Conventional wisdom states that dumpster-diving is for the homeless. Freegans, however, are a small anticonsumerist group who won't allow anything useful to go to waste--to the point where middle-class environmentalists can be found scavenging the trash bins of grocery stores for the still-good food thrown out every day. Some of them even chronicle their finds on the Web, boasting of spending only a few dollars on food each month and furnishing their homes for free, often to the dismay of store owners who see them as scavengers.
Thankfully, you don't have to dumpster-dive to subscribe to the freegan philosophy and reap the cost-saving benefits. Here are a few tips for accessible--and considerably less smelly--freeganism:
• Need a couch, or tennis racket or tea kettle? Rather than buying a new one, check the free listings on Craigslist or Freecycle. Often, people who are moving or spring cleaning put gently used belongings on the site, free to anyone willing to trek to their place and pick it up. It's far better than the environmental effects of the manufacturing, packaging, and transport that go into a new tea kettle, and if it breaks after two months, you never paid a dime for it, so who cares? Just search the site for another one. Be wary of searching Google for offers of free stuff, though--they might come with strings attached, like making you sign up for a credit card or other promotion. It's best to stick to local sites.
• Remind yourself that one man's trash is another's treasure, and check with your friends and family while doing any massive closet or garage cleanouts. If you and your friends are similar in size (or your kids are), host a party where you swap all the clothes you were going to pitch. Anything unclaimed by the end of the night goes to charity, and you'll end up with a few new outfits if you're lucky. Some of my favorite skirts once surrounded the waists of stylish friends, and my sister's favorite place to shop is my closet. The same theory goes for neighborhood-wide yard sales, where you might be able to swap a mismatched lamp for some new picture frames. You could also join a swap group, like these listed on meetup.com or on flickr. Before you go, check out these tips for effective bartering.
• This tip comes courtesy of a clever coworker, who always keeps an assortment of Tupperware at her desk. Whenever there's a work happy hour or party where there will inevitably be more food than people, she makes a beeline for the Tupperware and packages up all the leftovers before they get to the garbage. This way, a veggie platter and shrimp tray become the makings of tomorrow's stir-fry dinner. I employed a similar method in college at huge university-wide picnics, where I'd stash leftover soda cans in a backpack. Intercept food before it makes its way to the trash, and you're a far cleverer freegan.
• Look on the Web for free events in your city or town--a newspaper's listings or city guide will tell you where they are. If you take advantage of free concerts, street festivals, outdoor film showings, and other events, you'll pick up new interests and also have more money for paying the bills--or to put toward eco-friendly purchases, like organic products. Search a local listing, or a site like eventful.com, for the keyword free.