Getting by without a job, part 4--get free stuff

By Philip Brewer on 6 December 2008 (Updated 12 February 2010) 28 comments

[Editor's note:  If you recently lost your job, take a look at Wise Bread's collection of tips and resources for the recently laid off.]

There are all kinds of ways to get stuff without money. You can grow it in a garden, gather it from the wild, make it yourself, get it as a gift, scavenge it from trash, or get it free from someone who hopes to sell you something else. All of these generally involve spending time instead of spending money--but someone who's getting by without a job probably has some time to spend.

This is the fourth of a four-part series. Part 1 was on the first things to do if you lose your job, part 2 was on boosting your income, and part 3 was on cutting your expenses.

I tend to lump free stuff into two broad categories. One is the free stuff that we can get because we live in a rich country, and the other is free stuff that we can grow, gather, or make (like people in poor countries have always done and like people in rich countries still can do, even though they usually don't).

Rich country free stuff

People in rich countries have so much stuff they're constantly giving away or throwing away perfectly good stuff. There are even organizations whose whole purpose is to gather, organize, and distribute stuff that would otherwise be thrown away. (Food pantries are one example. Groups that take business clothing and make it available to people who need such clothing for job interviews are another.)

Lots of other stuff is thrown away without any organization acting to gather it. People obviously feel bad about doing this (at the apartment complex where I live you can often see perfectly good stuff--lamps, furniture, small appliances--left next to the dumpsters rather than inside by people hoping that the item will find a good home rather than being carted off to take up space in a landfill), but they do it anyway because they have too much stuff.

Most of it will be stuff you don't need. In fact, unless you're really quite poor, if you live in a rich country, you probably already have more stuff than you need. But, if you are quite poor, there is a vast wealth of stuff available for free.

If you need free stuff, probably the first place to look is Freecycle, a group whose goal is specifically to match people who have stuff to give away with people who need stuff. Besides that, though, there are all the old ways to find free stuff:

  • Some dumps have a "put and take" area where people can leave perfectly good stuff for other people to take away.
  • You can cut out the middle-man by just looking in dumpsters before they get hauled away to the dump.
  • Networking with local folks can hook you up with people looking to get rid of stuff.
  • And, of course, besides free, there's stuff that can be sold cheap because the people selling it got it for free (Goodwill, Salvation Army, salvage shops of various kinds).

Besides stuff that would otherwise be thrown away, there are also things (and, more often, services) that are given away as a way to drum up business. There has been a huge surge in this sort of thing since the internet has made it possible to provide on-line services at almost no cost--a very small number of customers paying for premium service can cover the costs of vast numbers of people getting regular service for free.

Finally, there's stuff that's provided free by the government, either to the general public (libraries, police and fire protection, public education, public parks) or on the basis of need (food stamps, WIC, TANF, Medicaid). People who followed the advice in the earlier parts of this series and made radical cuts in their spending while they still had some cash probably don't qualify for the need-based government support--but don't hesitate to use it if you do. Things like libraries, though, are an awesome resource that everyone should use, not just people getting by without a job.

Free stuff everywhere

More interesting to me than picking through the detritus of our consumer society is the free stuff that can be made, grown, or gathered from the wild.

Because of the advantages of scale and specialization, it's often possible for large corporations to make stuff cheaper than than it's possible to make it yourself. (I've seen perfectly good sweaters on sale for less than a knitter would have to pay just to buy the yarn.) One response to this is to start to think that it's only sensible to work at whatever pays the most, and then spend money to buy what you need. I wrote a post a while back to refute that notion: The many reasons--besides frugality--to do for yourself. If you're getting by without a job, you're less likely to be confused by the false calculation of multiplying the hours it takes you to make something times whatever your salary works out to per hour.

The most fundamental way of sustaining yourself, of course, is gathering what you need from the wild. There are a few posts here on Wise Bread about gathering--edible weeds, for example, and there are plenty of books on the topic, beginning with the many classic books by Ewell Gibbons.

It's not just weird stuff that's available in the wild. Ordinary things like grapes, other fruits, nuts of all kinds, rhubarb, edible mushrooms and so on all grow wild. There are edible things that can be gathered practically anywhere in the world.

Besides gathering, of course, there's also hunting and fishing. Being successful takes skills--which you probably don't have, unless you grew up in a family that practices these sorts of things--but there are places where it's possible for hunting and fishing to contribute significantly to a household's diet.

In the modern world, it's almost impossible for hunting and gathering to feed a family--but that's not the goal. If nature can contribute even a little high-quality nutrition for free, you can make both your family and your budget healthier.

