cheapest car ownership strategy featured

We have a love/hate relationship with our cars.  They can mean freedom, opportunity, adventure, and even self-expression.  On the other hand, cars also mean debt, frustration, and anxiety.

I have pretty much always needed car for my occupations and lifestyle.  I appreciate the practical, comfortable service of a well-engineered machine, but my affection for cars goes no further.  I have put a great deal of thought into my cheapest car ownership strategy, and I hope you can benefit as well.

Note: The examples shown are based on generalities.  I did my best to pick average costs for all of the different factors involved.

What not to do: example X

cheapest car ownership strategy example
“Why do I feel like I have lost 9 grand in the last ten minutes?”

The worst approach to car ownership is buying a nice, new car on borrowed money every five or so years.  Nevertheless, millions of people follow this approach.  You will be paying the most to sales tax, depreciation, loan interest, and insurance.  The amount you will save on repairs and maintenance is negligible. As example X shows, you will be spending thousands more every year than is necessary to get from point A to point B.

This example is based on buying a $25,000 car with $1000 down.  It assumes that you pay the average interest rate for a five-year term.

total new car cost

Estimated car value after five years: $10,049

This estimate is based on Money-zine car depreciation calculator. Depreciation will vary based on model, mileage, condition, and even color.

Annual cost to ensure: $1,800

Take this figure with a grain of salt, as there are so many factors in car insurance rates that it is almost impossible to generalize.  When financing a car, you are required to carry certain types and levels of insurance, so you have less wiggle-room to customize your policy.  Generally speaking, the higher the value of the the car the greater the insurance premium.

Annual maintenance and repair costs estimate: $180

Based on Consumer Reports (see the graph below), the maintenance and repair costs on a new vehicle are incredibly low.  This estimate assumes some services are provided as part of a purchase agreement and warranty.

Annual ownership cost: $5758.676

(Does not include down payment or recurring registration, inspection, and fuel costs.)

  • Purchasing costs: $1,959 (sales tax and fees)
  • Financing costs: $2,883.38
  • Depreciation: $14,951
  • insurance: $9,000
  • maintenance and repairs: $900 

Cheapest car ownership strategy: example Y

The cheapest car ownership strategy is to buy an economical, reliable used car in cash, but let’s start by assuming that you must finance a vehicle.  For example Y you will be buying the same car as in example X but as the second owner.

Example Y is based on financing a used car with a value of $10,049.

used car costs
Note: The interest rate on the loan is higher, which is typical for a used car loan.

Estimated car value after five years: $4,459

This estimate is based on Money-zine car depreciation calculator. Depreciation will vary based on model, mileage, condition, and even color.

Annual cost to ensure: $1,100

Take this figure with a grain of salt, as there are so many factors in car insurance rates that it almost impossible to generalize.  When financing a used car, you are still required to carry certain types and levels of insurance.  We can assume for this example that the lower value of the car means a lower insurance premium and obviates the need for gap insurance.

Annual maintenance and repair costs estimate: $545

Based on the Consumer Reports graph shown below, you can expect to spend four to five hundred dollars more annually for your used car over this five year period.

Annual ownership cost: $2,966.76

(Does not include down payment or recurring registration, inspection, and fuel costs.)

  • Purchasing costs: $1,003.43 (sales tax and fees)
  • Financing costs: $1,167.36
  • Depreciation: $4,438
  • insurance: $5,500
  • maintenance and repairs: $2,725

In sum, even when including the additional repair and maintenance costs, you are nearly cutting your car ownership costs in half.  You are saving almost two thousand dollars a year by driving a used vehicle.  At the end of the five years, you can use your car’s remaining value (about $4,500) and the ten thousand dollars that you saved to buy your next car in cash.

False arguments that “they” want you to believe.

car dealer
Photo by Brian Teutsch

As example X and Y show, there is no economical advantage to buying new.  The people perpetuating these false arguments are either trying to sell cars or trying to justify why they should have a new car.  If having a new car is important to you, go ahead, but do not argue that is financially sound.

“Trade in your vehicle while it still has a decent value.”

They best time to sell or trade in your vehicle is never.  There is no magic year when selling is best.  Mailers from a car dealership explaining why your make and model is suddenly and magically more valuable have an obvious ulterior motive.

The most dangerous time for depreciation is when your car is young.  The longer you run your car, the lower the rate of depreciation (e.g. A twelve-year-old car is not worth much less than an eleven-year-old car.)  Instead of trying to cash in on the remaining value, it is better to sock away the money you are saving by delaying.  The money saved and its interest will be greater than the depreciation.

“The interest rate on a used car loan is too high.”

used car loan rates graph

It is true that used car loans have higher interest (as this chart shows), but the difference can be in the hundredths of one percent.  Example Y above includes an increase of .2 percent (greater than the typical difference in a five-year loan).  The difference in your loan would have to be incredible to consume the money that you are saving buy buying used.

“Your older car will cost you so much in repairs that you are better off with a newer vehicle.”

cheapest car ownership strategy repairs graph

People who point to maintenance and repair costs as a reason to re-buy are ignoring the cost savings of owning an older vehicle.

This argument does make sense to a point. It is easy to imagine that a very old and unreliable car would spend so much time in the shop that it no longer serves its purpose in you life. On the other hand, as the graph shows, the costs of maintaining older vehicles starts to level off over time.  Even if your car is averaging $1000 in repairs every year and you are spending $500 in car rentals, it is unlikely that the costs will counteract your savings.

According to Consumer Reports, the most expensive 10-year-old cars are made by BMW and have an annual repair cost of $1,125.

Big Ways to Save on Car Ownership

1) Lose less to depreciation.

Depreciation is the biggest problem with buying a new vehicle. Robert Sinclair of AAA explains, “Depreciation accounts for almost 40 percent of the cost of owning a new vehicle, more than $3,000 per year.”

cheapest car ownership strategy depreciation
Car value lost from year to year.

Everyone is a victim of car depreciation.  Cars are almost always a liability rather than an investment.  The key is to minimize your liability buy buying a vehicle that has already passed through the steepest decline in value.

According to Edmunds.com, the sweet spot of used car ownership is found by buying a car that is 2-3 years old and driving it for 2-4 years.  This allows you to dodge the massive, initial depreciation drop and still get some value when you sell or trade the car later.  This makes sense for people who want to drive new-ish car most of the time, but it is not the cheapest car ownership strategy.

I would argue that the “sweet spot” is found buy purchasing around the five-year mark. A five-year-old car can easily provide you with another five years of reliable service.  The longer you can keep it, the less drastic the depreciation will be every year.

2) Pay less interest on your car loan.

cheapest car ownership strategy interest rates

Interest rates are still low compared to historical averages, but that does not mean that you should be excited about paying interest.  Even if you have excellent credit, carrying a car loan adds thousands of dollars to the cost of the car. In example X we added almost $3,000 to the cost of the car with only a modest 4.21% interest rate.

The less money you have to borrow, the less you will be paying in interest.  Paying a hefty down payment might not be in your plans, so you should buy the cheapest car that will serve your needs and borrow less money.  They buyer in example Y pays less than half the interest paid by the buyer in example X (even though the interest rate is slightly higher).

3) Find a way to exit the car lending cycle and start earning interest instead of paying it.

car loan cycle
Photo by Jack Rice

If you purchase a used vehicle as shown in example Y, you can put the money saved into an interest bearing account.  In this case, almost $300 a month.  This money should go to an automatic savings account labeled “CAR FUND.”  If you cannot put aside the entire amount, make sure that you are putting aside some of the savings every month.  Even fifty dollars a month will add up over five years.

Your “CAR FUND” will diminish or even eliminate your next car loan.  If you cannot buy you next car in cash, you will at least be able produce a larger down-payment and borrow less.  If we think about this process in five year cycles, you have to borrow less each cycle until you are paying cash.

When you buy your next vehicle in cash, you have broken the car debt cycle.  You are saving even more than in example Y, because you have eliminated loan interest from the equation.

4) How you can stop worrying about the cost of repairs.

cheapest car ownership strategy repairs graph

A key element of the cheapest car ownership strategy is your “CAR FUND.”  One of the functions of the car fund is to help you stop worrying about repair costs.  If you are setting aside hundreds of dollars every month, a $500 dollar repair or even a $2,000 repair becomes a lot less scary.  Take the money for the repair from you car fund, and remember that you are still beating the system in the long run.

In addition to paying for you next vehicle in advance, you are obviating the need for car repair insurance.  Car repair insurance companies are simply preying upon people who are not so well prepared.

5) Buy a cheaper car to pay less sales tax.

If you live in a state with no sales tax, kiss my bippy.  For the rest of us, the easiest way to minimize sales tax is to spend less money.  The buyer in example Y is saving a thousand dollars in sales tax right off the bat.

Sales tax is a regressive tax.  It impacts the poor more than the rich.  If you want to combat the regressive nature of sales tax, be smarter and spend less.  I would not mind being in a position where paying 7% more for a Lamborghini meant nothing to me, but that is not my current position.

6) How much you will save on insuring a lower-value car?

It is impossible to generalize about how much can be saved on insurance by buying a lower value car.  There are more factors to calculating your premium than in launching a space shuttle.

Your age, gender, the type of car, how much you drive, where you live, your parking conditions, and even the color of your car makes a difference.  Suffice it to say that you should buy a practical, safe vehicle with a lower value.

The estimates in examples X and Y were quite conservative.  The annual saving for my example Y was only $700, and it is likely that the savings would be more.

7) Buy a car with proven reliability.

car mechanic

Whether you are buying new or used, you can reduce car ownership costs buy buying a well-engineered vehicle, but how do you know if a car will be reliable?

In this regard, the used car buyer has a distinct advantage.  The data for the model and year in question has already been compiled by Consumer Reports, AAA, Edmunds, and others.  Conversely, when it comes to a brand new car, the jury is out on how reliable it will prove to be.

When preparing to buy a used car, I recommend purchasing a one month membership to Consumer Reports. (You can easily cancel once you have made your purchase.)  They will give you the data and rating for the exact model and year you are considering.  The $7.95 that you spend will give you peace of mind and might save you thousands.

8) Buy vehicle with a low overall cost of ownership.

Again, Consumer Reports can help.  In addition to helping you calculate what you can expect in repairs, Consumer Reports can give you a complete cost-of-ownership picture regarding fuel economy, depreciation, and more.  SPOILER ALERT! Pick-up trucks are the segment with the highest cost of ownership.

9) Follow the maintenance schedule.

cheapest car ownership strategy reliability

Preventative maintenance will save you money in the long run. A forty-dollar oil change can save you a $4,000 engine rebuild.

Preventative maintenance is not mysterious.  The owner’s manual will tell you exactly what to do and when.  I would suggest that after the oil change increments, the most important mileage number to remember is 30,000.  If you buy a used car, go ahead and get the 30,000-mile service regardless of mileage shown. (You do not know how faithful the previous owners were.)  Now you can rest easy and return to your previously scheduled program.

10) Own fewer cars.

This is obvious, but many households never take the time to consider whether or not they could get buy with one less car.  Think about it, four grand a year buys a lot of Uber rides.  Furthermore, being a one-car household means less paperwork, less maintenance, less environmental impact, and less headaches generally.

11) Keep your car as long as you can.

Imagine that you are the buyer in example Y.  You have completed the five year cycle.  Your car is worth a few thousand dollars and you have a few thousand saved up in your car fund. Time to go buy a car, right?

Whoa there, Spendy McSpenderson! I congratulate you on your accomplishment, but let’s not be hasty.  Cars are lasting longer than ever and modern safety requirements were in place ten years ago.  If your ten-year-old car is still safe, comfortable, and serving your needs, why not keep it around a while longer and allow that car fund to balloon?

Every year extra that you can keep your paid-off car is pure gravy.  You have plenty of money saved (in case the car gives up the ghost) and your savings are earning interest. Furthermore your insurance costs (liability only) are minimal.

Small ways to save on car costs

12) Join a rewards program or use coupons for oil changes and regular maintenance.

Don’t just pull in to the first lube place you see when the odometer rolls over.  Take a minute to print out a coupon.  Hey, ten bucks is ten bucks.

13) Do not pay for repair insurance.

Insurance in all forms is a societal rip-off. Think about it.  If we all put our premium payments back in our pockets, the collective amount saved would be greater than the collective pay-outs.  After all, the insurance companies have to get theirs.

