13 Things Frugalists Do That Confuse and Scare Others

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.

Related: 4 Types of Savings Addicts: Which One Are You?

13 Shocking Things Frugal People Do To Save Money

1. Check the free box at the yard sale.

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.

2. Believe that “manager’s specials” really ARE special.

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.

3. Ignore the weather.

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.

4. Enter every contest we see.

…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.

Related: 10 Problems Only Frugal People Understand

5. Pick things up.

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?

6. Treat the recycling center like a store.

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.

7. Glean.

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!

8. Hang laundry to dry.

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.

9. Use rewards search engines.

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?

Related: You Can Be Rich and Frugal at the Same Time

10. Repurpose condiments.

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.

11. Shop at “curb mart.”

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…

12. Peek into the trash.

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.

13. Check library giveaway shelves.

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.

Photo credit: faungg’s photo

  • Frances Perkins

    Donna, I have done all of these things! Well the work leftovers never included a hambone, but I have sure rescued other leftovers. I really miss picking wild berries. My area has grown so much that all the wild berries seem to be gone.

    • Donna Freedman

      I miss picking wild Seattle blackberries, too — I moved back to Alaska.

  • Christina Lavingia

    I’m going to be in my friend’s wedding in May and she is such a frugal bride! As such, she’s entered many wedding contests and actually won a free videographer!

    • basilhoff

      While winning a videographer may sound great, has your friend considered the cost to maintain this individual? Are they house broken? Are they spayed or neutered? Can they comport themselves well in the company of strangers? What about food and medical expenses?
      While winning a “free” videographer may sound exciting at first, the long term commitment to its health and well being may not be for everyone. And, Lord knows, we have enough abandoned videographers roaming the streets of our fine nation as it is. Let’s hope your friend is up to the challenge.

      • Roger Slyter

        O…M…G! You are too funny! Love it!

      • boobie

        OMG! It’s 2:30 am here in IL and you just gave me the best laugh I’ve had in ages! Thanks so much! I mean it.

  • Carla J.

    I *DO* need a basketball hoop setup and Zodiac inflatable raft — I’ll take yours off your hands, if you want.

  • Jaime

    Been scouting Craigslist’s free page for my wedding too! It’s amazing how easily useful things get thrown away.

  • henry_hill

    Isn’t #6 stealing?

    • nemoseto

      yes and no, if the recycling center paid a deposit (like refunds deposits on soda cans) or some other compensation then it would be theft. if i went to a scrap metal dealers salvage lot and just took home stuff then its theft because they probably paid for it. however if i go to the county transfer station and fish stuff out of their bins then its not theft. the transfer station does not collect tipping fees on recycling, as far as they are concerned anything someone takes home was the same as never been dropped off to start with. our local transfer station only sends out scrap metal once a month (takes that long to fill the 40 foot bin) because most people take their metal to a dealer, the transfer station doesn’t charge to take it, but also doesn’t pay for it. similar to how i got this laptop out of the ewaste bin (electronic recycling), they take in old electronics (like my 6 year old laptop that i’m using at a truck stop wifi hotspot) at no charge and send them out under a state run program that covers their costs. some places will pay for electronics (office max would give rebate if an old computer is brought in to recycle but only if combined with buying a new one). the ewaste bin has given me playsation 2s, games, a tv, a dvd player, tv antenna, etc, all working, just outdated and out of style.

    • Donna Freedman

      I’m not taking aluminum cans or scrap copper, but rather things like envelopes, books, “Box Tops for Education” coupons, etc.
      The tomato cages were made of wire. I suppose they MIGHT have been worth a few cents total. Or maybe they would have been like some other things people drop off — televisions, beds and the like — that wind up *costing* the recycling center money because they have to pay to dispose of them.

    • Sarah M. Woolsey

      Technically yes as all of that material belongs to them. It can vary by state but in most states once it’s in the garbage/recycling truck or at the center then it belongs to the town/city so taking it is stealing. My town has an area set aside for stuff that is unwanted but still useful and then recycling center staff will put stuff there rather than in the bins. Normally they only bin the broken stuff. If that’s the case then you can legally take it.

  • Robert Engler

    This seems like a list someone featured on Hoarders might enjoy.

    • Actually, I’ve seen one of the contributors (Jeff Yeager) on Extreme Cheapskates.

  • There’s little reason the poorest among us, assuming their is a will and capacity to learn. The resources are all there.

  • RWC

    I like to check out library books and give them as gifts for Christmas and birthdays. Of course, they have to give them back in a couple of weeks.

    • Roger Slyter

      Awesome idea! LMAO

    • aliceblue

      Thus cutting down on clutter in their homes! Very thoughtful of you. 😉

    • Lorie Franklyn

      We all know it’s the thought that matters. Of course a reminder call to let the recipient know when the item is due back at the library is a nice finishing touch as well. Cheers!

