How to Save by Scavenging

Before looking for hidden gems in the trash, consider these 10 tips.

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At first glance, scavenging through someone else's trash for clothing, art, or appliances can seem a little gross—after all, the original user sent the item to the landfill for a reason. But driven by environmental concerns and financial constraints, some people get over the initial disgust to "shop" the trash, and bring home a few gems. If you're looking to engage in this money-saving pastime, here are 10 strategies to keep in mind:

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1. Consider your wallet and the environment. In their book The Scavengers' Manifesto, Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson report that 200 million tons of trash are thrown out each year. So while saving cash is a big reason to start scavenging, many people are just as motivated by environmental concerns. "The less you consume, the smaller your carbon footprint is," Lawson says. "When you scavenge, you're opting out of that entire cycle. You end up saving the world just by not consuming." Plus, he adds, you appreciate what you have more, because if you avoid buying new items, you tend to have less.

2. Think big. Neither Rufus nor Lawson has bought new clothes in the last 12 years, and they estimate that they've spent just $10 in the last year on clothes. Yet their closets are filled with designer outfits that they found in discarded boxes by the curb one day. "Ninety-five percent of the things in this house have been scavenged, from the carpets to the paint on the wall," says Rufus. "It's amazing to us how much, and what, people throw away."

3. Be prepared. Rufus and Lawson bring plastic bags each time they leave the house, just in case they come across something—fruit in a park, or discarded artwork—that they want to bring home. In fact, Rufus thinks of each trip out as an adventure to potentially bring home treasures. "Much of the joy of scavenging is the thrill of the random. You discover something you didn't even know you were looking for," adds Lawson.

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4. Relinquish control. So much of our consumer culture is based on buying exactly what we want, when we want it. But Rufus and Lawson say that being a scavenger means relinquishing that instant gratification. "For people accustomed to the control of living in a consumer society, it can be a hard transition," Rufus acknowledges.

5. Set some limits. Maybe you draw the line at eating someone else's dinner leftovers, or perhaps you have a bias against used jeans. Whatever your personal limits, Rufus and Lawson recommend recognizing and sticking to them. They follow a dozen principles of their own, including do not steal, do not harm the environment, don't deny yourself necessities, don't become a nuisance to others, don't remove historical artifacts, make an effort to return lost things to their owners, don't eat gross things, don't browbeat others into becoming scavengers, and don't be a mooch.

"I call it the ick factor," says Rufus. "We're never asking anyone to go beyond their ick factor. I have a germ phobia, so I don't dumpster dive [for food]," she says. But Rufus and Lawson do visit discount retail grocery stories where mislabeled or out-of-season food is sold at low prices.

Another risk to watch out for is the danger of becoming a hoarder, or a person who compulsively collects things. Rufus and Lawson recommend purging your scavenged collection of goods every now and then by donating them or hosting a yard sale.

6. Don't worry about being seen as strange—scavenging is getting more popular. While Rufus admits there is a long-standing prejudice against scavengers, she says the stigma is slowly evaporating. "[Scavenging] is getting more and more common. It's happening at downtown offices all over the country. [Someone says], 'Everyone brings in clothing they have in their closet that they don't want any more and we'll trade,'" she says.

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7. There's no need to go to extremes. There are many different kinds of scavengers—anyone who has stopped by a yard sale, flea market, or even discount outlet could accurately identify with the term. Clipping coupons and shopping estate sales also count. Anything that lets you avoid paying full price, and, if possible, purchase something slightly damaged or used, puts you into scavenger territory.