Frugality in Practice: Free is a Very Good Price

One step you can take to becoming more frugal is to overcome our cultural resistance to picking stuff up from the side of the road. I'm not suggesting that you dumpster dive, but start paying attention to the things that people discard. The perfectly good things that people discard.

After our garage sale, Kris and I put our old gas range at the side of the road and marked it FREE. We taped a note to it explaining the range's faults and virtues. It was gone within two days. Somebody got a Very Good Deal.

Here's a list of things I've seen by the side of the road in the past week. All of this stuff was marked FREE:

  • a queen-sized mattress (gone in hours)
  • an easy chair
  • a microwave oven (saw this morning; would have stopped for it, but was late for work — will check again this afternoon)
  • an entertainment center (gone by morning)
  • a pile of scrap lumber
  • an old banana-seat bicycle
  • several large pieces of wood (I took one to use as a shelf)
  • a pair of child-size lawn chairs

A better source of free stuff is family and friends. Pay attention to the things people are purging. You can often get good stuff for free (or cheap) simply by asking. I'm always happy to give my friends things that I might otherwise sell for a few bucks.

GeekLimit advocates using freecycle. I haven't used it myself yet, but it sounds like a great idea:

When you want to find a new home for something — whether it's a chair, a fax machine, piano, or an old door — you simply send an e-mail offering it to members of the local Freecycle group. Or, maybe you're looking to acquire something yourself. Simply respond to a member's offer, and you just might get it. After that, it's up to the giver to decide who receives the gift and to set up a pickup time for passing on the treasure. Our main rule: Everything posted must be free, legal, and appropriate for all ages.

Another excellent source of free stuff is craigslist, from which you might learn never to pay for:

  • beds and mattresses
  • washers and dryers
  • kittens

You never know what will turn up for free on craigslist. I check it daily. But pay attention to all of the free stuff that's out there, even the stuff by the side of the road.

We went to dinner with some friends last week. Driving home, we passed through a neighborhood that had set out its trash for pickup. “Look,” I said, “that house is throwing away a couple of sleds.”

“You should pick them up,” my wife said. “It'd be frugal.”

So I got out of the car to scrounge. One of the sleds was broken (but easily repairable); the other was perfectly fine. I put them both in the car. “What's that black bag?” Kris asked. I scrounged around some more. The black bag was a broken (and not repairable) satchel. There were also some ski poles (I don't ski) and a rubber raft (condition indeterminate).

I was embarrassed by my scrounging when a young couple walked by with their dog. There stood our car, stopped in the middle of the street in a gated community, trunk open, with me rummaging in somebody's trash. I felt dirty and guilty for a few seconds, but then I thought, “Hey, I got two sleds for free. Who cares?”

Sometimes Free is Expensive: A Cautionary Tale

My friend Andrew called me on Sunday morning. He'd found a free piano on craigslist, and wanted to get to it before anyone else. Andrew and I (and another friend) drove ten miles to North Portland to get the instrument.

Moving a piano can be a nightmare. We were lucky — this move was shockingly easy. Everything that could go right, did. Still, it took several hours.

When we had at last installed the piano in Andrew's living room, he began to have second thoughts. It's not in great shape. It needs tuning (badly) and some cosmetic restoration. Most alarming is the fact that there is no keyboard cover. (Andrew has two children: a two-year-old and a two-month-old. He needs a keyboard cover.) In short, it's what you'd expect from a free piano. “I guess I'll have to learn about piano restoration,” Andrew said, frowning.

To thank us for our efforts, he bought us lunch.

Andrew's free piano has already begun to cost him. He paid $10 in fuel to pick it up. He paid $25 to buy lunch for his workers. He took several hours of our time, incurring a debt of Friendship Points which will have to be repaid in the future. (I know who I'm calling when it comes time to repaint my house!)

He's got future expenses to worry about, too. It will cost about $100 to have the piano tuned. There will be unknown (but not insignificant) costs to restore bits and pieces. And to get a keyboard cover.

Yes, this is all much cheaper than buying a new piano, but it's still not exactly “free”.

To his credit, Andrew recognized the path he was on. He called me Sunday night. “J.D.,” he said, “how would you like a free piano? No? Then I guess I'd better post it on craigslist.” Maybe he can get $50 out of it!

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore
14 years ago

I’ll second the freecycle recomendation. We’ve gotten free baby formula, a high chair and rasberry bushes from the list, and gotten rid of several items we didn’t need anymore.