While we may not be able to escape the necessities of car insurance or health insurance, we do not need to add travel insurance, water heater insurance, milk spoilage insurance, or car repair insurance.  By creating your “CAR FUND,” you are creating your own car repair insurance underwriting.  When a repair comes up, take the money from your car fund, and I will be very surprised if you deny your own claim.

14) Give your car spa treatments.

Spend some quality time with your used car.  Vacuum the mats, polish the headlight lenses, spray some fa-breeze, and armor-all the console.  Not only will you make your driving more pleasant, you will also reduce depreciation.

15) Spring for neat accessories.

Use accessories to make your used feel special.  When I bought my used Subaru Forester (even though I really wanted another truck), I bought a roof rack, some cargo mats, a dog gate, and some fun odds and ends.  This made me feel as though nothing I could buy would suit my needs as well as what I had configured.

16) Drive less.

Make your car last longer and spend less on maintenance and repairs by driving less.  This can be as simple as planning your errands thoughtfully or taking the train on an upcoming trip.

17) Say goodbye to trucks.

For me, this was a tough pill to swallow.  Trucks are more expensive to register, less economical to fuel, and depreciate quickly.

18) Some maintenance you can do yourself.

When you go to Jiffy Lube et. al., they will tell you that you need a new bulb, air filter, wiper blade, etc.  Make a note of their suggestions, but do not buy the replacements there.  Instead, go to the auto parts place and buy what you need.  Anyone can change and air filter or a wiper blade.

  • Easy: wiper blades, headlight bulbs, air filter
  • Medium easy: oil change, new brake pads, new battery, tire rotation, new fuel filter
  • Not very easy: transmission rebuild, adding hydraulic lifts, installing supercharger, inventing the flux capacitor.

19) Argue with insurance companies.

Every year I drop in to my State Farm agent for a visit.  It is pleasant for no one.

I beg. I rage. I plead. I weep. I argue. I delay. I pontificate.  In the end, the agent gives me a better deal just to get me out of his sight.  Is my dignity worth two hundred dollars? The jokes on them, my dignity is worth much less.

20) Buy tires at Costco.

You can save a lot by buying your tires at Costco.  They include a road hazard warranty, free balancing, free rotating, and nitrogen filling as a benefit to buyers who retain their membership.

21) Don’t smoke.

We have already established that depreciation can be the greatest cost in car ownership.  One of the worst ways to accelerate depreciation is by smoking in your car.  One National Institute of Health study found that smoked-in cars sold for thousands less than there smoke-free comparables.

Conclusions on the cheapest car ownership strategy

You do not need to be a math genius to figure out that a brand-new car is a poor investment.  Do not allow scare tactics, erroneous claims, or fatuous vanity to sway you.  Be intelligent and independent in making the car ownership decision that makes the most sense for you.

If you need more reasons to resist putting your money into an insidious industry, check out season 1, episode three of of Adam Ruins Everything. (The full episode is available on Netflix.)  Do not fund this despicable industry more than you must.

Do you have an addition for the cheapest car ownership strategy? Are any of my calculations or estimates off-base? Did I miss something important? Please, leave a comment.

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free stuff on curb featured

Scoring free stuff on the curb is a great way to beat the system.  You are keeping stuff out of the landfill, finding unusual items, and keeping money in your pocket.  In some cases, the found items are better than what you would have purchased in a big box store.

If you are reading this, you probably do not have a psycho-social hangup with taking home something that someone else discarded.  People who can go beyond illogical pressures can save some real money.  Since you are willing to think for yourself, here are 27 tips for scoring great free stuff on the curb.

Approaches to scoring free stuff on the curb

1) Target affluent neighborhoods and big houses.

wealthy home

This is like how trick-or-treat-ers swarm to the rich side of town.  If you go to the rich side of town, you get the best stuff.

People with disposable income dispose of a lot of property.  Many will not take the time to post items on craigslist or even to take items to a donation center.  Whatever their reasons may be, high-income people put out high-quality curbside finds. Familiarize yourself with the trash schedules in the well-to-do neighborhoods in your area.

In addition, grabbing the good stuff in high-income neighborhoods is easy; it is less likely that someone who lives there wants to be seen trash picking.

It is important to note that some of the best finds come from large, older homes that are continually purging their contents.  The larger and older the home, the more likely that the stuff I am interested will end up on the curb.

2) Think seasonally.

Spring is often the best time to find great free stuff on the curb.  Many people are moving, spring cleaning is under way, colleges and universities are wrapping up, and the divorce rate reaches its yearly peak.  This is a perfect time for you to get your own home organized and upgraded with some free stuff from the curb.

Spring is not the only season to consider.  The holiday season, the end of a particular sports seasons, garage cleaning season, yard-sale season, and so on might offer what you seek.

3) Note trash schedules.

trash day
Photo by Bob Mical

Your own trash schedule is not the only one to keep in mind.  Think about the neighborhoods that you want to target and get to know their schedules.  Taking a different route home on a certain day of the week might double your chances of discovering curbside gold.

4) Cruise colleges and universities.

Here in Philadelphia we celebrate Penn Christmas in May.  When the students move away, they toss tons of useful stuff.

Even when the students are not moving away, colleges and universities have great potential for garbage picking.  When offices are being renovated or reorganized, schools throw away great furniture, filing cabinets, office supplies, and more. Oftentimes these items are institution quality and built to last.

Drive around the back of the building to see what is there.  Just make sure that it really is trash and not waiting to be picked up and moved.

5) Check other institutions and businesses.

Retirement homes, office buildings, factories, libraries, etc. throw away some great stuff. They may not have a plan in place to dispose of, re-purpose, or donate perfectly serviceable items.

Look around these targets, but make sure that you are not trespassing or stealing.

6) Go off the beaten path.

free stuff on the the curb back alley

To find the best curbside gold, you may have to travel the road less traveled.  Service roads, alley ways, and loading zones are where the curb treasure awaits.  The next time you leave a commercial park, shopping center, or school, exit by driving around the back of the buildings.

Do not forget to stay safe.  Do not go anywhere where you do not feel comfortable.  Pay attention to lighting, entrances and exits, and visibility.

7) Follow yard sales, estate sales, flea markets, etc.

garage sale glasses

If you want to get the best stuff at a yard sale, go early.  If you want free stuff from the yard sale, go late.  Many neighborhood yard sales occur before garbage day because they know that many people will trash things that do not sell.  Consider hitting the yard sales after everyone has closed up shop.

8) Use apps, websites, and alerts.

There are many apps and websites helping people find free stuff on the curb.  This is the best way to go if you are looking for specific items. The drawback of this approach is that you need to be ready to act quickly.  Sometimes listings are not kept current or you arrive two seconds too late.

  • Craigslist free section
  • Nextdoor app
  • Curbsurf.com
  • Facebook (local groups)

9) Travel on foot.

No matter how slowly you drive past, you will never get the best view.  You will see more stuff and avoid wasting time on items that are truly garbage by taking the ol’ shoe leather express. Most of the cool things I have found have been while walking my dogs.  Get some exercise, check things out, and come back later if something big is worth picking.

Free stuff on the curb best practices

10) Inspect finds.

If thoroughly checking out a trashed item causes you embarrassment, get over it.  It is better to spend the time making sure items are what you want than to waste your time and energy.  Make sure all of the parts are there, look for irreparable damage, move any moving parts, and look for maker’s marks and labels.  Even if something is free, check it thoroughly before investing your time and energy.

11) Avoid bed-bugs and other pests.

upholstered items and bedbugs
Don’t do it!

Bed bugs and other pests are hard to detect and hard to kill.  Bed bugs are resistant to heat, cold, and starvation.  They can even hide in the folds of lampshades or inside electronics. Upholstered furniture, pillows, and stuffed animals are out of the question. When in doubt, leave it out.

You can treat large items with pesticides, but it is easier to avoid all upholstered items completely.  Any kind of textile that cannot be treated with serious heat easily (washer and dryer heat) is a no go.

12) Be prepared and safe.

There are a few things that you should keep in your vehicle to make sure that your curb surfing is practical and safe.

  • Work gloves
  • Closed-toe shoes
  • Eye protection
  • Straps and tie-downs
  • Flashlight
  • Basic tool kit (screw drivers, utility knife, hammer, pliers, etc.)

Be safe with your body.  Do not try to manage heavy or awkward items alone, be aware of your surroundings, and carefully secure items for transport.

13) Learn how to disassemble.

Depending on what you are looking for, you may need to do some disassembly.  A few well-placed swings of a hatchet or the ability to locate mounting screws makes all the difference.

I have smashed IKEA bookcases to re-purpose the melanin, removed table and desk tops, pulled drawers for new storage, and snatched hinges, casters, and hardware.  Just because you do not want the entire item as it sits, doesn’t mean there is nothing of worth.

14) Get handy.

pallet wood garden cart
I built this garden cart with discarded pallet wood and bike tires.

Many people are completely intimidated by minor repairs and modifications.  As a result, some quality items with minor defects are free for the taking.

Finding free stuff on the curb gives you a no-risk way to increase your skills.  You might be amazed by what you can accomplish with a few screws, a little glue, and some paint.

If you would like to learn more about how I made this cart from discarded pallets, check out my post “Get Started Turning Pallets into Stuff“.

15) Think creatively.

free stuff on the curb upcycling
I turned two old windows into neat cabinet doors.

Open your mind to re-purposing.  A small dresser can become a bathroom vanity.  A shoe rack might help you organize your art supplies.  A desktop can become a work bench.  Just because an item is no longer serviceable for it’s intended use, doesn’t mean it needs to go to the landfill.

16) Know garbage picking laws.

free stuff on the curb legality

You do not want to end up paying a hefty fine for trying to save a few bucks.  You also want to avoid unpleasant arguments.  Check your local regulations so that you do not end up in hot water. Here are some basics for understanding garbage picking laws:

  • Pay attention to signs and notices; they have legal bearing.
  • You are more likely to get in trouble for trespassing than taking garbage.  If the garbage is on private space, it is subject to privacy protection.
  • Garbage left on public space is no longer private property (Greenwood vs. California).  The contents of garbage bins in public space (the curb) are not protected by law.
  • If you are going through garbage on private property, you are trespassing and invading privacy.
  • Some cities (like New York) prohibit the taking of items that are intended for recycling.  This recycling makes the city or the city’s subcontractor serious money, so they do not want people grabbing it.
  • There are no federal laws preventing people from taking other peoples’ trash.
  • Some local laws prohibit trash picking.  A municipality may decide that people are being inconvenienced or generally put-off by scavenging and establish ordinances and fines.

“My wife is always trying to get rid of me. The other day she told me to put the garbage out. I said to her I already did. She told me to go and keep an eye on it.”

-Rodney Dangerfield

For more in-depth information on this topic, check out my related post:  Trash Picking Laws

17) Consider reselling.

I was surprised to learn that many people make real money from what they find in the trash.  If you are so inclined, look for items that might be valuable to someone else.

Related website: Garbagefinds.com

Top things to to target

18) Building materials

free building materials
My garage is stocked with free project materials.

If you take on little projects from time to time, keep an eye out for free building materials.  (Demolition dumpsters are especially good for this.) If you have the storage space, grab extra 2 x 4s, leftover plywood, random boards, etc. whenever you can.  Your stash might save you a trip to the home store on your next project or even provide inspiration for an unanticipated project.

19) Wooden Furniture (non-upholstered)

free stuff on the curb wooden furniture
This Danish side-table just needed a bit of glue and some polish.  The Cocker Spaniel is also salvaged.

I am shocked at the beautiful pieces of furniture that people throw away.  People trash this furniture due to a minor defect or because their tastes have changed. I often find that this furniture is better quality than the particle-board monstrosities that you find in Target or on Way-fair.

Pay special attention to wooden pieces even if they need some TLC. Wood is a very forgiving material to work.  With some basic tools and supplies, you might turn a piece of trash into a unique showpiece.

20) Outdoor furniture

free stuff on the curb patio furniture
This aluminum patio set was free and will never rust. I simply made the wooden tops and bought new cushions.

During the summer months, home stores offer a wide selection of replacement pillows and pads for outdoor furniture.  Nevertheless, many people throw away an entire outdoor set as soon as the cushions have been damaged by the elements.

