making arrest
Photo by Elvert Barnes

If you find treasure where others see trash, take a few minutes consider trash picking laws. Are you breaking the law when scavenging, dumpster diving, curb surfing, free-cycling, or trash picking?  Maybe.  It depends on where you are picking, what you are taking, and your methods.

You are breaking no federal laws by trash picking garbage that was left in a public spaceHowever, you may be breaking local laws that exist in a some areas.  Furthermore, some locales prevent the taking of certain types of garbage (like recyclables).

When you are trash picking, it is much more likely that you will get in trouble for breaking other laws, like laws about trespassing, littering, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, health and safety, or parking.

It is always good to know where you stand legally, so here is an explanation of trash picking laws.

Related post: Free Stuff on the Curb: 29 tips for scoring big

Trash picking and the law

Trash picking is legal (federally)

trash picking and federal law

If you are a trash picker or dumpster diver, you will be pleased to learn that the Supreme Court has defended your right to go through and even take other people’s trash (sort of.)

While there have been no cases about trash picking directly, there have been cases on the legal standing of garbage.  The most important case in this regard has been California v. Greenwood.  In this 1988 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the police had the right to pick through and take from trash left on public space.

In the 1984 the Laguna Beach police department picked through Billy Greenwood’s garbage to find evidence of drug trafficking which they consequently used to gain a search warrant.  After searching the home, the police found lots of marijuana and cocaine.  Greenwood’s defense argued all the way to the Supreme Court that searching his garbage violated the fourth amendment as illegal search and seizure.

The court decided that that garbage left for collection is in the public realm and loses all rights of privacy and property.

Criminals take note, this view has been upheld in subsequent cases.  Your garbage may not remain silent and may be used against you.

Local trash picking laws

trash picking laws and recycling
Is this scrapper committing a crime?

While the Greenwood case tangentially protects trash picking on a federal level, some areas have local prohibitions on trash picking.  You might think that everyone wins when something useful stays out of the landfill or recycling center, but policy makers may not share that view.

Recyclable materials may be off limits

For some municipalities, recycling means big money.  When scrappers, can collectors, or passers by take the intended recycling, the city or its contracted service loses money.  Even though the value of recyclable materials has fallen in recent years, these materials may be jealously guarded.

recyclable materials value chart

Some municipalities have ordinances that make intended recycling the property of the city.  In one extreme 2010 case, a New York City man and his aunt were each fined $2000 for taking a discarded air conditioner from the curb.

It is unlikely that law enforcement will take the time to pursue people taking recycling.  Nevertheless, if you want to obey the law, check your local laws or just skip taking recyclables all together.

Undesirable behaviors and identity thieves

trash picking local laws
Photo by raymondclarkeimages

Some locales have laws to prevent trash picking in any form. Even if the item is not recycling or protected by privacy or property laws, trash picking may be off limits.  The laws are mainly in place to prevent nuisance behaviors and identity theft.

These laws can be controversial. Nobody wants someone “salvaging” their personal documents. Furthermore, nobody wants a bunch of noise in the middle of the night, strangers hanging out on the sidewalk, or a mess to clean up.  On the other hand, it seems sinful to prevent the salvaging of serviceable items that are destined for the landfill.

Whether or not you personally feel that these trash picking laws go too far, they are on the books in many places.

Related laws that you might be breaking

Even if trash picking is technically fair game where you are, there are many other laws to consider.  People who get in trouble for trash picking are usually fined for one of the following issues.


trash picking and trespassing

Garbage on or in private property remains the private property of the resident or entity.  Even if you are a 90-year-old grandma grabbing cans from the garbage at the car wash, that garbage is protected by privacy and property laws.

As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, garbage in the public realm is fair game, but how do you know if the items are in the public realm?  If the garbage is by the side of the house, in a garage, behind a fence, or in a locked container, it is clear that you will be trespassing. But what about when garbage placement gets vague?

Public or private space?

We can talk about tree lawns, road verge, alleys, easements, and curbs, but the key legal term to understand here is curtilage:

“Curtilage includes the area immediately surrounding a dwelling, and it counts as part of the home for many legal purposes, including searches and many self-defense laws. When considering whether something is in a dwelling’s curtilage, courts consider four factors:

  1. The proximity of the thing to the dwelling;
  2. Whether the thing is within an enclosure surrounding the home;
  3. What the thing is used for.
  4. What steps, if any, the resident took to protect the thing from observation/ access by people passing by.”

-from The Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law

Our physical spaces are complex and varied, and different cities have different rules regarding spaces like sidewalks.  When it comes to curtilage (the protected private space), both the physical space and the intentions of the owner are factors.

To avoid trespassing, simply ask yourself two questions:

  • Do I have a clear, legal right to walk there generally?
  • Are the items clearly being left for disposal?

