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Scenes from the junk drawer

Got shoelaces? Odd bits of hardware? Rubber bands? Me too.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 18, 2011 1:32PM

Last week my new shoes arrived (thank you, cash-back shopping!). Automatically I took the laces out of the worn-out pair, folded them up, secured them with a rubber band and tossed them in the junk drawer.

They joined a couple of other sets of shoelaces and a stunning array of odds and ends, including: Post continues after video.

  • Key rings (lots of them -- they seem to follow me home).
  • A repurposed cream cheese container full of miscellaneous hardware.
  • Two USB cables, an extension cord, and a small amount of flexible wire.
  • A putty knife, a box cutter from the dollar store, an Allen wrench and a few screwdrivers -- one that I found on the street and two from the "free" box at a garage sale.
  • A pill organizer I got free from a drugstore, and a small bag of cotton gleaned from the tops of aspirin bottles.
  • Popsicle sticks, odd bits of ribbon and a ton of rubber bands.

Useless? Nah. Eventually I'll need something like a safety pin or an eraser. When I do, I'll know right where to look.

Everyone has (or should have) a catch-all drawer where birthday candles, nails and playing cards go to die, or at least to await a second chance at life. Where else are you going to put this stuff?

The junk drawer is the place to go when you need a thumbtack. Or some Super Glue, a single pink barrette or a measuring tape you picked up free at the home show.

Time to dye Easter eggs? You probably saved the little wire cradle from last year, so now your two kids can make a tandem mess instead of squabbling over whose turn it is to dunk.

For every job, a perfect piece of junk

Junk drawers are frugal because they keep you from tossing out potentially useful items. I'm not talking about being a hoarder, mind you -- just about having the right nail vs. having to make a trip to the store.

When I wanted to hang my clothes-drying rack on the wall, I looked in that cream cheese container and found a screw-in hook. Now the rack is up and out of the way.

Those old laces come in handy for tying mittens and gloves together for springtime storage. When I want to carry a windbreaker in my backpack, I roll it up tightly and tie it with a shoelace.

Recently I bought a new suitcase that I'm afraid I won't recognize when I travel, so I customized the handle with a piece of blue ribbon from the junk drawer. Usually I fly carry-on but several times lately I've wound up on small jets that gate-check your satchel. The baggage-claim recording is right: Many bags do look alike.

Too much of a good thing?

You don't need to save pickle-jar lids and empty shoe-polish containers. If you do, it's probably time for a makeover.

In this Washington Post article, professional organizer Stacey Platt took on junk drawers. Reading it, I found myself busted on a couple of counts: several completely mystifying keys plus a 9-volt battery that expired in March 2009. It will all be recycled. I promise.

Each time you're given a key, Platt says, you should immediately put it on a keychain (I've got plenty of those!) and label it. Store them all in one central place, rather than let them float around in junk drawers. Put batteries where they'll all be found and used, too.

In a post on DIY Life, blogger Francesca Clarke noted that many junk-drawer items probably belong somewhere else. While helping a friend organize, Clarke found two "lost" items: a can opener and, yep, a set of keys.

But the junk drawer is the perfect place for items that are uber-useful and need to be grabbed in a hurry. Those rubber bands, for example; I get six of them a week with my daily newspaper (Sunday papers arrive in plastic bags). I seem to need one three or four times a week, whether it's to keep a bag of cough drops closed or to organize the half-dozen pens and pencils in my backpack.

To tidy or not to tidy?

I keep the rubber bands in a snack-size Ziploc bag. Clarke suggests that other small items -- paper clips, buttons, safety pins -- be stored in ice cube trays, baby-food jars or some other type of container. Otherwise they'll just den up under that snarl of kitchen twine.

Larger items can be corralled inside pencil boxes or plastic containers, preferably with clear lids or no lids so you can find what you're seeking.

Incidentally, Clarke calls it a "resource drawer." I refrain from comment.

Over at Squalor Survivors, blogger "PigPen" calls her junk drawer "the magic drawer" because it always seems to have exactly what's needed. She suggests neither cleaning nor organizing it, and also frowns on "putting anything in there that you have a specific plan for using." Apparently the magic won't happen if you do that.

I wouldn't go that far, since I do like being able to find the Allen wrench on the first try. So I'll organize it to some extent, but I'll also take the "no specific plan" advice. You never know what those pairs of shoelaces will wind up becoming. And sooner or later I know I'm going to find a use for those Popsicle sticks.

Readers: Do you have a junk drawer? A junk bin? A junk room? What great saves/frugal hacks have you engineered from those little odds and ends?

MSN Money columnist Donna Freedman blogs at
Smart Spending and Surviving and Thriving.

More from MSN Money:

Feb 21, 2011 11:52AM
Hmmmm.....frugal hack? Well over the years I have found it helpful to organize my ....ah..."junk" in clear plastic organizing drawers sold at Home Depot. But mine were acquired at yard sales for pennies. IMHO it's OK to save "stuff" BUT only if you can put your hands on it when you need it. Just the other day I needed some things to repair a rental unit and as scary as it seems I was able to fix everything without having to spend a cent. Not only did I save the money from the repair parts BUT also didn't have to use any precious $3.10 a gallon gas. Surely I would have used at least a gallon up and back to retrieve everything. Thank goodness for "junk"!!!!.
Feb 18, 2011 9:54PM
Popsicle sticks are perfect plant pokes--especially for labeling seeds/seedlings for your garden. You knew that.  I love "resource drawer," because that's exactly what mine is!
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