15 Weird Frugal Tips That Aren't For Everyone

Some frugal tips just aren't for everyone. A co-worker of mine lives an utterly self-sustained lifestyle on his farm in Virginia (never mind his Internet access and Twitter account), where he composts with worms, makes handmade soap, and raises all his own food, including chickens for the dinner table and old hens for dog chow.

He and his wife are content on their acres and, despite the occasional hiccup, enjoy themselves. But such tenets of frugal living are impractical for some, impossible for others, and downright gross for those just getting into the game. After all, most HOAs and apartment complexes frown on free-range livestock.

Still, it's entertaining to explore the extremes of any movement. The upper-most echelon of penny pinchers craft some admittedly wacky tricks to skirt every expense (dumpster diving, anyone?)

Yet there's a difference between committing to a lifestyle and going off the deep end. Those who truly enjoy frugal living do it for the freedom, not to set limits or cause headaches. It's important to determine if your new-found lifestyle will make you happy while still providing for your loved ones. For example, skimping on cleaning supplies may save cash, but does it keep your children safe?

With this in mind, I've compiled a list of the 15 craziest frugal tips, each used daily by (mostly) normal people. I'll let you decide if they're right for you and, in case they aren't, I've offered some saner alternatives for each.

1. Learn to Dumpster Dive
Just the name "dumpster diving" implies unappetizing recreation. Swimming through trash for clothing, furniture, food and more is further than most are willing to go, if for no other reason than it's illegal in certain areas.

Dumpster diving has spawned its own cult of feverish followers, termed "freegans," who try to subsist wholly on trashed food. Hardly anything is unpalatable, from condiments and day-old bagels to vegetables and cheese. While this may seem viable or even appealing to college students, garbage grub is the last resort for many folks. In those instances, it's an absolute need, as opposed to a choice.

If you don't mind whispering neighbors or sifting through junk, feel free to peruse dumpsters behind supermarkets and restaurants. Read our post, "7 Times When It's Okay to Dumpster Dive" for advice on getting started and staying safe.

2. Forgo the Flush
No mantra is more poetic, descriptive and immediately polarizing than, "If it's brown, flush it down; if it's yellow, let it mellow." Cleanliness is a big factor for those who think not flushing takes conservation too far. This is a legitimate and understandable concern for households with kids, but the more flushes, the more water is wasted in the bathroom.

This concern is largely for nought as modern toilets are fairly efficient. If you bought or replaced a loo in the last 15 years, it meets federal standards of 1.5 gallons per flush, down from 3.5 gallons in pre-1994 models. If that isn't enough, submerge an empty water bottle or two in the upper tank. This drastically reduces the amount of water required for a refill.

3. Practice Vermiculture
Enthusiasts of vermiculture, or composting with worms, consider it to be the easiest, fastest and least smelly form of composting. You aren't required to eat the worms themselves but, as with a playground bet, the thought of a squirming, writhing handful is sickening enough.

Composting without creepy crawlies is a sensible and relatively easy practice, even for those living in apartments. Keep a tiny dish of vegetable rinds beneath your sink, empty it every week into a metal trash bin with lid (small or large, depending on how much you want to make) and cover with dirt. Over time, the organic material will break down to produce rich, lustrous fertilizer for potted flowers and vegetable gardens. Try biodegradable animal waste if you like, but this ups the stink factor substantially. A compost pile should never attract flies or smell rotten, so if yours shows such signs, dump it and begin again.

4. Use Cloth Diapers
A huge push for cloth diapers is rolling through the frugal world, spurred by new parents looking to save cash or the environment. In some ways, it's also turned into a chic statement akin to dressing baby in Chuck Taylor's. Cleaning cloth diapers, however, can be fairly disgusting, making it hard to argue with the convenience of the disposable version. What's more, most reusable diapers still require plastic liners.

Yet cloth diapers aren't always a status symbol. They can save a sizable chunk of money, particularly for families with multiple little ones. Read the comparison of cloth and disposable bum-coverings at Consumer Search for an in-depth breakdown of the pros and cons.

5. Handkerchiefs
What's not to like about little pillows of snot you stuff in your pocket like a green-and-red badge of honor? Not much nowadays, considering most facial tissue is made from recycled material. But to each his own.

6. Extreme Couponing
At this point, extreme couponing has burrowed into the frugalista lexicon. Thanks to the eponymous TLC show, we know how some folks eek $1,200 worth of groceries out of $50, all while hoarding enough toilet paper to last several decades. In a way, it's kind of inspiring.

But such hyper-savers make couponing a full-time job, often spending more than 50 hours a week scanning discounts. Some admit their obsession puts a strain on relationships and experts suggest their behavior borders on addiction. Granted, couponers like Nathan Engels and Joanie Demer (a.k.a. "The Krazy Coupon Lady") donate portions of their massive hauls to charity. Yet it's still overindulgence and, as Demer's blog name suggests, a tad crazy.

7. Stockpiling
Stockpiling isn't an inherently bad thing, but at some point it becomes unnecessary. This is when frugality morphs into the above-mentioned hoarding. As a youngster, I remember exploring a family member's basement and finding canned food (yes, canned food) that was years overdue, usually crammed under mounds of the exact same product.

As with any purchase, first ask yourself if you really need more bottles of cleaning products, roll of TP, can of beans, etc. The prospect of saving money shouldn't be enticing when, ultimately, you don't need what's on sale.