Invasion of privacy

identity theft
Identity thieves will try anything. Photo by Gale

I have already noted that some municipalities have laws preventing all forms of garbage picking over privacy concerns.  Even if such laws are not in place, a resident or entity retains privacy rights for any garbage within the curtilage of the property.

Privacy rights and property rights go hand-in-hand when it comes to trash picking laws.  If the previous owner has placed the items in public space (beyond their legal curtilage) for intended disposal, they have no legal expectation of privacy.

People may not want you to know that they still read Boy’s Life magazine, eat six cans of spam a week, or never dust their dresser drawers, but privacy rights do not extend to garbage on the curb.

I may not like it when someone takes my picture in public, but their is nothing that I can do about it. Similarly, I may not like it when someone looks at my old furniture on curb, but I have waved my privacy rights and any expectation of privacy.

Health and Safety violations

In rare cases, trash pickers have been fined for health and safety violations.

In Birmingham, Alabama, several men were fined after collecting trash for disposal when the neighborhood trash was piling up (due to unpaid sanitation bills.)  The officials argued that the men did not have the required training or equipment for the disposal. Even though the trash had been sitting around for weeks, the officials claimed that the men were creating a health hazard.

This unusual case aside, if you are salvaging items, make sure that you are not inadvertently creating physical or biological hazards.  If you are leaving dangerous debris or potentially spreading pathogens, a fine is justified.


trash picking laws and littering

Some people think that you must take possession of an offending item before you can be guilty of littering.  Based on most littering laws, this is simply not the case.

One example (California)

“374. (a) Littering means the willful or negligent throwing, dropping, placing, depositing, or sweeping, or causing any such acts, of any waste matter on land or water in other than appropriate storage containers or areas designated for such purposes.”

Ownership or possession has nothing to do with it. If I pick up a piece of garbage in the park to read the label and then put it back where I found it, I am still littering.  If you are physically leaving, placing, or scattering garbage when seeking trashy treasures, you are littering.

Let’s say I break apart an old desk to salvage the drawers for another purpose.  If I do not properly dispose of the remaining debris, I am littering.

Disorderly conduct / disturbing the peace

There are many reasons not to pick trash in the dead of night.  One reason is that you might be breaking laws regarding disorderly conduct and/or disturbing the peace. In one extreme case, an actual garbage collector was sentenced to jail time for doing his job too early in the morning.

Disturbing the peace is a legal catch-all that is defined as “infringing upon or frustrating someone else’s right to peace and tranquility.”  As you can tell, this is a very vague definition. (My neighbor’s Dallas Cowboys flag frustrates my tranquility on a daily basis.) Laws regarding disturbing the peace and the degree their enforcement vary widely from place to place.

The most important thing to remember is to be considerate.  Make minimal noise, do not stay long, and do not leave a mess.


Loitering laws are controversial because they generally target the less fortunate.  A poor person and a rich person can do the exact same thing with very different reactions from shop owners, police, etc.  If you are picking trash, you will not get the benefit of preference.

Some loitering laws focus on the absence of activity (hanging around) whereas other laws focus on undesirable activities. (“But officer, I do have a purpose. I am begging for money and then gambling with it.”) Most accusations of loitering are baseless as the offense is hard to prove.

Even though you may be within your rights to be where you are, why invite a hassle? The easiest way to avoid any concerns about loitering is by going about your business expeditiously.

Related link: A Guide to Legal Loitering

Illegal parking / loading

No matter how great the prospective find, do not commit moving or parking violations.  The money you were trying to save will disappear in a flurry of carbon paper and bureaucracy.  Take your time, park legally, and load responsibly.

Conclusions on trash picking laws

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.  This is my understanding based on my experience and research.  You are responsible for checking your local laws.

The take-away here is that much of the time scavenging, dumpster diving, curb surfing, free-cycling, and trash picking is perfectly legal.  You must make sure that there are no local laws prohibiting your activity and that items that you are taking are in the public realm and intended for disposal.

On the other hand, you must keep other laws pertaining to trespassing, littering, disturbing the peace, disorderly conduct, health and safety, parking, etc. in the front of your mind.  It is easy to imagine law enforcement officials using these other laws as a way to curb a legal behavior (trash picking) that has been causing complaints in the area.

For my part, I love finding cool, free stuff, and I feel that it is important to battle our society’s wasteful tendencies whenever possible.  However, I do not want to break any laws nor upset anyone in my community.  The solution is for me to get my free stuff while obeying trash picking laws and acting conscientiously.

I decided to do a deep dive on this trashy subject after writing a post on curb surfing.  If you would like to get my tips, please check out my other post:

Related post: Free Stuff on the Curb: 29 tips for scoring big

Did my post on trash picking laws help you out? Did I miss the mark? Do you want to share your experience? Please, leave a comment.


Grocery store rip-offs featured image

Before thinking about grocery store rip-offs, let’s stop whining about the cost of groceries.

