When you’re struggling to get by on a tight budget, you need to stretch every shopping dollar as far as it can go. One way to get the things you need for less money is to buy secondhand. You can find some fantastic bargains at thrift shops and flea markets, but the best bargain of all is to get the things you need completely free. And one of the easiest ways to do this is to “shop” on the Freecycle Network.
Freecycle is a worldwide organization that helps people give away things they no longer need to others who can use them. The first Freecycle group formed in Tuscon, Arizona, in 2003 as a way to promote reuse. Since then, the concept has spread across the nation and around the world. Today, Freecycle has nearly 9 million members organized into more than 5,000 local groups in over 110 countries.
Using Freecycle to reuse items is good for the environment and your wallet. Instead of sending perfectly useful belongings to the landfill, you can pass them on to other people who need them. At the same time, you can get things you need from your neighbors instead of going to the store and buying new ones. It’s an easy way to save money while living green.
How Freecycle Works
There’s no fee to join Freecycle. It operates as a nonprofit, supported by a combination of grants, individual donations, corporate sponsorships, and ads on its websites. You can search the Freecycle site to find the local group that’s closest to you and sign up as a member.
Each Freecycle group covers a specific geographical area. These range in size from an entire county to a particular part of a city, such as Brooklyn in New York City. If you happen to live in an area that’s covered by more than one group, you’re allowed to join both of them.
Once you join, you gain access to your local group’s email list. All members can make posts on this list to either give away something specific or request something they’re looking for. It’s a lot like Craigslist, except that no money ever changes hands.
Offering Items on Freecycle
Let’s say you have something you want to get rid of, such as a set of left-handed golf clubs. You can make an offer post to your local Freeycle group. The subject line lists the name of the item, your username, and your general location (not your actual address). The body of the message provides a more detailed description and, if you want, a photo.
You can also use the message to make specific requests about how you’d like to dispose of your property. For instance, if you want to get rid of all the clubs at once, you can say something like, “Please take all and pass on what you can’t use.” If you prefer a specific time, date, or location for pickup, you can include that information too.
Your post might look like this:
Title: OFFER — Left-Handed Golf Clubs
Date: 9:30, 22 April 2020
Description: Set of left-handed golf clubs. I don’t play golf, and I’m not left-handed. Don’t ask me how I ended up with them. Please propose a pickup time in your first message.
If someone in your local group wants the clubs, they can send you a message to request them. Messages can go via email or through the Freecycle website. Email is a bit quicker and more reliable, but sending messages through the site allows you to keep your personal email addresses private. That reduces your risk of ending up on a spam mailing list.
After someone expresses an interest in your golf clubs, you can set up a date and time to transfer them. Occasionally, people offer to deliver something directly to the recipient’s house — for instance, if it’s bulky and they don’t have a car. Typically, though, the person who made the request is responsible for picking it up, either at your home or in a public place. For smaller goods, Freecyclers often use “porch pickup,” leaving the item in some spot on the property but outside the home, such as the front stoop.
Once you’ve passed on your golf clubs to a fellow Freecycler, you can make a “taken” post on the Freecycle group to let others know they’re no longer available. That way, they won’t waste your time and their own sending messages to ask you for something you no longer have. And since Freecycle is a nonprofit, you can deduct the market value of the clubs as a charitable donation on your income tax return for the year.
Receiving Items on Freecycle
If there’s something specific you need, such as a blender, there are two ways to find it on Freecycle. First, you can search through the posts on your local group to see if anyone in your area has listed one. If you find an offer post for a blender, you can send a response to request it, either through email or through the website. Then if it’s still available, the person who offered it gets back to you to arrange a date and time for pickup.
If no one in your local group has a blender on offer, you can make a “wanted” post to request one. Just like an offer post, a wanted post includes your username and location and a description of the product you’re seeking. If you’re looking for a specific type or model, you can include that information in the description. For example:
Title: WANTED — Stick Blender
Date: 9:30, 22 April 2020
Description: I’m looking for a stick blender — the kind you can insert into a pot of soup to blend it instead of pouring the whole pot out into your big blender. I have a flexible schedule and can pick it up quickly from your home or porch.
