Reduce-Reuse-Recycle: The Art of Repurposing

Today’s post is on the second item in the Holy Grail of sustainability—reusing. For many Americans the default action for fulfilling needs has been “buy it new”. For some, it has been look for it used, which is an improvement. But—it may be unnecessary to buy anything at all. Why not look around at what you already have and repurpose something?

In the home it may be using empty jars for food storage, a rock as a doorstop, or a wheelbarrow as a planter.

In clothing it could be cutting a dress in half and making a skirt, or using a big scarf as a beach cover-up. There are things all around us everyday that could be used for something else if the need arises. All it takes is some ingenuity and a desire to live frugal and green. What have you repurposed? How did you get the idea? Share your stories here!

As inspiration I suggest the following links:



How Much is Enough? Six Tips for Knowing when to Stop

If You Don't Know what you Want You'll Never Have Enough

The question “how much is enough?” is at the very heart of a frugal life richly lived. It is the backbone of frugal abundance. We live in a culture that resists the concept of enough. For the inhabitants of the “developed world”, the answer we must give is that no amount is enough. The economy we have created depends on MORE, and just enough is considered an ill.

But sensible people trying to live a good and pleasant life know that this is hog wash. Too much clutter in our material possessions or our time leads to a frenzied life where we don’t fully use or enjoy the things we have. So what is the cure? Try these six simple tips to get back to a state of happy balance:

  1. Before you bring in ANYTHING new, look at what you already have and ask yourself what the purpose is. Do you already have something that will accomplish whatever it is you are trying to do? For example, if you want to make crepes, do you really need to buy a special pan? Or would the cast iron pan you have work just as well. This also applies to time—before you add something to your schedule STOP and ask yourself why.
  2. Do you know the real cost of the things you want to acquire? Don’t forget to add in the cost of maintenance, repair, and auxiliary doo dads that you will need to make it work. When it comes to your time, remember to include travel and preparation time. These are things you need to know before committing yourself. If you don’t think it through you may bite off more than you can chew and end up with TOO MUCH.
  3. Where are you going to put the new thing? If it doesn’t fit in your house it won’t fit in your life. The same goes for new activities. When are you going to do the new activity, including prep, practice, and travel if applicable? Things without places create clutter and eventually misery.
  4. How does the new thing fit into your value system? If you don’t know, don’t buy it till you find out. You only have so much time, money, and physical space. If you let in a bunch of stuff that does not serve your value system, it just becomes a distraction. It also drives out the things that are in harmony with your values, and therefore robs your life of meaning to one extent or another. For example, if your values include bonding with your loved ones with a real sit down dinner, adding a lot of early evening activities is actually a form of clutter and will soon become TOO MUCH.
  5. Have a plan for buying things and committing your time. If you put the big pieces in first, such as travel or buying a house then the smaller decisions become easier. If you know that forgoing a new outfit will get you closer to a trip you want to take it removes some of the sting of saying no to yourself. This also works when dealing with family members. If you all agree that going camping is important it will help when you have to nix the new sneakers. Well, maybe not every time, but it will certainly help.
  6. Now apply these guidelines to what you already have. Do you need to purge anything? Cancel anything? Get rid of any time commitments, memberships, or subscriptions? Does all that you have serve you and your values? Be honest, and then start making a pile for charity. And don’t be too quick to fill up the spaces that get opened up. Open space and breathing room are essential to a happy life and a sign that you have just the right amount.

Try these six tips to create a life that is the right size for you. Not all of them will be easy, but the results will be worth it.

For more on this topic check out these links:

Making a Budget? Let Your Value System be Your Guide!


Reflect in Silence Before Deciding

What do personal value systems have to do with a frugal life? Everything! Your value system is the key to what you should spend money and time on, and where you can skimp without lowering your quality of life. When you make a budget, list your needs before your wants. Basic needs include shelter, food, potable water and water for hygiene, a bathroom, a way to do laundry, a small amount of clothing (enough to be cover your body and stay warm in cold weather), some kind of phone/internet connection, some form of transportation, education for the children, medical care, and some kind of entertainment.

Take your total income at this moment and assign a figure to each need. You may not have anything left when you are done adding, or worse yet, you may not even have all your basic needs met. This is true for many in this economy. If this is true for you, don’t despair. That won’t help. Try instead to get the uncovered needs met in some way that doesn’t involve money. Try barter or the gift economy.