Americans spend less on groceries than ever before.

In 1960 American households spent almost 18% of their total income on food. American households today spend less than 10% of their income on food (even though we eat out more than ever before).

Per capita disposable income spent on food in the U.S., 1960-2013

Americans spend less on groceries than any other nation.

Americans currently spend a smaller percentage of household income on groceries than any other nation.  According to the world economic forum, Americans spend 6.4% of household income on groceries whereas people in many nations spend more than 40% of household income on food eaten at home.

 When it comes to food prices, Americans today have less to complain about than any other people in history.  Every time you leave a grocery store, you are literally getting the deal of the century.

Grocery budgets are easy to modify.

With these facts in mind, it seems obscene to think about “grocery store rip-offs.”  It makes more sense to think about how our food industry is negatively impacting our health and our world.

Nevertheless, grocery costs are within your control. Unlike home insurance, your kid’s braces, or the vig you owe your bookie, your grocery costs can be lowered simply by your desire to do so.

In the short term, the money you save avoiding grocery store rip-offs might enable you to shop with an eye to social responsibility, improve the quality of your diet, pay off a credit card, or plan for something special.  In the long term, many years of lower grocery bills could seriously improve your financial well-being.

Top 15 grocery store rip-offs

grocery store rip-offs canned peaches
“Well, this discussion on canned peaches has given me a lot to think about.”

#7) Frozen potato products

Do not by frozen french fries, home fries, or hash-browns. Buy a big, cheap sack of potatoes instead.  Processed potato products are more expensive, full of objectionable ingredients (palm oil, trans fats, excessive salt, etc.), and require wasteful refrigeration.

Making a big tray of baked fries or grating some potatoes for hash browns is not that big a deal.  The result is better tasting, healthier, and cheaper.


  • I like to spiralize potatoes and bake them on a rack with a bit of olive oil spray and seasoning.
  • Never store potatoes in a plastic bag; the trapped moisture will ruin them.
  • Make a big batch of potato salad that you can use all week.

#6) Bottled water

grocery store rip-offs bottled water

Bottled water is a waste of money with an incredible environmental impact.  Think of all the packaging involved; even if you are recycling, the recycling process has a carbon footprint.  Think about all of the fossil fuels used moving the product around.

If you are destroying the Earth so that you can drink water from Fiji’s pristine rain forests, please take a moment to slap yourself as hard as you can.

If you have a legitimate concern about the quality of the water from your well, pipes, or municipality, get the water tested.

If the taste or healthfulness of your water is below your standards, invest in a high-quality water purification system. A whole-house system will pass all of the water through carbon filters and bacteria-killing UV rays and can cost a grand or more with installation.  If you are replacing your bottled water, this expense is completely unnecessary. (Your toilets do not need filtered water.)

An under sink, faucet-mounted, pitcher-style, or counter-top water filter will save you money in the long run.  The initial investment and the occasional replacement of the filter (many filters are rated to process several thousand gallons) are well worth it.

#5) Beef

imageBeef is (comparatively) expensive.  It also has the highest environmental impact of any major food source.  When you eat meat you are also consuming all of the food that the animal ate.  It should be expensive.  It should be more expensive.

I love a big steak, but this should be a rare (literally, in my opinion) treat.  Start reducing your beef consumption by eating more poultry, fish, and vegetarian options. Learn to cook fish well; your heart will thank you.

Start trying out substitutes for beef wherever you can. Switch the beef out of your tacos, burritos, meatloaf, lasagna, stuffed peppers, etc. These types of meals are very tasty with a substitution.

#4) Quick rice

top grocery store rip-off quick rice
“I only regret that I spent so much time cooking rice.”

Minute rice, ten-minute rice, parboiled rice, and frozen rice are all unnecessary.  Is it really that demanding to boil rice?  Think of all that wasted packaging. Buy a big, cheap sack of rice and stop being in such a damned hurry.

1 serving Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice = .50

1 serving bagged rice = .06

#3) Pre-seasoned entrees

grocery store rip-offs salmon

More and more grocery stores are selling pre-portioned, pre-seasoned entrees like salmon steaks or pork chops.  You are paying the store to make small portions, repackage, sprinkle on some paprika or whatever, and slap on a sticker with instructions.  Don’t do it.  Believe in yourself; you can sprinkle your own paprika, and you can Google instructions.

Have a well-stocked spice rack and a collection of vinegar, oils, glazes, etc. It will pay off.

#2) Paying full price for shelf-stable items

checking the pantry
My dog checking the pantry inventory.

Not everyone has the space to store a surplus of shelf-stable items, but if you have a bit of space, you should have a “stash.”  You do not need to be an extreme coupon-er to benefit from a stocked pantry.  If you know that you use a canned item that is on sale, why not buy five? This will basically mean that you are always getting your canned and dried goods at a serious discount.

