Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Recession Hacking: Five tips for Beginners

[read the sequel post, More Recession Hacking: Five Free Ways to Heat Your Home.]
I Love You Duct Tape Wallet

For those of us under 40, a serious economic downturn is a bit of a novelty. We’re used to discretionary cash, guilt-free shoe shopping, and a global economy geared toward producing goods for American consumers. While there are any number of guide to tell you how to spend less and save more, here are five quirky tips for hacking the recession that you may not find elsewhere.

1. Skimp on “the man,” splurge on the waitress.

I’m used to ordering a $4 coffee drink, and paying a $1 tip. Lately, I’ve been skipping the espresso drink and ordering drip coffee for $2, and leaving a $2 tip. Net result? I save a buck, the barista gets an extra buck, and together we gain a bit of solidarity against “the evil faceless corporation.”

2. Lend something/Borrow something

Because seriously, how many chain saws does one family need? This week my dad borrowed my chain saw to go to my aunt’s house to cut up a fallen tree for firewood. It was a little extra work to clean it up, box it up, and take it to my dad, but he saved $150, and my aunt will save at least that much in heating costs by burning some wood instead of gas this winter. Also, my dad sharpened the chain for me, and so my saw is actually now in better shape than it was before. Net result? $300+ in savings for the extended family, and a sharper saw for me.

3. Make something out of trash

Keep it simple to start. A plastic grocery bag can replace a trash bag. Junk mail can be folded into origami ornaments, or envelopes, or cut into snowflake decorations.

Once you get the hang of it, move up to a trivet out of old wine corks. Or a wind sculpture out of old CD-Rs.

4. Fix something you used to throw away

Invest a couple of bucks in needles and thread. Sew a button on that shirt — and if the button doesn’t match, all the better! It’s now a designer item.

If you’re more electronically inclined, add RAM or a larger hard drive to your laptop instead of buying a new one.

5. Find a free hobby

Examples? Board games. Jam sessions. Scavenger hunts. Yes, these hobbies require friends. But you can also do them online with virtual or remote friends. Solitary hobbies can include gardening or knitting, which can double up your recession hacking (see #3 and #4).

So what did we miss? How are you hacking, or planning to hack, your way through the recession?
[read the sequel post, More Recession Hacking: Five Free Ways to Heat Your Home.]


  1. Good list!

    Instead of shopping for Christmas, write someone a song or a poem.

  2. Yeah! I am a knitter who loves to reclaim yarn from old sweaters, and one who recycles plastic blags into “plarn.” Thanks for the tips about junk mail origami! I am striving to have a totally green tree this year, and origami would be a wonderful theme to try with the family. If we get our minds around mostly reusing instead of mostly buying everything new, it helps in sustaining the environment, as well as our personal finances through the recession. A few more tips: recycled wrapping paper, reclaimed fabric as ribbon, and edible gifts.

  3. Nice post. I have taken to buying bulk loose-leaf tea. It lasts way longer than bag-tea, and ends up costing me less. And I always go green . . .

  4. Wow, Heather, you’re already a hard core recession hacker. Yarn from old sweaters is a great tip for would-be knitters. And edible gifts is one of my favorites.

  5. Good point. A personal piece of art is always a nice gift, whether pottery, painting, song, poem, etc.

    Wikihow has a tutorial on making paper out of junk mail. That might be a nice thing to combine with writing out lyrics or a poem.

  6. Loose Leaf tea is greener too — less packaging, less waste, because you’re not using tea bags or tea bag envelopes.

    I have found, however, that my loose leaf tea tends to go stale before I use it up. Bulk is the answer there, rather than buying a fixed-size container. Thanks for the tip. Do you buy bulk at a grocery/health food store, online, or at a tea shop?

  7. I get my tea from Bird Pick, a tea shop in Pasadena. You can also order from them online.

  8. 6. Rediscover the local library

    Want to read that new book, listen to that new CD or watch that DVD, consider checking it out from your local library. Many libraries have very current and most of the popular CD’s, DVD’s and books on the market today. If they don’t they can often times get them through inter library loans. Why spend $25 on a new book you will read once when you can save some cash, some trees and read it for free.

  9. You forgot the most useful Recession Hack of them all:


    Yeah, I shuddered when I heard that the first time, too. But after losing my job (getting other people foodstamps that I don’t qualify for) it suddenly became a lot easier to bear.

    It’s simple, really: you see, this whole thing is possible because of lawyers and the question of legal liability. So many McMorons have sued grocery stores over spoiled food the production companies are forced to set an expiration date that is so early that even if they have the most retarded and lazy stockers in the world (and they often do), it will almost never go bad on the shelf before someone notices that it expired. This means that the grocery store is forced to throw out tons–literally TONS–of perfectly good food *BEFORE* it spoils.

    Most people are grossed out by the idea of jumping into a dumpster and grabbing some onions and peppers that are rolling around loose, and I totally understand. You can find some MESSED up stuff in dumpsters, and then you even get cold-hearted bastards that will poison the food with lyme or rat poison (very, very rare). It’s really not as bad as you think, since we’re not talking about household garbage where the bleach is mixed in with last night’s dinner, but in most cases a huge chain store that is broken up into departments. This means you will often find the bread in a separate bag with the rest of the bread, the produce in boxes, crates or rolling around, and some random frozen goods packaged together, too. Basically, they provided you with a shopping bag to carry all the food in.

