Reduce, reuse, recycle, upcycle, repurpose, sustain… There’s no shortage of buzz words within reach to wax poetic about ways to conserve resources. And though Jeff Yeager—also known as The Ultimate Cheapskate—has no great love for buzz words, he does offer up thousands of money-saving ways to reduce, reuse, repurpose (and then some) in texts like Don’t Throw That Away: 1,001 Ways to Reuse Your Stuff.
In the following Q&A, Yeager shares straightforward ways to evaluate household waste, reuse items creatively and most of all—to buy less stuff.
Smarty Cents: What would you say are the most commonly tossed items that actually offer huge potential for reusability?
Jeff Yeager: Mostly what I’m trying to get people to do is think about all the things they’re throwing away and what it has to teach them about how they’re wasting money and the earth’s resources … But to more directly to answer your question—things like packaging. Whenever you see a lot of fancy packaging, you know you’re wasting money, and you know you’re wasting the earth’s resources.
For instance, it always strikes me as crazy that people go out and buy garbage bags to throw away garbage in. I mean, we’re buying something with the express purpose of throwing it away. So many of the containers that are forced on you—bags from a store, or the big bag that your dog food comes in—could be reused as garbage bags … While you can reuse a lot of packaging, my main message is that if you see a lot of packaging, you’re wasting your money.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the idea of the “trash can autopsy” … it’s looking through your trash and recycling bins a couple times a year to see how you’re wasting money. And again, the intent is not so much to reuse it but instead to learn from what your trash has to teach you. As I say, none of this stuff is going to make you rich—reusing stuff —but it will help to instill an ethic of thrift in you so that it makes wasting the big bucks that much harder.
And to get back to your question, one of the things we waste a huge amount of is food. According to the USDA, we throw away 25 percent of our food that we buy, so the average American family could arguably reduce their grocery bill by 25 percent if they were just smarter about food preservation and portion control.
SC: When you do shop for new items, do you imagine alternative uses and re-uses before you buy?
JY: The best case is that somebody reads my book and they decide they just need to buy less stuff. But, for instance, buying bottled water is a crazy proposition. It’s hard on the environment; it’s hard on your wallet; it’s a total waste of money.
So the first, best case is—don’t buy it. The second case is that if you do buy it, try to reuse it for the same purpose, and that goes the same for washing out your plastic bags, reusing your tin foil, using your dryer sheets more than once, that kind of thing. The third case is if you buy it and you’re not going to reuse it for the same purpose, then try to creatively repurpose it or recycle it … In general, I’ve found that so-called cheapskates shop based on the durability versus the price of something. So most of all, when we go shopping, we’re looking for things that will simply last the longest. And again, we’re also looking for something that avoids excess packaging and brand names, because we know that in the end we pay for all of that.
SC: What is your proudest creative repurposing moment (or moments)?
JY: One of the things I’m better known for is the “Cheapskate Soap on a Rope” … You take a pair of worn out panty hose, and you take all those slivers of soap from the shower that you never know what to do with, and you stuff them in the heel of the pantyhose and use them like a soap on a rope. That allows you to get all the suds out of those little slivers of soap.
I’m also big on my boxed wine, being a cheapskate. It’s like a box of cracker jacks. It comes with a surprise inside, which is that after you drink all the wine, there’s a little plastic bladder in there that you can pull out and inflate. I’ve made travel pillows out of them; I’ve made so-called “water pillows” for watering the garden.
Probably in terms of saving money and my proudest repurposing projects—I remodeled my house myself, and I like to use discarded or previously used items. For instance, we remodeled our bathroom and tore out many of the fixtures. I buried them out in the yard and made kind of a garden over the top of them, and made a very spectacular temple gate out of entirely repurposed items.
I have a chapter in the book about constructing things out of used materials. That’s where it really makes a difference to the pocketbook and the environment—reusing building materials and decorating materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill.
SC: You mentioned your garden overhaul—we’ve read about your love of organic gardening, and you describe composting as the “ultimate act of frugality.” Can you expand on that?
JY: It drives me totally crazy that we live in a society where we take organic material—material that will naturally decompose—and what do we do with that material? So many Americans put it in a plastic bag and send it to the landfill. So you’ve taken material that will decompose in nature within a year, if not much quicker, and we put it in a plastic bag, which will take a thousand years to decompose. Plus, we’re paying for the plastic bag!
So to me it seems like the smartest move is to simply allow all of your organic material to decompose naturally. About 20 percent of the waste in landfills is what I just described—organic material that isn’t allowed to decompose naturally but is instead put in plastic bags at our expense.
SC: Do you have a rule of thumb for when it’s time to just throw something out and replace it?
JY: I think it was the New York Times who reported that in the 1980s, about 75 percent of the household items that Americans bought were to replace something that was broken and couldn’t be repaired. And now, this many years later, only about 25 percent of items that we buy are to replace that’s something that’s broken and can’t be repaired. The other 75 percent are things that are just new on the market, and we just “have to have it.”
To say we live in a disposable society is a cliché, but unfortunately there’s a lot of truth to that cliché. So when it comes to throwing something out versus trying to get it repaired, my general rule is that if it costs me 50 percent or less to have it repaired, then in general you should have it repaired rather than throw it out and replace it. And that applies to everything from a pair of shoes to a new roof on your house.
SC: Do you have any advice for readers on adjusting their perspective on need versus want?
JY: In terms of combating impulse-buying and buyer’s remorse, I suggest that you wait a week between the time you see a discretionary item in the store and when you go back to buy it. I predict that more than half the time you’ll never go back to buy it, and sometimes, when you go back with the intention of buying it, you’ll look at it and think … I don’t need that. I don’t want that.
There was a study a few years ago that showed that Americans expressed regret about 80 percent of the discretionary items that they buy. And in fairness, that’s not to say we totally regret that 80 percent of the stuff, but we have at least some misgivings … People always say, “Jeff, being a cheapskate, you must give up a tremendous amount, and it must be a lot of sacrifice and deprivation.” And I counter—no. It’s as easy as trying to figure out what that 80 percent of the stuff’s going to be before you buy it, and then don’t buy it. If everybody else buys, and they regret it later, then how is that making them any happier?
SC: We’ve heard it said that people often confuse happiness with a momentary lack of desire.
It’s definitely a different kind of mindset. I really don’t write books about how to get rich, because none of the stuff I write about makes you rich. But I write about how to get happy, perhaps, with what you already have.
I’m told that every day, each of us Americans are bombarded by about 5,000 commercial messages telling us to buy more stuff. “Spend some more money, and then you’ll be happy.” And there’s certainly no social science that says more money and more stuff makes you happier above the point of abject poverty …
To get back to your earlier point, we’ve confused wants versus needs. Or as I say in one of my books, we’re prone to “want-inizing” our needs. That is, we’d all agree that housing is a necessity, but then that morphs into 10,000 sq ft McMansions with granite countertops and stuff that we just can’t afford, most of us. And once we get it, it just doesn’t make us any happier.
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What are your proudest repurposing moments? Share in the comments section below.