It is also amazing how many times the “stash” can bail you out when you have no idea what to make for dinner.

TIP: Check the unit price on the shelf ticket.  Larger sizes are usually a better deal but not always.

#1) Hummus

hummus price

Marketers have convinced us that hummus is a mystical, exotic concoction that can only be produced by Middle Eastern ascetics living in an undisclosed desert oasis.  It is simply chick peas, olive oil, and sesame seed paste.  These ingredients are cheap, and hummus is fun to make.

Imagine this situation: Your bookie’s goons visit you more often than your mother.  The bank has repossessed your ’83 Cimarron.  You are selling your blood plasma and volunteering for medical experiments.  You bought your son a do-it-yourself braces kit. And all because you were too lazy to make your own hummus?!  Get some chick peas, tahini, olive oil, and seasonings and take your life back.

TIP: An immersion blender makes making hummus quick and easy.  Just dump the ingredients in a big vessel and put the blender to it. Your hummus is finished.

top grocery store rip-offs hummus

Related post: Money-saving Grocery List

8 dishonorable mentions

Prepared side dishes

Come on people, we put humans on the moon and cured polio; we can make our own macaroni salad and coleslaw.

Bottled teas

I can understand if you do not want to make your own carbonated beverages at home (although it can be done), but there is no reason to buy bottled teas.  Make a big pitcher of iced tea, add some lemon or whatever, and save big.

Microwave popcorn

Microwave popcorn is not only a rip-off, it also tastes weird.  Start popping your corn on the stove top and you will never go back.

Brand-name cereal

It is common for the same plant to produce brand name and store brand cereals.  The formulations may differ slightly, but you are really paying for the marketing.


Whether you are talking about magazines, beauty products, greeting cards, diapers, or tea kettles, if you are buying it in a grocery store you are probably paying too much.

Some organic foods

In some cases, there is a huge difference in how organic produce is grown.  Other times, not so much.  Click the link below to learn about which fruits and vegetables are worth the organic difference.

Related link: Organic Foods: What You Need to Know

Candy and snacks

We like to buy small portions of candies and snacks because we worry about self-control, but there is no doubt that these small impulse buys are grocery store rip-offs.

Prepared fruits and veggies

It is tempting to toss a vegetable platter or fruit salad into your cart, but try not to.  You are paying a hefty premium just to avoid some washing and chopping.  Pick the individual fruits or veggies that look best to you and you will have a superior result.

The costs of laziness and thoughtlessness.

The amount of money you spend on food is easily adjusted.  For all of the grocery store rip-offs on this list, you are trading money for convenience (or supposed convenience). You can reduce your costs without feeling deprived.  In fact, in many cases you will be eating healthier and tastier food.

By eliminating these rip-offs and buying the best deals habitually, you can really help your budget. Check out my Money-saving Grocery List, because the amount you spend on groceries is part of you budget that you can adjust easily.

Related post: Reasons to Shop at Aldi

How did I do with my list? How have you cut your grocery costs? What are the biggest grocery store rip-offs in your view? Please leave a comment.

reducing coffee habit costs featured
“I buy lattes every day and have no emergency fund. #YOLO!”

Let’s think about the “latte factor” of our budgets.

Are your coffee habit costs worth it?  Is watching other people on their laptops the highlight of your day?  Does scoring the big, comfy seat with the least repulsive stains make you feel like a winner? Do you curate a collection of cups with your name misspelled? Perhaps the mere thought of giving up extra-caffeinated Starbucks favorites leaves you whimpering for hours in the fetal position.

If the convenience and/or experience of your cafe visit truly improves your life, don’t worry about reducing coffee habit costs.  Perhaps your daily coffee stop really is a special place, or you use the opportunity to meet with someone special.

starbucks factor espresso

On the other hand, if your daily cafe visit feels like an “I’m still alive tax,” and you just want your caffeinated treat, think about how you can reduce coffee habit costs.  This post explores your cumulative coffee habit costs and offers solutions for trimming coffee costs by making great coffee, espresso, cappuccino, etc. at home.

Cumulative coffee habit costs

Some personal finance gurus use the term “latte factor” in reference to recurring, trivial, voluntary expenses.  This is an apt term, since cafe spending is habitual and seemingly low cost.  These coffee habit costs are not trivial when examined closely.

trimming coffee costs making your own
Spilling the beans on your latte factor.

Crunching the numbers of coffee habit costs

According to ABC news, the average American worker spends $14.40 on coffee outside the home. For younger workers, the average is even higher.

Let’s follow a hypothetical example where an individual spends an average of $20 a week ($2.86 a day) on their coffee habit.  This is slightly less than the price of one Starbucks latte per day (the smallest size).

In this example the person switches to making their own caffeinated treat at a cost of $5 a week, for a net savings of $15 a week.  This is quite conservative since the cost of the ingredients (coffee beans, milk, sugar, cinnamon, ice, etc.) is extremely low.

