5 Principles of Frugal Engineering: How to Be a Frugal Engineer
You're Not Going to Throw That out Are You?
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!
Apple Picking at Its FinestClick thumbnail to view full-size
Principle 1: Stop Throwing Things 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
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
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.
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?
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 Awesomeness
Every Frugal Engineer knows that if you can't fix it with duct tape, you haven't used enough. And if you're going to use duct tape, you might as well make it cute, too, right?
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, 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?
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 enoughgood 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.
Behind Every Frugal Engineer ...
If you saw something really interesting in someone else's trash, would you salvage it?
Principle 5: Proudly Display Your Work
A Frugal Engineer knows that he or she was 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 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 nearly 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!
He has also turned problems into opportunities, including the following:
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.
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.
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.
Share Your Frugal Engineering Success
Now that you understand the five basic principles of Frugal Engineering, it's time to get busy. You've got the ingenuity and can easily find the materials. What treasures can you create with found items? If you have a clever, homemade invention you are especially proud of, tell us about it in the Comments Section below!
Quotes on 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
1EPA. "Municipal Solid Waste." US Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed April 30, 2013. http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/.
2OECD. "Municipal waste - OECD Factbook 2013: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics." Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Accessed April 30, 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/factbook-2013-71-en.
3The Conference Board of Canada. "Municipal waste generation." The Conference Board of Canada. Accessed April 30, 2013. http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/environment/municipal-waste-generation.aspx.
4BuyTape.com. "What is Duct Tape made of?" Accessed April 30, 2013. http://www.buytape.com/what_is_duct_tape_made_of.shtml.
5Gurowitz, Margaret. "Duct Tape: Invented Here!" Kilmer House. Last modified August 11, 2009. http://www.kilmerhouse.com/2009/08/duct-tape-invented-here/.
6Easton, Pam. "Group honors engineers who saved Apollo 13." Houston Chronicle. Last modified April 17, 2005. http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Group-honors-engineers-who-saved-Apollo-13-1490754.php.
7Sutter, John D. "Got an iPhone 4? You may need duct tape." CNN.com. Last modified July 14, 2010. http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/mobile/07/13/iphone.4.duct.tape/index.html.
8Meserve, Jeanne. "Duct tape sales rise amid terror fears." CNN.com. Last modified February 11, 2003. http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/02/11/emergency.supplies/index.html?_s=PM:US.
9Greenbaum, Hilary, and Dana Rubenstein. "The Origin of Spray Paint." The New York Times. Last modified November 14, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/magazine/who-made-spray-paint.html?_r=2&scp=22&sq=Ohio&st=nyt.
10Benson, Etienne. "The many faces of perfectionism." American Psychological Association (APA). Last modified November, 2003.
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