If another Freecycler has a spare blender to give away, they can respond to your post through the Web or email. Then you can arrange the details of a pickup just as if you’d responded to an offer post. Once you’ve received it, you can post a “received” post to let people know you no longer need it so you won’t get any additional offers.
What You Can Exchange on Freecycle
Freeycle users give one another nearly anything you can imagine. Just in the past few days, I’ve seen offers for furniture, housewares, packing materials, kids’ toys, a gas grill, a lawn mower, an old printer, a woman’s fur coat, and leftover materials from home improvement projects.
Over the years, I’ve kept a list of everything I’ve disposed of through Freecycle. Nearly every product I’ve listed has eventually found a taker — even those I openly disclaimed were very old, damaged, or broken. Some notable examples were:
- An eight-year-old Macintosh computer
- Several old textbooks
- A reel-type lawn mower with a wheel that didn’t stay on very well
- A string trimmer with a motor that was on the verge of burning itself out
- Old incandescent light bulbs we’d replaced with energy-efficient bulbs
- Surplus plants from my home vegetable garden
- A half-full bag of dry cat food
My husband and I have also acquired multiple useful items through Freecycle. Some of our best finds were:
- Three nearly full containers of almond flour, coconut flour, and virgin coconut oil (approximate retail value: $17).
- A Magic Bullet blender we use nearly every day (approximate retail value: $30).
- A set of wooden window shades. (approximate retail value: $30).
- A modular play tent with a jungle pattern, which our nieces and nephews loved playing with (approximate retail value: $40).
- A stainless steel kitchen sink complete with a single-handle faucet (approximate retail value: $110).
- Our biggest coup ever: nearly 1,000 concrete pavers, enough to construct a 10-by-20-foot patio in our backyard. The former owner even helped us transport them to our house in his pickup truck (approximate retail value: $560).
Although I seldom use Freecycle to request a specific item, I have seen members of my local group ask for and get all kinds of things, from computers to out-of-print books. Just this past week, someone requested and received worms for a vermicomposting bin.
There are several reasons Freecycle is incredibly useful, both to those who have unwanted stuff and those in need.
1. Clearing Clutter
I’ve always found Freecycle the most reliable way to find a new home for things I don’t need. Because there’s no money involved, people are more willing to take a risk on something they aren’t sure about than they would be when shopping at a yard sale or responding to a Craigslist post. It costs them nothing to try it, and if they don’t like it, they can always pass it on to someone else. That makes it an excellent tool for decluttering your home.
2. Getting Free Stuff
Nearly everyone loves getting stuff for free, and Freecycle can help you do just that. The only cost is the gas or transportation required to get to the pickup site and haul your find home.
3. Helping the Environment
In its mission statement, Freecycle describes itself as an organization that “reduces waste [and] saves precious resources.” Every time you give something away on Freecycle, you’re keeping waste out of landfills, including electronic waste that can pose a hazard to people’s health. And every time you acquire something on Freecycle instead of buying it, you’re saving all the resources and energy that would have gone into making a new product.
4. Meeting Your Neighbors
Today, most Americans don’t interact with their neighbors regularly. A 2015 City Observatory report found that only 20% of Americans often spend time with their neighbors, and about 30% never talk to them at all. Forty years ago, those numbers were exactly the other way around.
Joining your local Freecycle group offers a way to meet people in your area and interact with them regularly. In this way, the group helps forge stronger ties within a community.
Freecycle also has its downsides. Before signing up for your local group, be aware of these negatives.
1. Too Much Email
If you want to make sure you see what shows up on your local Freecycle group right away, you can ask Freecycle to notify you by email each time a new post appears. I chose this option when I first joined my local group. However, I quickly found that Freecycle posts were flooding my email inbox, drowning out important messages from friends and co-workers.
To get around this problem, I switched to receiving the Freecycle daily digest instead. Now, Freecycle sends me a message only when 25 new posts have appeared or at the end of each day, whichever comes sooner. Unfortunately, this option has a downside as well. I often don’t see the posts for desirable items until someone’s already taken them, so I never get a chance to put in a bid for them.
2. Too Much Driving
Freecycle groups vary widely in the amount of area they cover. If your group is one of the larger ones, things that show up could easily be 20 miles or more from your home. Picking them up can mean driving more than an hour round-trip. For smaller freebies, the cost of gas and the time required to pick them up can cancel out all your savings.
