When I worked at a big-city newspaper, I needed to confer with the photo department. A holiday potluck had taken place, and the shooters invited me to help myself to whatever was left. Zeroing in on a mostly eaten ham, I asked if anyone had claimed the bone.
"Go ahead and take it," someone said. "Do you have a dog?"
"No, I have a pound of pinto beans and an onion."
The reaction? Mostly puzzlement, and a couple of nervous smiles. But I made a nice pot of beans that weekend.
Grocery shopping at the office potluck is just one of the things that frugal people do. No, I don't mean bringing enough Tupperware to carry home a week's worth of meals. But at the end of the party, something has to be done with the leftovers, right?
So here's how you do it: Offer to help "clean up" after the potluck, and mention that since you hate waste, you'd like to take some of the unclaimed food home. That frees up others to take some as well — but if nobody steps up, it's all yours.
We are from Planet Moneywise and we have much to teach you. Here are some other frugal hacks that make sense to us but tend to confuse or even frighten other folks.
Sure, that's where Happy Meal toys go to die. But I've also found a cast-iron skillet, spoon rest, wooden coat rack, small saucepan, apron, biscuit cutter and food storage containers.
We're talking day-old bread, close-dated dairy, "scratch and dent" dry goods, produce that's a little past its prime and what my partner inelegantly calls "used meat" (eeewww). Just use it right away or freeze it, and save a lot (think: pudding mix for 9 cents a box, a gallon of milk for 99 cents, 25 cents for a pound of pasta in a box with a slightly crushed corner). Frugalists just don't see the downside of paying 50 percent less for pork chops.
I live in Anchorage, AK, but the thermostat hardly ever goes above 62 degrees — and I work at home. Why pay for heat when I can make my own warmth by wearing layers?
If I lived in a hot climate, I'd use air conditioning — selectively. I'd set the thermostat high and run fans to keep the semi-cool air moving. I'd also want a whole-house fan to run at night once the temperature dropped outside.
…Even if it's for something I don't want. I might not need a basketball hoop setup or a Zodiac inflatable raft, but I could sell such things on Craigslist or give them as Christmas presents. Besides, I've won a ton of great stuff: lots of stuffed animals (which make good gifts), a limo rental, an iPod Touch, dinner for six at a fancy hotel, a Google Nexus, a big basket of Starbucks goodies, a Radio Flyer wagon, two turkeys and a trip to Puerto Rico. Some of those things got sold. Some just brightened my life and the lives of others.
My partner likes to joke that I can see a dropped coin half a block away. He's right. It's one of my superpowers.
But I've also scored other useful items, like reusable shopping bags, electrical tape, pins, paper clips, a screwdriver, rubber bands, a tape measure and lids from Coca-Cola products. Those last ones I trade in for points that ultimately turn into free 12-packs of soda and free movie tickets. As for the rest, I tend to find things when I need them — e.g., right before I run out of paper clips or rubber bands. Small things, to be sure, but why buy them if you can find them for free?
The mixed paper bin holds a number of things I want, including wrapping paper, gift bags, padded mailers, books and soda boxes that hold more of those My Coke Rewards points. Check other bins, too: Recently I saw a happy frugalist fish half a dozen tomato cages from the "metals" container. Dang. Wish I'd gotten there first.
When I lived in Seattle, I picked gallons of blackberries, plums and grapes. Here in Anchorage I've picked feral raspberries, wild blueberries and lowbush cranberries. Ask around, put a note on Freecycle or check websites that tell people where to find free wild and cultivated produce, including Falling Fruit, Not Far From the Tree (Toronto), Fallen Fruit (Los Angeles area), Urban Edibles (Portland, Ore.) and Village Harvest. Don't let food go to waste!
A bed made with sheets dried outdoors makes for wonderful slumber. Got allergies? Dry your linen indoors, draped over wooden drying racks, the shower curtain rod or even the tops of door frames. My partner and I dry our towels and clothing that way as well, and I can attest that garments last a lot longer when not subjected to the heat of a dryer. The utility bills are lower, too.
I do all my online searches through Bing, InboxDollars or Swagbucks. Sure, Google's results tend to be a little more comprehensive — but does Google give me cash money or points that turn into gift cards?
Pour some vinegar into an "empty" mustard jar and you've got a new condiment. Add a little milk to the "empty" ranch dressing bottle and use the liquid to make potato salad. When all the pickles are gone add a sliced cucumber (or any other vegetable you like) to the liquid; in a few days you'll have more pickles.
When people set out unwanted items with "free" signs or put them out on trash day, that's an invitation we can hardly refuse. I've rescued bookcases, chairs, a floor lamp, a small table and a personal shopping cart. Even if we don't want the sofa or comfy chairs, we're likely to check under the cushions. Don't laugh: I've actually found change this way. On a related note, we may also…
Some people are dumpster divers but I'm more of a dumpster wader, retrieving things I can easily reach and that aren't soiled by wet garbage. Among other things I've found: candles, picture frames, books, a computer mouse and keyboard still in their boxes, a board game, a journal, unopened wrapping paper, cleaning supplies and a large mirror.
Sometimes these are titles the institution is jettisoning. Sometimes they're donations left over from the library's used-book sales. All I can say is that I've gotten holiday gifts this way — seriously, they looked brand-new — and also plenty of reading material.
Some people might think such behaviors are eccentric. Let 'em think whatever they like. You're the one with the new bookcase, the nice pot of beans and all that leftover cake.
Donna Freedman writes for a number of personal finance sites and blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com.