From Dumpster Diving to Garage Sales, Turning Trash Into Cash


Last year I made over $1,200 off of other people’s garbage. But then, I'm serious about reusing and recycling. I'm not afraid to yell, "Stop the car! That's good garbage!" in a crowded intersection. (See also: The Compact: Mindfullness and Frugality Through Buying Used)

Some of the garbage I find is actual money. Every year I manage to pick up around $20 in change off the ground. My favorite places to find lost change are in front of the counter at the post office and under the CoinStar machine at the grocery store. Last year I got lucky and actually found a $20 bill on the street, so my found money total rose to $44.03.

I don’t know what makes pennies not real currency in the eyes of so many people. A penny saved really is a penny earned, but a penny found is a penny that isn’t taxed. Do I even spend ten minutes a year bending over to pick up an average of $20 in small change? You would think that most Americans, especially in this economy, would be stoked to do an activity that pays $120 an hour. But no. Even total strangers laugh at me when I lean down to pick up coins off the ground. Yep, I am so embarrassed that the $44.03 I found bought a very nice dinner for my husband and me.

Bottles and Cans Are as Good as Cash

Although Los Angeles has the largest recycling program in the nation, and bottles and cans are redeemable for cash, I was still able to recycle $340 worth of glass and plastic bottles and aluminum cans that I picked up off the street. $120 of that $340 came from one alcoholic neighbor who decided that throwing her wine bottles onto the parkway from her window was easier than walking them to her recycling bin. Sadly, I don’t think that my neighbors are particularly terrible litterbugs. Many students at my local universities appear to have problems putting their recyclables into a recycling container, even when the container is right next to the trash. Classroom trashcans are full of plastic water bottles and Red Bull cans.

For me, $340 seems like big money for bringing a box of recyclables to the grocery store every week, but I am not even Junior Varsity when it comes to recycling income. There’s a family in Los Angeles who put three of their kids through college with the money they earned collecting cans.

Found Textbooks Are Educational (and Redeemable)

Speaking of college, I live within walking distance of one university, work at another one night a week, and am a student at a third. Last year, I earned $468 from selling back textbooks I’d pulled out of the dumpsters at school. This paid for my tuition and my textbooks for my Italian classes. My education was paid for with garbage.

Found Objects Are Garage Sale Inventory

Last year I made over $400 selling things I’d found on the street on Craigslist and at garage sales. I paid for my wedding ($159) with the earnings of one garage sale. This is hardly my greatest feat of trash picking. I paid for two entire years of my life by collecting stuff that my neighbors had curbed on trash day — and selling the stuff back to them at monthly garage sales. While my monthly expenses during 1996 and 1997 were only $1,000 a month, that’s still $24,000 I made at my part-time trash picking “job.”

Depending on the laws regarding trash pickup and garage sales in your area, my success may or may not be achievable everywhere. Some cities like West Hollywood, California cap the number of garage sales a household can have each year, while other municipalities prohibit “dumping” usable items on the curb. Check the laws in your area so you don't get saddled with a hefty fine.

Keeping What You Find

In addition to making money from the cast-offs of others, I also save around $1,000 a year by reusing items that are destined for the dump.

University Finds

At the end of every school year, university dumpsters are full of everything from textbooks to clothes to electronics — items deemed too inconvenient or too expensive to ship home. While I have yet to get up early enough to nab a last generation iPod or mini fridge like my neighbors have, I rarely pay for laundry detergent and can’t remember the last time I spent money on a spiral notebook, manila folder, mailing envelope, or three ring binder. School dumpsters are full of half used cleaning supplies and stationery products. Some schools like NYU actually have a garbage amnesty day that encourage community recycling, so if you live in a college town, check into your school’s end of the year trash picking policy.

Hardware Store and Nursery Finds

My local hardware store is my shipping box supplier. Hardware stores carry a lot of heavy products that come in sturdy, tiny to small cardboard boxes that are the perfect size for shipping etsy sale items. Since the hardware store has to pay for trash collection and recycling per dumpster, the owner encourages people to take the boxes by stacking them neatly by the back door. I get a steady stream of cardboard boxes (one less thing that I have to hoard in my house), and the store gets a lower garbage bill.

