Free and Broken


It’s been said that Neil’s favorite things are free and broken. By this, I mean picked off a tree lawn, tinkered with, and returned to functional use. One shining example is when my parents’ car took a dip in a swamp, flooding the engine and soaking the interior. The car was totaled but still started so my parents generously offered it to Neil instead of scrapping of it.

Neil nursed the soggy monster back to health. He bought replacement carpet on e-bay and chased out electrical ghosts that caused quirks like the radio turning off when the car was in reverse. Repairs can be a drag, but we try to view it as fun because getting something to last longer while saving money feels thrifty, resourceful, and old-fashioned in the best sort of way.

Fixing things is doubly-thrifty, because the older item you already own (or get for free) is likely better made than the new one you’d buy to replace it. “I don’t have time to fix up old stuff,” you might object, but pricing out a replacement, reading reviews, and going to the store or wading through online options takes time, too. Not to mention making money takes time.

You can get a lot of mileage out of one simple strategy for pretending to be poor: don’t buy stuff. Of course everyone needs to make purchases and that’s fine. But we try not to buy stuff before working through a series of options. It takes a little time but that’s actually another valuable strategy. Waiting on a purchase, especially a major one, clarifies if you really need the thing and helps avoid impulse buying.

Here are some handy ideas to consider before rushing to the retail store:

  1. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  2. If it is broken, try to fix it.
  3. If it can’t be fixed:
    1. Get it for free.
    2. Or borrow it.
    3. Or buy it used.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Live below your means by not buying stuff you don’t really need. Living on less than you make is a key to financial flexibility because it offers so many more alternatives than living beyond or even within your means. Our contemporary definition of what we need is quite liberal but taming it down even a bit can go a long way to increasing your flexibility.

Take the Keurig for example. Super nifty product. But if you have a coffee pot, you probably don’t need one, especially since there’s an on-going extra cost of K-cups. Not to mention the 2.0 licensing racket!

Plus, owning stuff is kind of a burden. The new gadget or clothing you just had to have a couple years ago is now collecting dust and at some point you’ll have to throw or give it away. (A post on the joys of purging is to come.)

When you need something, it’s a good idea to look around at what you already have and see if something collecting would suffice. For example, when my black shoes died after a 7-year run, I dug out my ankle boots from high school, sewed a couple buttons back on, and had a “new” pair of shoes. I don’t recommend hoarding possessions but sometimes we can make do with what we already have.

If it is broken, try to fix it. You can save SO MUCH MONEY if you learn to fix things. I could tell one story after the next about the thousands Neil has saved us by fixing our house, cars, appliances, electronics, and even the kids’ toys. We don’t have to buy new stuff or pay a technician to do the job.

Not handy? Most people can learn. Often people say they’re not handy because no one taught them how to fix things. This doesn’t mean you can’t  Try the following, in whatever order suits you:

  1. Ask a friend for help. (More later on why having friends can save you money.)
  2. Read the manual.
  3. Watch a Youtube video.
  4. Google it.
  5. Get a “how to fix stuff” book from the library.

If it can’t be fixed:

  1. Get it for free. Even better than buying used is finding something free (and sometimes broken). Ways to get free stuff include:
    • Gifts (Christmas, birthdays, bridal and baby showers). You’ll notice those pretending to be poor know exactly what they want for Christmas, because they don’t buy themselves everything they want all the time.
    • Hand-me-downs. These are especially great for kids’ clothes and this is part of why it pays to have friends.
    • The library. We rarely buy books, movies, or music because we have library cards.
    • Tree lawns (i.e. garbage day in nice neighborhoods). We don’t purposely go out dumpster diving (anymore) but have been known to pick things off tree lawns, including our basketball hoop.
    • Give-aways. I don’t really enter these but Neil scored us free Cleveland Orchestra tickets this way last summer.
  2. Borrow it. Make friends, borrow their power tools, special kitchen tools, baby gear, etc.
  3. Consider buying it used. With the advent of ebay, Craigslist, and similar web sites, plus abundant thrift stores, garage sales, and consignment shops, there are plenty of options for used goods. Almost all of our furniture was used. Our televisions, refrigerator, laptop, and Christmas tree were all purchased used. Sometimes we break down and buy something new, but we try to consider other options first.

The danger with getting free or used items is becoming materialistic, just with a lower price tag (and sometimes a greater time commitment). To avoid this, refer to step #1: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Be content with what you have. Focus on the immaterial—family, friends, the poor, the arts, whatever you want to pretend to be poor for. Finally, avoid the burden of stuff by being grateful for all you have.

How have you saved by using the ideas above? What other options do you consider before buying new?

14 Responses to “Free and Broken”

  1. Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom says :

    Delaying purchases is such a great idea, it gives you the time to come up with a creative solution. I’ve been himming and hawing over buying an ebook for the last couple months. This week I found out it’s on order at the library, win!

  2. jere says :

    I fall into the same category as Neil on this. Buying the tools and diying repairs is just about always cheaper. I also often grab junk off the curb or pick up free/used junk from cl. Once a good assortment of tools is readily available, this junk can often turn a profit reselling as well.

  3. Joe says :

    I’m not as handy as Neil, but I’ve learned to fix the car and washer by researching the symptoms on the internet, diagnosing the problem, watching a YouTube video on how to do the repair myself then tackling the job! I’ve saved a lot of money and even in the times I decide I can’t do the repair myself (the stress, time and complexity outweighs the benefit of financial savings), I have a good idea of what’s needed and the cost involved so as to avoid the possibility of being taken advantage of. Just to back up the point you made above!

  4. Jeremiah says :

    I’ll second Joe’s point. For a long time I thought “being handy” was for someone else- not me. But then after several things broke (I swear it always happens to multiple things at once), I decided that there wasn’t anything to lose by trying to fix that stuff that we’re going to have to replace anyway. Now I’m not sure there’s anything in our house that I wouldn’t at least try to fix.

    Also, I didn’t know if you were going to post helpful links but the place I get a lot of replacement parts is If you don’t want to spend $200 on a new vacuum cleaner, check this place out first and buy what you need. Our vacuum is going on 7 years because I replace broken parts I find on this website.

  5. Brian says :

    Well done guys. I recently came across a similar post you and your readers may be interested in while trolling the ‘Net:

    Check it out.

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