Gardening is a different story. If you own land, or have access to land that you can garden, then it's possible to grow enough of your own food to make a real difference--to cut your food costs by half or more. Most gardens don't--they provide entertainment for the gardener together with food that's healthier and tastier than what you can get at the store. But if you apply yourself to gardening with the goal of feeding your family, you can provide a large fraction of all the food your family needs. The best book I know of on the subject is Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times.  I include things like raising rabbits and chickens in this category, even though it's not generally considered gardening per se.

Because of the way gardens tend to produce way more than you can use of whatever happens to do especially well, it's often possible to get free food from your neighbors who garden. Just let them know that you'd be interested. Better yet, offer to help out with things you can do--help in their garden, shovel their sidewalk, mow their lawn, teach their kids how to build a website--in exchange for surplus produce.

Even if you can't grow your own food, gather it from the wild, or get it free from friends or neighbors, you can sometimes transform cheap food into something much more valuable by preserving it. At the peak of the season, when there's a surplus, you can often pick up the excess dirt cheap. All the old-time techniques for preserving--canning, pickling, making jellies or jams--produce something that you can put on the shelf cheap now, and then eat later.

As I alluded to with respect to neighbors' gardens, sharing and bartering are two more ways to get things without money. Those preserves can be traded for things you need, as can other craft items you make, your garden produce, fish you've caught and game you've hunted. Something as simple as inviting friends over for dinner when you have plenty can lead to reciprocal invitations.

A human's real needs (in the sense of not dying of thirst or hunger or cold) are small enough that (in a rich country) you can probably satisfy them for free. In that sense, every dollar you spend goes at least partially to satisfying wants. If you start with that perspective, it really is possible to get by without a job. You may well want to get a job (so that you can satisfy a few more of those wants) but it's a matter of choice, not of necessity: It's a decision that you make, in accordance with your own values. At least, it should be.

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Linsey Knerl's picture

We use Craigslist a bunch for free stuff.  If you have a pickup with a trailer, there's no limit to the amount of stuff you can haul off for free and either use yourself or trade away for something you can really use.  We've gotten railroad ties, firewood, scrap metal, livestock, trees, plants, fruit, and even labor for nothing -- you just have to be quick!

Thanks for another awesome article, Philip.

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
redtopher

As someone who most likely doesn't have to worry about losing their job during this recession, this series has really made me think about what I would do if I did. It brought to mind something my father has always told my brothers and I and that is no matter where this life takes us, we should never forget how to push a broom and use a mop. One day that could be the only skill we have to offer that will get us a job.

Because of this series I now have the beginnings of a "what if" plan. Once I got over the initial shock of what my reality would be if I lost my job; I was able to start looking at options. Where would I go? What would I do? How much money do I really need to live on? Am I completely ready? No, but I won't go into complete vapor lock either.

Something that did come to the surface from this exercise is the need to reduce and simplify. My first step is to find ways to live a fulfilling life with the need for less income. I am putting myself on a consumerism diet and trying to free myself of wanting to consume without a purpose. I think that the need to consume unchecked is something that has become ingrained in American society and that maybe now we are paying the price. Sorry mass marketing and media, i'm not buying it any more. My new philosophy is that it is OK to want for stuff, but that stuff either needs to fill a need or has to replace something I already have. And if it is to replace something, then whatever it is replacing needs to be recycled if at all possible. All of which can be boiled down into the new question I now ask myself...Why?

Great article, as are many on this site. I look forward to more.

Guest's picture

...especially for the target audience you aimed this one at. However, there also seems to be a lot on frugal sites lately that highlights getting free stuff just because it is free, and not because it is actually needed. It is likely being able to feed the consumerism beast within us without having to pay for it.

A common example is all the piles of stuff people blog about getting from CVS for little or no money. I have never heard of much of this stuff. 'I got it because it was free' or 'I got it because I actually needed it'. Which philosophy will do the most towards helping people to live within their means and stop worrying about money and acquiring more and more stuff?

Guest's picture

I agree with above comment on so-called "free stuff"--my dear husband wrote a post on this very topic on our frugality blog.
frugalscholar.blogspot.com

Original post is, as expected, illuminating. Nothing gives you a sense of the overabundance that is ours in this country than going to a thrift store.

After Hurricane Katrina, a lot of people seeking work came from Mexico, Central America, etc. I would see them at Goodwill gaping at the riches on display. A real eye-opener.

Guest's picture
funkright

"As someone who most likely doesn't have to worry about losing their job during this recession.." sounds like famous last words to me.. I thought the same way and, well, I am currently unemployed today..

