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