Monday, January 31, 2011

Dumpstering: It Starts at Home

Dumpster diving can be an adventurous way to save money. The potential dangers affiliated with dumpstering, like getting into trouble with law enforcement, or possibly getting hurt somehow while immersed waist-high in trash, qualify it as something on "edge," and, in certain circles, definitely something cool. As someone who's gotten his fair share of awesome stuff from dumpsters, I totally get that. But dumpstering shouldn't begin behind the grocery store or across town: it should start with your own garbage can.
That's right. Your own trash. (And recycling bin, if you have one.)

Aluminum cans can hold
household stuff, like
office supplies

No, digging around in your own garbage bag is not nearly as glamorous as hoisting yourself over the rail of a five foot tall dumpster, but you still may be surprised at what you find, and what could potentially save you some money. How? First of all, you aren't leaving your house, so you aren't spending money on gas or on a bus ticket. Secondly, a lot of things you might otherwise get rid of can be revived for a second or third use, which saves you from spending money on new stuff.

The way this works is easy. Let's say you realize that you need something. Before you run to the store to buy it - or to your local dumpster to mine for it - take a look in your garbage and recycle bins first. For instance, the other day, I thought to myself, "Gee, I could use a headboard for my bed." 
Instead of rushing out to buy something (or trying to dumpster dive for a headboard), I looked around my house for what I could use for free, and after a five minute search and a little bit of sweat, here's what I came up with:

I used two panels of a cardboard box with fabric stapled to them. Then I attached the panels to my bed using metal hangers, like so:

And there you have it - a headboard made completely of what could be thought of as trash, without even a dollar spent on a bus ticket to get to an economy-sized dumpster!

Just remember, one man's trash may be another man's treasure, but your own trash can be valuable to you too!

Monday, January 24, 2011

How to Avoid Throwing Away Produce

SITUATION: One of the saddest wastes of money is when produce, bought with the best of intentions, goes bad before it can be eaten. This is a situation everybody has to deal with, but for those of us without families to feed, it seems to almost be a guarantee that a certain amount of fruits and vegetables will go from the fridge to the garbage. Of course, you could just stop eating vegetables and fruits altogether…But here are some other ways of tackling and maybe lessening this problem in your kitchen.

Apple muffins made with a fresh
apple nearing the end of its shelf
life-added bonus: these are
actually "vegan friendly," since
I didn't want to spend money
on eggs!
    ·         Buy produce that can be cooked.  When your celery starts to go limp because you didn’t eat as many celery sticks as you had hoped this week, you can still slice it up and throw it into some fried rice. That fried rice will keep for another three or four days, so you’ve essentially doubled the life of your celery. Other great (cookable and life-extending) vegetables are: carrots, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, and squash. Fruits can be cooked too – apples and pears can be made into muffins or pies; bananas can be used for banana bread or as an egg replacer in baked goods; berries can be used for many types of baked desserts. Think through your choices, either when making your grocery list, or before you check out at the store, by asking yourself: what else can I make with this fruit/vegetable?

·         Learn how to properly store each of the fruits and vegetables you buy. This sounds obvious, but a lot of us don’t know the ideal way to store mushrooms (in a paper bag in the refrigerator but not in the “crisper”), or avocados (not in the fridge unless you have bought an avocado with a “fresh to eat tonight” sticker on it and you’re trying to get an extra day or two out of it.) A quick Internet search can help you out in this department, or you can talk to your grocer/look for signs in the produce department.

Avoid a fate like this for your
lettuce by eating salads
early in the week.
·         Organize your meals around the expected life span of your fresh produce. Look at all your produce, and decide what will probably go bad first, what might last a few days, and what could probably have four or more days before it goes bad. Then organize your meals in that order. Mushrooms, lettuces, and sprouts don’t tend to last long at all, so planning to eat salads right after a shopping trip isn’t a bad idea. Also, any produce you got “on special” – which often means that it’s about to go bad – needs to be eaten relatively quickly. Plan to eat things like potatoes, carrots, and apples later in the week.