Guest's picture
ShannonO

Yep, me too...I thought the same thing and was let go today after 15 years of dedicated service and no disciplinary issues. You never know.

Guest's picture
lucille

The notion of getting things for free that you actually need is a wise one. If you simplify and then only look for free things you can actually use you will end up better off.

Learning how to maintain and fix things helps considerably when trying to get things for free or extremely cheap. I have repaired and restored my share of old free or cheap furniture that now looks very nice. I found a couple of pairs of Ferragamo shoes at a thrift store for $3 each. I looked them up after I got home and they would have been about $300 new. Since they were classic styles I can probably wear them forever. They did need a good polishing and a small repair to the leather with a bit of contact cement.

One of our kids works for one of those coffee chains. They throw out coffee beans on a certain date and also baked goods plus they get a weekly coffee allotment. So we have free coffee and baked goods almost all the time.

Guest's picture
Mom of 6

Freecycle has been such an amazing blessing for us. It's amazing how just when you think no one would ever find a use for those 16 bricks under your porch, someone says that's the exact number they need to finish a project.

We scavenge dandelion greens in spring. When they are new before the first blooms come up they aren't as bitter as later in the year. But do be careful to harvest from areas that aren't sprayed with pesticides, and wash your greens well before eating. Dandelion blossoms when they first open and are bright yellow are also delicious dredged in batter and fried briefly. Nasturtiums can be added to a salad and eaten. Yum! Huge caveat: Know what you are harvesting (lesson learned in "Into the Wild")!

Do not be taken in by those internet promises that you can "shop for free and keep what you buy!" Mystery shopping can be an expensive proposition and not to be entered into lightly. A blog I love is: .

We have been known to get things we don't need at CVS to get the Extra Credit Bucks (it's a complicated formula, but it works sometimes). The extra stuff usually gets sold on eBay or given to local charities.

Gardening is not free, as JD over at has discovered.

Guest's picture
guest

How come I never see free housing?

Philip Brewer's picture

There's actually free housing all over the place.

House-sitting often provides free housing.  Sometimes you're expected to water the plants and walk the dogs.  It's usually short-term, though; then you have to find another place to live.

Similar to house-sitting, various sorts of caretaker jobs sometimes come with free housing.  The work involved is usually pretty modest--just a few hours a week--but there may be other downsides, such as living conditions that are pretty basic and locations that are far from town.

For many more examples, check out Myscha's post on the topic:

http://www.wisebread.com/twelve-ways-to-become-rent-or-mortgage-free

Guest's picture
Guest

note that wild mushrooms should be considered toxic unless you are seasoned enough to identify the non-toxic ones, or have someone along with you who is.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Mom of 6:

Gardening isn't free, but it can be very inexpensive if your goal is maximum food production for minimum cost.  (For most people, that isn't the goal.  Most people want great-tasting, healthful produce--and are willing to put out some cash to get it, especially since it's still cheaper than what you get at the grocery store.)  Also, there are many options for swapping time for money, and someone who's getting by without a job can spend time that a weekend gardener can't.

Philip Brewer's picture

@ Guest:

Very true.  There are many toxic mushrooms--and many of them look quite a bit like others that are good to eat.  I certainly hope no one would read my post as suggesting that you could just pick any old mushrooms and eat them.  That'll get you killed.  Get someone who knows (and eats) wild mushrooms to show you what's safe to eat. 

Guest's picture
Liz Pf

First, let me say that this has been a great series of articles.

I do have one point I'd like to expand on. You say:

"If you need free stuff, probably the first place to look is Freecycle, a group whose goal is specifically to match people who have stuff to give away with people who need stuff. "

I am the Freecycle group owner in my area, and this isn't quite our goal. Freecycle is primarily a recycling group, whose mission is to keep useful stuff out of landfills. We give people with too much stuff a way to unload some of it that isn't throwing it in the dump.

Sure, people get free stuff from Freecycle all the time. But it is bad form to join a Freecycle group and send an e-mail such as "Wanted: all kinds of kitchen things: dishes, pots, furniture ..." Similarly, many groups reject "sob stories": "Help me. I lost my job and apartment, and I have nothing. I'll take anything." Freecycle isn't a charity, a make-a-wish foundation, or a personal shopping service.

So, how should someone use Freecycle? First, understand that it is a recycling service. Don't look for things that aren't likely to be tossed away. 16 bricks, or outgrown baby clothing, are good things to ask about, new computers and working cars aren't.

Second, you should offer what you can. Things needn't be valuable, or in working condition to be offered. We have people who want paper towel insert rolls, or broken electronics.