3. No Previews
With Freecycle posts, you don’t get a chance to inspect something before requesting it the way you can in a store. Even the descriptions and photos on the site aren’t as detailed as the ones you’d get shopping online. Until you go to pick the goods up, you can’t be sure if they’re really something you can use.
In many cases, you can be pretty sure some of what you’re getting isn’t useful at all. When people have multiple things to give away, such as a bag full of clothes, they often list the whole collection as one item with the direction, “Must take all.” If you only want one thing on the list — say, a red sweater — you have to take the whole bag to get that one garment. Of course, you can always turn around and relist the stuff you don’t want, but there’s no guarantee anyone wants them.
4. Wasted Time
One of the biggest annoyances about Freecycle is the problem of no-shows. These are people who request something you’ve listed, arrange a pickup time, and then never show up. Often, they don’t even bother to call or email and tell you they can’t make it.
I once spent over three hours on a Sunday afternoon waiting around for a Freecycler who had promised to pick up my old blender. When I finally got in touch with her, she said she’d had car trouble and asked to reschedule the pickup for Monday evening. I agreed, but she never showed up then either, and she never contacted me to explain why.
5. Safety Concerns
To exchange items on Freecycle, you have to be willing to share at least some of your personal information with strangers. Although you can send messages through the website rather than using email, you have to give people your address if you want them to pick things up from your home. And usually, you have to provide them with your email or phone number so they can reach you if they’re unable to make it.
I’ve never felt at all unsafe when using Freecycle, whether I was having a stranger come to my door or going to someone else’s home to make a pickup. However, if this sort of thing makes you nervous, there are ways around it.
You can arrange a porch pickup so other Freecyclers don’t have to enter your home or even knock on your door. And if you don’t want people to know your address, you can arrange to make the transfer in a public place, such as the parking lot of a busy grocery store.
6. Lost Income Opportunities
Every time you give something away on Freecycle, you’re missing out on a potential opportunity to turn your clutter into cash. Everything you list on Freecycle is something you can’t sell on Craigslist or a site like eBay or Amazon.
That said, for many of us, the relatively small amount of money we could get selling our stuff secondhand is worth less than the time we’d spend listing and shipping it. Finding a taker on Freecycle can be much quicker since it’s often easier to find someone to take something for free than to find someone willing to pay for it.
Tips for Using Freecycle
At this point, you might be thinking that it sounds like the downsides of using Freecycle outweigh the upsides. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can make the Freecycle experience much better for yourself and all other members of your local group by sticking to a basic code of Freecycle etiquette. Most of this code can be summarized in two words: communication and consideration.
Rule 1: Read the Guidelines
The Freecycle Network as a whole has a set of guidelines about how users on local groups should interact with each other. These rules apply to all groups within the network. They cover such topics as:
- What You Can Exchange. Anything you list on Freecycle must be legal and “appropriate for all ages.” That means no alcohol, tobacco, firearms, medications of any kind, or material with sexual content. You cannot offer live animals either for food or for breeding, though some groups allow you to offer animals as pets. Finally, you cannot offer yourself or any other human as a dating partner.
- Content of Postings. Everything on Freecycle must be completely free. You cannot request or offer either money or other goods in exchange for any item. Advertising of any kind is also off-limits. You can’t use the network to spread the word about your babysitting services or your upcoming garage sale.
- Tone of Messages. All posts and other messages between Freecycle members should be polite. Profanity and personal attacks are forbidden. So are proselytizing and political content, which are likely to lead to conflict.
Many local groups have additional rules aside from these basic guidelines. For instance, some groups disallow offering or requesting pets. Other groups set limits on the number of “wanted” posts you’re allowed to make in a month. My local group has a rule that you aren’t supposed to offer or request the same item more than once per month.
Before you make your first post on Freecycle, read through all the rules for both Freecycle as a whole and your local group. Sticking to these rules helps all your transactions go more smoothly.
Rule 2: Don’t Be Greedy
The official Freecycle guidelines don’t set any limits about what types of things you can request in a wanted post. All they ask is that you use these posts “sparingly.”