But, if you are one of the lucky people with a surplus, you also have a potential spending problem. Unless you are very wealthy (and perhaps even then) you can’t buy everything on your list of wants at the same time. The process of values clarification will act as a beacon for your spending priorities. In the meantime, put the surplus away. You need to think and plan before you spend.

Many values clarification systems rely on a list of possible values and then ask you to pick the top three or five or maybe even ten. This is worthwhile to a point, but to practice values- based frugality you need to go deeper, and then you need to be very precise. The precision is a tool to help you translate a value, which is an idea, quality, or feeling, into a spending decision. When you spend you have to spend on a specific item, service, or experience.

Here is how it works—you discover that beauty is a quality you value deeply. Does that translate into buying a painting for your wall, or a trip to a beautiful place, or to getting your hair and nails done? What does beauty actually mean to you?

Or if you say you value the arts, which ones? Do you mean music, theater, or graphic arts? What is it that attracts you? Because you can’t buy “the arts”, but you can buy tickets to a concert or download some new tunes. Or, when you dive deep, you may find that it is actually creativity that you value. In that case, what medium do you want to use? That will guide you in your spending. As long as you don’t know what you really want, don’t make any big spending decisions.

Once you have done all the homework and know what you truly value you can start shopping. A frugal shopper always tries to get the best value for their money, but this does not mean buying the cheapest thing. It means buying the best tool for the job at the best available price. For example, if you have creativity as a high value and your medium is photography, it makes sense to buy a good camera even if it seems “expensive”. When you are spending in alignment with your personal values system, expense is a relative term. This is principle is not carte blanche permission to dump the whole budgeting process. If the photographer in the example buys an expensive camera and lenses, they may have to dial down the clothes expense or some other area that is not so important to them. That is why self-knowledge is so important to frugality.

One of the most common questions I am asked is about whether it is “OK” to go to out for coffee every day. The coffee habit is one often fixed upon by financial pundits as a budget buster. To discover the answer for yourself, look at your values. And then ask yourself WHY you are buying your coffee out. Do you buy a fancy expensive concoction to go and drink it while speeding down the freeway barely tasting it? Then it is likely a big waste. Make your own and use a commuter cup. But, if you are meeting you two best friends once a week and enjoying every sip, go ahead and get the jumbo chocalata supreme. It’s actually about friendship and connection. And that is a perfectly valid expense.

Here is some links for  books about values clarification:

Remember to try your library first, unless owning a lot of books is a high value for you!

The Difference between Spending and Wasting

Both spending and wasting money  involve having money leave your possession. The difference lies in what you receive in return. This may seem self-evident, but money and its use is a much more emotional subject than most of us will admit to, and in the heat of the moment things can get confusing. There are people who make impulse buys as a matter of course, who shop as a form of emotional comfort or who have a shopping addiction. These are the people that have money issues directly relating to waste.

But there are also those who are so afraid of making a bad decision or being wasteful that they are paralyzed into never buying anything at all. The danger here is not normally wasting money but rather wasting life. Money is one of the tools we use to accomplish the things that are important to us. One of the worst things about poverty is the loss of opportunities and experiences. Whatever amount of money you have flowing through your life needs to be managed, not hoarded. That being said, when a hoarder does decide to spend they often do it poorly. Pent up needs and desires combined with lack of practice do not make for good buying decisions.

So what can you do to make sure that you are spending in a healthy life-affirming way and not wasting or hoarding? First ask yourself some serious questions about your past spending behavior. You probably already have an inkling about where you fall as regards this behavior. If you are a waster, try putting things back on the shelf for at least twenty-four hours as cooling off period. If it is a fancy meal or a service that you crave, put off making the appointment or reservation.If you still really want it after the cooling off period, do some checking to make sure it is a good deal. If you are a hoarder, make a list of things you really want. Pick ONE of them, check your bank balance, do some comparative shopping, and just buy it. Try this at least once a month. Even if you are desperately poor. Just make your list with things that reflect your ability to pay. Sometimes, for me, my one thing was a real latte at a busy cafe. Just getting out where there were people and treating myself was an enriching experience. See if you can find something small that will make your life better. This is not a waste but a gift.

