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5 Principles of Frugal Engineering

FlourishAnyway is an Industrial/Organizational psychologist committed to uplifting and educating others to be reach their full potential.

You're Not Going to Throw That Out, Are You?

This handy garden plow used to be a discarded bike tire and other found items.

This handy garden plow used to be a discarded bike tire and other found items.

When Cheap is Chic

If necessity is the mother of invention, then frugality surely must be the father.

What's a person to do when trash heaps are the size of mountains, the world's population bulges much like American waistlines, and even scraping a living seems harder?

Don't agonize, my friend. Economize.

If you believe that cheap is chic and think it's cool to be creative, then Frugal Engineering is for you. Impact your little corner of the world by saving money and the planet at the same time.

Frugality has been heralded as a virtue by kings, ancient philosophers, American founding fathers, presidents, and industrialists. Learn and apply five basic principles of Frugal Engineering to change your little corner of the world.

Come on now—you've got this!

Principle 1: Stop Throwing Stuff Out

Americans produce 250 million tons of trash each year, an average of 4.3 pounds of garbage per person each day.1 On a per capita basis, we produce double the amount of garbage of Mexico or Japan—and more than any other nation except Canada.2,3

But you, my friend, are no ordinary American.

No, you keep stuff. Plenty of it. You have the foresight to know that one day you are going to need that broken rake, those mismatched socks, or that electrical cord that does not work.

If there's one thing the Frugal Engineer is schooled in, it's the art of reusing and upcycling. He (or she) can take something that is broken, faded, rusted, mismatched, or just plain ugly and find a new use for it.

Before you can let your creativity take hold, however, you must stop throwing things out. Even if you cannot currently imagine another use for that unwanted item, just keep it. Stash it in a safe place, as you never know what need might arise later.

It could take years, or it could be week. One day you are going to need it, and you will be so thankful you saved it—provided, of course, that you can still find it. (But hey, we're not going there.)

The Frugal Fence

A Frugal Engineer, my dad saved this section of fence from going to the dump.  If you look closely, you can see the band of wire on top.  That's his homemade "electric fence."  Yep, it's actually electrified.  Don't touch it.

A Frugal Engineer, my dad saved this section of fence from going to the dump. If you look closely, you can see the band of wire on top. That's his homemade "electric fence." Yep, it's actually electrified. Don't touch it.

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My dad is my favorite Frugal Engineer. He has perfected the art of keeping stuff, having devoted an entire garage and a spare bedroom to storing assorted items with potential future use. Some might say it borders on hoarding, but no worry. Just let 'em talk. He's got plans for his stuff.

Our family refers to Dad's overstocked extra bedroom as "the Walmart room" because there's a little bit of everything in there, including homemade weightlifting equipment, a refurbished table, office supplies, books, computers, and gardening items.

If you cannot find what you need in the Walmart room, you probably don't need it. My daughter once needed a centimeter ruler for a class activity, and she didn't tell me until I was driving her to school. Rather than fretting, we simply swung by my parents' house and found what she needed in the Walmart room.

Be warned, however. Walmart rooms do not happen overnight. Think ahead by starting yours today. You'll be glad you did.

The Frugal Snowplow

Homemade snowplow, made with Frugal Engineering and discarded treasures.

Homemade snowplow, made with Frugal Engineering and discarded treasures.

Principle 2: Discover the Value of Found Items

Not everybody understands the potential of their broken or surplus stuff. No, they just toss out whole sections of surplus fence. They discard rusty wheelbarrows and old encyclopedias. They toss mismatched dishes and utensils as well as out-of-date suitcases. Fools!

You, however, see the potential in other people's cast-offs. You can breathe new life into someone else's junk.

Put on your thinking cap and cruise the neighborhood on trash day before the garbage truck comes. Better yet, cruise a highfalutin neighborhood where they toss out really nice stuff. It'll be like going treasure hunting. The rule of thumb is that if it's at the curb, it's finders keepers. (Someone pinch me!)

My dad has salvaged items ranging from sun-bleached lawn furniture to a broken table to a neon highway worker's vest to a prison uniform. Yep, a prison uniform. Isn't it intriguing to consider how that ended up in someone's trash?

Although I am merely a Frugal Engineer in training—a mere babe in the woods—one thing I have learned is that everyone wins when you're thrifty. When my neighbor's son outgrew his bike, they simply set it at the curb with the rest of the household garbage. Even though we had no use for it, I couldn't stand to see a nice bike go to waste. There are so many kids who would love to have their gently used junk.

I followed my dad's lead and salvaged it, looking over my shoulder to be sure no one saw who was taking it off the garbage man's hands. The bike worked perfectly, and I donated it to charity in exchange for a useful tax deduction.

What kind of treasures can you find?

Weightlifting, Anyone?

Homemade weights have a frugal flair.  Thanks to spray paint, they can also be fashionable.

Homemade weights have a frugal flair. Thanks to spray paint, they can also be fashionable.

Principle 3: Learn to Love Duct Tape and Spray Paint

There is bound to be some wear and tear on those treasures you are rescuing from the trash heap. In such case, a Frugal Engineer relies on the sacrosanct tools of the trade: duct tape and spray paint. The Frugal Engineer knows that if it's ugly, try spray paint, and if it's broken, duct tape will do the job.

Duct Tape

Duct (or "Duck") tape is strong, flexible and sticks like a charm. It is made of three layered materials—cotton mesh that allows it to be torn in both directions, a polyethylene coating, and a thick adhesive.4 It even comes in attractive patterns and colors, from hot pink to zebra stripe to camouflage.

This fix-it godsend was invented during World War II by Johnson & Johnson as a waterproof sealing tape for ammunition cases.5 Since then, it's been used for purposes as diverse as:

  • helping to repair in-flight mishaps onboard NASA spaceflights (it helped save Apollo 13 from disaster)6
  • fixing the iPhone4's dropped call issue7
  • subduing unruly airline passengers and
  • as a deterrent for inchworm infestations, when used around tree trunks.

What other product is quite this versatile? Following terrorist threats in 2003, duct tape was even recommended by the federal government for inclusion in every American's emergency survival kit.8

In addition, you can use duct tape for everyday purposes as varied as car repair, hemming your pants in a hurry, and crafts galore (e.g., duct tape roses, purses, wallets, and prom dresses). It's even used as a medical home remedy for blister prevention and the removal of plantar warts. I have used it to stabilize a sore ankle.

True devotees of duct tape can even attend the annual Duck Tape Festival in Avon, OH, the home of Duck Tape® brand duct tape.

Spray Paint

Spray paint, or aerosol paint in a can, is another staple in the Frugal Engineering toolkit. It was invented in 1949 by Edward Seymour, an Illinois paint company salesman who wanted to demonstrate his product, an aluminum paint coating for radiators.9

Seymour's innovative wife suggested that he make a handheld, self-contained spray gun similar to spray deodorant. As a result, Seymour founded a company to manufacture the popular product. It is still in business today.

Spray paint offers the benefits of uniform application and portability, as it provides both paint and applicator in one product. It is quick drying, inexpensive, and comes in weather resistant varieties. Consequently, it has been successfully used by graffiti artists, hobby enthusiasts, and Frugal Engineers alike. If you want to give that sun bleached lawn furniture a new life, try spray paint. My dad has spray painted everything from motorcycle fenders to discarded barbeque grills to homemade weights.