How much might this person amass after ten years of reducing coffee habit costs?

Burying saved coffee habit costs in the back yard: $7,800

reducing coffee habit costs dog
“Find the money, Sparky!” Photo by Eselsmann

Simply stashing the money away for ten years would result in $7,800.  Since you are not earning any interest and the purchasing power of your money is falling due to inflation, you might be better off spending the money as you go. Fancy weekend getaways, concerts, generous gifts, etc. are more memorable than convenient lattes.

Putting your saved coffee habit costs in a savings account (Barclay Online 1.15%): $8,216.28

You are not quit keeping pace with historical inflation (so the purchasing power is falling), but your $15 a week has grown to over eight grand in ten years.

Investing saved coffee habit costs in a low-fee index fund (9%): $11,850.49

trimming coffee costs graph

Note: 9% is slightly lower than the S&P 500 historical average since its inception in 1928.  This chart does not account for fees or capital gains tax. On the other hand, it does not include dividend payments offered by many companies.

Investing is always a risk, but index funds diversify your investment so that you are essentially investing in the economy as a whole. They also have minuscule fees since no highfalutin, “market-beating” managers are taking a cut.

Just by reducing coffee habit costs to five dollars a week, our hypothetical coffee lover has amassed almost twelve grand.  This really shows the power of investing as little as $15 a week.

Now, let’s see what reducing coffee habit costs could do in the long term.

If you saved the same $15 a week by reducing coffee habit costs for thirty years, it is likely that you will have about $106,319.88 (according to historical averages). The chart below illustrates just how much of this total comes from the interest.   Of course, this projection is based on historical averages, and investing always includes risk.

reducing coffee habit costs

If you are planning to put away money for the long (as per our example) consider starting an IRA to minimize tax liability.  I bet that you will enjoy watching your money grow more than you will dislike making your own caffeinated treats.

Related link: “Many millennials spend more on coffee than they save for retirement” from Business Insider

Reducing coffee habit costs without sacrifice.

Cutting your latte factor does not mean accepting sub-par coffee (Heaven forbid!). To make great tasting cafe treats at home, look to the past.  Forget about big, expensive machines; you don’t even need electricity.  With a little practice, you may discover that you are your favorite barista.

Freshly-ground is better

I can taste the difference when I grind the beans fresh.  As an added bonus, you can save by buying in bulk. Whole bean coffee does not oxidize (and become stale) nearly as fast as grounds, so you can stock up.

I keep it old-school by using a manual mill; I just like it. A manual mill really doesn’t take too long if it is properly adjusted.

reducing coffee habit costs grinder.jpg
This old, cast iron mill will outlive us all.

Whatever type of grinder you are using, make sure that the grind is adjusted for the brewing method that you employ.  For example, espresso beans should be very fine whereas a French press works better with a courser grind.

Use a French press to keep standards high when reducing coffee habit costs.

French presses are fast (4 minutes of heating and 4 minutes of brewing), cheap, small, easy, durable, and make great coffee.  I microwave the water in a big Pyrex cup for speed.  I keep a larger French press around for company and Sunday mornings.

Since there is no heating element (like on a drip coffee maker), I recommend getting French presses that are vacuum insulated.  The presses shown (one glass and one steel) are both vacuum insulated and keep coffee hot for an hour or so without scorching the precious contents.

reducing coffee habit costs french press

insulated french press trimming coffee costs
Weekday size
large insulated french press
Weekend / company size

Reduce coffee habit costs by making espresso / cappuccino the way Nonna did.

Stove-top espresso makers are great; they take up very little space and come in a variety of sizes. Make sure that you are using beans that are roasted specifically for espresso to get the authentic taste.

If you want to make cappuccino, heat up some milk while the espresso maker is working.  Put the milk in the microwave until it starts to bubble.  Hit the milk with an inexpensive whipper thingy, and spoon on the foamy goodness.  You can add all of the steamed milk to make it latte style.

filling stove top espresso
The grounds shown are way too course for true espresso, but I was just making a regular coffee for the photo.
espresso maker working
You shouldn’t leave the top open, but I wanted to show the action.
reducing coffee habit costs milk whipper
This little, battery-operated whipper thing does a fine job and only cost $5.

stove top cappucino starbuck factor

Making it to go

If you need your treat to go, you can’t beat vacuum insulated containers.  Pre-treat your container with cold or hot water for best results.  Also, the larger the volume the longer it will maintain temperature, so you have a good excuse for over-caffeinating.

Using your own travel cups means that you are not paying for disposable.  It also means that you are reducing your impact on the environment.  If the person in our hypothetical example switched to reusable containers, they would eliminate the environmental impact of 3,650 cups, lids, and stirrers.

reducing coffee habit costs thermos

Conclusion on reducing coffee habit costs

There is nothing at Starbucks that you cannot make cheaply at home.  You may need ice, syrups, spices, etc. to make your favorites, but a little research and experimentation go a long way.  There are many websites explaining how to make all the cafe treats that you crave.