You are the winner in this situation.  Snatch up that patio furniture, take a couple of measurements, and buy replacement cushions that match your style.  Now you have a new set for pennies on the dollar.

21) Vintage curios

best free stuff on the curb old maps
I found this awesome set of old maps in a school dumpster.  I can skip Google whenever I have a question on the Louisiana Purchase (almost daily).

If you live in an area with some older homes or institutions, you might discover people throwing away unusual, vintage items.  I am always on the lookout for strange little curios that add nostalgia to my home office.

22) Shelving

Basic shelves are one of those things that you should never buy.  Why pay money for something that is only going to hold laundry detergent, winter boots, or sporting goods? If you can exercise a bit of patience, the shelves that you need will show up for free.

23) Bins and containers

Unless you really need all of your containers to be uniform, you can find all of the storage that you need for free.  People seem to consider plastic bins disposable even though they are pretty durable, so hose them off and get your stuff organized for free.

If you are not sure if the bins are meant to be trash, leave them be.  Your image will not be improved by having retired people chasing you down the block.

24) Plastic coolers

free stuff on the curb coolers
Coolers are versatile.  The red one has been converted for brewing beer, and the grey one has become a solar generator for camping trips.

I don’t think that I have ever paid money for a cooler.  People are always throwing them away.  Maybe some people’s days of picnicking or tailgating are behind them, or maybe they are too lazy to clean them out.  Whatever the case may be, a bit of soapy water means a new cooler for you.

25) Picture frames

When people throw away artwork, posters, and framed documents, they also throw away the frame.  This is really a waste as many of the frames are really nice.

If a frame is close to the size you need, the framing store can perfect the framing by cutting a new mat.  If you are crafty, you can cut the new mat yourself.

26) Kitchen wares

Saving kitchen wares

High quality kitchen ware is expensive, yet people toss these durable goods to the curb just because they are dirty.  Some steel wool or some Bar Keepers Friend will polish up them up to look like new.  You will often discover that the saved item is very high quality.

Note: Avoid damaged non-stick cookware because the chemicals released by the scratches can be harmful.

27) Tools

Tools do have no expiration date.  When people clean out their garages and basements, they often throw away hundreds of dollars in tools. Where they see a worthless metal thingy, I see a $100-dollar sawyer’s vice.  They may not know what it’s for, but I do.

You do not have to know about obscure tools to benefit.  People are always tossing perfectly good hedge clippers, wrenches, hammers, saws, rakes, shovels, etc.  A new handle or some time with the sharpening stone can make all the difference.  Again, older is sometimes better as grandpa’s band saw is probably better made than what you will find in most stores.

28) Hobby materials

When it comes to hobbies, sometimes we just lose interest.  Other times the person who had the hobby has moved or passed away.  If you like a particular hobby, you might discover a huge bin of “garbage” that will keep you busy indefinitely.

29) Fitness and sporting goods

As with hobbies, fitness and sporting interests tend to come and go.  You will see everything from elliptical machines to fishing poles.  If you have a particular interest or keep a home gym, be on the look-out.

“Free Stuff on the Curb” conclusion

You may call it curb surfing, trash picking, dumpster diving, or free-cycling.  I call it fun, and I am not afraid to brag about the great stuff I have found. I feel that it signifies an ability to think creatively and scoff at convention.

Although many of these approaches have merit, my approach to finding free stuff on the curb is pretty simple.  I do not look for curb alerts, search postings, or do extra driving. I basically adjust where I walk my dogs and the route that I drive if I am on the prowl.

At this point in my life, I pretty much have everything that I need, so I can very selective.  Lately I have only been keeping an eye out for cool wooden furniture and project materials.

If you have a fondness for second-hand items, I wrote and in-depth post about shopping in thrift stores: Thrift Store Tips for Becoming a Jedi Master of Resale.

Were my free stuff on the curb tips helpful?  Is one of my tips erroneous? Did I miss an important tip? What is your best find ever? Please leave a comment.

free things to do in philadelphia skyline

Whether you live in Philadelphia or plan to visit, there is a lot to see and do.  You probably have some must-do-at-any-price activities on your Philadelphia list, but round-out your excursions with some of the top free things to do in Philadelphia.

Many great free things to do in Philadelphia are seasonal (like free yoga classes at the Race Street Pierhanging out at Winterfest, or free recitals at the Curtis Institute of Music), but my list focuses on year-round offerings.

These free things to do in Philadelphia are within the city limits, so nearby attractions like the Valley Forge National Historic Park and The Scott Arboretum do not make the cut.

Location key

free things to do in philadelphia old city = Old City area

Ben Franklin Parkway = Ben Franklin Parkway area

center city Philadelphia= Center City

Top 20 Free Things to Do in Philadelphia overview

free things to do in philadelphia waterfront

  1. Independence National Historic Park
  2. Reading Terminal Market
  3. The Rocky Steps
  4. Elfreth’s Alley and Old City
  5. Macy’s Center City and the Wanamaker Organ
  6. Free First Sunday at the Barnes Foundation
  7. Philadelphia Museum of Art (pay what you wish at certain times)
  8. Institute of Contemporary Art
  9. U.S. Mint
  10. Christ Church
  11. Science History Institute
  12. Rodin Museum
  13. Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site
  14. Hike Philadelphia
  15. Play tennis
  16. Free at noon concerts with WXPN
  17. Free at the Kimmel Center
  18. Tour a brewery
  19. The Mural Mile
  20. 30th Street Station

20) 30th Street Station

free things to do in philadelphia station
Photo by Dan Gaken

I am starting with an underappreciated gem.  30th street station (completed in 1933) is one of the few remaining grand stations of America’s rail system.  The Neoclassical exterior and Art Deco interior designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White are breathtaking.  The main concourse is 95 feet tall and almost 1000 feet wide.  There is some public art to view, like Karl Bitter’s sculpted panel The Spirit of Transportation.

This is a great place to sit and think about the past. The nostalgia-inspiring clicks of the Solari board will have you wondering why Lauren Bacall is running late and looking over your shoulder for the hotel detective.

19) The Mural Mile free things to do in philadelphia old citycenter city Philadelphia

free things to do in philadelphia mural mile
Photo by David Saddler

Mural Arts Philadelphia, the nations largest public art program, has helped to make a Philadelphia a must-visit destination for mural lovers.  You can pay for a tour on foot, trolley, or segway or simply print out the self-guided tour.  I suggest printing the map and reading about the works on your phone as you progress.

There are actually two mural miles to choose from (north and south), but they could be combined if you are feeling extra peppy.

18) Tour a brewery

free things to do in Philadelphia brewery

Professional brewing has been a part of Philadelphia since 1685. John Adams told his wife Abigail, “I drink no cider, but feast on Philadelphia beer.”  Before prohibition there were more than 100 breweries within the city limits.

Even if you do not drink beer, learning about the process is pretty neat.

There are many local beers to sample and many breweries to tour. (Don’t forget closed-toe shoes for brewery tours!)  You can get an excellent tour of the The Philadelphia Brewing Company for free, just check the schedule.

PBC is a bit off the beaten path for tourists, but do not be discouraged.  The Kensington neighborhood is rough around the edged but not without its charms.  If you want to stay on the beaten path, Yards Brewery has an excellent tour for $5.

17) Free at the Kimmel Center center city Philadelphia

The Kimmel Center
Photo by Timothy Vollmer

From kids programs to world music to organ demonstrations, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts does an amazing job making live music accessible.  As a bonus, they also offer free tours of the building.  (The Kimmel center is a beautiful facility including public art, a glass-and-steel barrel vault roof, and massive atrium.)

16) Free at Noon Concerts with WXPN

Public radio station WXPN plays a wide variety of new music.  Every Friday the station in partnership with World Cafe Live offers a free concert.  It is usually an up-and-coming act promoting a new album and the concert is broadcast live.  All you have to do is RSVP for your free tickets.

15) Play tennis

In a world where you pay to careen down a snow bank and need a permit to swim in the ocean, it is nice that some outdoor activities are still free.  For some reason (Arthur Ashe, perhaps?), it is easy to play outdoor tennis for free in Philadelphia, so don’t forget your paddle or whatever.

I live in the northwest region of the city, and I can tell you that the Pleasant Playground courts and the Water Tower courts are well maintained and almost never fully occupied. The website Tennis Philly can help you find a court and a partner.

14) Hike (or bike) Philadelphia

top free things to do in philadelphia hiking
Photo by TheTurducken

You probably do not think of any of the ten largest U.S. cities as a place do do some hiking, but Philadelphia should be an exception.  Philadelphia has the largest municipally managed park system in the U.S. and more park space per resident than any other major U.S. city.

This is actually many free things to do in Philadelphia, but I have selected two hikes to highlight.

Schuylkill River Trail (flat and urban) Ben Franklin Parkway

The Schuylkill River Trail is an ongoing project that will ultimately connect 130 miles of trail for recreation.  The Philadelphia section is ten miles long, but you can have a much shorter hike.

I recommend a short hike starting at the Girard Avenue trail head and heading down river.  You will be sharing the path with bikers, joggers, roller-bladers, etc. This path takes you past Kelly Drive (where Rocky jogs), boathouse row, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the historic Fairmount Water Works, and the Schuylkill Banks.

Wissahickon Valley (natural beauty)

Within the city limits is a verdant 1,800 acre gorge with 57 miles of trails.  If the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia is getting to you, the Wissahickon Valley is the remedy.  Hike, bike, ride horseback, or even fish.  The combination of geological diversity and the meandering of the Wissahickon Creek have made a wonderland.  Check out the Friends of the Wissahickon website to learn more.

Note: Philadelphia Parks and Recreation requires bikers to get a trail permit for all natural surface trails (although this stipulation is ignored by many.)  The permit is $35 for non-residents and the fine for biking without a permit is $25 (Whaaaah?).

13) Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site

It should come as no surprise to Baltimorons that the six happiest years of Edgar Allen Poe’s life were spent in Philadelphia (Sick burn!).  The Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site is a must for any fan of Gothic literature looking for free things to do in Philadelphia. (It also happens to be near Yard’s Brewing.)

If your tastes are a bit off-beat, check out Atlas Obscura for more weird things to do in Philadelphia.

12) Rodin Museum sculpture gardens Ben Franklin Parkway

things to do in philadelphia rodin museum
Photo by Eric Dillalogue

The Rodin Museum is a gorgeous oasis on the Ben Franklin Parkway.  The 150 works of the collection span Rodin’s career.

The inside of the museum is pay-what-you-wish, but the the sculpture gardens are free to all.  Many of the most spectacular works are outside.  You are not going to find a more pleasant way to view “The Gates of Hell”.

It is a great free things to do in Philadelphia add-on as it is located near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Foundation, The Academy of Natural Sciences, The Franklin Institute, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and more.

11) Science History Institute Museum free things to do in philadelphia old city

The Science History Institute Museum offers “…a journey through the weird and wonderful world of matter and materials.”  The collection ranges from antiquated instruments to informative displays to fine art.  Check out their website for a list of current exhibits.

The Science History Institute Museum is not a whole-day affair. However, it is in the heart of Old City and located near Independence Hall, The Museum of the American Revolution, Elfreth’s Alley, etc.  Even if you are a not wild about science, it makes a great free things to do in Philadelphia add-on.

10) Christ Church free things to do in philadelphia old city

Christ Church Philadelphia
Photo by Peter Miller

This is a must-visit site for both history-lovers and Christians.  This is the first Episcopal Church as the sentiments of the American Revolution induced American Anglicans to reorganize its connection to the Church of England.

Attendees to Christ Church included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Betsy Ross.

Christ Church is open for visitors daily for free (not during services). You will have to pay a fee to visit the burial grounds or take a guided tour.

9) The U.S. Mint free things to do in philadelphia old city

I love to see how things as made.  The Philadelphia Mint is the largest coin factory in the world. The self-guided, 45-minute tour shows you how America’s first mint makes circulating coins and commemorative coins and shows how the sculptor-engravers find inspiration to apply their craft.

The self-guided tour is free, but you may have to wait in line during busy times.  Adults must present photo ID.

8) Institute of Contemporary Art

The ICA has a special place in the history of cutting-edge and controversial art.  It hosted the first museum shows of artists like Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin, and Andy Warhol.  It is located on the University of Pennsylvania Campus and is free to all.  Open your mind and check out the avant garde.