My only regret is that someone else snagged the Honda 650 before I got it.

Melissa A.
Melissa A.
14 years ago

I see furniture on the streets all the time. Unfortunately, I don’t have a car or know anyone who has a car or truck, so I always have to pass. I have used the local freecycle group before, though, I find it a pain in the butt most of the time. The “WANTED” postings far outweight the offers, but I have used it to get rid of stuff. Most of the offered stuff is junk to me, but I’m sure people find it useful.

Kyle
Kyle
14 years ago

For what it’s worth, I’ve had a LOT of bad experiences with Freecycle groups. Almost all of the offers on the site are for absolute garbage. Half used cans of baby formula, already-cut bathroom tiles, rotten lumber, etc… While I understand that one man’s trash can be another’s treasure, trying to find something like a bike on Freecycle is next to impossible. Worse yet is that people will consistently lie to you in order to try to get your stuff. “I work for a charity and we could really use that ______” sounds good in theory, but when a meth… Read more »

Brian Restuccia
Brian Restuccia
14 years ago

You may want to check out sites such as http://absurdlycool.com/ or other places that aggregate freebies online offered by companies. Granted a lot of it may be useless, so pick and choose, but often times companies give away something free during its launch. With a little time you can come away with a useful freebie and keep on being the trend setting maven that you are.

dieselboi
dieselboi
14 years ago

where was the bike? i want it!

AB
AB
14 years ago

The one caveat I would note–and in my mind, it’s a big caveat–is that you should be careful to train yourself to only get stuff you actually need. Maybe it’s just my residence in a big city where real estate is expensive, but there’s no such thing as “free” stuff. You still have to pay to store it (yes, needing an 800 sq ft apartment for all your stuff instead of a 600 sq ft apartment counts), not to mention fixing stuff that only need this or that done (read: $5 here, $5 there) to make it perfectly good. Plus,… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
14 years ago

AB makes some excellent points: remember that the art of frugality is acquiring only what you need. That shouldn’t change just because you can have stuff for free. Finding stuff you need for free saves you money. But taking in stuff you don’t need creates physical and psychic clutter than can really degrade quality of life. Don’t become a junk collector. But be aware of the free stuff that’s around you so that you can take advantage of money-saving opportunities when they’re there.

pearlandopal
pearlandopal
14 years ago

Freecycle’s gotten a bad rep lately, with good reason: my experience was full of “gimme gimme gimme” with people asking for silly things like I want a dog for my kids because we can’t afford to buy one [keep in mind that someone who can’t afford a dog certainly can’t afford the upkeep] or I want a Playstation 2/car newer than 2003 in good condition/brand new whatever. Those are actual quotes. I also got ripped off by the charity scam someone else mentioned above. Last I heard the local police were taking that one on, but the things I donated… Read more »

dokaben
dokaben
14 years ago

We’re in the processing of de-cluttering our smallish house. Rather than building an addition we’re trying to simplify and make more effective use of the space we have. This past weekend I put out several things that I thought were virtually worthless. The kind of stuff the local Salvation Army wouldn’t even take: – PC (233mhz) – PC (300mhz) – cordless drill (missing battery) – old semi-rusty CD rack – 2 old DirecTV receivers – old stereo receiver, no speakers All gone within an hour! (Of course the yard sale up the street probably helped.) I agree with the comments… Read more »

esoos
esoos
14 years ago

I have a friend who found a complete bed and mattress somebody left out on the curb.

Took it home, a week later he and his girlfriend had a lovely case of scabies.

Turns out that bed was on the curb for good reason 😉

Rodney Olsen
Rodney Olsen
14 years ago

We’ve had great success with Freecycle. We’ve been able to give away a few items that we no longer needed and collect a number of very useful bits and pieces. The computer our kids use came from Freecycle. We got an acoustic guitar for our daughter. We’ve also been able to get some good quality second hand clothing for the kids. It’s all a matter of choosing wisely when you see the offers come up. As for the road side rubbish collection, here in Western Australia it’s ‘technically’ stealing to take items that are put out as rubbish. A lot… Read more »

Betsy
Betsy
14 years ago

I used to subscribe to Freecycle, but got turned off by the ‘i want, i want, i want’ posts. Instead, I selectively give stuff away, or do the ‘leave things by the curb with signs’ thing. I was stunned that someone actually took my old gas grill away last weekend; it was clearly on its last legs and I’d assumed it wouldn’t get a taker – but it was gone overnight. I’m having a yard sale next weekend – easily 1/3 of the things will be stuff we’re giving away; I’ll haul whatever’s leftover to Value VIllage (if there’s anything… Read more »

Amberlynn
Amberlynn
14 years ago

I love freecycle. I got a whole bag of maternity clothes, and gave away a couch, a mattress, two bags of baby clothes, and more.

