a laptop stand. In a few years I think the telephone companies won’t even bother to print, yet alone mail one to everyone with the digital movement.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago

But I hope they’ll continue to make a paper book an option, since not everyone has a computer but most people have phones (whether cell or landline).

Jenzer
Jenzer
8 years ago

When my daughter started piano lessons, we used phone books on the piano bench to get her body to the right height for proper hand position.

bg
bg
8 years ago

LOL! Oh, this article brought a smile to my face 🙂

And on a side-note: in Germany, a few years ago they stopped giving a phone book to everyone and only sent you a card to tell you that you can pick up a phone book for free at the postal office. By now, they even save the card. The pile gets smaller every year too. Love it.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  bg

I like the idea of it being optional vs. pitching paper at people who don’t want it. But again, I hope they make it widely known that you can get a book if you need one, especially to those who are housebound and can’t come and pick one up. Delivery should be available, e.g., have a few in the workers’ vans so that if a call comes in, whoever is closest to that area of town can drop it off.

Andrea @SoOverDebt
Andrea @SoOverDebt
8 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

I think it would be a cool idea to have cards that people can check off and put back in the mailbox if they want a phonebook – then the mail carrier could leave one in the mailbox. No card? No phonebook.

Nicole
Nicole
8 years ago

Stephen King probably WAS that creepy kid who crossed deceased people’s name out of the phone book. He’s just not coming clean about it!

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

I’d say the same myself except that during the interview he seemed in awe of this weird kid, and maybe a little jealous that he hadn’t thought of it on his own. Admiring, certainly.

Bella
Bella
8 years ago

I was all excited to opt out – till I read the list of useful things to do with the phone book – and I’m torn as to whether or not I need them for the alternative uses 😉

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
8 years ago

These suggestions are awful, sorry. The only reason there are positive comments is so that people can advertise their own blogs by posting as “Smart Military Money”, “Modest Money”, etc. Have the world’s least nourishing garden mulch, the least comfortable toilet paper, the ugliest origami swan, and the least smell-absorbing cat litter, not to mention the least inviting office in which to spend your day.

Yeah, sounds great. Just throw the damn thing in the recycling if you don’t want it.

Rosa
Rosa
8 years ago

They might make fine cat litter; phone book paper is our guinea pigs favorite bedding material.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

Another use! Thank you, Rosa.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago

Take what works for you, ignore the rest.
Have a nice day, Tyler.

Florida Bill
Florida Bill
8 years ago

Or they can advertise a blog like “Tyler Karaszewski.”

Kevin
Kevin
8 years ago
Reply to  Florida Bill

I sympathize with Tyler, Bill. Once a blog gets as popular as GRS, it’s inevitable that each time a new entry is posted, all the “me-too” finance bloggers race to get their comments in near the top. They usually don’t even read the post (since that would take time, and risk letting another blogger take one of those coveted first few comment spots), they just post some inane junk, like “What a great post! It’s just like I was saying the other day on my own blog, blah blah blah…” It gets annoying, and it’s why I often just scroll… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  Florida Bill

I agree with his observations on the “me too” phenomenon but I don’t agree with the narrow perspective of his generalizations. Not everyone can afford the same lifestyle, and people in diverse economic circumstances read this blog. While Tyler can buy and throw away a desk without threatening his family’s financial future, other people can’t, and just because they can’t it doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to make the best of what they have. Struggling people also read PF blogs, write PF blog posts, and are trying to improve their lot in life. If you’re looking for financial advice that’s… Read more »

Cindy@Rhinebeck
8 years ago

As soon as I get the paper phone books, I throw them in the trash. Makes great landfill. Total waste of my time and energy.

Ru
Ru
8 years ago

Yeah, but some of us live in civilised places with recycling facilities. Paper doesn’t belong in the trash.

Donna, I have another one for you- a book planter
http://inhabitat.com/diy-how-to-make-a-beautiful-book-planter/
I think it would work with a thick phone-book too.

Similar to mulching, I’ve been told that phone books are great for padding out an overly soggy compost heap.

sarah
sarah
8 years ago

Putting a phone book under a car jack seems INCREDIBLY dangerous.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  sarah

He said it worked just fine — and it wasn’t as though he was crawling UNDER the vehicle. He just needed to boost the jack up so he could change the tire.
But that’s an Alaskan for you. They make do with whatever’s handy. He probably used the phone book only because there wasn’t an empty 55-gallon drum handy.

