“Freeganism” and the Limits of Frugality

Last week, while traveling for work, I had an opportunity during a schedule break to catch an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show, where she discussed “freegans.” Here’s Wikipedia’s description of freeganism:

Freeganism is an anti-consumerism lifestyle whereby people employ alternative living strategies based on “limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources. Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.” The lifestyle involves salvaging discarded, unspoiled food from supermarket dumpsters that have passed their sell by date, but are still edible and nutritious. They salvage the food not because they are poor or homeless, but as a political statement.

In other words, it’s a political movement that basically scavenges the garbage for stuff that’s still good but has been deemed by modern society to be “unacceptable.”

I find this perspective to be quite fascinating. It offers not only its own questions, but really opens up some interesting questions about the frugality we practice in our day to day lives. What are the limits of frugality, and why are those limits in place? Why do we really practice frugality? Is it purely about saving money, or is there a grander purpose?

As I sat down to write about these issues, I received an email from a reader that further illustrates this topic:

Your review of Simple Prosperity (and your statement about your “green” period) made me think of an Oprah episode that aired last week. Lisa Ling reported on Freegans, people who go against the consumerism lifestyle.

They go so far as to look through the garbage bins at the grocery store for food. Not because they are hungry, but because the food happens to be perfectly fine, just not fit for sale (such as too close to the expiration date, spot on the fruit, etc). It was fascinating to see what is wasted each day, as well as the people (most who are well off in monetary terms) who have chosen to ensure that the food does not go to waste. Anyway, it was a wonderful episode that pointed at how wasteful Americans can be.

That night, I needed to go on a late night run to the grocery store and I decided to conduct my own “social experiment”. Sure enough, I found about 20 boxes of assorted flavors of Tastycakes in the can out back.

What would you do??

As I cannot turn down free food and as it was safely individually packaged, I am enjoying my (free) treat as we speak

So, let’s look at the question. If you saw twenty unopened boxes of Tastycakes in the trash behind a store, would you take them home with you? My expectation is that this question would get a very healthy mix of yes answers and no answers from people. For me personally, I’d have no objection to taking them if I would normally eat Tastycakes.

Not too long ago, for example, I was in a grocery store late in the evening where they were about to pitch some very brown bananas and the stock boy seemed completely fine with me just taking them for him. If I had not been about to leave on a business trip, I would have taken those bananas home with me and made banana pancakes and banana bread with them. To me, this is just being frugal – brown bananas are the exact ingredient you want for such recipes and if a store just gives them to you, I see no problem at all.

On the other hand, true dumpster diving for food isn’t very sanitary – you vastly increase the chances of acquiring spoiled food, for starters, and the health risks of just jumping into a dumpster and digging around are small but significant. I would not go that far in seeking out free items.

Where’s that exact line in the sand, though? For me personally, I’m not sure. It’s somewhere between free overripe bananas and jumping in the dumpster. For others, the bananas might be too much – or they might be okay with diving in for some food opportunities.

The biggest difference between frugality and freeganism is the belief structure behind it. Both freegans and frugal people would agree that minimizing your expenses and minimizing the amount of “stuff” you buy are noble goals, but frugal people primarily look at the options that improve their personal quality of life, while freegans are primarily making a political statement. As a frugal person, I might point out to someone that I have CFLs installed in my home, but my reasoning would be that they’re more energy efficient and thus more cost efficient – the environmental aspect is nice, but secondary. On the other hand, a freegan would likely be much more interested in the political nature of a CFL – they’re making a lifestyle choice that reflects their politics.

What’s the real lesson to be learned here? Different people have different “lines in the sand” when it comes to reducing their expenses – and different reasons for doing it. You can listen to all sorts of sources for ideas on how to live frugally and efficiently, but you never have to accept all of someone else’s ideas – just find techniques that work for you. Frugality is really about finding unexpected value – if you find value in some of what the freegans are doing, then by all means, incorporate it. If you think it’s foolish, then move on to finding something else that works for you.

As for me, I’m mostly just hungry for banana bread – and I’m wondering if I should hit that grocery store again late in the evening.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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