    • Juan Alonso

      What are you guys talking about..?
      The author is talking about books that the library sells because they are overstocked or they are plainly outdated..
      You can get them for free or for less than a dollar..
      And “no” you don’t have to return them. (facepalm)
      Who even thinks of that.. where did you leave your brain at?

  • Peter Rathbone

    Cool! Hobo-101… Just the skill set you’ll need in 0bama’s brave new world…

    Don’t forget to take Dumpster Diver-101 too. I think they have a section on telling maggots from Basmati Rice

    • Roger Slyter


    • Denetra Anderson

      Wow, someone just had to bring up our illustrious president, he is cool isn’t he?

      • Peter Rathbone

        Yeah…. “cool” in a pansy-ish, incompetent kinda-way….

    • Ryan Privee

      No kidding, we’re all going to have to dumpster dive at the rate things are going….

  • bless us all

    this is how i live regularly–isn’t it mainstream?

    • Jack_Kennedy

      has become the new normal in ……….. obamastan

  • mrhuehls

    Those of us living on fixed incomes with the gumption to get out and get going have found the dumpsters behind retail stores are a treasure trove. A lot of returns of items that failed shortly after purchase are just thrown out. With a little time at a workbench I’ve gotten good power tools, lawn chairs, household furniture, dented canned goods, liquor, tarps, enough wood and parts to build hundreds of lamps, and lots of hand tools to refurbish. It pays for my gas and my vices.

    • dunnydame

      I recently learned that the trash thrown out by retail stores, etc., still belongs to the stores and that taking it out of the dumpster is equated to stealing. Is that true in every area?

      • Bethie

        It’s true in my area of NE Ohio. At my store we didn’t actively prosecute dumpster divers. But sometimes their presence was a nuisance or they were destructive in the process. Not to mention they began to believe that anything left outside was trash and had no problem stealing those things.

      • mrhuehls

        The trash is considered trash and I’ve never had a problem with store management or LEAs. I have had problems with over aggressive people after the same stuff I’m getting. Trash is also a means of employee theft. They throw out good stuff then go get it after work. Mostly, recoverable stuff in the trash is exactly that, but there is also the problem of cost recovering loss from defective merchandise from the seller and whether or not there is a positive return on the effort.

  • aliceblue

    Not sure why this would “scare” people but it is an interesting list. I’ve been picking blackberries and shopping curbs since childhood (I got drafted by my mother for help with the latter) and manager’s specials always seemed obvious. I do draw the line at dumpsters; I’ve yet to be near one that didn’t reek and/or was full of fetid water, bugs, and similar nasty stuff.

  • Denetra Anderson

    My children didn’t understand the concept for a long time until I actually brought home things they could use. From that point on we’d go out every Saturday. We called it hoo-riding. Not too long ago, I recovered two slighty bruised picnic tables, great find!

  • Bomephus

    Here in the DC area, “6. Treat the recycling center like a store.” will get you arrested.

  • Ken Shockman

    I work next door to 2 fire and water damage restoration companies. I have dumpster dived there and gleaned thousnads of dollars worth of items. Just the other day I got a $165 Waterford Crystal Cross as well as many other items. But, I’m not going to tell you where they are.

    • gabi

      hahahahaha — don’t blame you

  • danasue

    My mom and I went “curb shopping” on large item pickup day before a garage sale. I made more money on the curb stuff than on my own stuff.

  • So I’d like to know how living like this has helped her get ahead….does she have more money in the bank to live better? Afford a nicer house or take a great vacation or buy a new car or have a nice savings account? Or is this obsession simply that?

    • Donna Freedman

      When I was very broke in midlife, these tips helped me get by. Even after times were better I saw no reason not to continue to look for bargains and free things. I’ve been able to build my savings back up and also to help family members in need and donate cash to charity because of the overall boost frugality gives to my budget.

  • I don’t mind when people are frugal, but only to the point that it doesn’t effect anyone else. I’ve seen on Extreme Cheapskates where several family members of Frugalists were let down, because it seemed that the person was more concerned about being cheap than being thoughtful (gifts, dinners, date nights, etc). Or when that chick from NYC was feeding her dinner guests out of NYC Dumpsters. It can be rude & very selfish at times, in my opinion. That’s fine if that what you want to do for yourself, when it lets others down, it’s going too far.

    • Sarah M. Woolsey

      My grandfather would wear his underwear for a week before washing it- that’s too frugal for me!

      • Donna Freedman

        Well, back in the day it wasn’t uncommon to re-wear clothing. I agree, though: We now have plenty of soap and water and we even have machines that will do the work for you.

