10 Out-of-Fashion but Totally Frugal Old Tools

We all love the convenience that modern technology affords, but that convenience often comes with a hefty price tag.

You don’t have to pay top dollar for newfangled devices, however. You can save a sizable sum by swearing off appliances and other tools with batteries and cords in favor of their old-fashioned counterparts that only need a bit of elbow grease to get the job done.

Time to get nostalgic then. Here are 10 such tools. (See also: The Best 10 Items to Borrow)

1. Push Reel Mower

This early lawn mower design makes me laugh because it’s probably one of the most dangerous devices ever made. I’m sure some fingers and toes were lost in the '50s and '60s due to curiosity and negligence. But if you're smart enough to know that you shouldn't stick your digits anywhere near spinning, exposed blades, you'll be OK. The push reel mower is powered by forward motion, so you're saving money on gas versus a modern-day push mower or an extremely expensive riding mower. Plus you'll get lots of exercise trying to push it around the yard to get the job done. This frugal device is not for the faint of heart — it's a serious workout. Bring water.

2. Washboard

The first thing I think of when the image of a washboard pops into my head is “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas;” I think it was a beaver who used this tool as his instrument of choice. While you’ll be hard-pressed to find a washboard outside of an antique store, this is a frugal tool that I can totally get behind. A lot of my clothing is delicate — wools, cashmeres, etc. — so I sometimes prefer to wash single items by hand. The washboard can help release the stains much quicker than trying to scrape them out with your fingers or a quarter (and don’t act like you’ve never done the latter).

3. Eggbeater

While it’s called an eggbeater, this device is a multipurpose beater that preceded your handheld electric mixer or that coveted Kitchen Aid. I’m not sure why it was even used for eggs in the first place — a fork works just fine to beat eggs in my house, as I’m sure it did for the pilgrims — but the beater came in handy for other mixtures (like cake batter) that required more beating gusto than a fork can produce. While the old eggbeater is frugal, it’s also a tool that requires strength and stamina. Have you ever tried beating anything with this device? After about 30 seconds you’ll realize why it’s extinct.

4. Paper Maps

Confession time — I have never used a paper map to get anywhere because I don’t know how to read a paper map. Does anyone, really? The only examples I’ve seen of people using paper maps end in them arguing and crumbling it up — which is not a sign of people who are getting along fine with the map. (Besides, by the time I reached driving age, MapQuest was invented.) The benefit to paper maps over your phone or GPS, however, is that there are few errors. Paper maps are painstakingly created so they’re virtually perfect, whereas today’s technology can malfunction and send you off course.

5. Meat Grinder

If you want to avoid paying premium prices for ground beef, invest in a meat grinder and turn cheap cuts of beef into hamburger patties with just a few cranks of the handle at home. A meat grinder is ideal for any kind of meat that you want ground up, and some versions have an attachment so you can turn ground meat into homemade sausages. Throw those puppies on the grill, and you'll definitely wow the crowd with your culinary skills.

6. Payphone

Are you as surprised as I am when you see a payphone? And when did they all disappear? It was like some covert government operation eliminated all the payphones one night while we were sleeping. In any case, the payphone is infinitely cheaper than your cell phone when you compare how much you actually talk on the phone by how much you pay for it. The base rate of my cell phone plan (just to make calls) is $46.99 a month. Last month I talked for 42 minutes total, which means that I paid $1.11 per minute. If I didn't like texting so much or reading Wikipedia at night under the covers while my husband is snoring, I'd definitely drop my mobile plan and seek out a payphone when I need to make my two phone calls a month.

7. Typewriter

There are plenty of arguments on why the computer is superior to the typewriter, but if you have no use for the Internet and you don’t mind producing documents spotted with Wite-Out, by all means return to using the typewriter and save. Plus, a typewriter has that retro-cool thing goin' for it. It's also the perfect device to use if you want to be crafty with gift tags or individual thank-you cards.

8. Floor Sweeper

Dyson does an excellent job of making a vacuum cleaner look sexy; people think I’m crazy when I ask for these newfangled products for Christmas. (Yes, I might be the only boy in the world who is happy to receive appliances and cookware as gifts.) However, if you don’t want to spend upwards of $400 dollars on that brilliant ball design, a floor sweeper will pick up all the same crud from your abode for much less. Other benefits include no cord to trip over or wrap up and no noisy motor to send your dogs into a tizzy.