8. Build a Composting Toilet
This one comes straight from the rural plots of Virginia. My aforementioned co-worker has a friend who shunned an expensive septic system and instead built a tiny outhouse. The toilet is made for composting, with several 5-gallon jugs he empties regularly to use as "humanure" in his garden. Yes, humanure.

This is admittedly further than just about anyone will go and, if done improperly, very unsanitary. Most home composting advice says to stay away from any sort of animal waste, whether pet or human.

But about that septic system. Although they range from $5,000 to $8,000 for a simple pressure system, many swear by them. They're self-contained and a viable choice for rural homeowners. Installation should always be done by a specialized company, so if one is in your future, plan for the yard and plumbing to be out of commission during several days of construction. Leave the Home-Depot bucket DIY compost toilets to the truly hardcore.

9. Buy Secondhand Socks, Shoes and Underwear
I've never heard of someone actually purchasing underwear and socks at a thrift store, but I've seen both available. No amount of washing would make me feel clean wearing another person's underwear. Shoes are a similar story, but for a different reason. Most pairs that arrive at a thrift store are on their last, ahem, leg of life. You'll enjoy the comfort, shape and feel of new shoes much better than a pair already molded to some else's feet.

Unmentionables aside, thrift stores are a harmless favorite of frugal folk everywhere. When I needed new duds for my friend's wedding last summer I skipped Men's Wearhouse and opted for the local ARC. It took several visits, but I found a hardly-worn three-piece suit nearly tailored to my proportions. After some hemming on the sleeves I was set, all to the tune of $20.

10. Buy with Coupons and Return
This can hardly be called a frugal "tip," but it's practiced nonetheless: Some less-than-honest people use lucrative coupons to buy numerous products, then return the whole haul a few weeks later. Occasionally, they're able to pocket extra money on the goods they never paid for, essentially making money by swindling the store. Not quite on par with Bernie Madoff, but still nefarious.

The remedy? Simply put, don't do it.

11. Use Homemade Cleaners
Your grandmother may have sworn by them, but cleaning solutions made with vinegar, lemon, water and other foodstuffs don't scream "safety" for some -- add a bit of lime or dash of pepper and you have a chicken marinade. Not exactly what you want rubbed on your counters and carpets.

But homemade cleaners are a very useful frugal tool. Unlike store-bought cleaners, they're very gentle, completely natural and much cheaper when mixed at home. Old bottles from store-bought cleaners can be refilled over and again. Read our posts "10 Ways to Use Vinegar" and "16 Uses for Nail Polish Remover...Other Than the Obvious" for more unexpected ways to clean.

12. Wash and Reuse Every Plastic Bag
Lining my trashcans with grocery bags is a practice I'll follow until the day I die. But some folks take it a step further and save other thin plastics (think sandwich bags and wax-like cereal bags) for later use as pen holders, craft organizers and the like.

Not a bad idea in itself, but it's more frugal to cut such plastic products out of your life altogether. In order to use such bags for food again, they must be washed and dried anyway. Reusable lunch boxes and Tupperware containers are more than worth the investment over time.

13. Dump Your Own Trash
In my town, garbage pick-up is relatively affordable and I've never had issues paying the bill. To skirt fees, however, some people choose to forgo curbside trash service and instead take their garbage to nearby dumpsters or direct to the dump. The problems with keeping trash around for weeks are numerous: Stink, rodents, flies and general uncleanliness. In most cities, it's also illegal to toss personal waste into dumpsters at schools, churches and businesses.

There are ways around high prices on pick-up. Garbage is a surprisingly competitive business in most areas. If you feel overcharged, call your service and ask them to lower the rate. If they won't, say you'll cancel and hire another. The single priority of customer service is to keep your name on their bill.

14. Make Your Own Soap
Who knew creating something clean could be so dirty? Almost all homemade soap recipes involve some sort of animal or vegetable fat as well as lye, a mixture of chemicals that can be pricey when bought and difficult to make from scratch. The process itself borders on frustrating and can be expensive, between experimentation and failed batches. Many beginners become disillusioned, particularly when they realize a bar of Dove isn't an earth-shattering expense.

If, however, you decide to take soap making head on, the website for Miller's Homemade Soap is a valuable resource, with start-up advice, tons of recipes and a troubleshooting section. Also, here is a video on how to make soap to help you get started.

15. Save Grease for Cooking
This is a trick gleaned from meat-loving kitchens everywhere: Save your grease in a can and use it the next day to cook your eggs. It's cheaper than cooking oil and infinitely more delicious. Again, like many frugal tips, worries about cleanliness and safety keep most from reusing coagulated grease. If stored in the open for extended periods of time (like our grandmothers did), grease can grow mold and other funk.

Truth is, vegetable oil isn't going to break the bank. However, there's no problem cooking your meat first to grease the pan for veggies fried immediately after.

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3 Comments

Ive got a worm compost. It's sooo cool.
Posted by mehmeh
Finally, someone who wrote the same thoughts I have been thinking for years! Buying used underwear is disgusting, not frugal. Making your own soap is a waste of time, unless it's something you genuinely enjoy. Extreme couponing and stockpiling can inspire you to buy more, not less.
Posted by Paula
Nathan Engels is a liar. He has huge garage sales where he sells off his stockpile. He doesn't donate xxxx.
Posted by joe