However, my local group instructs members not to ask for anything “extravagant,” such as a diamond ring or a new car. That’s a good guideline to follow even if your group doesn’t specifically require it. The purpose of Freecycle is to keep unwanted items out of the landfill, and it’s unlikely that anyone would see expensive goods like these as trash. Asking for them just makes you look greedy and won’t make you popular with your fellow Frecyclers.
Another good rule of thumb is not to make your first post on a new group a wanted post. By making at least one offer post first, you show that you’re interested in exchanging with the group, not just grabbing whatever you can get.
Rule 3: Describe Items Clearly
In a proper Freecycle transaction, both the giver and receiver should be satisfied with the transaction. You don’t want someone to show up at your house to pick up a table and be disappointed because it’s only a dollhouse-size model. That’s likely to make them upset with both you and Freecycle itself, possibly driving them away from the group.
To avoid this problem, describe everything you post clearly. Start with a subject line that’s specific but not too long, such as “Solid Wood Dresser.” You want a person who’s just skimming through the daily digest to be able to spot what they’re looking for easily.
In the body of your post, provide as much detail as possible. For instance, if you’re posting a dresser, list facts like exact dimensions, the color, and the number of drawers. Include a picture if you can.
If something’s wrong with it, like a drawer that sticks, say so upfront. That way, you’ll only get requests from people who don’t consider the problem a deal breaker. The more you can tell people about your offer in the post, the less time you’ll waste emailing back and forth with people who decide they don’t want it and the better the chances you have that the receiver will be happy with the transaction and want to deal with you again.
If you’re requesting something, be specific about your needs as well. For instance, if you’re looking for a DVD player in working condition, make sure you say so in the post. That way, you won’t waste time with offers from people who have broken DVD players to get rid of. Also, say how far you’re prepared to travel to pick it up so you don’t have to deal with messages from people who live too far away.
Rule 4: Skip the Sob Stories
One thing you should not include when requesting something on Freecycle is any explanation of why you need it. Freecycle is not a charity, and begging is not appropriate or dignified. It can also lead to ugly fights over who needs an item more. That makes the group a less pleasant place for everyone.
When making a wanted post or responding to someone else’s offer, stick to the facts about what you need and when you can pick it up. It’s OK to include relevant details like, “Looking for a bike suitable for an 8-year-old girl,” but not “My daughter really needs a bike to get back and forth to school. I don’t have a car to drop her off and can’t afford to buy her a new bike, so this is a desperate need for us.”
If something is going to support a charity, it’s fine to say so. For example, you can write, “Looking for old towels to donate to the local animal shelter.” That’s useful information since it helps people figure out whether what they have would meet your needs. However, going into detail about the shelter and why it’s such a worthy cause isn’t useful — it’s just laying a guilt trip on your fellow Freecyclers.
Rule 5: Respond to Messages Promptly
If someone sends a response to your offer or wanted post, get back to them as quickly as possible. It’s not polite to leave someone wondering if they’re going to get something (or get rid of it) or not.
Sometimes, when you post something lots of people are interested in, you get multiple requests within a short time. You can only give it to one person, but it’s polite to let the others know that you’ve already promised it so they’re not left hanging. I sometimes tell the person who’s second in line that I’ll get back to them if the deal with the first person falls through, which sometimes happens.
When you have multiple requests, it’s up to you to decide which person gets what you posted. There’s no rule saying you have to give it to the first person who requests it. You can choose to offer it to the person who can pick it up soonest, the person who lives closest to you, or to a Freecycler you’ve dealt with before and know to be reliable.
The important thing is to make the offer to only one person at a time and let other people know what’s going on. Whatever you do, don’t give out your address or phone number to more than one Freecycler at a time. The last thing you want is to have several people showing up on your doorstep, all clamoring for the same thing.
Rule 6: Be Clear About Your Intentions
The key to a smooth Freecycle transaction is clear communication. When you respond to an offer post, don’t just say, “Hi, is the blender still available?” That forces the other person to respond with, “Yes, do you want it?” instead of getting down to the business of arranging the pickup.