    • Donna Freedman

      Remember, however, that “reality” television is generally anything but. These shows are scripted, not spontaneous. I’m acquainted with two people who’ve been on extreme reality shows (including “Extreme Cheapskates”) and they told me that they were egged on/encouraged/coerced into acting in ways they normally do not. One of them refused to go along but the other one did; guess there’s something about a camera and the presence of folks who are good at persuading (manipulating) you to do what they want.

  • SoftballUmpire

    While each batch of homemade chili is different, instead of adding vinegar to the mustard, catsup, salsa or any number of other containers, I add water, shake it up, saving it until the next bottle of something else is empty then adding water to the new one and pouring into the larger bottle. This continues until it is time to break out the 21qt pressure cooker to make up a batch of chili. 3 – 1/2 gallon canning jars of dried beans, added to 6 – 1/2 gallon canning jars of water, the bottle of mixed condiments and spices, a large can of tomato paste and enough meat, peppers, onions, garlic and your proper amount of spices and soup base is a good starter. Pressure cook the mixture w~the 15# weight. Turn off the heat when it begins to wobble. Wait until the next morning before cracking the lid. Serve up a good bowl for breakfast and transfer the rest to prepared jars. When adding the salt to the jars before the lids are applied, place it on top instead of the bottom. This functions as a temporary preservative until the third canner load is started. The filled jars can be kept on a cool shelf and a single batch canned each night for three nights. Your yield is about 19-20 wide mouth jars and double that amount of wide mouth pint jars. By starting each canner load @ 10:pm each night, You keep the chill off the domicile when the outside temps drop down to the low forties. Turn off the heat under the filled jars about 10 minutes after the weight wobbles @ 10#. If you are apprehensive about the third day’s canning jars, keep the heat a bit longer, but because they were cooked @ 15# they are pretty sterile when placed in jars. Spoilage commences on the top, where the salt is distributed to retard spoilage until the jar is canned # 10# pressure.

    • bear


  • boobie

    The comments are so much more entertaining than this article. What a great laugh before turning in!

  • jujuisalulu

    free furniture and free items on the side of the road is NOT a good idea. Have you ever heard of Bed Bugs? It has happened to someone I know. There is usually something wrong with perfectly good furniture left out side.

    • anj

      But sometimes people need to move and downsize everything quickly, with nowhere to bring it, especially living in a city without owning a car. Bringing all my furniture to the curb really helped me out, and someone else. And they even came in to help me bring everything else out too. It was all gone 5minutes later.
      I love it!! It was one of my favorite things about living in San Francisco.
      Bed bugs can go home with you from an outing at a movie theatre, or a hotel room.

    • Donna Freedman

      Good point, but I’ve never taken anything upholstered — just tables, bookcases and the like.

  • Centralist

    Another tip is to smoke used cigarettes that still have greater than 1 inch of tobacco in them. Also, I milk my cat to get milk for my morning coffee.

  • Flackqueen

    I’ve done the curb shopping. Knocked on doors and offered to pay. Nope they say just take it. My kids had cribs, bikes, toys etc. Beats garage sales.

  • Denise

    My husband hates that I will put items we no longer want out by the curb for people to take if they wish, rather than throw them in the trash. He thinks it looks low class. I think it is a shame to throw away something someone else can make some use of. I don’t go dumpster diving, but I don’t throw things away that still have some sort of good use.

    • dunnydame

      Join the Freecycle group in your area and people will actually come to your home/porch
      b/driveway and pick up your unwanted stuff.

      • Donna Freedman

        I got some great canning jars from Freecycle, but I’ve given a number of items away as well. It’s a wonderful way to ensure a second chance at usefulness for things you no longer need. (It’s also fun to hand over a two-CD set of “The Nutcracker” to a 4-year-old child who’s taking ballet lessons.)

      • Adriana

        The Freecycle in my area is like a club and they denied me membership. I’m not even joking. I have no idea why they decided I wasn’t a real person. So I just continue to put things on the curb with a FREE sign. Very rarely does anything stay there more than a couple hours since I live off a busy road. Freecycle’s loss.

    • Sarah M. Woolsey

      You can also donate to Savers or Goodwill if there are any in your area. That way the item gets re-used instead of thrown out and they get money for their programs and can help more people.

  • J. E. Perry

    As they say one man’s trash is another mans treasure!
    Best frugal tip that comes to mind – last day and late hour church, club, and similar yard sales. Most items donated, no place to store unsold items. Most item free or pennies on a dollar. Have scored some real bargins!

  • CyncialOne

    You could live your life like the writer of this article or you could a job and gain so much more.

    • Donna Freedman

      I have a job, thanks. And I don’t spend 18 hours of every day looking for free stuff/good deals — however, if they come along I will accept them.

      • CyncialOne

        Good for you.

