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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.

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 a 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.)

Being 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.

Being 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.

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?

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.

What new life can you breathe into old objects with a can of spray paint and a roll of duct tape?

My dad made this trivet from wooden stakes taken from signs directing guests to my wedding. We still enjoy it 20 years later.

My dad made this trivet from wooden stakes taken from signs directing guests to my wedding. We still enjoy it 20 years later.

Principle 4: Perfect Is for Dummies

Chances are if you're working with duct tape and someone else's trash, you aren't too worried about perfection. That's good because perfect is over-rated. Perfectionism involves setting unrealistic or unachievable personal standards. It is maladaptive and is linked with depression, anxiety, anorexia, and even suicide.10

That's not you, however.

You are committed to creativity and the science of "good enough." After all, why toil and fret over making something perfect when you can make it good enough to keep and good enough to justify your investment of time?

Have fun with your treasure hunting and inventions, knowing that your handiwork is useful, creative, and beneficial for both the human spirit and the world we live in.

Short lady, long-handled yard tools. My mom is not a Frugal Engineer herself, but she plays along. These refurbished yard tools are a bit tall and heavy for her, but no matter.

Short lady, long-handled yard tools. My mom is not a Frugal Engineer herself, but she plays along. These refurbished yard tools are a bit tall and heavy for her, but no matter.

Principle 5: Proudly Display Your Work

A Frugal Engineer knows that he or she has a duty to spread the love of recycling, upcycling, and repurposing.

Point out to friends and family how you have transformed old, ugly, and broken junk into items they cannot find anywhere else. Show them the potential value of items they regularly sentence to the junkyard. Inspire them to salvage and create.

Also, rethink gift giving by presenting loved ones with a sample of your handiwork for special occasions. Not only will this approach save you money, but you can be sure that you are giving a one-of-a-kind gift they won't (and can't) return!

My dad, for example, no longer bothers with giving gifts unless they are one of his Frugal Engineering masterpieces. One of the gifts I prize most is the trivet he designed (see photo above). When I got married more than 25 years ago, we used wooden stakes for signage directing guests to our wedding venue. Rather than trash the scrap wood, he upcycled it into something I still use today—an apple-shaped trivet for protecting my kitchen table from hot dishes. Now that is a sentimental, frugal treasure!

Even the bird feeder is a piece of Frugal Engineering. Its post is crafted from discarded fencing and a piece of metal.  Smart!

Even the bird feeder is a piece of Frugal Engineering. Its post is crafted from discarded fencing and a piece of metal. Smart!

He has also turned problems into opportunities, including the following:

Apple Picker

Dad faced the challenge of how to pick apples at the top of his apple trees without the use of a ladder. Sometimes the apples hang on far branches, only to be eaten by birds before the apples finally fall.

Faced with this problem, he found a solution in an unusual place: a pair of jogging pants with a rip in the rear end. The Frugal Engineer thus cut one of his pants legs off below the knee and attached it to the end of an old pole. Ripe apples now can be coaxed to fall right into a small net made out of his jogging pants leg. Best of all, there was no sewing required, thanks to safety pins and Velcro.

Euchre Scorekeeper

How do you keep score when playing the card game of euchre? If you're a Frugal Engineer, rather than use paper and pen, you recycle golf tees and an old block of wood by crafting a euchre counter. He's even sold a few of these ingenious and practical works of art.

Self-powered Snowplow

Using a salvaged wheel hoe, Dad designed a contraption that pushes snow out of the way. We don't live in a region where there is a lot of snow, but when the snow comes, he will be ready for it! Why put old tools in the dumpster when you can find new uses for them?

Homemade Weightlifting Equipment

Weightlifters pay way too much money for free weights and weight sets when they can make their own. My Frugal Engineer father used concrete and a homemade metal mold to produce his own weights, then he got really fancy by spray painting them. Purty!

Telescopic Extendable Branch Trimmer

Faced with the challenge of trimming high branches, Dad duct-taped an old handsaw onto the end of a long pole. He can now trim small branches without reaching or climbing on a ladder.

This euchre scorekeeper is crafted out of a block of scrap wood. Golf tees are counters.

This euchre scorekeeper is crafted out of a block of scrap wood. Golf tees are counters.

Quotes on Frugality

Here are some sayings about the old-fashioned virtue of frugality.

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship.

— Benjamin Franklin, scientist, author, American founding father

He who does not economize will have to agonize.

— Confucius, ancient Chinese teacher and philosopher

I believe that thrift is essential to well-ordered living.

