'Free' economy is alive and well... if you know where to look

Roadside TV
Roadside TV. Photo credit: Getty

When Frank Newman first embarked on his "oily rag" adventure, everyone was looking for a way through economic darkness.

A property investment specialist by profession, Mr Newman has written a variety of financial management books over the past 30 years.

His first - Making Money on the NZ Sharemarket - happened to coincide with the 1987 stock market crash.

"That was great timing, wasn't it?" he rues now.

The crash undoubtedly changed Kiwis' saving and spending habits, and out of those ashes came a concept that has become an enduring passion for Mr Newman.

"My publisher asked if I was interested in writing a book about being frugal," he explains. "It really came from the old expression 'living off the smell of an oily rag'.

"It started very simply - it was a short book and didn't take very long to write - and it sold for $9.95 at the time. It found a niche and really took off."

Living off the Smell of an Oily Rag in New Zealand spawned two follow-ups - More Ways to Live off the Smell of an Oily Rag and Feasting off the Smell of an Oily Rag - selling about 100,000 copies across the series.

Mr Newman and wife Muriel also administer a website under the same name, which acts as an ongoing collection point for money-saving tips.

"The concept is still relevant," he insists. "For many people, it's about lifestyle and the need to save.

"You read every day about how unaffordable housing is - it's always going to be imperative to have good money skills. You're always going to be short of money, it's just a fact of life.

"It's just as relevant today and will be just as relevant in 10-15-20 years' time probably."

It's reasonable to assume that, as time goes by, it has become harder to find something for nothing.

One obvious example is the Auckland inorganic collections that, for so long, provided bargain hunters with rich pickings in the form of surplus household furniture and appliances.

One man's trash is another man's treasure.

Unfortunately, that system also made for unsightly piles of rubbish - sometimes house-high - that were often disassembled and scattered across grass berms by scavengers.

Those collections were canned in September 2015, replaced by a new inorganics service that has reduced landfill by 20,000 tonnes a year, and redistributed salvagable items through charities and community groups.

That may be a door closed to thrift merchants, but Mr Newman is adamant there are plenty more avenues available.

"There's still a lot of free stuff around," he says. "You've just got to be a little bit imaginative and sniff out a bargain, really."

While you can't simply find an old TV or sofa on the side of road, the internet has opened up a whole new world of potential savings.

Just Google it.

Freecycle is a US-based website that reaches around the world, including New Zealand, moderated by local administrators.

"It's all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills," claim the site founders, echoing the Auckland Council mantra.

Neighbourly, Freestuff and Frugal Mumma Facebook community are other useful forums for offering unwanted belongings to a good home.

"Just thinking about Trade Me and its one-dollar auctions," adds Mr Newman. "It's amazing how much stuff goes for $1 or slightly more - a giveaway price really.

"There seems to be more chance of something selling for $1, if the seller is located in the provinces. I've noticed some people scanning those auctions and being prepared to travel from Auckland to Whangarei, for example, to get those deals, knowing full well that no-one else was bidding on them.

"They tend to bid on a whole lot of auctions and then do a collection run to pick up the stuff they got cheaply."

That kind of advice is gold.

Here are a few other nuggets that, while not strictly 'something for nothing', will help you get by on a shoestring.

Think of it as free advice.

DIY gardening
DIY gardening. Photo credit: Getty

Grow your own food

"Food is free, if you grow it yourself," says Mr Newman. "I know 40 percent of the population are renters, so it may not be quite as convenient, but all you really need is a raised garden bed that you can take with you, if you move flats.

"There's no excuse, even if you're renting, and it's pretty damn simple to grow fresh veggies, so you should at least do that.

"If you do have a home, I would recommend everyone plant fruit trees, which also make great Christmas or birthday presents."

Takeaways off the menu

"There are times I go to McDonald's and look around, and the people there are often the ones who can least afford it - that really gets under my skin.

"They lack the discipline to say to their kids, 'let's go have a picnic instead'.

"It's OK from time to time, but doing it once a week is pretty darn expensive."

Kick the fags and booze

"Also on that slightly moralistic tone, I'm really dead against smoking and drinking, especially smoking, now that it's $25-30 a packet.

"The cost is absolutely horrendous and I cannot understand the mindset of someone who smokes. I understand the addiction - and addiction should be treated - but I can't get my head around the money spent on smoking and then someone saying they don't have any money.

"There's actually nothing wrong with not drinking either, you just have to get over the social pressure."

Foraging for food

"This was mentioned by someone on our website as a tip. They drive around, looking for wild fruit trees - apples, blackberries etc.

"There is actually a lot of free food around, if you keep your eyes open and just ask, if it happens to be on somebody's property.

"You only have drive around when there are oranges around and see how many are rotting on the ground. There's no harm in asking those people if you can share in their windfall - they'll be more than happy to provide it."

Entertain yourself

"If you looking for something to entertain the kids or something to do, there are always parks, playgrounds and libraries.

"Auckland's Botanic Gardens, for example, are a great place to visit - kids can run around and it's actually quite an interesting place.

"Having a picnic, instead of a cafe lunch, is quite a good thing to do."

Construction sites

"Another person cruises around building sites, looking for waste materials in skips and mini bins. You have to be careful - some of it may be treated - but there may be free firework available.

"There may be building materials for a rose garden any other project you've got on the go."

Roof over your head

"Some people reduce their costs by getting free accommodation in return for work.

"You may someone with a bach or second property that needs a bit of work, so you can trade off your labour for some accommodation.

"There is also couchsurfing, which shows how inventive people have become. It's not for everyone, but if you're prepared to slum it for awhile, that's not a bad option."

Of course, if you're especially daring, there's also the dating version of that idea - try Tindersurfing.