Ideally, your first message should state clearly, “I’m interested in the blender and can pick it up around 3pm this Saturday.” Be as specific as possible about the time. If you’re picking up a large item, telling someone you can collect it “sometime this weekend” forces them to wait around the house all weekend for you to show up. Even if you’re doing a porch pickup and the exact time doesn’t matter, it’s helpful for them to know when they should expect the item to be gone.
Likewise, if you’re offering something, be specific about when and where you’d like the other person to pick it up. Provide clear and detailed directions to your home or any other spot where you’re planning a pickup. Consider giving the other person your phone number so they can reach you quickly if there’s a problem.
Rule 7: Keep Your Promises
Once you’ve made a promise to another Freecycler, you’re obligated to honor that promise. If you’ve promised to leave something on your porch on Tuesday, it’s not OK to give it to someone else just because they were able to pick it up on Monday.
Of course, this rule can lead to an awkward situation if you’ve promised an item to someone who can’t pick it up until next week. You can find yourself having to turn down multiple offers from other people who could have taken it sooner. To avoid this problem, my local Freecycle group recommends what it calls the three-day rule: Don’t ask for anything unless you can pick it up within three days.
Keeping your promises means keeping appointments too. If you’ve promised to be at someone’s house on Tuesday at 4pm, they’re expecting you at 4pm, not just sometime on Tuesday. If you’re unavoidably delayed — say, by weather, traffic, or work obligations — at least call or email to tell them you’ll be late and try to reschedule. That way, they aren’t stuck at home waiting for you to show up.
Rule 8: Handle Porch Pickups Carefully
Porch pickups are convenient since they don’t require both of you to be in the same place at the same time. However, for that very reason, it’s important to communicate as clearly as possible in advance to avoid misunderstandings. Some guidelines for a successful porch pickup include:
- Deal With Only One Person. Just like any other pickup, a porch pickup is a deal between two people. If you simply tell everyone, “It’s on the porch and whoever gets here first can have it,” several people may end up wasting a trip to pick up something that’s already gone when they arrive. Even worse, two people might show up at once and get into a fight over who was there first.
- Keep Items Protected. If you leave a book on your front steps for porch pickup and it starts to rain, it could become a sodden, unreadable mess by the time the recipient shows up to claim it. To avoid this problem, place your giveaway items in a protective container, such as a box or a plastic bag — especially if the weather forecast calls for snow or rain.
- Be Specific About the Location. When arranging a porch pickup, tell the other Freecycler exactly where on your property to look. For instance, I often tell them it will be in a plastic bag labeled “Freecycle” tied to the railings of the side stoop. If I’m any less specific than that — for instance, if I just say “tied to the porch railings” — I sometimes get messages from people who say, “I checked the front porch and it wasn’t there.”
- Label Items Clearly. If you’re leaving a single item out for porch pickup, labeling it with the word “Freecycle” is sufficient to help the recipient find it. However, if you’re leaving multiple items out at once for different people, it’s best to label them with each recipient’s name or Freecycle handle. That prevents people from walking away with the wrong thing by mistake. If you’re doing a porch pickup, check to make sure it’s the one you requested before taking it.
Rule 9: Follow Up
Your obligations as a Freecycler don’t end when someone picks up your offer. If your initial offer or wanted post is still sitting there on the message board, other Freecyclers will continue to waste their time — and yours — asking about it.
To avoid this problem, send a follow-up post to the group — either “taken” or “received” — to let them know the transaction is complete. You can also use this follow-up message as a chance to thank everyone who responded to your initial post.
Belonging to my local Freecycle group has changed my whole attitude toward shopping. Before, if something around my house broke or wore out, my first impulse was to go to the store and buy a new one. Now, I always check Freecycle first. The item I need isn’t always there, but if it is, I can get it for free, reduce my environmental impact, and help someone else declutter their home, all at the same time. It’s a win-win-win.
My attitude toward the clutter in my home has changed too. I used to hold onto all kinds of things I no longer needed, from books I didn’t like to shampoo that didn’t suit my hair, simply because it seemed like such a waste to throw them away. But now that I have Freecycle, I can nearly always find someone willing to turn my trash into their treasure. And in the rare cases when I can’t find a taker on Freecycle, I can throw things away without guilt, knowing that they’re genuinely not useful to anyone.
Do you use Freecycle? What advice would you offer to people joining the group for the first time?