— John D. Rockefeller, American industrialist and philanthropist

There is no class so pitiably wretched as that which possesses money and nothing else.

— Andrew Carnegie, Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist

Industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.

— Calvin Coolidge, 30th U.S. President

Without frugality none can be rich, and with it very few would be poor.

— Samuel Johnson, English writer

By sowing frugality we reap liberty, a golden harvest.

— Agesilaus, King of Sparta


  1. EPA. "Municipal Solid Waste." US Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed April 30, 2013.
  2. OECD. "Municipal waste - OECD Factbook 2013: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics." Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Accessed April 30, 2013.
  3. The Conference Board of Canada. "Municipal waste generation." The Conference Board of Canada. Accessed April 30, 2013.
  4. "What is Duct Tape made of?" Accessed April 30, 2013.
  5. Gurowitz, Margaret. "Duct Tape: Invented Here!" Kilmer House. Last modified August 11, 2009.
  6. Easton, Pam. "Group honors engineers who saved Apollo 13." Houston Chronicle. Last modified April 17, 2005.
  7. Sutter, John D. "Got an iPhone 4? You may need duct tape." Last modified July 14, 2010.
  8. Meserve, Jeanne. "Duct tape sales rise amid terror fears." Last modified February 11, 2003.
  9. Greenbaum, Hilary, and Dana Rubenstein. "The Origin of Spray Paint." The New York Times. Last modified November 14, 2011.
  10. Benson, Etienne. "The many faces of perfectionism." American Psychological Association (APA). Last modified November, 2003.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 FlourishAnyway


FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on October 13, 2020:

Peggy - How awesome that the artist has made a small business from upcycling fencing. We need more creatives like that. Because of your encouragement, I made some small edits to the article and submitted it for a niche site. Thank you!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on October 11, 2020:

We know an artist who has made lots of money by making birdhouses and other items out of discarded fencing. She has let us and others know to report when fence boards are discarded at the curb for garbage pickup. She then makes a beeline over there to salvage it for her projects. I love this article and am surprised that it is not yet on a niche site, but glad to be able to leave comments.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on September 20, 2020:

Peggy - It's one of my lonely articles. Thanks for giving it some love!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 19, 2020:

This post of yours deserves more attention! It is also one where I can still leave a comment. Recycling is such an important topic!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on June 07, 2016:

Peggy - Good for you! It's not beyond me to "save" something from someone's wastefulness so I can donate it. Great way to get a tax deduction.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 07, 2016:

I was a volunteer counselor at an assistance ministry for many years that also had a thrift shop. Many items can be reused and put to good purpose. One day I saw an old grocery cart out at the curb in our neighborhood on garbage day. I checked and found out that it worked perfectly fine. The store that had its name on it had closed. So I rolled that cart all the way home while my hubby walked the dogs. It squeaked a bit but that was all remedied at the ministry and it was used to take groceries out to people's cars for many years. I have also picked up perfectly fine items and then donated them. People can be so wasteful! It is a shame!!!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 01, 2014:

electronician - My dad can sure stretch a dollar further than anyone I know. Glad you liked the hub. Have a happy, healthy & prosperous new year!

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on January 01, 2014:

susi10 - Thanks for stopping by and for the kind compliments. My dad gets more of a kick from upcycling than most people do from buying new stuff. Have a terrific new year.

Dean Walsh from Birmingham, England on January 01, 2014:

This is awesome, I love upcycling and the idea of a 'frugal engineer' is brilliant.

Susan W from The British Isles, Europe on January 01, 2014:

Great hub, Flourish Anyway and is highly interesting! It just goes to show that everything can be recycled and reused again no matter what it is. Your father seems to be a very creative frugal engineer and with a brilliant mind too. I love the bird feeder, it's a great idea.

I love your addition of the quotes as well, they are very inspiring. You have researched this topic very well and it is excellently formatted, well done. Voted up, interesting and shared.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 16, 2013:

Purpose Embraced - Thank you for reading and commenting. My dad is truly the master at upcycling, recrafting, recycling, and reusing. If only we use our imagination, we can breathe new life into old stuff.

Yvette Stupart PhD from Jamaica on December 16, 2013:

Wow! This is really a great hub. To think how much we could save, and the satisfaction we can get, through the art of reusing and upcycling. Thanks for sharing.

FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on December 16, 2013:

ologsinquito - He'll love your feedback! Thanks for the comment etc.

ologsinquito from USA on December 16, 2013:

Your Dad is very talented. Voted up, shared and pinned.