Third, always understand you are dealing directly with the individuals getting rid of their stuff. You need to be polite, and understanding.

Philip Brewer's picture

I hope my post provided the necessary context, but perhaps not.

Food pantries are a good model.  They were created so that food that couldn't be sold could still feed people, rather than ending up in the garbage.  Similarly, Freecycle exists so that people who want to get rid of stuff can put it into the hands of people who need it, rather than sending it to a landfill.

I suppose some people go to food pantries and then complain that they can't get their favorite brand of breakfast cereal.  Don't be like them.  Not at food pantries--and not at Freecycle either.

Guest's picture
Guest

Hi I live in Australia and am now in my 30's. I grew up in the republic of Ireland prior to the tech revolution of the 80's that turned the economy around. We knew a lot of people who got creative with what they had.
Certainly having a vegie garden and growing chicken and geese were among that list. But nothing was wasted, if a goose was butchered the feathers were used for pillows/quilts. A huge room was turned into a studio flat and rented out to a single elderly man. Many people rented out rooms and a sitting room or subdivided homes to rent etc.
Seasonal work was rotated, people joined Choirs and Traditional holidays played a great importance, for free time and family activities.
Even here in Oz, in the eastern states flea markets are very popular.
People holidayed locally.
Families only had one car. We learned to ride bikes, as children.
People had skills such as knitting and sewing. I was taught to knit and sew as part of the primary curriculum.
To summarize I think we are a lazy society but if people before us could do it and thrive so can we. Keep up the brain storming Philip it's a good thing. Michelle

Guest's picture
wildigft

I like that you specified that some free things are free only in rich countries.

I just heard on NPR about poor trash pickers in India and the Philippines, who pick through mountains of trash for recyclables. Sometimes, people die when the trash collapses onto them. It made me feel sad and angry.

@Liz

I've given away a lot of stuff through our local freecycle and craigslist.

People have asked for computers on my freecycle, and, because I had gotten some from the trash and fixed them up, I've given away computers. I've also asked for computers for people who needed them, and found more than I can use. So I think it's OK to ask for computers.

I've also given away a broken car online, though I forget how. I was happy to have it taken away.

Other things given away or sold at a very low price: broken camper, motorcycles, old scrap metal, lumber, broken appliances, power reel mower. Stuff we inherited.

I was happy to have it hauled away for free, or purchased for a few dollars. (I charged for it because people who want freebies are often flakes who don't show up. Charging $5 or $10 weeds out the flakes.)

Guest's picture
Linda

I think it's a rather simplistic view to say that you can supplement your diet from the countryside.

It's the 21C. There is not the same access to wild fruits, etc. Plus we have the problem of contamination from pesticides and various other things including traffic.

Also what do you do in the winter when there is very little about?

Regarding clothes. I doubt whether anyone really desperately needs to replace their clothes. Clothes last for years.

Children of course outgrow theirs but adults they could get by.

Philip Brewer's picture

At the moment, when only the occasional oddball tries to gather food from the wild, it's actually not too hard to find stuff.  My wife gathered mullberries this year.  In years past we've gathered wild grapes and wild strawberries.  None of these were important sources of sustenance; we just gathered them because we could.

Where gathering can make a difference is for people who are hungry but not starving.  Especially if you have a diet that's lacking in variety or nutrition, the addition of even a small amount of gathered food can make a real difference.

When it would fail is if the economy got so much worse that large numbers of people were all trying to gather food from the countryside.  The population density if just too high anywhere around a city.  In ordinary hard times, though, there's a lot of food growing wild, free for the taking for people willing to go to the effort to learn about it, and then go to the effort actually to gather some.  (Surprisingly few people are.  Even surprisingly few hungry people are.)

Guest's picture
lucille

On the freecycle mention, yes it is intended to go both ways. If you join with the mindset of "gimmie free stuff" many people will go out of their way to ignore your posts. Freecycle works best if you look at it as a way to simplify and clean out your house while maybe getting some things you need in return.

We routinely put toys and clothes our kids outgrow on Freecycle. We gave away probably 50 working computer monitors, some printers, fax machines and at least 20 working PCs. We had piles of this stuff we had gotten from companies we worked with so it had little value to us personally. For those trying to find a computer it was a big boon more than I realized. I had someone give us enough marble tile to do our bathroom. They said they gave it to us specifically because we had given them a computer when they were really in a pinch financially and needed the computer for school. I hadn't even remembered it until they mentioned it. The tile was not going to work for the remodel they were doing. The person that gave us our waterbed was looking for a PC for their kids the next summer. So we dug one out of the garage and reloaded the operating system and gave it to them.