    Sometimes you can skip the dumpster part entirely by calling the grocery store and asking for food donations, but the magic liability comes into the picture at this point and many places won’t give it to you. They can still be sued if you get sick off of the expired food they donated to you. So they put it in the dumpster, which is public domain (located on private property), and it absolves them of liability if you happen to come along and grab some food out of there. This is how the charity organization “Food Not Bombs” functions**, and it’s been working well for years.

    There is also a thriving community of dumpster divers who will share and trade their recent hauls. On the last dumpster run my house went on the divers returned with six cases of unexpired energy drinks, which was far more caffeine than we could handle. On the other hand we were short on produce–something that a different team from a friendly house had stocked up on a day or two before. See where I’m going? Don’t worry about finding these people, you’ll run into each other in the alleys. Just be polite, and save some for the next team, and they’ll do the same for you. We’re all in this sh*t together!

    **Unwritten Rule: do NOT screw Food Not Bombs. They are a CHARITY organization feeding the hungry, and usually organize regular donations from grocery chains, but not in all cities. If they are forced to go diving in your city and you hit their dumpster first and leave nothing behind, you are going to end up on the personal sh*t list of some rough and tumble people. Always leave some food behind for the next dumpster divers, it’s just polite. But FNB will feed you if the dumpster comes up empty–can you say the same to them?

  10. I’m a fan of dumpster diving in theory. To this point I haven’t been brave enough or hungry enough to do it myself.

  11. If you wanted to stick it to the man you would encourage your barista and any other food service staff to demand proper wages so that they did not have to rely on tips. Tips are just another way for the capitalist pig to rip off people, especially their workers.

  12. Pingback: More Recession Hacking: Five Free Ways to Heat your Home | Happy Mortal

  13. Why would you tip a barista at all?

  14. A couple of reasons: First, a general reason: At least in the US, for good or for ill, the service industry pay scale is built with the assumption of tips. Baristas, bellhops, valets and waiters can’t survive without tips.

    Second, a more personal reason: As a vegan, I am generally more difficult to serve, with questions regarding ingredients, and requests for non-standard preparation. I appreciate the extra effort, and want to make it worthwhile.

  15. Socialism might be the way to go perhaps, without the dictators or course.. A Democracy without money which still votes on a local member for Parliament where each person pursues their vocation and helps the community for the common good.. Some yanks like to call it communism, Some know it as Canada .. At the very least I think all basic needs: Health care, Defence, Roads, Education, Childcare for single parents should be owned and supplied for by the Government. Capitalism only helps rich people use poorer people as wage slaves.

  16. True capitalism is quite different from what the U.S. has been practicing for over 100 years now. True capitalism can only exist in a truly free society with a money system that cannot be inflated out of control. True capitalism does not limit the liability of corporate owners (a.k.a. shareholders) for things the corporation does to harm others (including their own workers). For example, one of the very few short periods where true capitalism was practiced (around 1800), 99% of all companies were very small and 90% of people owned their own company and provided a good or service to others (without government barriers that prevents such entrepreneurship today). The mega-corporations that are the current face of pseudo-capitalism didn’t come into power until the liability of their shareholders was limited and they were able to destroy smaller rivals through corrupt tactics that were no longer legally punishable. Market regulations for safety only became necessary after the rise of the mega-corporations. Before that, everybody knew from whom they bought and could easily sue if they were wronged and the business owner refused to make it right. This type of society is most likely to result in either a limited republic or in a monarchy where the monarch is for the free market.

    Since about 1914, the U.S. has been a democracy. Democracy always leads to either socialism (people voting themselves “entitlements” eventually creates pure socialism–what is currently happening) or anarchy followed by a despot (everyone fighting over everything until a warlord and his gang gain enough military power to put down all rivals). Either way, scientific progress will grind to a halt (it usually takes longer for this to happen with socialism, but it eventually will as nobody has incentive to continue innovating or producing goods and services, what happened in the USSR). The theory of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” causes most people in society to quickly develop severe “handicaps” and they begin to need more than they did before. (To remind Ozie, the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts, tried the formula he suggested and they almost starved to death over the first two years. They then switched to a free market solution where each had to provide for his own. They harvested record amounts–even after having the driest spring they had yet seen.)

  17. As a corollary to #2, sign up for MoochMuch. It’s a free site that lets you track who borrowed what, and search the things your friends have listed available for borrowing. Oh, and it reminds people to return things.

  18. Oh, and buy/sell used stuff on Frimp.net or Craigslist.

    Again, totally free.

  19. In regards to Number 1. Another way to save money there is to not tip the barista… it’s one thing if it’s a mom and pop kinda coffee place, but im certain your visiting Starbucks.=)You wouldn’t give the kid that assembles your hamburger at McDonalds a two dollar Tip. A Starbucks Barista is really no different. Regardless of the tips or not, they will still get a paycheck at the end of the week. So don’t feel guilty for receiving your coffee and simply Saying “Thank you”.

  20. My recent money saver has been a potluck with friends every Sunday. We all make enough for a meal for 4, leaving enough leftovers for three more meals for each of us.

    It means I spend less time cooking, save by cooking in bulk, eat out less, and eat healthier because I can manage the effort for at least one meal, and have more fun being social.

    Also, making a sandwich or bringing a cup of soup for lunch saves me about 35-40 a week over the expensive cafeteria.

    Net food savings on these two ideas: 280/month

    Also Ive lost 5lbs just from cutting out the grease eating out.

  21. I also do potluck with friends, and I am always glad when I do. When I think about it, I not only eat healthier and cheaper, but usually tastier too.

  22. Buying loose tea is great and when used, it can go into a compost heap in the garden for the good of your plants. If your tea goes a bit stale, keep it tightly covered in the freezer. Lasts for years there. :-)