Amberlynn
Amberlynn
14 years ago

I forgot to mention that I don’t get the emails from freecycle. I have it set so that nothing comes to my inbox, I only go visit posts when I have a need, so I never even see all the gimmie gimmie you mention. I love that I can de-clutter my life without doing the work of hauling things off somewhere.

Charlie
Charlie
14 years ago

For those of you with RSS feeds, you can set up a feed from your local Craiglist “free stuff” board. At the bottom right of the page, you’ll see a link for the RSS feed for that page. You can add that to your bloglines (or whatever) and be good to go.

Torben
Torben
13 years ago

I like freecycle, I setup a gmail account and have a rule in my mail client so I don’t get bombarded with all the emails in my regular inbox. While there is alot of “wanted” posts, I really don’t see that it is any different than all the ads on craigslist that are out of my price range or search results on ebay that are over my budget, it’s just part game. I have had no real issues with freecycle. My first interaction was my attempt of cleaning out my closet and I ended up with bag of white tennis… Read more »

Adam Jaskiewicz
Adam Jaskiewicz
13 years ago

Getting a piano tuned is an expected expense, though, when moving a piano from one place to another. Changes in temperature, humidity, and even the changes in stress loads brought on by moving the piano around are enough to put it slightly out of tune. If it is mroe than a little bit out of tune, it might go out of tune faster than usual after the first few tunings, but once the strings get used to being in tune, it should be as stable as any other piano would be. Musical instruments really aren’t conducive to saving money. Good… Read more »

Through a Glass Darkly
Through a Glass Darkly
13 years ago

I think free only makes sense if it’s something that you just love and that’s been on your wants list already … not something you start wanting just because it’s free.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Yeah, that’s a good point. My neighbor is moving. He’s an old man, and has collected a lot of stuff over the years. He had a dark room in his house, and has a lot of old photography equipment. He knows that I’m into photography, and so has offered me all his stuff for free. I’m torn. I don’t know how to use a darkroom. I might have space for one, but it would require fixing things up. I’m perfectly happy with digital. And yet I feel like it’s a bond I can share with him. (He’s just moving one… Read more »

mike
mike
13 years ago

I agree with the above posters. Definitely the free means really a cost savings if you were going to get a piano anyway. In this case, his piano probably will be cheaper than if he bought a 300 dollar piano, which would still need tuning. As far as the key cover goes, just build a little cover with thin wood or use cloth until you find another broken piano which has the pieces you need. Or try a music store to see if they have pieces for you. Or just do without it. If you are spending time collecting free… Read more »

mike
mike
13 years ago

One more thing, I have a keyboard which obviously turns off, but I protect the keys from the cat using a little table cloth runner over them. Problem solved pretty much. The runner is nice fabric, it doesn’t look ghetto rigged or anything.

Kelly
Kelly
13 years ago

A cautionary tale regarding freecycle… for the love of Pete, if you are thinking of allowing someone to come to your home to pick something up, get their full name and google them first. I’ve so far helped our local police department locate and arrest two absconders from the law. One for burglary and another for stalking. I helped our law enforcement catch these people simply by googling them and finding out there were wanted.

Mary Jane
Mary Jane
13 years ago

I have to say I have been very happy with Freecycle. I joined a community in Northern Virginia. Today I say a Senseo coffee maker with coffee, used just two times. She was also giving away a Aero Pilates Machine (something like that) they did not have room for. I was so mad that I did not respond fast enough! I have gotten a few clothes for kids – yes some of them were worn, and some were not – got some Polo sweaters and dress pants – and freecycled the rest I did not want. Saw a Sony 27″… Read more »

Michele
Michele
13 years ago

I love both Freecycle and Craigslist. I also love thrift store donating/shopping. I really enjoy being able to help people out and it helps me to not be too much of a packrat. When dealing with people you always should be careful.

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