Reducing coffee habit costs takes a bit of time and effort. However, it is fun to engage in this culinary alchemy and the savings can literally change your life.

Related post:“Is Aldi Worth an Extra Trip?”

Related post: “Top 7 Grocery Store Rip-offs”

Any hot Starbucks hacks to share?

What is your coffee system?

getting the most from your public library featured

Stop wasting money and get the most from your public library.

I am not sure what causes many of us to ignore our public libraries. Perhaps it is because marketers have done a wonderful job convincing us to pay for books, media, and downloads.  Public libraries offer the same opportunities for free but without the marketing.

I mainly get audio books for dog walking and driving and Ebooks for evenings, but there are many ways to get the most from your public library.

14 ways to get the most from your public library:

  1. Ebooks
  2. Audio books
  3. Virtual research libraries
  4. Hanging out
  5. Programs for adults
  6. Programs for kids
  7. Social services
  8. Meeting space
  9. Periodicals
  10. Events and exhibitions
  11. Downloadable movies, music, and comic books
  12. Free WiFi
  13. Borrowing movies and music
  14. Old-fashioned book borrowing

1) Ebooks

get the most from your public library ebook

Ebooks are a wonderful way to get the most from your public library.  This is especially true if you can be a bit flexible in your selections.  Do not be surprised if you cannot access every book by your favorite author.  You can sort by what is currently available or add yourself to a wait list (you simply get an email when your loan is ready).

Do not risk wasting money on something you won’t like or even finish.  Even if you are buying cheaper Ebooks, there is always a risk that you might not like it, and you cannot get a refund.

Life is too short to read books that you are not enjoying.  There are too many great books out there to waste any time.  When I am reading a book and decide to give up on it, I chuck it across the room (scaring my wife and the dogs.)  I had to stop doing this when I switched to Ebooks, so I keep a sacrificial physcial book that I hate to throw across the room (A Walk in the Woods) when needs must.

Now that I download books for free, I can chuck A Walk in the Woods across the room at will and have no qualms about it.  Three minutes later,  I am reading something that I enjoy.

I recommend having a dedicated e reader.  Reading on even a largish phone is simply not the same.  Additionally, there are two many distractions on your phone.  When I sit down with my e reader it puts me in the right frame of mind.

2) Audio books

get the most from your public library audio books

Most of us wish we had more time for reading, so audio books are great help.

I have always loved audio books, even in the olden days when we had to keep big stack of scratched CDs on the passenger seat.   Get the most out of your public library by downloading audio books to enjoy while driving, walking the dog, mowing the lawn, or pretending to watch your kid’s soccer game.

3) Virtual research libraries

Whether you are working on your master’s thesis or supporting your conspiracy theory on how big oil got Friends cancelled, virtual research libraries can help.  You do not need to be at university to conduct scholarly research.  You might be surprised to learn that even small libraries provide access to excellent virtual research libraries.

4) Hanging out (get the most from your public library space)

hanging out at the library

Sometimes you just want a calm, comfortable place to hang out and read a magazine. Maybe your home is not an ideal environment for quiet introspection.  Think about your local library as a cozy coffee shop where you are not expected to buy anything.

Related post: Trimming Your “Starbucks Factor”

With the growth of online access, library branches have adapted their mission.  Libraries are less about borrowing and leaving.  Many libraries offer meeting areas, study zones, comfy couches, and little parks. It is a nice way to meet people in your neighborhood that you might not run into in another setting.

5) Programs for adults

Get the most out of your public library by thinking about your library as a senior center for people of all ages.  Whether you are trying to explore your creative side, meet interesting people, or engage in a favorite activity your public library might have a perfect program for you.

Related link: Free Library of Philadelphia programs

6) Programs for kids

get the most from your public library kid reading

Programming your kid’s time can get expensive in a hurry, before you sign them up for interpretive Tae Kwon Do, get the most from your public library.  I just checked on my branch’s page and they offer everything from homework help, to science labs, to culinary arts.  Kids programs have gone way beyond story hour.

7) Social services

More and more libraries are serving their communities with social programs.  They are helping people access healthcare, find jobs, learn languages, transition from incarceration, gain citizenship, and on and on.

Get the most out of your public library by learning about how programs like these can help you improve your life.

8) Meeting space

Many branches provide meeting space.  You simply sign up for a time and the space is yours.  Now your Living with Kleptomania support group can stop meeting at your house.

9) Periodicals

I love killing time at the library reading magazines to which I would never subscribe.  Let’s face it, the bass fishing news cycle does not require monthly updates.