9. Abacus

One of my Facebook friends suggested this old-fashioned-but-frugal tool, and I agree 100%. Anybody who was in high school in the late ‘90s knows that most modern curriculums required a high-priced, huge calculator designed by — for the most part — Texas Instruments. (I should have bought stock in that company 10 years ago.) The truth is, though, my purchase of that calculator was a major waste of money because I couldn’t care less about any kind of math beyond basic arithmetic (and because I mostly used it to play games in math class). I didn’t need algebra, calculus, or trigonometry then, and I sure as heck don’t need it now. Long live the abacus and its simple, cheap system of teaching us how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

10. Can Opener

Another confession — when I was living on my own for the first time, I had no idea how to operate a manual can opener. It was foreign to me because I grew up with an electric one. But just because I didn’t know how to use it doesn’t mean that I don’t think it’s a valuable tool. In fact, I think an electric can opener is probably the most useless modern device mention on this list. I also think it was invented by the laziest person on the planet. Comparably, how much faster does an electric can opener open a can than a manual opener opens a can? Like five seconds? Come on. I’ll stick with the thing that costs $3 instead of the one that costs $30.

Time to chime in. What other old fashioned, frugal devices can you think of? Do you still use any of them instead of the modern devices? Let me know in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

I don't like electric can openers, but also a cheap can opener is not worth the money you pay either.

Meg Favreau's picture

Yeah! I got a visit from my upstairs neighbor over the weekend because her cheap can opener broke.

Guest's picture

Swing -A-Way makes the BEST manual can opener. Look at them carefully and you may still find one Made in USA...if not, no matter...the offshore ones are still very good. They are inexpensive and will outlast you.

Guest's picture

I ditched my electric can opener after Alton Brown pointed out how gunky they can get. And almost no one washes their electric can opener. A manual can opener can be rinsed or put in the dishwasher if needed.

Mikey Rox's picture

I agree with you 100%, Linda. They get gross.

Guest's picture

I would add the double-edged razor. I use a Gillette handle that's about as old as I am and as fit for its purpose now as it was back then. It's perfect: nice knurled non-slip handle with some heft to it, adjustable for how close I want to (or can) shave, and a mechanism that reminds you of when the U. S. was on top of its game.

Double-edged blades are a little harder to find than the heavily-promoted multiblade cartridges, but they're much cheaper (mine run about 9 cents apiece and last a week or so) and cut beards with less problems with ingrown hairs and the like. And I like that I'm not committing so much plastic to landfills -- when a blade is worn, store it safely in a container (I use an old Altoids tin), seal it up when full, and it's recycled as metal.

Oh, and one comment about paper maps -- my GPS may send me on an occasional wild goose chase (tied, it seems, to losing the satellite), but a paper map only loses accuracy after you buy it, and it has never told me about traffic I might want to avoid.

Guest's picture

My mom bought a push mower after hurting her shoulder trying to start the gas one. She had a large yard but only a small part was lawn that needed mowing, so it worked out well. Rotary eggbeaters are surprisingly hard to find these days.

Guest's picture

I own (and still use) 8 of these 10 items. The only two I don't have are a payphone and a typewriter. I have a great appreciation for old non electric tools. I love them and wouldn't part with them.

Guest's picture

Butter Crock - My Grandma laughed when I called and gushed about our gift from my husband (hey, it was the pottery anniversary!), because it's what they used all the time when she was younger. And soft butter + cold butter = awesomeness. And on that note, a Butter Churn, too. Our two daughters LOVE to use the Churn. Go figure.

PS. The new reel lawn mowers are super-easy to use, and while they ARE still a workout, they're not as hard to push as the old ones were, either.

Maggie Wells's picture

Most of your list is way more environmentally friendly than the convenient contemporary alternatives.

Maggie Wells's picture

I'm staring up at my Underwood Standard No 4 from 1913. It's only one of about 10 typewriters I own. Would not give them up. Ever.

Guest's picture

Lehman's Non-Electric catalog has plenty of "old-fashioned" stuff that is durable and cost-saving. There is a laundry plunger (baffler?) that you can use on laundry- it workd quite well!

And cell phones vs pay phones... I have a for-emergencies-only cellphone from Tracfone that I bought at Family Dollar for $8. I have to put (minimum) $10 worth of minutes on it per month, and the minutes I don't use roll over. I would rather have that phone than expect to see a pay phone, as they are disappearing pretty quickly from places where they have "always" been...

Guest's picture
Purchase Wisely

Paper maps - I won't drive in LA/OC without my faithful old Thomas Guide. I don't need GPS to tell me about traffic, since we have a radio station here that gives updates every 10 minutes. Earlier this week I used it to get around a 3-car accident on the 405 southbound so I could make it to my appointment with my doctor. I've only needed it once so far this year, but I was sure glad I had it. Since this area is long since (over)developed, they don't change much from year to year, so I've kept mine for 10 years or so, and not paid for GPS. If I'm going someplace outside the map's area, I check that out on the computer before I leave.

I DETEST electric can openers, they always jam when I try to use them - probably user error - but I just want to get the can open! I'll take a good manual can opener any day.

Guest's picture

I'm with you, Purchase Wisely! I'm so frugal, I don't have a data package on my phone. So the Thomas Brothers is essential. (I recently was talking to someone about 10 years younger than me, and he said, "What's a Thomas Brothers?" What?!) I used it just 30 minutes ago.