Food Waste: Why We Do It and How We Can Stop

Careful Planning is the Key

When I first began studying the art and science of frugality I looked at many lists that claimed to be the top five or ten money wasters. I found that most of the items on the list were mere opinions. But one category stood out as being accurate and useful—the dead waste. These are not spending decisions, but rather mistakes. The parking ticket, the bank fee, and yes-the food we let rot. Almost everyone in the United States does this to one extent or another. Nobody likes it, and everyone finds themselves annoyed and a little guilty and embarrassed when it happens. So why do we do it?

There are several reasons. The first is lack of self-knowledge. A successful food shopping expedition starts at the kitchen table with a pen and paper. If you cook at home, and I know you do because you are a frugalista, you already have some idea how long it takes for you and those who share your food to go through a particular item. If the item is perishable, you can’t buy more than you know you will use before it spoils. If you buy the two gallon milk special when you know that you only use a quart a week, the predictable result will be food waste. If you just can’t pass up the bargain, plan on freezing half immediately if the item freezes well. Also plan on building menus around the food in question, just as you would if you were handling the zucchini glut at summer’s end.

A second form of self-deception is the buying of things you know you hate because you believe them to be healthy. Maybe you “should” eat seaweed, or flax seed, but if you and your companions truly dislike these things they will go bad and end up in the compost. Keep experimenting, and you will find things that are just as healthy as the craze of the week that you DO love.

Another cause of food waste is cooking too much at one time. If you feed four people then two gallons of chili, even

Let's Keep it Empty

your special recipe, is probably too much. You can freeze it, but just make sure that you label it and rotate it back in the very next week. A bucket full of freezer burned mystery goo is sure to end up in the waste bin.

Finally, we waste food because we get lazy and don’t cook it in time, or our plans change and we end up going out when we meant to stay in. Sometimes we say we are lazy when really we are tired. It is good to have a little play in the system. When we are exhausted it is the perfect time to pop out the dish we cooked too much of last week, solving two problems at once. As for the spontaneous change of plans, that is just life. If you leave a couple of blank spots when you plan the menu for the week it will all even out. The food use equation may never be perfect. But if you follow these steps the waste bin will be a lot emptier.

Here are some links that will help you plan. Remember, the use by date reflects optimum quality, not safety. Use your nose and these guides to determine how long you can keep food safely: A thorough review, including spoilage guidelines Safety guidelines for freezer use


Frugality 101-How do I Know What to Buy?

How do I Decide What to Buy?

There are many people that want or need to be frugal, but when faced with actual buying decisions they become overwhelmed and either do nothing or end up with the wrong thing. It would be nice if there were an easy formula, but there is not, and there can’t be. There are just too many variables. Luckily, however, there are systems that can be used to make the process simpler. The basic frugal equation is to satisfy a need or want by obtaining the highest acceptable quality for the least loss of resources.

The first question is whether this is a need or a want that you are seeking to fill. If it is a want, the process is as follows: Ask yourself what it is exactly that you are trying to achieve. If you think you want to go to Europe, for example, is it a desire for more excitement, or intellectual curiosity, or because you have friends there that you would like to see? How strong is the desire? And can it be satisfied any other way?

If the desire is strong and there is no substitute than you have identified one of your big dreams. That is a very good thing. It doesn’t guarantee success, but at least your compass is working. But, you might discover that it is not Europe per se that you crave, but the culture that exists there, at least in your imagination. This desire might be filled by a trip to a museum. Whenever you get the urge to shop, try this exercise. You may be very surprised at the results.

There are items that are in a gray area. You might “need” something for your work, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a true need as defined below. I had this problem recently with equipment I use as a writer. My computer is acting up, but I had no camera except the one on my phone. I didn’t need either item in the sense that my life couldn’t go forward without them. But, to do my job I did need both items. In the end I bought the camera, but am still using the errant computer. The reasoning is that I had nothing that fulfilled the function of a camera at the level required, while the computer still did what it was intended to do even if it is old and slow.

