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Yard-sale nirvana: The 'free' box

You might find exactly what you need in the giveaway box. I certainly have.

By Donna_Freedman May 8, 2012 5:24PM

Image: Home garage sale (© UpperCut Images/SuperStock)I don't believe in "The Secret" -- the notion that if you visualize what you want it will come to you. But I've sure had decent luck with the "free" box at yard sales.

In the past five or six years I've wished for certain items, including a spoon rest, a small saucepan, an apron, a biscuit cutter, food storage containers and a cast-iron skillet. Sooner or later they all showed up -- for free.

Not every yard sale has a free box, but it's the first thing I look for when I get there. Some of the other things I've gotten this way: a sturdy 50-foot tape measure, an insulated lunch bag, small toys, a wooden peg rack, craft supplies, envelopes and a green Fiestaware bowl.

The free box is both frugal and eco-friendly. Look for items like:

  • Washcloths and dish towels. If they’re too worn for use, cut them up for cleaning rags.
  • T-shirts. Wear them while painting or doing yard work, or turn them into cleaning cloths.
  • Canvas bags. You'll see a lot of these, many of them bearing the logos of a charity or footrace. They're a good alternative to plastic grocery sacks, are swell for organizing recyclables and are a great way to store a roadside emergency kit
  • Water bottles. Even more ubiquitous than race T-shirts these days, they help you stay frugally hydrated while traveling. (And if you leave it on the plane or at a rest stop? No worries. It's not like you paid for it.)

Why are they free?
Some of these items seem new -- for example, unworn T-shirts from some marathon. Others are in the box for a reason. For example, that Fiestaware bowl has an almost imperceptible chip on its rim. Someone considered that unacceptable.

Myself, I think the bowl looks nice on my kitchen counter, and the ripening bananas that it holds usually hide the tiny flaw.

That cast-iron skillet had been neglected. A little steel wool and proper seasoning turned someone else's trash into a vital kitchen treasure. These days I wonder how I ever cooked without it. (Post continues after video.)

That wooden rack measures two feet wide and has six pegs that were probably intended for coats. Attached to the inside of a closet door (with screws from the junk drawer), the rack holds my broom, mop, lambs wool duster, clothes iron and several reusable shopping bags.

I don't know why the spoon rest and biscuit cutter were dumped; maybe its owners gave up cooking at home. Ditto the unopened package of envelopes or the pristine Tupperware container. I was happy to give them all a second chance at usefulness.

Make sure you need it

I don't take every item that catches my eye. My usual pre-purchase questions apply to freebies, too:

  • Do I really need this? How often will I use it?
  • Where will I store it?
  • Will it do anything to improve my life?
  • Do I already own something like it?
Another question that's unique to free stuff: Does someone else need it more? Just because it's there doesn't mean I should take it. I'll pass on soup bowls or cooking utensils because I already have enough. Somebody who's starting from scratch could really use those things.

It's fun to find exactly what I need, especially when it extends the usefulness of items I already own. For example, a few years ago the lid of a food storage container cracked. I figured a replacement would eventually show up in the free box, and it did. Rather than buy a new container, I was able to keep using the old one.

You might find exactly what you want, too. But don't take something you can't use or don't truly need. Free clutter is still clutter.

More on MSN Money:

May 9, 2012 11:09PM

While I adore yard sales, bot to have, and shop at them I always feel a little akward about taking anything form the free box, especially if there's nothing I want to buy :(
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.