And I hate electric can openers. They do seem to last longer than manual ones, but I have a harder time using them than manual ones.

Guest's picture

Yes! Even with arthritis, I'll take a good manual can opener over modern electrics. If you must have an electric model, you may be surprised to find occasional bidding wars on eBay for stalwart '70s models. My double-edged 1920's Gillette keeps my legs shaved without contributing plastic to landfills or stopping up drains with those aggravating blade covers.
My late father taught me that a hand drill is superior to an electric for working on furniture. Electric drills can split wood, especially on antiques.
Y'all can keep your typewriters, though. I love Bill Gates and Steve Jobs like the brothers I never had, for word processing software, touch screens and sensitive, feather-lught keyboards.

Guest's picture

1. Brand new washboards can be purchased from Lehman's in Ohio (http://www.lehmans.com/). I have one of the nice glass ones which does not rust.
2. Paper maps are incredibly easy to read. I generally have no sense of direction, but I have taught myself to read maps and to navigate for my husband when we take trips. I find internet maps nice if I want to see individual streets, something which most of the widely-available paper maps aren't detailed enough to show, but a decade ago we invested in a map book that has road maps of all 50 states and it's been the best $10 we've spent. It is a learnable skill: what you need to do is ride shotgun so you can read the highway signs and follow your progress on the map. You'll get the hang of it. A trip or two and you'll be an expert.
3. When I was in high school, back in the pre-calculator days, we had to learn to use slide rulers, a skill at which I completely failed. I haven't seen a slide ruler in ages.
4. We have a manual mower; what a great workout! And I am the only person left in the world who does not have a cell phone. Life without continual "connectivity" is not only possible, but actually enjoyable.

Guest's picture

We still use most of these tools at home.. as well as an ordinary gas stove, electric fan, duster, etc.

Guest's picture

I had a manual mixer and it was nearly impossible to get through cake icing with it. I guess if you're just mixing liquids it's fine but I have spoons/forks/blenders for that.

Guest's picture

I 2 GPS' in my car - but they have TOTALLY failed me plenty. I'll drive where GPS or roads aren't mapped. OR what I think maps are great at - is finding what is along the way.Anyhow, I always keep the US Atlas in the trunk. Comes in handy!

Guest's picture

Payphones are almost impossible to find in my area. But if a mobile plan comes out to over a dollar a minute i say ditch it and get a prepaid cell phone. I am paying 10 cents a minute and only have to add 30 dollars every two months to keep it up which comes to 15 dollars a month, also the minutes and days add up so if i don't use them i don't lose them

Mikey Rox's picture
Mikey Rox

I wish I could, but I'm a serious texter and I like having the Internet at my fingertips. The problem is that I can't maintain a plan without the even the lowest-cost plan for the phone minutes. Admittedly it is a hefty price to pay to stay connected, but that's one area I can't sacrifice for frugality. I can't go back to the Stone Age of Communication that was 2001.

Guest's picture

I'm sorry--one question--you don't know how to read a map!? You have got to be kidding about this one!!

Mikey Rox's picture
Mikey Rox

Maybe I shouldn't say I don't know how. I've never tried, actually. I started driving 15 years ago - I'm 31 now - and MapQuest got me where I needed to go. That, of course, is still a frugal option in itself when compared to the cost of a dedicated GPS.

Guest's picture
Marti Thompson

A window fan; set it on exhaust, open a window on the other side of the house, and sleep under a delightful breeze on all but the hottest, most humid nights. I grew up with Depression era parents who gave all their offspring window fans for wedding presents, and for me, home isn't home without one. Fans cool people, not rooms or buildings; the breeze is the trick. You want a nice sturdy metal one with big blades and a powerful motor; the University of Missouri Extension Service has a great article on selecting the best type; you'll also want to check out Consumer Reports for recommendations.

Mikey Rox's picture
Mikey Rox

Thanks for the comment, Marti! I have to admit, though, I'm a energy hog when it comes to the air conditioner. I have serious climate-control issues. I can't sleep unless it's below 60 degrees in my bedroom, and my fan doesn't cut the mustard in that department on warm nights. I try - I really do - but I eventually cut the AC on because I'm sweating.

Guest's picture

This article is really great, and I agree with all of them except the abicus. As an engineer, I love my TI-89, but even if I didn't need a calculator that has more functions than anyone can use in a lifetime, I would definitely go for the dollar store calculator, which works great for day-to-day use, and can work in most basic math classes.

Guest's picture

I use 2 different types of manual can openers. The Zyliss Lock n Lift can opener http://amzn. to/LL51bR. It costs around $15 but it's very smooth and practically effortless to open a can.

The other one I use is the P-38 military can opener. You can get them online or at Army Navy stores for around .50-$1.50 each. I take mine with me all of the time. They fold flat and are small enough to fit on a key chain. There's a YouTube video that shows you how to use it if you can't figure it out on your own.