7) Pay what you wish at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Ben Franklin Parkway

free things to do in philadelphia rocky steps

Admission to the Philadelphia Museum of Art is normally $20 and is worth every penny.  The collection is extensive and includes everything from a complete Hindu temple to Picasso to Rubens to O’Keefe to Van Gogh to a Japanese tea house to Renoir to Saint-Gaudins, to arms and armor, to Cassatt, to colonial furniture to…you get the point.

So how did the museum make it on to the list of free things to do in Philadelphia? The first Sunday of the month (10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.) and every Wednesday evening (5:00–8:45 p.m.) is pay what you wish. Do not forget to check out the museum’s events calendar as some of the events are free.

6) Pay what you wish at the Barnes Ben Franklin Parkway

The new Barnes museum created quite a controversy here in Philadelphia when it was moved to the city from Lower Merion, but you can’t argue that the new location is shabby.  The Barnes offers a world-class collection of impressionism, post-impressionism, modernist, Native American, and African works.

Do not forget to check out their calendar of events as many of the events are free to all.

5) Macy’s and the Wanamaker organ center city Philadelphia

Macy’s Center City is housed in the Wanamaker building and is a national historic landmark.  John Wanamaker was a pioneer in department store retail and built this temple of consumerism in 1877.  Check out the breathtaking spaces, the grand court organ (the largest functioning musical instrument in the world), and the bronze Wanamaker eagle. (Paid tours are available.)

4) Elfreth’s Alley and Old City free things to do in philadelphia old city

free things to do in Philadelphia Old City
Photo by Stephen Downes

One of the top free things to do in Philadelphia is simply walk around Old City. Elfreth’s Alley is the nation’s oldest continuously occupied residential street.  It is like stepping into a time warp without the bother of smallpox.

As you walk around Old City, you will see horse-drawn carriages, historical figures, and buildings like Carpenter’s Hall (site of the first Continental Congress), the First Bank of the United States, the Betsy Ross house, and the Declaration House (where Jefferson completed the most important homework assignment in U.S. history).

3) The Rocky Steps Ben Franklin Parkway

Free things to do in Philadelphia Rocky Steps
Photo by Ahd Photography (yarn bombing by Jessie Hemmons)

Climbing the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is obligatory.  You can sheepishly jog up the steps with your hat pulled down over your eyes like you are too cool for school, or you can own the moment. (Do not claim that you are just excited to see the new exhibit. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they climb the Rocky steps.)

Don’t forget to take your picture with the Rocky statue.  (If the prop-masters from Rocky III had known that this prop would have such a legacy, I think they would have tried harder.)

2) Reading Terminal Market center city Philadelphia

Reading Terminal Market Philadelphia
Photo by Peter Miller

The Reading Terminal Market is not named for the number of people who have terminally clogged their arteries here but due to the site’s former use as a terminal for the Reading Railroad.  Philadelphians have been arguing about the price of cheese in this building since 1893.

Whether you are looking for Pennsylvania Dutch confections, an amazing lunch, or the city’s best prosciutto, the Reading Terminal is the place.  Reading Terminal Market volunteers can help you find your way (look for the green aprons).

1) Independence National Historical Park free things to do in philadelphia old city

free things to do in Philadelphia Liberty Bell

If I do not put this as number one on the top free things to do in Philadelphia, I risk being tarred, feathered, and left in New Jersey.  See the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, reflect on the hypocrisy of revolution-era slavery at the President’s House Site, and take a “bellfie” with America’s most beloved piece of defective junk.

Almost everything in the park is free. (The Constitution Center and the Benjamin Franklin Museum are the exceptions).

Tips:

  • Be prepared for crowds during touristy times.
  • Stop by the visitor center to get a map and info.
  • Independence Hall gets very busy, and you need timed tickets.  Stop in to the visitor center early to get your ticket or reserve in advance. (Reserving in advance has a $1.50 fee.)
  • Be ready for security screenings.
  • Do not forget about Carpenters’ Hall (the site of the first Continental Congress).
  • The portrait gallery in the Second Bank is a must-see for art lovers.

Free things to do in Philadelphia honorable mentions

Bartram’s Garden

This is a great place for reflection, observation, rejuvenation, and recreation.  Learn about medicinal plants, native species, tidal environments, and more. Bartram’s invites you to bring a picnic, your bird-watching gear, or even your sled.

The grounds at Bartram’s Garden are free to the public all year long.  A guided tour will cost you $12.

Woodmere Art Museum

The Woodmere Art Museum, dedicated to the art and artists of Philadelphia, has free admission on Sundays. The museum often hosts fascinating photography exhibits.

The Woodmere is located in the charming and well-heeled neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, so leave time to sip lattes on Germantown Avenue.

Fireman’s Hall Museum free things to do in philadelphia old city

Philadelphia was the birthplace of America’s volunteer fire companies (the first in 1736). This renovated 1902 firehouse houses cool equipment and displays.

Laurel Hill Cemetery

According to the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, the national historic landmark is “an outdoor sculptural garden, a horticultural gem, and a truly unique historical resource.”  You are encouraged to picnic, bike, walk your dog, sketch, visit graves of note, etc.  The cemetery hosts neat events, but they are rarely free.

Skateparks Ben Franklin Parkway

Philadelphia has a rich skating history.  Check out SkatePhilly.org if that’s your jam.

Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul  Ben Franklin Parkwaycenter city Philadelphia

Visit the largest Catholic church in Pennsylvania (also the largest brownstone structure in Philadelphia) which opened its doors in 1864. Cathedral ambassadors are available to give tours, but they also offer self-guided and audio tours.

Dream Garden free things to do in philadelphia old city

Art lovers should stop in to the Curtis Building and see Maxfield Parrish’s masterpiece “Dream Garden”.  Designed by Parrish and executed by Louis Tiffany, the work is a stunning glass mosaic fifty feet wide.

Chinatown center city Philadelphia

Chinatown is a bit of a misnomer, this vibrant community is very diverse.  Check out some Asian cultures, and don’t forget the bubble tea.

First Fridays free things to do in philadelphia old city

On the first Friday (evening) of every month, Old City galleries and shops go all out.  Check out the works, people watch, and enjoy free goodies.

Well’s Fargo Museum center city Philadelphia

This is a cute little museum of Wells Fargo history stuff.  The main thing is an authentic Wells Fargo stagecoach.  It is a nice free things to do in Philadelphia Center City add-on.

Organizing your excursion

free things to do in Philadelphia Ben Franklin Parkway

Many of top free things to do in Philadelphia do not take much time (after all, they’re free).  So you will probably want to group sites geographically. Sites like Free Tours by FootGPS My City, and The Constitutional can help.

Consider an audio tour

I love using audio tours; you get all of the info and are in complete control. (The time I went to Gettysburg and couldn’t find anything that they were talking about is an exception.  Based on my visit, Picket’s Charge occurred in a 7-11.)

Finding free events

Do not forget to look for free events.  PhillyFunGuide, WXPN concert calendar (sort by price to see the free concerts), and Philly.com events calendar can point you in the right direction.

Related Post: Reducing the Costs of Fun

Conclusion on “Top 20 Free Things to do in Philadelphia”

I am not suggesting that you should limit your experiences to free attractions and events.  Some of my favorite things to see and do in Philadelphia are well worth the price of admission. On the other hand, one should not assume that free attractions are without merit.  Include free things to do in Philadelphia to round out your itinerary.

How did I do?  Did my top 20 miss the mark?  Did I forget your favorite? Leave a comment, and let me know.

money saving grocery list main image

This article is not about downloading apps, stacking coupons, timing sales, registering for rebates, or joining rewards programs.  There are tons of articles out there if you want to play these types of games.  I find such maneuvering tiresome and frustrating.  Furthermore, learning to include money-saving grocery items in your weekly shopping is a long-term solution.

Money-saving grocery list summary:

  1. Brown rice
  2. Chicken thighs
  3. Store-baked bread
  4. Popcorn (old-style)
  5. Potatoes
  6. Frozen veggies
  7. Eggs
  8. Oatmeal
  9. Tilapia fillets
  10. Fresh sausage
  11. Cabbage
  12. Pasta
  13. Bananas (and/or apples)
  14. Onions
  15. Sour cream

Why you should care about a money-saving grocery list

We are extremely fortunate when it comes to food costs.  Americans today have the cheapest food costs in the history of the world.  We spend a smaller percentage on groceries than any other nation and spend a smaller percentage than Americans in the past.

USDA chart on grocery spending
The low cost of food in America makes food insecurity even more tragic.

That being said, food costs are one aspect of your household budget where you have great control.  Your rent, transportation costs, and health-care costs may be fixed, but your grocery budget is not.  By habitually buying high-value items, you can dramatically cut the cost of groceries.

Related post: Top 7 Grocery Store Rip-offs

Money-saving item 15: Sour cream

money saving grocery items sour cream
This is a lot of sour cream for $1.99.

I don’t know why sour cream is so cheap, but it is.  My wife and I use it in soups, sauces, side-dishes, and baking. Not only is it tasty and versatile, it also has a decent shelf-life in the fridge, so don’t feel like you need to consume mass quantities.

I like to use a big tub of it to make french onion or ranch dips for football get-togethers.  Take a tub of sour cream, add some of that powdery mix stuff and a few veggies, and you are ready for kickoff.

Related link: Sour cream dip recipes

Money-saving item 14: Onions

Money-saving grocery list onions

I have one drawer in my kitchen reserved for onions, potatoes, garlic, and shallots.  I am never without onions when I am making pizza, grilled skewers, salad, breakfast skillets, tacos, etc.

You can buy onions individually, but it is much cheaper to buy the big bags.   If the bulbs come in plastic bags, make sure to remove them so that they will last longer. A big bag of onions for five bucks will last you a long time when stored properly.

Money-saving item 13: Bananas (and/or apples)

save money on groceries bananas

The photo above shows that bananas are only 49 cents a pound and only ten cents more for organic.  In the fall, apples are almost as cheap, so there is no excuse not to have some fruit included in your lunch.

Environmentally speaking, should people in New England be able to buy cheap bananas year-round? Probably not.  But there is no denying that bananas and apples are economical on a daily basis.

Money-saving item 12: Pasta

money-saving grocery list pasta

I am not trying to get you to revert to an all pasta and ramen noodle diet as you did in college, but you can include pasta in your weekly shopping without becoming a culinary low-life.

Typical dollar-a-box pastas can be very good when dressed up.  Try making your own sauce with fresh tomatoes.  Make a pesto sauce with fresh garlic and garnish with basil leaves.  Try adding some spinach, kale, or spiral-cut squash.  Make a bruschetta and spoon it over your pasta with some extra olive oil.  Do not feel like you are stuck with boiling the noodles and dumping on some Ragu.

My Favorite additions:

  • Onions
  • Pressed garlic
  • Black olives
  • A splash of red wine vinegar
  • Goat cheese
  • Edamame
  • Walnuts or almonds
  • Arugula (Careful! It’s powerful.)

Money-saving item 11: Cabbage

money-saving grocery item cabbage

Never buy store-made or commercial coleslaw.  It can be slimy and/or loaded with sugar.  Keep a cabbage in the fridge and make your own coleslaw or even sour kraut.  Stuffed cabbage leaves and boiled cabbage (New England boiled dinner) are also in my rotation.

Slaw-some weekly coleslaw

  • Rinse a cabbage and remove the outermost leaves (too tough and bitter).
  • Cut the cabbage in half, and put half back in the fridge.
  • Carve out the hard, rooty base of the cabbage.
  • Shave off slices of the cabbage with a sharp knife, cut the shavings into your desired sizes, and toss them into a large bowl.
  • Use a vegetable peeler to shave short strips of carrot into the bowl.
  • Add vinegar, mayo, salt, pepper, and other spices to taste.

What could be simpler? I like the vinegar to dominate the taste, and I avoid the sugar completely.

Money-saving item 10: Fresh sausage

money-saving grocery list sausage

Nobody thinks it is very special to have hot dogs for dinner (except me, because my wife doesn’t allow them in the house.)  Grilling up some fresh Italian sausage, on the other hand, makes a great dinner.

Meat is expensive.  It should be expensive (because we eat too much of it and it has a huge environmental impact).  However, when you want meat, some well-made sausage can be almost as satisfying as a thick steak.