  • randy

    they have medication for these people

  • Lori Walck

    You mean they actually do give away prizes when you enter a contest? I have entered them for years and never won anything except a coupon for a bag of beef jerky or a can of cat food.

    • Jill Lybarger

      You’re way ahead of me! I’ve never won anything!

    • Donna Freedman

      Oh, yes, indeed. In addition to the items noted above, here are the things I’ve won since mid-August:
      $100 Amazon gift card through a Tweetchat
      “Date night” package from the Hospice raffle (it will be split up into Christmas gifts for three different people)
      $100 Visa gift card from an online survey site (monthly random drawing)
      $10 gift card to a local gift shop from the “Clip for the Cure” raffle at Regis Hair Salons
      $2 credit for the refreshment stand at a local theater company for answering a trivia question correctly (hey, it’ll pay for a snack at intermission the next time we go to a play).
      Somebody’s got to win, and it might just be you next time.

  • Rebecca Dare

    Check out the Buy Nothing Project — there are Buy Nothing communities all over the US and growing elsewhere in the world. See you if have one in your community, or start one. It’s all about giving and receiving – no money, no trade, just about gifting and growing community.

  • ketracel

    I often worried then when I gave away useful, but no longer needed by me, items on Craigslist I was just helping a hoarder on his or her downward spiral. It’s nice to know that some people actually USE these things!

  • Sarah M. Woolsey

    I’ve picked up free stuff after yard sales and out by the street- but only if I need it or can use it. When I no longer want or need something I put it out free for somebody who can use it- why throw out something that you don’t want/need but is still useful.
    My friends and I all get together the day after Christmas to exchange stuff we got and don’t want with each other. Everybody comes out of it with stuff they want instead and what nobody wants gets donated to Goodwill.
    I also love trading- my elderly neighbor watches and feeds my pets for me when I travel or work late and in exchange I mow his lawn in the summer. Another neighbor fixes my car (I buy the parts) and I tutor his granddaughter in exchange. Win-win all the way around.

  • Justin

    Thank you on lessons on how to be a good Jew. However, I disagree with your “enter all contests” and other online suggestions, because this leads to identity theft.

    • Donna Freedman

      “A good Jew”? Offensive, sir. You should be ashamed of yourself. (And by the way, I’m a Methodist.)

      • Teresa Daulton

        Donna, you shouldn’t have to explain yourself. Either it was a typo or he is just one of “those people.”

        • Donna Freedman

          Not “explaining” myself — just messing with his worldview that only Jewish people are thrifty.

    • Teresa Daulton

      Seriously, Justin? Did you just say that?? Why would you say that??

      • Teresa Daulton

        Even though, I share your view on the “enter all contests.” I have been a victim of identity theft, because of it. But…the “Jew” comment…uncalled for.

  • Oliver

    “Rich people stay rich by acting poor; poor people stay poor by acting rich.” It’s the utter truth.
    If Americans didn’t have so much money or, more typically, so much credit, they’d learn how to do more with less. When I travel to “poor” countries, I see people doing things the way my wealthy family does. If you’re too vain to look cheap, call them “ecologically friendly” habits – recycling others’ unwanted items, fixing rather than replacing, using free air to dry clothes rather than a dryer… It’s better for our wallets and better for our Mother…Earth.

  • Leeland Hackbarth

    My heros.

  • John Walborn

    Everything comes down to a balance of money or time. I’m not saying this list is bad, per se, but it ignores the fact that both are a valuable resource and often people who imagine themselves as “frugal” are largely dedicating their lives to saving a few dollars.

  • Teresa Daulton

    I put things out by the curb, all the time, that I no longer have a use for. Someone, always picks up the useful stuff. So, it makes me glad they don’t go to waste.

  • gabi

    I did just this at the N.Y.C. Metropolitan Opera Ball one year! 😀

    The crew had just begun to clear a table filled with thousands of dollars (dozens of wheels) of the finest French cheeses, putting them into brand new, clean plastic bags. Gorgeous, delectable wheels of all diameters and heights, some were still whole, some half, many missing but a few slices, there was enough on but ONE of the three large round fruit &cheese tables for a brand new wine & cheese party of +150 guests! Way too much for even the entire ball crew, I couldn’t bear the thought of this outrageously fine repast being wasted. So…

    I ascertained that they were, in fact, about to be thrown away, cleared it with the crew to take some myself, and then encouraged others to help themselves, which a few did, I was happy to see.

    In the wee hours of the morning, much to my amazement and complete DELIGHT, I cleared my refrigerator in order to fill it with about $900 of the most fabulous French cheeses imaginable!… on which my friends, family, and I dined & wined for the next 6 months! YummmmM – courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera, ♥ ♥ ♥ thank you very much!