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
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!