Money-saving item 9: Tilapia fillets

money-saving grocery list tilapia

I am determined to eat more fish, but I am not very good at cooking it, and it can be pretty pricey.  In addition, there are always concerns about freshness and whether or not it was harvested responsibly.

I like to eat tilapia fillets because they are cheap, tasty, healthy, and farm-raised.  I typically buy a bag of them to keep in the freezer.  They are pretty thin, so they can thaw out between the time I get home from work and when I am ready to make dinner.  I usually use an egg-wash and some seasoned bread crumbs before baking or frying them up.

Money-saving item 8: Oatmeal

cheap groceries oatmeal
This is a lot of breakfasts for $2.79.

I will admit that I do not want to eat oatmeal porridge every day for breakfast, but it really hits the spot on a cold, winter morning.  Adding some dried fruit, yogurt, or nuts makes for a big improvement.

Money-saving item 7: Eggs

money-saving grocery list egg price chart

Even though the price of eggs has spiked recently as compared to many other food staples (up about 20%), eggs still represent a very inexpensive source of nutritious protein.  They are so cheap you can even upgrade to free-range or organic.

It is easy and delicious to include more eggs in your meals. Even on busy weekday mornings I still have the time to poach eggs in the microwave. (It only takes about a minute.)  Hard-boiled eggs are great with lunch.  Have a fancy chef’s salad as an easy and satisfying dinner.

Related link: Poaching eggs in the microwave

I even put eggs on pizza.  Crack the eggs right on to a pizza when it is about 6 or 8 minutes from being completely baked.  Eggs on pizza go great with feta cheese, bacon, Kalamata olives, spinach, hot sauce, and lots of other goodies.

Medical science has largely redeemed the beloved egg.  The cholesterol in eggs does not go straight into your system as previously thought; it is digested in your stomach.  In fact, it looks like eggs raise good cholesterol more than bad cholesterol.  Eggs are very nutritious, and some recent studies indicate that even eating an egg every day does not increase the risk of heart disease.

Related Link: “Is It Really OK to Eat Eggs Every Day?” from Health.com

Money-saving item 6: Frozen veggies

money-saving grocery list frozen veggies

There is no substitute for fresh, local veggies, but frozen veggies come pretty close.  While canned vegetables are economical, they can have a stale, weird taste.  Frozen veggies taste great and can hide in the back of the freezer for a long time just waiting to help out when all you have planned is kielbasa.  (Don’t just eat a whole kielbasa for dinner; you will not feel good about it.)

When it is my turn to make dinner, I typically try to put a protein, a starch, and some veggies on a plate together. (What can I say? I’m boring.) Frozen veggies fill out the plate cheaply and easily.  I would love to meet the person who invented “steam in the bag” and buy them a drink.

Money-saving item 5: Potatoes

money-saving grocery list potatoes

Maybe it is written into my Irish DNA, but I love potatoes.  I love them at breakfast (e.g. home-fries), lunch (e.g. potato salad) and dinner (e.g. potatoes au gratin).  They are as cheap as they are versatile.  I have even been known to give potatoes top-billing at dinner time with my epic baked potato bars. (Don’t forget the sour cream).

Caper crusader potato salad

  • Cube several potatoes (to the size you like in your potato salad).
  • Boil the cubes to medium-softness.
  • Drain the water and let the potatoes cool in the fridge for a while.
  • Put the cooled potatoes in a large mixing bowl and add the following to suite your taste:
    • mayonnaise
    • apple-cider vinegar (just a bit)
    • capers
    • salt and pepper
    • chopped red onion

Money-saving item 4: Popcorn (old-style)

money-saving grocery list popcorn
This two-pound bag of popcorn goes a long way at $1.79.

Snack foods are typically very expensive by weight.  Old-style popcorn is easy, cheap, and healthier than most other snacks.

Making old-style popcorn is superior than microwave or pre-popped in almost every way. Once you go old-style, you will never go back. It is so easy, and you don’t need a special popper.

  1. Coat the bottom of a large pot with corn oil.  (I like to add the salt to the oil so it is dispersed evenly on the popcorn.)
  2. Pour the kernels into the pot.  Add enough so that you have a single, even layer across the bottom; every kernel should be touching the oil.
  3. Put on the cover and give the pot medium heat.  The popping action will automatically stir the corn and prevent scorching.
  4. When popping slows, turn off the heat.
  5. Once popping has stopped, stir the popcorn so that the popcorn touching the metal doesn’t burn.
  6. Add flavor. (My go-to addition is a bit of onion powder.)

Money-saving item 3: Store-baked bread

money-saving grocery list store bread

If you have ever tried to bake French or Italian-style bread at home, you know what a great bargain store-baked bread is.  The quality is often excellent, and the store is saving you hours of effort for a buck or two.

A fresh loaf of bread makes any meal a special feast – even it is just some massive hoagies.

Money-saving item 2: Chicken thighs (or drumsticks)

cheap chicken dinner
This is my go-to weeknight chicken dinner.

Our society is fascinated with breasts.  (Have you ever heard a commercial for a chicken sandwich that wasn’t bragging about their breasts?)  Since chicken breasts and white meat are so desirable, chicken thighs (and drumsticks) are a great bargain.

Dark meat is flavorful, juicy, and hard to over-cook.  I often buy chicken thighs (with skin and bones) for 99 cents a pound.  (How is this possible?)  I usually remove the skin of a large family pack of chicken thighs and put much of the meat in the freezer.

Weeknight chicken dinner (as shown)

  • Remove the skin (leave the bones) and put the chicken thighs in a large, oiled pot.
  • Add 3/4 cup or so of your favorite marinade. (For the meal in the image I used Lowry’s Sesame Ginger marinade.)
  • Cover and put on medium heat
  • Remove the cover occasionally to release steam and stir the chicken.
  • It is hard to over-cook dark meat, but you can check with a thermometer if you wish (165 degrees is cooked for chicken).

Money-saving item 1: Brown rice

money-saving grocery list brown rice

I do not want to hear anyone complaining about the cost of groceries if they do not have a huge bag of rice in their cart.  In some cultures, everyone (not just the lower class) have rice with every dinner.

Whole-grain brown rice is incredibly healthy because it retains the grain’s fiber and endosperm (where the nutrients are).  The enriching process (as in flour) removes these nutrients because it makes the product more shelf-stable.  The bacteria does not have what it needs to flourish (but neither do you).

Because the nutrients are intact, whole-grain brown rice is less shelf-stable.  It is more difficult to find large bags, and you may not want a large bag anyway as it is more likely to spoil if you do not consume it quickly enough.  Never fear, a five-pound bag will cost you about three dollars and last a long time.

Related link: Health benefits of brown rice

Money-saving grocery list conclusions

Spending money on groceries is almost always cheaper than eating out. Further, once you are used to money-saving grocery list, you can probably justify getting some fancy steaks, seafood, cheeses, etc. (I am making myself hungry.)

On the day that I took some of these photos, I happened to be shopping at Wegman’s in Montgomeryville, PA.  That fact is unimportant, as I tend to rotate between different grocery stores.  These items are good deals regardless of where you are shopping.

You probably noticed that big bags of frozen burritos, take and bake pizzas, and the like are not on the list.  Not only are processed or prepared foods unhealthy, they are more expensive.

There is nothing revolutionary about this list.  Your grandmother knew that these items were a good value and so do you.  It is likely that these items will continue to be affordable for the foreseeable future.

using your home to make money featured
Featured image by mariozama

Using your home to make money is easier than ever.

You no longer need to run an illegal boarding house, throw rent parties, or start an underground casino. Technology has enabled property owners to capitalize through peer-to peer-transactions (uberization) like never before.

Your home is one of your greatest assets.  If your home suits your needs and you enjoy it, do not give it up because of a tight budget.  Do not take out a home equity loan (second mortgage) to pay for improvements or repairs.  You work hard for your home, and you can make it work for you.

Here are 11 ideas on using your home to make money.

Post summary:

  1. A Roommate
  2. Hosting travelers
  3. Hosting students
  4. Renting out useful space
  5. Storage
  6. Parking
  7. Filming
  8. Boarding pets
  9. Hosting campers or tiny houses
  10. Events 
  11. Renting out garden space

1) Getting a roommate

using your home to make money roommates
“I’m not sure this was a good idea.” Photo by dog97209

Most adults do not want a roommate.  Everyone values their privacy and independence.  On the other hand, having a roommate might be a wonderful experience.  One thing is sure, it can dramatically improve your budget.

Tips for taking on a roommate:

Anticipate friction.

Think about the issues your home, lifestyle, and personality might create.  How do you want to handle chores and responsibilities? How do you want to share expenses? Are their spaces that might be contentious?  Do you have habits, pets, or visitors that could create awkward problems?

The greatest day-to-day issues often revolve around bathrooms and kitchens.  Division of spaces often solves this problem but may not be feasible. Designated bathrooms, designated kitchen storage, or even an added kitchenette (a dry sink, toaster oven, mini-fridge, etc.) can go a long way.

When division of space is not possible, make sure to set schedules and expectations. Make a list of your routines (bathing, entertaining, exercising, etc.) and have your prospective roommate do the same. See if compromises will be possible.

Anticipate problems regarding habits, visitors, shared spaces, etc. and create a method for conflict resolution.  Unfortunately, you do not have resident adviser to turn to, so you will have to have create a plan with your roommate.  You could settle disagreements by using an online forum like squabbler, where site visitors decide your case.

Be clear.

Be honest with yourself about how you might irk others.  Think about what irritates you to an irrational degree.  (I can’t stand it when crumbs are left on the cutting board, but my marriage contract offers nothing on this point.)

Tell your prospective roommate about all of your peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies, and they should do the same.  Take the time to find a compatible roommate; your quality of life is important.

Do your homework.

Prepare a series of questions for your prospective roommate.  Do this before you even meet the candidate.  Make sure that you have honest answers for the same questions.

Do not be afraid to ask for references, and be prepared to offer yours.  This is a business arrangement and should be treated as such.

It is not out-of-bounds to do a credit check.

Put everything in writing.

This is an awkward way to start such a personal relationship, but it is necessary.  Offer as many apologies and disclaimers as you must, but a written agreement is fair to all.

If you are renting, put the written details into the lease or a sub-lease agreement.

If you are the homeowner, create a reasonable roommate agreement that works both parties.  Do not be afraid to include details that are important to you but might seem silly to others (e.g. no talking in the living room during first-run episodes of Wheel of Fortune); even if they will not hold up in court, everyone knows what the deal is.

Think about the end-game.  Make sure to address how the dissolution of the arrangement will work.  How much notice is needed? How will remaining expenses be handled?  When can I put your stuff in the dumpster after you disappear for three months to live on a commune with your personal trainer?

2) Hosting travelers

using your home to make money hosting travelers
Photo by Jens Fricke

It is easier than ever to host travelers in you home, and many cities have worked out the legal issues (setting limits on the number of days and visitors).

Using services like Air BnB and HomeAway offer you important protections, but it is imperative that you make sure that your municipality allows this type of hosting and that you are legally protected.

I was able to find the regulations for where I live, Philadelphia, pretty easily.

  • Thirty day maximum stay
  • 2 guests maximum (unless they are related)
  • 90 days a year
  • No permit required
  • 8.5% in taxes to the city
  • Smoke alarm and safety requirements
  • And so on

There are two basic ways to host travelers in using your home to make money:

Host present:

Air BnB and other similar operations give you the chance to host travelers for a profit, but make no mistake, it can be competitive and demanding.  With all of the customer support, cleaning, and managing, you may start to feel like you are running a small business.  Think carefully about whether or not this is right for you.

Host absent:

Many people do not want to share their residence when they are there, but that doesn’t mean it cannot earn money for you while you are away.

If you are going away, your home can host a traveler, but you must be willing to do some extra work in preparation.  You want to have happy customers and happy reviews. (After all, who wants to ruin someone’s vacation?) Homeaway and other brokerage services will help you create a successful offering.

Case study: I have an acquaintance who essentially lives in her basement so that she can continually rent out her three bedrooms and living spaces.  She works very hard to be competitive and receive positive reviews. She loves the arrangement as she is essentially living mortgage free.  She will remain nameless as she is in violation of the city’s rules.  

3) Using your home to make money: hosting a student

using your home to make money hosting a student

This is my favorite idea. (In fact, I am renovating a bathroom in preparation to host a student through a nearby college.)

