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The Hidden Costs of Being Frugal

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“Stop! Back up!” I shout enthusiastically to my spouse Ryan every time we drive or bike past a pile of free stuff on the side of the road. Next comes a debate between us over whether the discarded items are worth taking home or not. Most often, I say “yes,” Ryan says “no,” we take it home anyway, and Ryan ends up thanking me later for grabbing it. I find a lot of satisfaction in giving objects a second life, but is this obsession truly saving me money?

At one time, it was a necessity for me to grab discarded items. I had to be thoughtful about how I spent every penny, and therefore mending and repurposing became a big part of my life. Luckily, I also enjoy spending my time fixing and swapping items because it reduces waste in the landfill and is good for my wallet—or so I tell myself. But what is the true cost of going through this effort? You may have heard the popular sayings “time is money” and “nothing in life is free.” Let’s unpack these two themes as we explore some of the hidden costs of being thrifty.



It may take very specific tools, supplies, and know-how to fix up and repurpose items. If you are going to enjoy the project, the tools have multiple uses, or you will use these tools often for the same type of project, it may be worth the investment.

For example, my spouse is a carpenter; over time, he has invested in well-made tools that he uses both to fix up our home and to make furniture, a hobby that he enjoys and earns us extra money. The additional income from furniture that he has built from scrap wood or pieces that we received for free has far outweighed the cost of the tools purchased (or so he tells me).

On the flip side, we bought a specialized glass cutter to turn empty wine bottles into drinking glasses. Then we learned that this endeavor was more effort than we cared to spend. The tool was so specialized that we couldn’t use it for any other glass cutting projects and we had to purchase a different set of tools anyway for additional glass projects.



Although I have carried a large wooden bookshelf over a mile on my back, you most likely will need additional resources to acquire and make the most of free items. This might include having a large vehicle or bike trailer, storage space, or even simply access to cleaning supplies. Knowing how to leverage resources allows you to repair a free item with another free item you already have on hand, but that does not always happen.

There are times when you must purchase additional components, ingredients, or tools not already in your toolkit in order to create a finished product. It’s important to identify what resources will be necessary to make sure the item you are fixing, creating, or repurposing is realistic and within budget.

Ryan makes picture frames from scrap wood, a resource we almost always have on hand. At Home Depot or Lowe’s, it can cost as much as $25 for a custom-cut piece of cheaper grade glass to fit his frames. To stay on budget, we instead go to ReSOURCE or Goodwill to buy a piece of artwork for a few dollars and use the glass from that piece for our frame. Leveraging local consignment shops, yard sales, junk yards, or another source of low-cost items could aid you in acquiring the resources necessary to finish a current or future project—without breaking the bank.


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Unless it is purely for fun, general knowledge on how to repurpose or mend different types of projects will help you know what items are worth grabbing and which ones are possible to fix. I once grabbed a free box spring from the side of the road assuming it would work for us. Acquiring this item took time, energy, and fuel, only to bring it home and find out that it was the wrong size and couldn’t be used. Not only did I lose significant time over this one item, I also ended up having to pay to dispose of it.

It is important to know exactly what you are getting yourself into. Discovering and iterating is part of the fun, but if you put finances and time into purchasing tools, collecting resources, and working on a project that doesn’t work out in the end, you may find that you have spent more money in the end than you intended.

The most rewarding free items are those that have superior construction and durability than what you could buy for a reasonable price. This is especially true in today’s marketplace of products that are for single-use or easily break because they aren’t built to last. That bookshelf I mentioned earlier was made of solid wood and its structure was in great shape; we put doors on it with scrap wood, painted it, and it’s now an attractive cabinet in our dining room. Doing your homework can help you be creative, give you knowledge and skills for future projects, and also help you find (and make use of!) the true diamonds in the rough.



Even if the resources you are leveraging didn’t cost anything, investing time into a project does equate to money. I was always told to figure out how much you make an hour and use that amount as a starting point for placing a “financial value” on your time. It’s not just about the dollar value; you may also value your time spent on leisure activities and with family.

There are certain projects you couldn’t pay me to do, even if I was going to save money. I would rather put my time elsewhere, including on projects that are time-consuming but fun. For example, I love making children’s toys or functional items out of scrap fabric. These projects take a lot of time to create a plan, find the correct resources, and try different ideas until I have a finished product. If I apply the salary rule above, these fabric toys often would not make financial sense.

However, I can queue up a podcast and spend hours working on a piece that ultimately isn’t “worth” anything. I love being creative, re-using items, and finding true joy and art in the process. Regardless of how you view your time, we only have a set amount of it. Make sure the scope of the project matches how you value your time.


Reflecting on the hundreds of free items I’ve rescued and re-used, it’s a toss-up whether the whole process–vehicle, gas, supplies, tools, and time—has saved me all that much money, only validating the saying “nothing in life is free.” However, there are many free items that I would have never bought for myself or my family that have been real game-changers, such as the shaker cabinet that fits perfectly in our dining room and an activity center that has occupied my son for hours on end. Now, almost every item of furniture that we own has a good story of how we acquired and fixed it, is a piece of art that we enjoy, and can be passed down to someone else when we are finished with it.

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About Stephanie Loscalzo

Stephanie Loscalzo is the Learning and Development Specialist at VSECU, where she welcomes new employees and focuses on developing employees’ communication and interpersonal skills. Outside of work, you can find Stephanie running, riding her bike, or paddling her stand-up paddle board or kayak.
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