One of the local plant nurseries has a similar policy with their pony packs — those segmented plant containers that hold four to six seedlings. Apparently it’s cheaper to trash the entire pony pack if just one of the plants is dead or missing, rather than going to the trouble of replanting the plants in single containers or putting the pack on sale. Unlike the big box stores, which chop up the plants before throwing them in the garbage, ensuring that everyone and the planet gets screwed, the local nursery puts the “damaged” pony packs by the dumpster in the back alley every Sunday night before closing. There is a dedicated group of frugal gardeners that show up at 5:05 pm every week to divvy up the plants. Since I don’t mind growing mystery vegetable and flower varieties, this is a great way to get free landscaping and food.

The 2012 trash to treasure project that I am most proud of was using wood that I harvested from a damaged dresser, to make a shelf for my vintage armoire.

Are you a trash picker? Why or why not? What’s the best thing you’ve ever found in the garbage?

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Guest's picture

I picked a Little Tikes basketball hoop and picnic table for my kids. I used to dumpster dive the thrift store's dumpster and found great stuff- the Ball Blue Book of canning, Legos, art supplies... then they put a 12' chain link fence around it.

Guest's picture

Your wedding cost $159? Did you get married at the Recycling center wearing trash and eating compost?

Max Wong's picture

Hi Matt--

Do you know how much it costs to rent the conference room at the Recycling Center?Way out of my budget!

I got married on live radio at the radio station where my husband and I met (he's had a radio show for 25 years). I wore my great grandmother's Sterling silver embroidered, Edwardian wedding dress. My husband wore the suit and tie he wore on our first date. Since we got married at midnight, we served midnight snacks at the wedding (caviar, milk and cookies, etc)... Our wedding cake was the famous whipped cream and strawberry cake from The Phoenix Bakery in Los Angeles. You can pay more for a wedding cake, but why? For $26.95 The Phoenix Bakery will give you a taste of heaven.

Guest's picture

Our wedding cost about the same. We took a week vacation for our honeymoon. We never left the house or put on clothes unless the pizza delivery guy knocked on the door. You don't have to spend a lot of money to have fun, sometimes you don't have to spend any.

Guest's picture

Really enjoyed your article.

Several years back the neighboring towns tried several "large trash days" each summer. Legal trash picking in other words. My yard sale buddy had a pick up truck so this was a natural offshoot to our usual activities. We had a blast.

The most practical finds were construction materials, nails, decking screws and wood, tar paper and shingles, enough to complete a rather elaborate tree fort for my kids. Someone also trashed a rock tumbler complete with unpolished rocks and various grit sand. That I passed on to a family who was into rock collecting at the time. And all sorts of art and craft supplies.

Her best find was a box of antique handblown German Christmas ornaments.

My uncle (flea market junkie that he is) came into town with his roomate (who also owned a pick up truck) and we hit other places. He found a box of vintage china, which he sold upon his return. That more than paid for his trip.

Sadly, too many people trashed the areas they picked from and the practice was discontinued. But it was hugely fun while it lasted. Now it's only an ocassional find. Still good stuff though. A compost bin and a hose spool, some shabby chic wood funiture, and odd ball dishes.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Olivia--

Those are some awesome scores!

With regards to your tree fort, I've always wondered how long it would take to trash pick enough building supplies to actually make a small--like 500 square foot--home. My old neighbor made the most beautiful Victorian-style greenhouse in her backyard from trash picked windows and lumber.

Guest's picture

That is a really interesting side hustle, kudos!

Guest's picture

This was a great read. I enjoy your articles and learn a lot from it. I just read about the giving crafts article that you also wrote. Bookmarked it. So many great ideas. Thank you.

Guest's picture

It depends on what it is! I found a coffee table that was wobbly, just tightened the screws, repainted, and it has served us well for 15 years.

Guest's picture

Curbside trash is the best. I can't believe how many perfectly good basketball hoops are thrown out by the curbs in my neighborhood.

Guest's picture

Selling textbooks at the end of the semester is like Christmas! You make so much money off of them if you find the right buyer, it is always great to spread the knowledge and get a little bit of extra change in your pocket ;)

Guest's picture

Although now unemployed for over a year, by continuous reuse, recycling and "treasure hunting" my surroundings wherever I travel, maintaining an abundant "savings account" in my fridge, deep freezer, attic and basement, along with constant conscientious frugality 99% of the time, my lifestyle is easily as comfortable as many with full-time jobs, and certainly I'm doing Mother Earth a great favor.

But, should I pay taxes on the money from pawn shops and yardsale-goers that buy my foundlings?

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