Winston
Winston
8 years ago

Haha I’m using a phone book right now to equalize the height of my right-hand monitor with the one on the left!

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Winston

Yay! It isn’t just me!

Slccom
Slccom
8 years ago
Reply to  Winston

You can class it up with Contact paper.

stellamarina
stellamarina
8 years ago

Recently I saw the suggestion of taking individual pages of newspaper….roll them up and then fold in half and twist the two ends together a few times. Then you have a big bundle of these in a basket by the fire place for fire starters…or for your BBQ. Seems like it would work some how for phone books too….maybe have to spread out 4 pages to roll up into newspaper size.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  stellamarina

Or, as noted, just crumple them up. Placed under the kindling and a stick or two of wood (or handful of briquets), they would do the job. My dad keeps plain-paper junk mail as well as newspapers in a basket by the woodstove.

Ash
Ash
8 years ago

My mother always said that it was the first sign that one needed glasses when one couldn’t read the phone book. Could that possibly be another use?

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

Unlike paper towels or shop rags, they’re free. Hold on, hold on– what sucka PAYS for shop rags? I have bags & boxes full of “free” rags, harvested from nature. They’re made from entropy-afflicted pajamas, tshirts, bedsheets, bed covers, socks, jeans, a-shirts, boxer shorts. etc. I wear my clothes ragged & then recommission them as cleaning tools. It’s a kind of slow composting, as they eventually disintegrate & rejoin the carbon cycle. Pajamas are especially nice because they’re made of flannel (the winter versions anyway), which is gentle on car paint. Denim is great for dealing with major filth (grease,… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

I never pay for rags myself, but some other poor souls do.

Sara
Sara
8 years ago

Okay, this is sort of a weird one, but here goes: When I was in gymnastics, the coaches had duct-taped together stacks of phone books in different thicknesses. For example, some were just one wrapped phone book and others were up to perhaps 6 inches thick. We used them for a few things that I can remember. Primary use was to prop one leg up while doing a split so that you were actually stretching past the 180 degrees. Another use I remember was when we ran sprint drills, we could pick them up and run with them, move them… Read more »

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Sara

Interesting! Did you ever have to rip them in half?

Meghan
Meghan
8 years ago

Donate them to your local college or university art department. I know this is very obscure, but printmakers still use them all the time. I couldn’t imagine intaglio printmaking without the endless supply of phone books to help wipe the ink off a plate.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Meghan

I learn the coolest things this way.

Bareheadedwoman
Bareheadedwoman
8 years ago
Reply to  Meghan

in a former life, use to use phone books in art classes specifically because it was a resource people readily donated, and the consistency of the sheets made it a great weight for paper mache and artisan papermaking.

Ally
Ally
8 years ago

Wipe your privates with dirty INK-covered paper? Some of the other suggestions were okay, but that one takes frugality to a frightfully un-hygienic and bizarre low.

stellamarina
stellamarina
8 years ago
Reply to  Ally

Written by somebody who does not remember, or even know of, a time without toilet paper.

imelda
imelda
8 years ago
Reply to  stellamarina

Yup – as Donna hints at, the Sears Roebuck catalog used to be primarily popular because its pages were so nice for butt-wiping.

Not that *I* remember those days either, or seek to repeat them, but we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss frugal tricks that sound strange!

bareheadedwoman
bareheadedwoman
8 years ago
Reply to  imelda

which is why an intact pre-1940 sears catalog can be worth its weight in gold as a collector’s item now…they all ended up in the human compost pile.

Ino
Ino
8 years ago

Boy, how I miss the good old days when JD’s writing shaped and enriched this blog… The pangs of nostalgia get even sharper when I come across articles like this. And then the writer gets all defensive and inflates the number of comments by adding her own to every little remark… Tyler dared post his disagreement, and the article garnered 4 (!) knuckle-rapping comments.

JD, where are you?

Mark
Mark
8 years ago
Reply to  Ino

He’s off getting a divorce and spending the money he got paid for selling this blog.

Peter
Peter
8 years ago

gotta admit – i agree with some that this article is a bit disappointing, in the least.

Becky+P.
Becky+P.
8 years ago

You could have added that you can cut the pages into squares and made crazy quilt blocks, or even paper shaped crazy quilt blocks using them as the base. It can easily be torn off later.

