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Let's be real about this: so far, I've completely failed at "freeganism." The counter-culture movement du jour is a lot harder than just diving into a few dumpsters or picking up a few errant treasures from your neighbor's curbside trash, as I found out firsthand last month when I attempted to go "freegan" for a week, to little avail.
Living on one's resourcefulness instead of cash takes careful preparation, planning, organizing, developing contacts and building a support system — plus a little bit of luck in living somewhere with a decent year-round growing climate. So, as we always do, Shoestring took to the streets, wearing out the shoe leather and rounding up some of the best in the biz — most going on over a decade of practice in the sacrificial art of scavenging — to bring you this guide for living the good life for less, maybe even completely free.
Here are some tips from those experts, in the order in which I failed in my attempt to bring Shoestring readers a first person account.
Take Stock of Your Spending (and Your Pantry)
Most mainstream practitioners of "taking a free week" will tell you to simply stock up and get clear beforehand: pay all your bills; make a huge trip to the grocery store; and then stay home and live simply for seven days. Not only did we feel this was cheating, but we felt it completely missed the point of freeganism — not to mention being pretty boring, too.
Due to this stubborn stance, I ran out of both eggs and milk on day one of my free week and had to sell a shelf on Craigslist before refilling my cabinets, drinking black coffee for two days and munching on Luna Bars while waiting for the email offers to come pouring in. Lesson learned. Here's how to avoid feeling helpless while going cash-free:
Scope Out the "Dumpsterscape"
No two neighborhoods are created "freequal." While free fruits and veggies may be prevalent in cities like Berkeley and Brooklyn, their Freecycle listings and free sections on Craigslist might very well be completely picked over. Take the temperature of the freegan, trash picking, curbcycling, dumpster diving, foraging scene in your area and then set your agenda accordingly: point your compass towards the category for scavenging that's the hottest.
"In our book, we don't give many individual tips for places, because each city or neighborhood has its own scavenging personality," says Kristan Lawson, who co-authored of The Scavengers' Manifesto with wife Anneli Rufus. "The 'free' section on Craigslist is great because it's not part of any club."
Don't try to dumpster dive for food in Boston where the scene is virtually nonexistent, for example, while ignoring the overabundance of nearby college campuses rife with recession-friendly free meals and events. (Even though you might pick a chandelier out of the trash near John Kerry's house in Beacon Hill or Jack Welch's house in Back Bay, neighborhoods notoriously abundant in abandoned luxury items.)
"If you sit through an hour-long lecture at Harvard or UC Berkeley or NYU about Gothic architecture, for instance," muses Anneli Rufus, co-author of The Scavengers' Manifesto. "It's not just free food, but free education as well as entertainment. Get a daybook and plan it out in detail."
To start stocking your pantry with free foodstuffs: join local groups for Dumpster Diving, Community Salvage, or Freegarian lifestyles on Meetup.com and attend a regular meeting in advance of your free week; follow and become chums with fellow freegans on Twitter, like @SecretFreegan; and join free websites like VeggieTrader.com (@VeggieTrader) to reap the rewards of gardeners' surplus harvest.
"Free food is usually the biggest challenge," Anneli Rufus said. "We grow our own, and bakeries are known for clean receptacles, but that's not a very balanced diet."
Follow Your Bliss
Find your biggest passion (you'll know it because it's the thing burning the hole in your paycheck) and then figure out how to get it for free, or identify specific needs (or skills) in your current life, and then seek out alternatives for acquiring (or using) them.
If you're a total foodie, for instance, "look at every single listing and calendar in your area, online and in print, and spend a few hours doing your research ahead of time," said The Scavengers' Manifesto author Lawson. "Go to the websites or call the departments of different cultural organizations — Greek, Italian, French — because often they'll have free festivals with food from that area of the world."
Joanne Tuller, a Boston-based thrifty chic known to friends as "Trader Joanne," fondly remembers living and participating in the dumpster diving scene in Seattle back in the '80s, long before the term "freegan" was coined. Back then, she had a friend who was sort of famous in their circle for being able to find anything for anyone — free.
"If you said you needed a pair of pants, he'd look you over, gauge your size, and a few days later he'd come back with the pants," Tuller said. "Usually when people go dumpster diving, they go and see what they can find, but with this guy it was sort of like ordering from a catalog."