10) Events and exhibitions

Get the most out of your public library by joining the email list and keeping tabs on upcoming events.  Meet filmmakers, experts, policy makers, artists, and authors.  See performances and exhibits.  The kinds of things you miss after leaving college can often be found at your public library.

11) Downloadable movies, music, and comic books

You might be surprised by the downloadable media access your library provides.  My library subscribes to Hoopla which offers music, movies, shows, and even comic books for download.

12) Free WiFi

If you watch your data usage like a hawk, take advantage of the free WiFi at your local library.  I have been known to sit on a bench near the library while I take a lunch break and watch cat videos or horror movies (depending on what kind of day I am having).

13) Borrowing movies and music

Many branches still offer media loans allowing you to cut down on the number of kid movies you have to buy or expand your musical tastes.

14) Good, old-fashioned book borrowing

When you invest money in a book, you might resolve to force yourself to finish the whole book before starting anything else.  Then you will procrastinate and watch re-runs of Bonanza instead.  Before you know it, you are illiterate, you can’t watch any movies with subtitles, you lose your job, and your spouse leaves you. (I’ve seen it a hundred times.) All of this because you didn’t want to take the time to get a library card?  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Get the most from your public library by broadening your horizons.

Since you are paying nothing, you are more likely to try new things. You might investigate an activity even if you are not sure you will enjoy it. You might try books that you normally wouldn’t.

I confess that I have been listening to self-help books more than I used to (don’t judge me).  They don’t require the same level of concentration when walking the dogs as, say, War and Peace.

Video link: George Carlin on self-help books (Viewer discretion is advised.)

If you are not using your public library, you might fail to discover something that you really enjoy.

“Get the Most from Your Public Library” conclusion

Do you pay any taxes? I thought that you might.  Why would you not take advantage of a resource that you paid for?  Libraries have so much more to offer than physical lending. Give it a try, you might like it.

There are seven billion people on this world and many of them are creating fascinating content.  Much of this content is available through your public library; you don’t need to spend much on media if you do not want to.

Related post: Spending less on TV: How to survive cutting the cord

bikers on smartphones

I may have been the last person in Philadelphia with a flip phone, because I was unsure of the cheapest way to have a smartphone.

I was mocked at work and on the street.  Little kids driving their big-wheels would stop to stare at me (and take pictures with their smartphones).  My neighbor thought it was a social services phone that can only call the hospital. My flip phone caused car accidents (because drivers would see me using it and laugh uncontrollably). When my wife called to me she would ask me if I was alone – not because she wanted to say something romantic but because she was concerned about my dignity.

But I stood against the tide. I didn’t need a smartphone for work, found them annoying, and thought the data costs unreasonable.  I had my small tablet, a decent camera, my GPS device, and my good-ol’ flip phone (which was indestructible, cheap to replace, and only needed charging once a week).

Every time I thought about getting a smartphone, my research on the cheapest way to have a smartphone was inconclusive.

old-fashioned phone
“Yes, I am satisfied with my current service.”

Finally, a friend who switches phones and plans compulsively clued me in to the cheapest way to have a smartphone.

Years of dissatisfaction with phone companies

Since I don’t really like talking on the phone, I have always been looking for ways to save on communication. For years my wife had a smartphone, and I had a basic phone.  I didn’t enjoy dealing with Verizon’s nebulous pricing and was frustrated that they they would not activate a smartphone with no data plan (I had read that AT&T would do this for a while but then stopped.)

Even though we had a Verizon discount through my wife’s employment, I wanted to see if I could do better. I bought a cheap, unlocked, basic phone and switched to Consumer Cellular (you know, the one in the AARP magazine), but was still stuck with extra devices. On the plus side, the phone I found on amazon had an FM radio and terrestrial TV antennae.  Believe me, this model got me a lot of attention from the ladies!

weirdest phone ever
Watching local TV on my phone with a terrestrial antennae? Yes, please.

When a friend told me about his new solution, Google’s Project Fi, I had finally found the cheapest way to have a smartphone. (Thanks, Tony.)  I could have a smartphone, clear billing, and simply leave the data turned off.  I haven’t looked back.  I pay $20 a month plus $5.72 in taxes and stuff.  This was less than I was paying with Consumer Cellular for a basic phone.  I usually only turn on the data when I am killing time or getting directions.  When I do turn on data, it only charges me for what I use.  I may pay $27.32 instead of $25.72. If I can convert my wife, I will pay even less (five dollars less for additional lines).

Are you right for the cheapest way to have a smartphone?