Freecycle is a great thing as long as you look at it as a big picture reuse concept and not a charity.

Guest's picture

Great series Philip. The hunter-gatherers of the past were able to get everything they needed for food, water, clothes and shelter from their natural surroundings. Last spring we went morel mushroom hunting and fished all spring and summer. On our way fishing we would pass and eat off of wild mulberries, blueberries, strawberries, etc. We have a garden every year and freeze and can the excess. I would hunt if I had to. I would encourage your readers to research homesteading. A few other books I like that are more specific to your topic are Making a Living Without a Job by Barbara J. Winter, How to Survive Without a Salary by Charles Long and Ragnar's Guide to the Underground Economy by Ragnar Benson. Thanks again for a well thought out series.

Philip Brewer's picture

Those are some good books you mentioned.  I've got How to Survive without a Salary right here next to me, and referred to it a time or two while writing the recent series.  Ragnar's Guide to the Underground Economy is a book that I've previously reviewed here on Wise Bread:

http://www.wisebread.com/book-review-ragnars-guide-to-the-underground-ec...

I haven't seen the Barbara Winter book, though.  I'll have to track down a copy.  (I always enjoy a good book on the topic of getting by without a job.)

Guest's picture
guest

This gardening talk reminds me -

Are indoor-gardening devices (e.g. AeroGarden) cost-effective?

They are moderately pricey (~$150), plus there are operating costs (electricity plus supplies/seeds/seed pods/nutrients).

So, would one of these things pay for itself in a year?

Philip Brewer's picture

I don't know anything about any particular indoor gardening unit, so I can't help specifically.

The main thing the garden needs, though, is sunlight.  If you've got south-facing windows that get good sunlight for many hours a day, you can probably have a successful indoor garden without even needing a special device--just a set of shelves to hold some boxes of dirt would do the trick.

If your windows don't get good sun, then you'd need to go with grow-lights of some sort.  I doubt if that would ever pay for itself.  The big win of a garden is that it turns free energy into food.

Guest's picture
Olivia

Great series. Thanks for the book suggestions. I tracked down a copy of Possum Living at your mention through interlibrary loan and found it very enlightening. It can be read on line as well. This past summer we supplemented our garden with purslane, dandelion and wild raspberries.

There's a fellow in Manhattan who does foraging seminars in Central Park. I think his name is Steven Brill? He has a couple of books out. I've not read them, but that may be a way for city dwellers to find options.

We used to have "large" trash days in our neighborhood but for some reason the borough stopped them. Very helpful for divesters and needers. Quite fun as well. Now it's more hit and miss with large items out with the regular trash, but it's still amazing what people throw away, even with a non profit thrift store nearby to donate to.

Thanks again.

Guest's picture
Guest

I think much of the success of gathering wild foods is one's mindset and advanced preparation. Although I have a full-time job, I'm a scavenger by nature, and I take advantage of free edibles even though I could pay for them. Living in Oklahoma, I gather the following free and organic foods: pecans, acorns, persimmons, pears, apples, peaches, soy beans, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. I am a commuter biker, and when I ride about my small town, I take note of the trees that bear fruit and nuts. When their fruit is in season, it litters the ground and is so plentiful I have NEVER had anyone object to my stopping and picking some up. In fact, most people are grateful. Also, there are a number of community gardens here that I got permission to glean once the harvest was complete. It's amazing what you can find for free if you simply keep your mind open to the fact that free, organic food IS out there if you dust off and hone your natural gathering skills. It's December 9th, and I'm still eating fresh organic tomatoes that I gathered green when others didn't want to bother with them. Happy Gathering!

Guest's picture
Lily

this new mindset. I once was foolish and wasteful myself, now I have less money than before and yet I don't feel poor. I'm grateful for everything that I can use, for hand-me-downs, for presents, for homemade stuff.

I've given quite a lot of stuff to other people through FreeCycle and it's so nice when they thank you and you think you're not throwing away stuff.

Guest's picture

To the person who lamented that there is no fee housing: yes, there is. Join the military. Go to jail. Join the clergy. Marry a rich person.

Free stuff:
Plenty of dumpster diving can keep you busy. Craig's List has free stuff. Lots of free samples of things on the internet. Keep your eye open when driving in residential neighborhoods the night before garbage day pickup. Scour the streets in a college town at the end of semesters. Check the local hometown papers, not the big circulation dailies but the local small town papers, and if you have one in your town: the Pennysaver, often have free things to get rid of.