·         Shortcut where you can. Yeah, yeah, fresh produce is always the healthiest way to go, but if it’s just going to wind up in the trash, it’s not worth it! Dried/canned/frozen produce is often the best choice when it comes to avoiding unnecessary food waste and saving a few bucks. Also, you’re much more likely to find coupons for packaged produce than for fresh produce. For instance, my “stock” items include: canned green beans, corn, tomatoes, pinto beans, and black beans, canned peaches or pears, dried fruit - like cherries or raisins, pre-cut garlic in a jar, and pre-bottled lemon or lime juice. Altogether, with the help of sales and coupons, this could cost as little as $6 or $7, and some, like the dried fruit and garlic, will last me two weeks or more.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Self-Esteem and the "C" Word

You know the word I’m talking about: cheap. While most people love getting a good deal, there’s a lot of shame that can come with being cheap and cutting corners (and also, for that matter, with being broke.)
                Certainly, there’s the shame from others for being a “cheapskate” or a “penny pincher,” which often stems from jealousy, and can be combated with a witty comeback or two. But there’s also a shame that comes from within ourselves: the feeling that we are not worthy enough for something new,  or that we somehow “deserve” to have less than everyone else. This is a tricky situation. My stance for these cases is this: learn your limits and respect them.  After all, it’s worth it to spend a few extra dollars now, rather than a few hundred dollars later in therapy.
                One thing I had to draw the line on, for example, was shopping at discounted grocery stores. (You know, the kind that sells dented cans and the gamble on botulism.) I found this out a few years ago (2007, I think it was), when I was at one of these places and bought a bottle of Gatorade. When I went home and drank it, it didn’t taste quite like I remembered Gatorade tasting. I flipped it over and read the expiration date – 2004. I immediately wondered: why do other people get to drink normal-tasting Gatorade, and I have to drink three years expired Gatorade? To punish myself even more, I then drove to a “real” (ie not expired) grocery store and just stood in the aisles, watching the “normal” people, feeling ridiculously undeserving and jealous.
But what a waste of time! Because no matter what your boundaries are, there are always other ways of being thrifty. Don’t feel like you need to cash in your baseline self-esteem for frugality.  Of course, we live in a culture that is obsessed with spending money and with consumption, and readjusting your mindset can help quite a bit in that department. But being honest with yourself about what genuinely will help your wallet without causing you heartache is also useful. Here’s a short list of questions to get you started thinking about this:
-          Are there clothing items that, if you bought them used, rather than new, would hurt your self-worth? What are they? (Shoes? Sheets? Boxer shorts?)
-          How do you feel about digging around in a dumpster for, say, materials for an art project? What about discarded food items? Does packaging make a difference?
-          What about certain gigs that could earn you extra cash, like selling plasma?
Ultimately, remember: Saving money should be a reward – not a punishment!


Monday, January 10, 2011

Greetings and Lesson One: Laundry on the Cheap

Welcome to the home of yours truly, Captain Cheap!
I'm a guy in grad school (in other words, broke), and I live alone. Living alone can provide special challenges in the art of being chea--er, frugal. I'll be posting some of the tips and tricks I learn on the cheap - feel free to take and use them -- for free! (The best way to save money.) Also, PLEASE post comments and feedback if you know of a better way - or more money-saving way - to do something.

Now, without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to a laundry quick-fix.

SITUATION: I currently have $4 in my bank account, which is not enough money to ride the bus to the store, buy laundry soap, ride the bus back to my apartment, pay to use a washer, and pay to use a dryer. But... my dish cloths have... an interesting smell to them that makes me not want to eat around them. I'm losing my appetite over laundry that needs to be washed!

No longer smelly dishrags

SOLUTION: I took out my saucepan, filled it with water, and (generously) poured in some baking soda. I set it on "high" and once it started to boil, threw in my dishrags. I moved them around with a fork and kept them on the stove about five minutes. Then I hung them to dry over my bathtub. And...voila! No more smelly dishrags, and $4 still in my bank account.