Once you understand what the true want is, and have decided to fulfill it, the next step is to apply the frugal equation of value for outlay. First-is there a non-monetary way to get what you want? Trade or gift economy? Can you get it used? If not, what is the likely best price available? I ended up buying a new camera at a deep discount. The price difference between the new entry level Nikon and a much fancier used one was not that great, and I didn’t feel I needed all the extra horsepower. I valued the warranty more. Sometimes the new thing is the best buy. But, nine times out of ten it will be the used item that is the best. The one thing that can’t be glossed over is the work. If you don’t dig around and ask questions you end up making an impulsive buying decision, and those are rarely frugal. Luckily, because this is a want and not a need, time is on your side.

Strangely, the fulfillment of needs is actually more complicated. There are only a few actual needs. The survival needs are clean air, potable water, a sanitary facility to get rid of wastes, food, some sort of body covering against the weather, shelter from sun, wind and water, and some kind of field medicine and first aid. But in our society, I must also include transportation, communication, clothing that is acceptable to the situation, and actual medical care.

The first question is whether these needs require a shopping solution or can be met in other ways. Can you trade, or do it yourself? Food, for example, is an easily DIY, easily barterable commodity, especially if you have a garden or livestock. Clothing can be made, traded, or obtained on the gift economy in a clothing exchange.

But, some things really do have to be purchased. Communication in our times relies on either phone or email, both of which involve interfacing with large companies. The answer to this problem will likely require a great deal of research. It is not often that I recommend pure price buying, but this is one of them. All phone companies are difficult to deal with, often sell less than optimal products and services, and charge outrageous fees. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for internet service providers. And, as large communications companies continue to merge, this will only get worse. The only thing to do is be very careful, understand the true costs, and try not to get roped into long contracts. If you have been diligent in connecting yourself to a local community you may be able to by-pass all this and get by with a land-line at the lowest level of service use the library and yahoo mail for internet service. Or, better yet, go back to snail mail and personal visits. If you can do that you have come a very long way to reclaiming a gracious life.

As for transportation, I have already covered the possibilities in another post. Suffice it to say that you are blessed if you live in an area that is walkable and has good public transportation.

The other things on the list of true needs are more problematic, particularly the medical care. Even if you have the actual cash to make a health insurance payment there is no guarantee that the company will honor the contract after they have taken your money. I have written about this before. Healthy habits, a little knowledge of herbal and alternative medicines, and perhaps some barter are the main lines of defense. If you need some kind of regular prescription medicine things get much trickier. As long as no political solution to this problem is reached it is a street fight out there. There are clinics, but if you are truly at survival level you may not be able to eat and get your meds. I would recommend going to the soup kitchen and food bank, but spending the cash on the clinic.

It may seem odd that needs are more difficult than wants to analyze, but it makes sense, really. If you have a want that can’t be satisfied, it may bruise your ego. If you have an unfulfilled basic need, your life may be on the line.

Should I Buy it Used or New?

Second Hand Clothing at a Clothes Exchange

Should I buy it new or used? For the truly frugal, the answer is most often used. Except for personal hygiene items and underwear, which should be purchased new, and things like computers and mattresses, which should be bought used only from someone we know and trust, everything else can and should be bought used. This makes sense from an economic standpoint, and also from an environmental standpoint. It fulfills the second tenet in “reduce, reuse, recycle”.
So, what is the best place to buy used? It depends on what you are looking for. There are always the big web-based sources, such as e-bay, Amazon and craigslist. There are large non-profits such as Goodwill. Then there are the flea markets, garage sales, and small local second hand stores. I believe it is best to start with the local sources first. The very best deals are generally at garage sales. Flea markets can be good if they are not over-run with cheap new goods, as is the case at our local market. But, if the item is something that you might never see at a local source and you really need it, going to the web is still better than going to Macy’s, or even Walmart.
For big ticket items such as cars it is always better to buy used-but do your home work. The reason is that the car loses a third of its sticker price when the first owner drives it around the block. Even if you really want a new car, buying a late model low miles used car just makes sense.
The best place to start is with your local papers garage sale listings and your local yellow pages, which probably has second hand sources under most categories. Here are some links to information about buying used goods. Know the numbers for the car you are considering before you walk in. They also have listings for freebies. This one has a zip code driven national directory of thrift stores. If there is a group near you, check it out-or start one of your own.
This should be enough to get you started on the happy path of second hand acquisition. Happy hunting!

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