If you live in an area with a few private high-schools or colleges, this option is almost certainly available.  You can receive upwards of $500 a month to host a students from another country.  It can also be very gratifying.

Check out the websites for the private schools and/or colleges near you to check the specifics of their program.  You may need to provide transportation, meals, specific living arrangements, etc.  Generally, the requirements are reasonable as they need reliable, engaged hosts to make their program successful.

There is much to recommend hosting a student as a way of using your home to make money:

  • The expectations are set:  You know the rules and so does the student.
  • The time is period is established:  You might plan to host one semester or session, but not the next.  This flexibility is great since you can’t kick out a roommate every few months and expect them to keep coming back.
  • Built-in mediation:  Both you and the student can refer to the program staff if there is a problem or concern.
  • Support and protection:  The program is there to support the student and the host.  You do not have all of the responsibility.

Case study: My friend and neighbor clued me in to the program at a nearby college.  He loves being a host.  He has hosted students from Bulgaria, Italy, Colombia, and many other countries.  As an immigrant himself, he loves playing host to young people learning their way around America.  He also likes getting some financial help in heating and cooling his size-able, stone home.

4) Renting out a useful space

using your home to make money office space

Not everyone has the space for their activities.  If you have the space available, you could be using your home to make money and enabling others to pursue their interests.

If you have an art studio space, check out brokers like stuso.

If you have an office space that you want to rent out, you could find renters through a website like sharedesk.  Even people that could set up a home office often prefer to keep their work space separate.

If you have a space for musicians, check out brokers like musicnomad.

If you have a space for pole-dancers wanting to rehearse…well…just put it on craigslist (and why do you have that space to begin with?).

NOTE: Check with your insurance company and municipality first.  You do not want to rent out your space and have a serious problem.  It is also advisable to get any customer to put everything in writing and wave any liability.

Case study: I had an artist friend in Los Angeles.  We worked together in a pizzeria, but he was an abstract artist (the modifier applies to both his work and his personality).  He lived in a one bedroom apartment with his wife, so he needed a studio.  It came in the form of a nearby, one-car garage with no utilities.  He was happy and so was the owner.

5) Using your home to make money: storage

using your home to make money storage
Photo by Martin Belam

I have been watching YouTube videos about people who live in vans. (Don’t judge me.) The biggest takeaway is that the majority of people in this society have way more stuff than they need.

Unless you are participating in a multitude of extreme sports, stockpiling supplies for doomsday, or hoping that your collection of vintage happy-meal toys will form the permanent collection of an esoteric museum to be named later, you probably have too much stuff.

The unattractive roadside displays of storage units attest to the fact that there is money to be made in storage.  Don’t be one of the suckers paying for storage, let the suckers (valued customers) pay you.

Climate controlled storage is at a premium.  Brokerages like storeatmyhouse.com and StoreWithMe will connect you with people who are materialistic suckers – I mean, have too much stuff.  The customers who use these sites feel safer knowing that their possessions reside with a caring steward (or, at least, someone who is around).

6) Using your home to make money: parking space

using your home to make money parking

Can you rent out your driveway or parking space? Yes! 

If you live in an area where parking is often an issue, your parking space could be making you money.

You do not need to build a kiosk and sit in it all day looking at your phone and whistling at passers-by.  Nor do you need to work out a deal personally. There are peer-to-peer brokers that handle the transactions.

Curbflip.com allows you to set a schedule of when you are not using your space.  After you create a profile, take some photos, and set the schedule and price, your space is ready for business.  Customer satisfaction is important as service is based on reviews.

Justpark.com is a similar service that works with individuals as well as parking companies.

7) Your home as an event venue (or to host visitors to nearby events)

using your home for weddings

You can use your home to make money by offering it to visitors attending a special event, like a golf tournament or a music festival.  People descend like locusts to see a special event and hotels are overwhelmed. You can help them out.

Eventhomes is broker that pairs available homes with people attending a specific event.  Let’s say that there is a big tennis tournament coming to your area; you can rent your home to a group of fans. Since you do not care about the event, you can go visit your mom.

If you have a large, attractive, or unique home, you might be able to rent it out as a venue for weddings, reunions, fundraisers, etc.  There are some legal issues involved, but they are not insurmountable.

Venuelust allows you to list your home as a venue for weddings and get-togethers.  They will walk you through the process and explain how their service offers some protection regarding liability.

8) Filming location

using your home as a filming location
Photo by Alex Lang

This method of using your home to make money is advisable if you live in an area with an established film industry or you have a unique and/or photogenic home.  Production companies prefer to work with home-owners rather than renters. You do not need to have a fancy mansion, but uniqueness is a big factor.  The photos that you take will be critical to your success.

Here are a couple of services to check out:

Both of these services require a monthly fee to list and promote your filming location, so do not waste your time unless you have a reasonable expectation that your home might be desirable.

9) Using your home to make money: pet boarding

using your home to host pets

This option is certainly not for everyone.  You must love pets, have a flexible schedule, be willing to work, and take customer service seriously. I am including this option, however, because you are using your home to help you make money.

Rover is the two-hundred pound mastiff of peer-to-peer bet boarding (they have recently bought out DogVacay).  Rover expects you to perform excellent customer services including pre-stay meet-and-greets and daily photos and updates for the client.

If Rover does not work for you, there are other, smaller options out there.

Related post: Be Cheap before Starting a Side Hustle

10) Providing camp and tiny house sites

using your home to make money camp sites

If you have some acreage, you could be using your home to make money by hosting campers, RVers, or tiny housers.  Depending on your situation, you may want to add a fire-ring, water access, picnic table, etc. to your private camping site.

Hipcamp is very flexible in what a host can offer.  They are clear about what is required and what is considered desirable in a site.  For example, if your property is less than 20 acres and the guest is not in an RV, you must provide bathroom access.

Campspace (which has absorbed campinmygarden.com) focuses on campers looking for unique, memorable camping experiences.

Gamping.com works best if you have a special piece of land or proximity to specific outdoor activities.

Try It Tiny, caters to the tiny house owners or enthusiasts.  Hosts can offer a tiny house (yurt, cabin, etc.) or just an area for a tiny house.

11) Using your home to make money: garden space

gardening

Yardyum connects plot owners with people looking for a place to grow vegetables.  Your agreement can include the sharing of the harvest.  This site is specifically for growing food as it relates to their sustainability mission.

I could not really find any other websites in the U.S. that help the homeowner establish this type of partnership, but you could certainly advertise the gardening space on your own.

Issues regarding using your home to make money

Each of these options includes issues regarding legality, liability, and taxes.  Once you have decided to pursue one of these ideas, take the time to do your research.

Make sure that you refer to…

  • Your own rental agreement
  • The homeowners association rules
  • Your local regulations (Make sure you know the limits of how long you can host guests, etc.)
  • A tax professional (The tax implications might not be all bad.  For example, some of these options would enable you to deduct some of the costs of home improvements.  When diversifying income this way, it is worthwhile to hire a capable professional who is familiar with the issues involved.)
  • Your insurance policy (Make sure that you are covered.  Meet with an experienced agent to discuss exactly what you plan to do.)
  • The details provided by the brokering service (If you are using a broker like Air BnB or yardyum, you want to make sure that the service will work for you, and that you can be a good partner.)

Conclusion on using your home to make money

Post review:

  1. A Roommate
  2. Hosting travelers
  3. Hosting students
  4. Renting out useful space
  5. Storage
  6. Parking
  7. Filming
  8. Boarding pets
  9. Hosting campers or tiny houses
  10. Events 
  11. Renting out garden space

Every one of these ideas on using your home to make money requires some degree of investment, inconvenience, or sacrifice. On the other hand, you might find that you actually enjoy the process (in addition to the income).

Do not hesitate to make your asset work for you.  It is not unseemly to use your home to make money. You are not taking advantage of anyone.  You are simply using your own asset to create a partnership that benefits everyone involved.

getting labels off bottles

We are surrounded by useful and often attractive glass bottles and jars; it is a shame to waste them.  You may want to reuse bottles and jars simply for storage or re-purpose the glass for a neat Pinterest idea, but first you must think about getting the labels off bottles.

The best way of getting labels off bottles and jars:

  • Save a bunch of glass bottles and jars to process at once.
  • Fill a large sink or bin with warm water and oxygen-based cleaning powder (5-7 scoops for a large sink).
  • Soak all of the bottles and jars for several hours.
  • Check on the bottles to see if the solution is dissolving the glue. 
  • Some bottles and jars will be stubborn; give the label surface a scrub with steel wool or even a blade so the solution can soak in. Let them soak some more.
  • Scrub off all of the labels and glue with the steel wool.
  • Give the bottles and jars a final rinse.

Reasons for getting the labels off bottles

I am a homebrewer.  I am always getting the labels off bottles because having to buy bottles all the time is a drag.  It was important to me that I find an effective way to get the labels off bottles on a large scale.  I tried many different methods, but when I started using oxygen-based cleanser, I stopped experimenting.  This method is by far the easiest way I have found.

getting the labels off bottles brewing Saving these bottles will save me $25 at the homebrew store.

Related post: Cheap and Easy Homebrewing

Once I found an easy method to get the labels off bottles, I started saving all kinds of glass containers to reuse and re-purpose.  I use them to store food, office supplies, and garage stuff.  I also learned how to cut the bottles and jars to use in little decoration projects.

getting the labels off bottles hurricane lanterns

I made three of these hurricane lantern candle deals for my friends with some glass jugs and some scraps from installing a butcher block counter top.  I thought they would use them on the garden walkway, but, to my delight, they are using them in their dining room.  Of course, for this project, I had to also cut off the bottom off the jugs.  The best way for cutting bottles is a topic for another time.

jar projects candle holders

These yard-sale candles were giving me fits.  They floated around the house for ages since we had nothing that could hold them safely.  I decided to embed them in plaster inside some pickle jars.  The solution is not very elegant, but it worked.

Detailed instructions for getting the labels off bottles and jars

Collect a bunch of glass containers to process at once.

This method of getting labels off bottles is pretty easy, but the solution takes a while to work.  You will also create a bit off a mess with all of the soggy, disintegrating labels, so it makes sense to do a bunch at a time. Start stashing all of the glass containers that you might want to reuse.

getting the labels off bottles collection

Gather your supplies for getting the labels off bottles and jars.

Once you have enough glass containers for a batch, make sure that you have steel wool, oxygen-based cleaner, and a sharp blade.  It is also a good idea to have a couple of boxes and towels to keep things neat and organized.

getting the labels off bottles supplies

I like to clamp a razor blade into a pair of vise-grips for scrapping the more stubborn labels.  I find that this tool is more comfortable and effective than those little razor blade holders that you can buy.

In getting the labels off bottles, know your enemy.

There are many different types of labels and glues.  Most labels will come off easily after soaking for a while.  However, foils and glossy papers will prevent the solution from penetrating into the glue.  Bottles with foil or glossy paper labels will need some extra abuse with steel wool or even a blade so that solution can start to soak through.

getting the labels off bottles using a razor
This squarish bottle is pretty neat, but the label is not cooperating.  It is time to bring in the big gun.

Plastic labels present unique problems.

Plastic labels can only be removed mechanically.  Also, the glues used with plastic labels do not dissolve easily.  For these labels I recommend the following:

  • Use a razor blade to start peeling back the label.
  • Use pliers (or tough, stubby fingers as shown below) to grasp the label and pull it all the way off.
  • Use a solvent (like paint thinner) to dissolve the glue.

getting plastic labels off bottles

Fill a large sink or bin with warm water and oxygen-based cleaner and let them soak.

For getting the labels off bottles and jars, you simply need to make sure that the oxygen-based cleanser solution can access and dissolve the glue.  You may even realize that some of the labels are floating to the surface on their own, leaving only a bit of softened glue on the bottle.

getting the labels off bottles soaking

As you can see, this sink it totally full.  If I am going to go through the trouble of getting the labels off bottles and jars, I am going to do a lot of them at once.  As I go though the process,  I may decide that some bottles are being too stubborn to bother with and toss them into the recycling.

getting the labels off bottles easy bottle

This bottle was not being stubborn at all.  The label basically floated away on its own.  This is a win-win since Victory beer is excellent, and the bottles are cooperative.  I don’t buy beer based on the label and glue, but there are worse ideas.

Scrub the labels with steel wool.