LennStar
LennStar
8 years ago

I have a little problem with your phone book uses. I don’t know the US types, so I want talk about environment. BUT it could be bad to burn them (and inhale the smoke). I’m not talking about the paper but the ink. (phone books are the same as anthink alse printed) It could be bad. Just be careful.

bareheadedwoman
bareheadedwoman
8 years ago
Reply to  LennStar

because of worker safety laws, most mass distribution print (non glossy) in the USA is now made of soy ink instead of lampblack…which makes the papers safe to burn, use in the garden, litter box, etc.

however, the lack of lampblack makes newsprint no longer the best for washing windows/glass because the glycerine in soy ink leaves more streaks.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago

Interesting. Thank you for letting us know.

Trina
Trina
8 years ago

There’s nothing wrong with a funny, light-hearted piece once in a while. Personally, I get a little tired of the navel-gazing that goes on here sometimes.

Forty2
Forty2
8 years ago

I’d be wary of using any printed material as mulch for vegetable plants. Printer’s inks contain pigments that can be toxic along with the oil-based carrier. So-called “green” soy-based ink still contains potentially-toxic pigments.

Beth H
Beth H
8 years ago

Thanks for the idea, Donna. I’ve been piloting a standing desk in my office. The only problem was that I could not get my monitors up to a comfortable height (I’m not a short gal.) After reading this, I happened to remember the 60 or so extra campus directories we have in our department. A stack of ten, wrapped in plastic to keep them together, has made all the difference.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Beth H

I’m glad that worked. A former co-worker uses a stand-up workspace part of the time. I hope it’s as ergonomically viable for you as it is for him.

Jen
Jen
8 years ago

Another use would be for composting. If newspapers can be used for composting why not phone books? I would just use the white pages, though, and recycle the covers and any colored print pages.

PB @ Economically Humble
PB @ Economically Humble
8 years ago

OMG, its great for garden beds… brilliant!!!!

Traci
Traci
8 years ago

Most ridiculous article I have ever read. Seriously need some quality control here…

Teresa
Teresa
8 years ago

Like Sara, I have used them in obstacle courses ( along with glue gunned egg cartons). I work with children with special needs ( mobility/gross motor). They can be stacked for walking over/around, helps with stretches and stability.

Donna, I am really enjoying your writings here and other places. I can identify with many of your experiences. Glad I read the second part of this post.
I am always amazed at the topics you generate.Just passed on the info about Airbnb to my adult children that I had pulled off a posting of yours on Frugal Cool.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
8 years ago
Reply to  Teresa

Interesting to learn of the therapeutic uses of phone books. There’s probably no shortage, given that so few people actually use them as directories these days.
And thanks for your kind words.

Russell
Russell
8 years ago

Phone book pages are also great for drying out your running shoes after you go running in the rain. Stick a couple wadded up pages in your shoes and the paper will absorb the water, rather than the fabric of the shoes. Leave the paper in for several hours, then just take it out.

Kacie
Kacie
8 years ago

I was entertained by this post. You know how some eople give a compliment, “she could sing the phone book, and it would be beautiful,”? Well, I thInk Donna can write about phone books and it canne entertaining and humorous.

average guy
average guy
8 years ago

Phones have their own books?? With at least one color, not doubt!?

Anyway, more seriously, about this:
>>You might need to find the number for a business or medical facility in your previous town.

Yes, years ago when my father, retired in Florida, needed more care and we went down to visit him to help, but we could not stay indefinitely. Taking home a local phone book was very helpful, as we could find resources that were local to him. We could call establishments local to him, and make arrangements, etc. Good use of the paper edition then.

Raymond Martinez
Raymond Martinez
8 years ago

My roomate in college used to use phone books to build his drumming muscles. He was a music major and he had to maintain steady percusion chops so he would do this on phone books because he said “the phone book makes you work harder.”

Thad P
Thad P
8 years ago

Wow. Sitting on the yellow pages! That brings back wonderful memories from my childhood…visits to my grandparents and using their Atlanta area phone books to sit up tall enough to eat at the table!

Great list of things to do with these anachronisms.

Mady Maiden
Mady Maiden
4 years ago

Yes you are right. Whenever I need any phone number, i use Phonebook backward online.

Asashi Fustazi
Asashi Fustazi
3 years ago

You Guys wanna know one Frugal use, How about actual looking through it and finding who called you instead of getting the run around paid service crap online, that’s great isn’t it. let me pay intellius or some crap for something that took me 1 minute and find in a shake of a lambs tail. they were more usful then the internet HOWS THAT FOR FRUGAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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