While most of us would have to work long and hard to achieve this level of acumen for finding abandoned items, the takeaway is that if you pinpoint the item you need, it's much easier to find it for free. Some celebrities are even publicly practicing the art of selective scavenging, such as Maria Menounos' alternative, curbside prop scouting when last in Connecticut to film her upcoming movie, "Serial Buddies."
Find, Forage, and Grow
No matter whether you call the Alaskan tundra or the Atlanta heat your home, there's a local free community you can tap into. Pick up the phone, pound the pavement and ask around, or find wisdom through new friends on the Web to put your new low-cost lifestyle to work.
Started as a way for gardeners to trade with other gardeners, VeggieTrader.com launched in March and already boasts over 5,000 registered users nationwide, according to Rob Anderson, one of the site's founders.
"We're focused on people who have excess and want to share it and get the most out of their gardening experience," says Anderson said, who designed Veggie Trader to function like classified ads. "If I have an apple tree, for instance, I can post a free listing for sale or trade or barter, say for squash in return for my apples. Veggie Trader is for anybody looking for local food much more inexpensively than going to the supermarket."
Anderson also mentioned that he's noticed a new movement this year, where people are planting veggie gardens in the medians between sidewalks and the roads.
"It's definitely a trend this year for people to grow stuff wherever they can," he said. "I don't know how many cities are equipped for it, and it can make for some interesting conflict. There are some 'guerilla gardeners' in places like LA and London, and there were these guys in Brooklyn with a mobile garden — just Twittered about it — who are growing a farm in the back of their truck."
Another popular free resource is FallenFruit.org, a foraging community and artists' collective based in Los Angeles that originally started as a project to feed the homeless. Fallen Fruit offers free neighborhood foraging maps outlining all the fruits and vegetables up for grabs that are growing on public land — either fully or partially — and even goes one step further to designate the bounty by seasonal availability.
"Midsummer to fall are the best times to look," says Matias Viegener, one of Fallen Fruit's founders. "That's when fruit is usually ripe. After a while, you learn to recognize the trees without fruit, or just in flower or even bare in the winter. You start to see them everywhere. There are lots of guides to identifying fruit trees and it's really easy to learn."
"We invite all the people we can find to come meet us (usually in an art gallery, though we've done it outdoors too), and bring their home grown or street-picked fruit," Viegener said. "People sit a communal tables with people they don't know and they first negotiate on what jam to make (I have peaches, you have limes, so we'll make peach-lime jam with lavender flowers). People trade the jars they make and leave more for others. Everyone leaves with jam, even if they didn't bring anything. Anyone can do this — all you need are some burners and supplies."
The next Public Fruit Jam is coming up on August 2nd, 2009, from 12 to 3 p.m. at Machine Project in Los Angeles.
Become a Corner Kid
Lastly, once you know where to look, it's important to know when and how to look for items to scavenge. We're not recommending that you hawk your wares at the intersection of pride and prejudice, but that you scope out the best online and offline spots for free stuff — then hang out there often.
"I look at Craigslist every morning before I start my day, and as part of my route, I'll check out anything that looks interesting,” Anneli Rufus of The Scavengers' Manifesto confesses.
Risks vs. Rewards
Don't sacrifice your future in pursuit of a few free heads of lettuce or pints of plums. By tagging along with established organizations in your area, you can also learn how to walk that fine line between frugal and felony, or worse: find yourself en route to the free clinic.
"Be very careful if you go into a dumpster," Lawson cautions. "There's grime, slippery food, broken glass, and other hazards, and you need to triple check that the food hasn't gone bad. We don't do dumpster diving because it scares us, but if you're going to try it out, ask around about the legality of dumpster diving in your area. Groups will know the laws and the local landscape or 'dumpsterscape.'"
Farnoosh Torabi, author of You're So Money and a contributor to personal finance site Geezeo.com, features some great additional tips about the risks of trash picking and curbcycling from her friend Ben, of Jim Cramer's Mad Money on MSNBC, on her website, Farnoosh.tv.
Copyright 2009 Shoestring, LLC. Photo: iStock