Once the labels and glue have softened enough to make your job easy, start scrubbing the bottles with the steel wool.  The steel wool will not leave any noticeable damage on the surface of the glass.  You will also notice that pesky dates and numbers printed on some bottles scrub away easily.

easy way to remove labels
This glue will come off in a jiffy.

As you get the labels off the bottles and jars, set them aside neatly.  I like to use a milk crate for this so that I don’t create a big mess that can fall over easily.  If you tilt the box the right way, the remaining solution can drip out of the bottle. Dispose of all of the labels and label remnants before draining the sink; you don’t want to put all that crap down the drain.

getting labels off bottles stacking

When the bottles are stacked neatly, they will not roll around, get knocked over, or fall on the floor. For you homebrewers out there, it is good to know that 25 twelve-ounce bottles fit perfectly inside a standard milk crate.  You can even put another milk crate on top and flip the whole thing upside-down so that the bottles can drip dry.

drip drying bottles
The bottles in the top crate are now inverted. They can drip dry so that there will be no water left when I store them.

Give the glass containers a final rinse.

With fresh, clean water, rinse off all of the bottles and jars, and give them a final inspection.  Run your hands around the bottle to feel if any glue residue remains.  Stack the bottles so that they can drip dry.

Rinsing the bottles as I wrap up
Rinsing the bottles as I wrap up

Getting the Labels off Bottles conclusion

Whether you are making wine, organizing your garage, or storing food, you don’t need to go to the container store, brewing supply store, or Target.  Be economical and sustainable by reusing bottles and jars that you already have or can find easily.

Below you can see the final result.  I was able to get the labels off a lot of bottles and jars at one shot.  Now I have the bottles I need for brewing and few odds and ends for storage and little projects.

getting the labels off bottles stacked jars

Glass is a uniquely useful material.  It is attractive, easy to clean and/or sterilize, and abundant. If you are faithful to one brand of pickles, you might have the solution that you need to finally organize all the random fasteners in your garage or junk drawer. Think twice before you chunk those bottles and jars into the recycling.

Turning pallets into stuff overview

Perhaps nothing is as satisfying as using your own hands and creativity to make something useful from worthless junk.  In many professions the results of our efforts are often longitudinal or indistinct.  I love turning pallets into stuff because the gratification is immediate and concrete.

turning pallets into stuff project
Pallet Chair photo by Dru

In turning pallets into stuff, you save money on materials, reduce society’s waste, and create something that can serve for a lifetime.  Some pallet projects could intimidate even an accomplished woodworker, but don’t let that stop you.  You can build something useful with minimal tools and minimal skills.  If it doesn’t work out, the pallet was garbage to begin with.

SAFETY NOTICE: Working with any tools, even hand tools, can be dangerous.  If you are uncomfortable with a task or it feels awkward or unsafe, stop what you are doing, and find a better way.  There is a smart and safe way to accomplish every task.  Always protect your hearing, lungs, and body.

turning pallets into stuff materials
Projects waiting to happen.

Turning pallets into stuff: basics

Finding pallets to turn into stuff

Pallets are easy to find, just look behind the businesses in your area.  If a business has a big pile of pallets next to their dumpster, ask an employee if they are trash. Stealing pallets that are part of a pallet return program is dishonest and unnecessary; there are plenty of discarded pallets to go around.

save an oak tree
Save an oak tree by salvaging a pallet.

Most pallets are made of hardwood; this is what you usually want.  The most common woods used are oak and maple, which are expensive to buy at a lumber yard.  Softwoods are less desirable for most projects and are more likely to fall apart during pallet disassembly.  If you are unsure about wood species, press your thumbnail into the wood and see if it dents easily.

SAFETY NOTICE: Many pallets are treated with chemicals.  Make sure that your application will not expose anyone (including yourself) to toxins.  For example, do not use treated lumber to build an herb garden.

Cut, smash, and grab

turning pallets into stuff tools

Basic tools for pallet disassembly:

  • Hammers (claw hammer and perhaps an engineer’s hammer)
  • Pry bars
  • Saws (handsaw and circular saw)
  • Vise grips
  • Nail set

There are as many ways to disassemble pallets as their are DIYers.  There are even special tools that you can buy, like the Pallet Pal.  For most of us, some basic tools will suffice.

Using a reciprocating saw to cut through all of the fasteners is a mistake.  You will leave nail remnants in the stringers, the beefiest and most useful part of the pallet.  I prefer to cut the ends of the slats with a circular saw and leave a bit of the waste protruding from the stringer.  The ends of the slats are often split or riddled with nails anyway.

When I disassembling pallets and turning pallets into stuff, the following method works best for me.

1) Cut the slats on both ends leaving the waste a bit proud of the stringers.turning pallets into stuff disassembly

2) Wiggle the slats hither and thither to loosen the center fasteners.wiggle the slats

3) Pry the slat free of the center rail.

prying out the slats
Now you can get purchase with the pry bar.

4) Repeat this step for the slats on the opposite side.

5) Now that the stringers are free, smash the overhang connected to the stringers to leave the protruding nail heads.  This will enable you to easily remove the nails completely.turning pallets into stuff stringers

6) Remove the nails from the slats with a vise-grips, nail set, hammer, etc.  Strike the nails on the pointy side so that they will be easy to pull out on the other side using the vise-grips.  If you are using the nail set, they might just shoot out without any prying.

7) Pry the nails from the stringers.  As you can see, the nails left in the stringer will be easy to pull once the ends of the slates have been smashed.  You have saved the most useful part of the part of the pallet and (hopefully) removed all the metal from your stock.

easy to pull nails

pallet wood ready for use
Pallet wood ready for use

Turning pallets into stuff: rough projects

If you only need some rough material, you are ready to build.  There are a lot of projects that don’t require your stock to be well-surfaced on all sides.  If you are just getting started turning pallets into stuff, make some basic, rough projects before thinking about jointing or planing your stock.

Be advised that your stock may still have some metal inside.  This metal (even a tiny piece) can damage your tools or blades.  To learn about removing all metal from your stock, read the intermediate section.

I needed to build a tool wall to organize my yard stuff.  The pallet slats are good enough as they are for this application.

pallet project tool wall
That’s much better.

A friend of mine wanted to turn an extra large pallet and some random garage lumber into a “mud sink” for her kids to play with.  I think it came out pretty great since we only spent a few hours on it.  With a few alterations, this design could be used for a garden dry bar or a potting shelf.  As you can see, the pallet forms the back of the mud sink which you can build on.  The hardest part is dropping in and supporting the container that will be the mud sink.pallet mud sink 200kb

Turning pallets into stuff: intermediate

If you will be using your pallet wood for some finer or more complicated projects,  You will have to do some additional work to prepare your stock.  For these types of projects, it is essential that your wood be surfaced on four sides so that your joints will be strong and align properly.

WARNING: Machinery is dangerous! Protect your hearing, lungs, and body.  Never where loose clothing or jewelry when operating machinery.  Never use machinery in ways that contradict the operating instructions.

Removing all of the metal

When you will be machining your stock in turning pallets into stuff, it must be completely free of metal.  Any metal at all will damage cutting knives and blades and could pose a danger.  Luckily, a cheap metal detector is the solution.  The metal detector shown works beautifully and cost about $20.

turning pallets into stuff metal detector

Quickly run the metal detector on all four sides of the stock.  If you find metal, pry out the offending object or cut out the section.  This should go pretty fast.

Planing one side

You need to start by getting one side of the stock perfectly flat.  You don’t need to have a big, expensive jointer to accomplish this.  All you need is a sharp plane and some effort.  Sight down the work-piece to decide which side you want to make perfectly flat.  The hardest part of this process is learning how to properly sharpen the plane iron.

Sometimes a piece is so warped that is pointless to try to flatten it into a perfect plane.  You can either discard the piece or cut it into smaller pieces that can be flattened.

turning pallets into stuff jointing
Look at that nice oak figure coming through.

I am using this old-timey jointer plane, but a shorter plane will do.  The work-piece is held in place by a nail-head sticking out of the workbench.  Once you are getting a nice, full shaving all the way down and removed any twist, the surface is flat.  Mark the side that has been planed with pencil, so there will be no mistake.

pallet wood before and after
See how the beauty of this wood is revealed.

Plane the opposite side.

If you simply flip the piece over and use the hand plane on the opposite side, it may look nice, but it will not be co-planer.  It may be a wedge shape with two flat sides.  You can make it co-planer by using hand planes, but it is much easier to use a thickness planer.  Thickness planers are powerful tools, and they are fairly small, easy to use, and relatively affordable.  The one shown cost less than $300.

thickness planer and pallet wood
Taking the stock as it exits the thickness planer.

I marked the flat side that I planed by hand with pencil squiggles because the flat side needs to go face down in the planer.  The uneven top side will be shaved down until it is uniform and co-planer to the bottom.  Once this is accomplished and all of my boards are close to the thickness I want, I will flip the pieces over for a final pass to remove the pencil marks and ensure that my hand-worked side is perfect.

TIP: Start running the thickest boards through first and add the thinner boards to the process as you go.  Once the thinnest boards are getting shaved, all of you boards are the same thickness.

Why not skip the the hand tools and start with the thickness planer?  You can do this if your project allows for some irregularities, but the planer will follow the shape of the bottom side of the board to a certain extent.  If you don’t start with one flat registration face, the sides of the board could follow the same wavy profile.

Joint the edges of your boards

Now you have boards that are surfaced on the top and bottom but not on the edges.  Jointing the edges is easily done with a table saw (or even a circular saw).

turning pallets into stuff edge jointing
I have clamped the piece to the table saw fence so that I can joint one edge with a plane.

There are many methods and jigs for edge jointing, but I like to joint one edge with a hand plane and then put this edge against the table saw fence.  This edge will be straight, and it is OK if it is not at a perfect right angle to the other sides.  After cutting off the un-jointed edge on the table saw, flip the board to cut off the edge that you planed by hand; it will now be perfectly perpendicular.

cutting the jointed edge
By shaving off the edge that I jointed by hand, I can ensure that it is now perpendicular (as long as my saw blade is perpendicular).

To sum up, I planed one side by hand, ran the the other side through the surface planer, and jointed the boards’ edges.  My boards are now S4F, or surfaced on four sides.  They are ready to use in turning pallets into stuff projects where tolerances are unforgiving.

Turning pallets into stuff: making a custom dog cart

There are approximately six bagillion ideas to try, but I am making a custom dog cart.  My in-laws have a young Bernese Mountain Dog, and they want to train it for one of the breed’s traditional occupations: pulling stuff.

custom dog cart customer
At the time of this photo, this monster was still growing.  I am just grateful he hasn’t accidentally eaten my dogs.

I decided that pallet wood would be perfect for this custom dog cart application.  It is the right size, durable, and free.  If the project is a complete fail, I have only spent my time.

using a cross cut sled

I will use a sled on my table saw to make sure that my crosscuts are precise.  This is important when doing any type of joinery.

turning pallets into stuff assembly
The custom dog cart is taking shape.
turning pallets into stuff custom dog cart
Custom dog cart result

I used some purchased hardware and some old bicycle tires, but all of the wood for this custom dog cart came from the pallets.  That’s what I call turning pallets into stuff.  I like this pipe and flanges solution because you can just twist the pipes out to remove them for transport.  A few minor details (sanding, stain, etc.) and this custom dog cart is ready for action.

custom dog cart 2
“Looky thar, ‘sgot a tailgate and e’ry thang!”

Conclusions on turning pallets into stuff

I love the fact that so many people are excited about salvaging pallets.  The projects can be as simple as using whole pallets to make a compost bin or as complicated as fine woodworking.  Using free materials gives you the freedom to experiment, learn, and make mistakes.  The challenge of dealing with problems inherent in reclaiming lumber is chance to hone your skills.

dumpster diving season

“Spring time and garbage pickin’ is easy / dumps are jumping and the garbage is high.”

-from Porgy and Bess

When people look at my body, they are surprised to learn that I am a competitive diver.  However, if they watched me on Fridays (garbage day), they would see me moving pretty fast and flexing my lifting muscles in some world-class dumpster diving.

Trash-picking saves money, helps the environment, gives the thrill of victory, and offers some cool old stuff that may be better quality than what you will find at Target, IKEA, or the rest.  If it helps you sleep at night, you can call yourself a free-cycler, up-cycler, or curb surfer.  Not me, I’m a old-school trash-picker / dumpster-diver, and there is no shame in my game.

