I'm cheap. Not only that, but I'm also a scavenger.
That means I dislike spending money. And I gather things into my home and into my life that others have lost and discarded and simply don't want. Furniture, exercise equipment and appliances left out on curbs. Yard-sale and thrift-shop clothes. The odd soda flavors marked way down. And no, I don't enjoy spending money on some things -- splurging -- while pinching my pennies on others. I don't like spending money on anything. Ever. And I cannot walk past a trash bin or a box marked "FREE" without at least glancing into it. I don't steal. I don't scam. But I scavenge. If I spot a coin on the sidewalk, even a penny, I'll pick it up. I've always been this way.
And for this I have been -- and still am -- teased, ridiculed, disliked, pitied and feared. My hands are clean. I do not pluck my food from Dumpsters. (What my husband and I don't grow ourselves, we buy at discount outlets.) But 95 percent of what's in my house I did not buy new or full-price, from the paint on the walls (paint-store "mis-mixes") to the carpets on the floors (remnants) to the art (framed sheet music, Japanese watercolors, ethnic masks) to closets full of L.L. Bean, Laura Ashley, Kate Spade, Steve Madden, Betsey Johnson, Banana Republic, Old Navy, all from yard sales and boxes marked "FREE." Just yesterday I found an Armani suit -- black, my size, looks new -- draped over the edge of a trash receptacle outside an apartment building where many students live. You just wouldn't believe what folks throw out. Yet we the frugal, we the scavengers who rescue what would otherwise be trash, are vastly and historically and almost universally misunderstood.
It's one of the least-acknowledged prejudices in an almost open-minded world.
I ponder the psychology of this fascinating prejudice in my new book The Scavengers' Manifesto, which Tarcher Penguin released last week and which I coauthored with my husband, award-winning science writer Kristan Lawson. Generally it's about the philosophy, spirituality and practice of "scavenging" -- which we define as any legal means of acquiring stuff that doesn't involve paying full price, from thrift-shopping to yard-saling to swapping to coupon-clipping to comparison shopping to Freecycling. One of the main reasons we wrote this book was to raise the reputation of scavengers after two thousand-plus years of negative stereotypes. (Hey, we're reviled in Leviticus.) Sure, saving and repurposing and recycling now make social, financial and environmental sense in catastrophic times. And yet ... this one bias encompasses many primal fears and loathings: The fear and loathing of dirt. The fear and loathing of what civilized societies call primitive: e.g., hunting and gathering. The fear and loathing, in a highly consumerized culture, of those who eschew that culture -- and its anthems and flags, which are ad jingles and brands -- by refusing to buy.
Try being the one who always scans menus for the lowest-priced items whenever dining out with others. You notice them rolling their eyes, exchanging glances. Try being the one who, when strolling with a friend, crosses the street to see whether that hat or jacket someone accidentally left behind on a bus-stop bench is your size. Try explaining to relatives that you've arrived late to their party because you were sidetracked by a yard sale where you bought a desk lamp and a wrench and a porcelain bowl and an amber bracelet for under five bucks. (And the seller threw in a stack of National Geographics for free.) Those who don't understand ask: Aren't those discards dirty? What if someone bled on that hat, crushed a skull with that hammer, concocted poison in that bowl? Can't you afford a desk lamp at IKEA?
What if it doesn't fit?
What if it's dented/scratched/stained/faded/ripped?
Wouldn't you rather pick the exact color/style/size/features that you want?
How do we tell them how it is for us? How do we explain that saving money feels like victory? How do we explain that scavenging is not about getting what we want but about wanting whatever we get -- which makes us tolerant, humble and grateful? How do we tell them that, for us, old stuff and stuff that has been previously owned attains a patina, almost a soul? How do we say that every find not only saves us cash but makes us wonder whose it was, our minds skittering down the years of all those whens and whys? How do we tell them that full-price mass-produced new merchandise bores and depresses us? How do we say that it is we who pity them when they spend $150 on the same pair of shoes that costs (or will, soon) $6 at the thrift shop? How can we explain that by being society's cleanup crew we do our small part to reduce landfills and those islands of trash -- ten million pounds' worth, experts say -- currently floating at sea?
We sanitize those discards with Tide and Palmolive. We order the baked potato off the menu, not the entree. We save our pennies. Why do you say we pinch them?