We are going to talk about the two cheapest ways to have a smartphone: TracFone and Google’s project Fi. However, there are some limitations that will be deal-breakers for some. Ask yourself some important questions before deciding what smartphone options are realistic for you:

  1. How important is having a particular smartphone model?
  2. How often do you travel internationally?
  3. Am I going to pay for the phone up front or have the costs dispersed into my monthly bill?
  4. Am I have heavy data user?
  5. Do I call or text a lot?
  6. Is wifi generally available to me?
  7. Do I live in or frequent areas with spotty reception?
  8. Am I going to want to insure my device?
  9. Is electronic billing acceptable to me?
people looking at smartphones
Creative Commons photo by Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería

The two cheapest ways to have a smartphone

Cheapest way to have a smartphone: Google’s Project Fi

This was the solution that my friend told me about, and I love it. My bill is $20 a month plus $5.72 in taxes and stuff.  I usually only turn on the data when I am killing time or getting directions.  When I do turn on data, it only charges me for what I use.  I may pay $27.32 instead of $25.72. If I can convert my wife, I will pay even less.  I can make calls through Wi-Fi and have the combined coverage of three networks.


PROS of smartphoning with Project Fi

  • Cheap (and clear) billing
  • Easy and cheap international use (Just use it, and don’t worry about it.  No notifications or changes required.)
  • Easily turn data off and on.
  • Share data with another device.  They will send you the SIM card for free, but make sure the device is on the list.  They are just happy to have you using more data.
  • Seamlessly synced to your google stuff

CONS of smartphoning with Project Fi

  • Automatic billing only
  • Paperless billing only
  • Coverage not as good as Verizon (on a recent trip to Canada, my wife’s Verizon phone won easily). Consider where you live.
  • Very limited phone selection (When I signed up the cheapest phone was the Nexus 5x.  Now the cheapest new phone is the Moto X4 at $324)
  • Android only

TIPS for cheap smartphoning with Project Fi

Pay for your smartphone up front.  If you can’t pay for it up front, you probably should not be buying it.  Paying up front will keep you from spending more than you should.  If you pay for your phone up front, you will probably take better care of it.

Buy a cheaper smartphone.  Now that Project Fi has been around a while, there are older phones that will work on the network.  The Project Fi website states, “Project Fi is available on the Pixel, Android One Moto X4, Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, and Nexus 6.” These must be the North American versions of these models.  Click this link to see more detailed information about compatible devices.

As I write this, you can buy a refurbished (by LG) Nexus 5x for $150 on amazon.

Don’t buy smartphone insurance. I am a strong believer that most insurance is a scam, and smartphone insurance certainly is a scam.  Project Fi will sell you device insurance for $5 a month plus a $80-100 deductible depending on the device.  You are much better off buying a cheaper smartphone and buying a cover.  Un-filed claims are never denied.

Use a sim card to share your data with a compatible tablet.  For example, you could give a compatible device and the sim card to your mom so she could use your data when she was travelling.

Take advantage of calls through Wi-Fi: My father-in-law was shocked to see me recieving a call in his front yard.  His area (a forest near the Canadian border) has no coverage from any network.  He asked me about it, and I explained that the smartphone must have been going through his satellite internet connection.  However, I have noticed that this does not work well on the slowest satellite internet connections.

phone flirting

Low smartphone costs with TracFone

For some, a pre-paid smartphone through TracFone may be appealing.  They have many plans and some are very cheap.  You must buy the phone through TracFone, but they have some very inexpensive models.

You can achieve cheap smartphoning through tracfone, but it gets a bit complicated.  The details of the plans are complex.  The features are complicated.  The service area issues are complicated. has an in-depth article explaining some of the complexities.

The main benefit here is if you are doing nearly all of your smartphoning through Wi-Fi. However, as far as I can tell, making calls and texts through Wi-Fi without using your minutes may not be possible based on your device plan, the device itself, device settings, or region.  You may need to go through an intermediary app like Google voice.

In short, if you enjoy exploring the intricacies of features, plans, specifications etc., then TracFone may work for you.  I tend to believe that anything that is made this complicated is out to get you.  I think that TracFone is the best option only if you barely use your phone for anything.

The Cheapest Way to Have a Smartphone conclusion.

Having a smartphone can actually save you money, as long as your bill isn’t too high.  Using electronic tickets, parking apps, digital coupons, E books, etc. can save enough that you offset your bill.

Related post: Get the Most from Your Public Library

For me, the choice was simple.  The TracFone option is all about using complexity to find an advantage where Google’s Project Fi is all about simplicity.  The bill is simple, the user experience in simple, integrating with google services (photos etc.) is simple, and the device selection is limited.

My takeaways:

  1. Get a cheap smartphone (maybe even used) that works on Google’s Project Fi.
  2. Get a protective cover and skip the insurance.
  3. Sign up for Google’s Project Fi.
  4. Put in the wi-fi passwords for your home, your gym, your work, your favorite coffee shop, etc.
  5. Turn off the data except when you need it.

I am by no means an expert on coverage, features, phone specs and the rest.  Was “The Cheapest Way to Have a Smartphone” helpful? Is my conclusion dead wrong? Did I miss an important factor? How do you use your smartphone to save money?  Please leave a comment.