In the competitive world of dumpster diving, Spring is playoff season. Everyone in your neighborhood has spent the winter reading Marie Condo and watching episodes of Hording: Buried Alive, the real-estate market is starting the Spring thaw, and divorce filings reach their yearly peak.

Do some calisthenics and put on your game-face, ’cause it’s time to score.

Note: I had so much fun writing this post that I decided to go deeper with this topic.  Check out my newer post, Free Stuff on the Curb: 29 tips for scoring big.

Top 5 Dumpster Diving Targets

5) Plastic containers

Paying for storage containers sucks, but people throw them away just because they are dirty.  Utility shelves, milk crates, storage totes, and old coolers are all fair game.  Just make sure you are not taking your neighbor’s trash receptacle.

uses for old coolers
All of these coolers were free.  The red one has been retrofitted for brewing beer.  The grey one is now a solar generator that I take camping.  The blue one is, well, for keeping things cool.

4) Vintage curios

If you live in or near an area with some old houses, you can find some really neat, old stuff.  I have an affinity for older stuff made made from “real” materials.  Some of these finds might even be eligible for resale.

freecycling vintage
I ordered an LED bulb to replace the florescent bulb in the lamp.  The stapler from the 60’s weighs eight pounds and is bullet-proof.
vintage maps
This awesome map set was in a school dumpster, but I had to make the brackets.

3) Patio furniture

People throw away patio sets just because they have ripped cushions or a damaged top.  Replacement cushions (fitting most designs) can be found in the home center, and you can pick a design that you like.  For many bases a different top can be attached.

replacing cushions on patio furniture
I made wooden tops for the stools since I wanted them to double as stands.

2) Construction materials

Even if you only do one or two projects a year, materials from the home center can really add up.  If you have a place to store these materials, you can save a lot of money.  Even a couple of 2x4s makes a difference.  As a bonus, you might save yourself a trip to the Home Cheapo.

salvaged construction materials

using old windows
I made this cabinet with two old window that I liked.  It now houses my wife’s knitting stuff.

1) Older furniture (nothing upholstered)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.  Old dressers, chairs, tables, etc. are almost always better made with better materials.  Wooden furniture is easy to spruce up.  A little wood glue, an added screw, some sanding, or some lemon oil can go a long way.  If you are going to give a piece some TLC, just be wary of lead or other toxins.

curb furniture
This stand from Denmark only needed some reinforcing and some lemon oil.  The cocker spaniel was salvaged also, but he has been much more trouble.

Top 5 Trash-picking Strategies

5) Think about bed-bugs.

If I brought pests into my house, my marriage would be over faster than you can say, “No, you cannot crash at my place you cheap bastard.”  Anything with stuffing, upholstery, or fabric is a non-starter.

4) Know the schedule, but don’t change yours.

I don’t make special trips around to look for scores.  It isn’t necessary.  I know the trash schedules for the neighborhoods around me, and when I walk the dogs or run errands, I peep the goods.  Taking a different street on the right day can make all the difference.

3) Institutions / huge houses.

Some buildings just give it up again and again.  It’s like being a home-run hitter and choosing to play for the Rockies at Coors Field.  Huge, old buildings have decades of goodies that need annual culling.

CASE STUDY: A young couple decided to fix up a massive house near me.  They were throwing out good stuff every Friday for years.  When we finally had them over for dinner, they realized that all of my furnishings came from their house.  They left early and now cross the street when they see me coming. OK, but it could have happened.

2) Prep. your kit.

Keep an extra hammer (the bigger the better), some screwdrivers, a saw, straps, etc. in the car.  One time a saw a desk with a beautiful top, but the base was ruined.  A few swings with the engineer’s hammer and the top was mine.  Another time I smashed some damaged Ikea bookcases since I wanted the melamine to make some closet shelves.  It’s a good idea to keep some tools in the car anyway.

1) Hit well-to-do areas.

It’s kind of like how poor kids go trick-or-treating on the nice side of town.  I am usually shocked at what rich people throw away.  (Couldn’t they even bother to call the donation center for a pick-up?)  The rewards are high and the competition low.  I think it was Socrates who said,  “One treasurer’s trash is a trashy man’s treasure.”

Related post: Thrift Store Tips to Become a Jedi Master of Resale.

Do you have any great moments in free-cycling to share? Any good tips that I can add to my repertoire? Please leave a comment.

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

saving a wood floor

Is the wood floor worth saving?

Some people believe that they should save a wood floor no matter the condition.  My wife is one of these people.  Our oak veneer floor (only about 3/8″ thick) was installed (poorly) in 1925.  These thin, face-nailed floors cannot be sanded down very much or very often.  My floors have character.  If they had any more character, I would be writing this from the basement.  She wanted to save them, and I wanted to be cheap.

This guide will help you save a wood floor cheap, so long as you accept a rustic appearance.  They have a smooth finish and will perform beautifully under considerable abuse.  I have tried to keep the process as simple (and cheap) as possible.  I have done several floors in my home and have found a method that works great for me.

Prepping to save a wood floor

Remove the shoe molding.

If you try to work around it, it will make sanding more difficult and will look unprofessional.  I find a simple painter’s multi-tool works well for prying the base shoe loose. If you break some of the shoe molding during removal, it is cheap to replace.  In this particular room, I am replacing all of the shoe molding with door stop anyway as I feel it covers more problems and gives a sharper look.

Replace ruined boards.

Using an oscillating tool with a plunge blade or sharp chisel to remove parts of the floor that are beyond hope.  Consider cutting your replacement pieces first and using them to trace the cut lines so that there is less room for error.

Make sure to stagger the seams and avoid dinky filler pieces. (They are less secure and look terrible.)

If you can’t find the flooring you need at a lumber retailer, you might need to steal flooring from a closet that can have a different floor surface.  I am fortunate that my type of floor is common in my area, and it is on hand at Rittenhouse Lumber.

patching wood floor

Patch the small stuff.

To save a wood floor you will need to fill holes that you find with putty.  You can try to mix the filler with dye or sawdust to better match color, but I didn’t bother.  I like Durham’s Rock Hard Water Putty because it is easy, cheap, fast, versatile, and it expands as it dries locking it in place.

Knock down any protruding nails and shoot some nails into squeaky areas (again, the final product will not be suitable for Buckingham Palace.)

using a nail set
This nail needs to be knocked down with a nail set.
fighting squeaky floors
I would rather see more nail heads and hear less squeaks.
wood floor to be sanded
As you can see from this room renovation, I like to do the floors last.

Sand in the place where you live.

(Shout-out David Picciuto)

Rent the right floor sander to save a wood floor cheap.

I don’t like drum sanders as they are too aggressive, and it is easy for someone like me to make a big boo-boo.  You will want to rent an orbital pad sander if you are a novice or if you have the thin, veneer type floor like I have.

Use a U-Sand (Cherry Hill Manufacturing) sander on thin, uneven floors where removing a good layer of material is not an option. These sanders have four orbiting pads and are very forgiving for beginners.  They are easy to operate as they kind of float around like an air hockey puck.

WARNING: Floor sanders are heavy; you may need some help to load, unload, or tackle stairs.  I got mine to the the third floor by hitching my dogs into a draft team and using a complicated system of blocks and tackles, but I’m a boss.

awkward dog moment
A well-deserved nap after hauling the sander up the stairs.

Have a plan so that you can get away with renting the floor sander for one day.

Make sure that you have more than enough sand paper for the big day. Order a variety pack of 6″ hook and loop sandpaper discs online in advance to save money.  You will go through a lot of sandpaper.  I went through 40, 60, 80, 100, and 150 grit, but some approximation of this will be fine.  After returning the big sander, use a hand sander to get the edges and corners.

cherry hill floor sander
The sandpaper need not have the holes, the dust intake port is in the center of the sander. This sander was $125 for 24 hours.

Make a reservation for the sander and make sure that you can do all of the major sanding on that day.  You will not be able to use the sander to sand between coats if you only have a twenty-four hour rental.  Sanding between the coats is not a big deal, it can be accomplished without the rented equipment.

The big sanding day

When saving a wood floor, do everything that you can to prevent the dust from consuming your whole house.  The dust collection system on the sanders can only do so much.  Blow a fan out of a window in the work area to create negative air pressure.  Close all the doors you can.  Put mats on the floor at the end of the work area so you don’t track dust all over.  No matter what you do, this is a messy experience.

WARNING: Don’t forget to protect your lungs and hearing! Wear a respirator and ear protection.

dust cloud
What it looks like when you spill the sander’s dust collection bag.

Go through all the grits with the big sander and don’t worry about the edges or detail areas until after you have returned the rental.  You will need to change the sanding discs often.

Use a detail sander like the one shown (random orbit to minimize scratch marks) to get all of the areas that you couldn’t get with the big machine.  I usually end up sitting on my butt when I do this.  Progress through the grits as before.  I even had to hand sand to get under the wall-mounted radiator. It is OK if the very edges are rough, the shoe molding will cover them.  With the rougher grits, don’t stray into the larger field because you might neglect these areas with the finer grits and end up leaving scratch marks.

sanding floor edges
Sand the edges following the same progression through the grits.

Applying finish (the fun part of saving a wood floor)

Save a wood floor with the right finish and applicator.

Water-based polyurethane is junk; don’t waste your time with it.  I did one area of the house with water-based poly and have regretted it ever since.  It looks terrible, requires a bazillion coats, and protects poorly.

For this project I used oil-based, high-gloss polyurethane (Minwax brand) applied with an applicator pad. (I have never tried using a polyurethane roller).  You just mop it on.  You will also want a detail brush for tricky spots that you can address as you go.

applying floor finish
This is the microfiber pad used to “mop” on the finish.  You can try to clean them or just buy several.
how to apply floor finish
This bin was perfect for loading the applicator. I keep the brush with me as I progress.

Prep the sanded floor for finish.

Get as much dust out of the room as possible so that nothing lands in your finish.  Dust, sweep, vacuum, and repeat.  I thought I was going to kill Roomba, but he survived.

Update: I actually did kill the blower motor on the Roomba soon after, but it was cheap and easy to replace. He survived the transplant.

When you are ready to apply the finish, clean the floors with mineral spirits.  It need not dry completely before applying the first coat.

prepping a floor for finish
Cleaning the floor with mineral spirits will help the oil-based poly adhere.

Plan your exit strategy.

Think about how the application will progress.  Where will you start and where will you end? How can you progress so that you are mostly going with the grain of the wood? I started in the closet and worked my way toward my exit the top of the stairs.  Think about how you will leave yourself a convenient path that you can mop as you exit.  Leave the stuff you will need to wrap up at your exit point.

planning to finish a floor
This will be my exit point.

Apply the finish.

Make sure you are strategic about mopping toward your exit.  Mop slowly and with the grain (as much as possible). Smooth out thick spots or drips as you go.  If you leave a glob of poly in one spot, it will dry that way.

If your are careful with the applicator, you don’t need to cut-in around the baseboards with the brush.  You can get close enough so that the edge will be covered by the shoe molding, but be careful not to slop the poly on to the baseboards.

Use the detail brush to get the little areas that will not be covered by the shoe molding. Do this as you go so that you have a wet edge and don’t leave overlapping coats.

detail brush for floor
The applicator pad can’t reach spots like this without slopping it on the trim.

Sand lightly between coats.

You will want to apply three coats to save a wood floor, and each coat needs to dry over night, so these areas will be off-limits for a while. Be advised, this stuff really stinks as it dries and cures.

The day after the previous coat, sand with 220 (see clip below), vacuum, wipe with mineral spirits, and apply the next coat.  This actually goes very quickly and you only have to do it twice.

This is my method for sanding between coats. A broomstick, paint roller, and duct tape can save your back and speed things up.

After the final coat, baby the floor for a few days as the finish cures.  You can still walk around in your socks, but don’t let the dogs scratch it or put furniture on it.

Save a wood floor cheap final result:

finishing a floor
Note the tennis balls protecting the new finish.

These floors look good to me. The new pieces of floor stand out a bit, but they will develop that same orange tone over time. Time to install the shoe moldings and fixtures.

The next time these floors need some attention, I won’t need to do nearly as much. I will just give a light sanding and apply more poly.

Any great tips to save a wood floor cheap? Please leave a comment.