Mongo and Obtainium

Suburban Stockade BannerSuburban stockade introduction A major goal here at Fortress Peschel is to cut costs. The less money we are required to spend, the smaller our monthly nut, the lower our bills — all those great sentiments actually mean that we need to earn less money. We get to work less hard or to save more of the money that we do work for.

A major way to do this is through the recognition and creative use of mongo and obtainium. You get mongo and obtainium via trash picking, Dumpster diving, freecycling, asking around, and recognizing the opportunities in front of you before you send them off to the trash hauler.

Trolling For Mongo

Ikea chair with cats in it.

Poang chair and footstool from Ikea: $110. Cost to us: $0.

Mongo is found stuff that is ready to use as is. My big framed Ansel Adams poster of a snowy tree? The neighbors two streets over were throwing it out (along with two seascapes and some mirror candle sconces). The rattan end table on our Florida room? Another neighbor. The Ikea chair and foot stool in the office? Left behind when another neighbor moved out. Candles, sheets, picture frames, fabric, canned food, mirrors of every kind, clothing, lamps, furniture, fancy shower curtain rod; all found on the streets. I won’t say that you will find everything you need, and certainly never right when you need it, but there sure is a lot of stuff out there going begging.

Obtainium is the found raw material that you repurpose into something else. The giant trampoline frame became an archway on which to train jasmine. The metal U’s that hold election campaign signs become supports to hold up salvaged ceramic tile as garden-bed edging (FYI: Taking campaign signs before the election is called stealing, and we’ve seen police prosecute cases). I collect my campaign signs a week after the election when they have turned into litter; and, of course, I recycle the cardboard. Mops and brooms become garden fence posts. Fancy drapery rods become fancy garden junk. The broken-up sidewalk is (slowly) becoming our new back patio with a fire pit. The two circular pieces of cement that make the fire pit came from leftover cuttings of giant concrete drainage pipes that were being installed for flood control. The contractor was delighted to see us take them. Saved him the disposal fee!

Ansel Adams' "Oak Tree" print, framed, sells for $175 at We got it for free.

Ansel Adams’ “Oak Tree” print, framed, sells for $175 at We got it for free.

How do you get all this wonderful stuff? By knowing the hauling schedule of your local trash collectors and keeping your eyes open. Trash and recycling are picked up in my area every Monday, so I make sure to walk my dog every Sunday evening, and, if I feel like it, Monday mornings. Dogs make excellent camouflage for this sort of prospecting. If I want metal, like the frame from an old trampoline, I have to get it Sunday evening, or as soon as it gets put out. Scrappers make a living by salvaging tossed out metal and they hit the road by 5 a.m. and get every last ironing board, storm door, fan, fluorescent ceiling light frame, washing machine, etc; long, long before the recycle truck ever comes by. Scrappers don’t want clothes, pictures, mirrors, or most furniture so those items will still be waiting by the curb Monday morning.

When you commute to work or run errands, look at those trash piles as you go by. If you see something good, grab it at once; it won’t be there when you come back later. We missed a beautiful pair of two-drawer oak filing cabinets for that very reason, and it still annoys us years later.

The only exception I have found is big bags of leaves and yard waste. These may still be there later, if the recycle truck hasn’t been around. But you can’t count on this, so take that free fertilizer and mulch when you see it. Be cautious of mattresses and box springs as they may have bedbugs already installed. Big sofa cushions make excellent dog beds, and I have not had a problem with them.

There are important etiquette rules with trash picking. Make sure it is actually being thrown out as trash! If it isn’t trash day, then why is that dresser alongside the road? It may be waiting for a Freecycle pick-up. When in doubt, leave it and move on. If you really want that mahogany sideboard, knock on the door and ask. On the other hand, a pile of stuff with a free sign attached is an open invitation.

Many people, when they move, leave big piles of discards jumbled up together. This leads to another rule: clean up as you go. As you remove what you want, consolidate and neaten up the pile. Don’t leave a mess for someone else to clean up, and more importantly, discourage them from putting out more stuff.

The same thing is true for what you leave out: I put out my scrap metal early with a FREE sign on it to make it easier for a scrapper to get it. Anything I can’t use gets passed along to friends, neighbors, and family; or goes to the thrift shop.

The difficulty with trash picking is its randomness. Things show up or not as chance decrees. This means you have to make a decision on the spot. Can you use this beautiful metal bar stool? Do you know anyone who could use this bar stool? Do you want to store this bar stool until you decide what to do with it? Do you have the storage space for it? What is your spouse going to say about yet another great find? Are you turning into a hoarder? So the bar stool stays and you find out the very next morning that first son’s friend needed a bar stool. When you go back to look, a scrapper has already been by.

I do pick up a lot of stuff on spec and when no use appears for the item, it gets passed along to the thrift shop. This makes up for the items I pass over and then later regret. In the long run, it evens out.

Discovering Obtainium

Obtainium is much harder to judge than mongo. Mongo in good condition is easy to pass along or even sell for a little cash if you decide you don’t want it. A pile of mixed bits of wood may or may not be reusable for a building project and it has to be stored until you rebuild the tool shed. Nails may have to be removed, adding to the workload. It may not even be burnable if the wood has been pressure-treated with arsenic (you don’t really want poison fumes in your home, right?). Piles of construction leftovers should be handled carefully. They can be booby-trapped with nails and screws or the pile will slide on you as you yank out the concrete blocks. I keep heavy gloves in my car for such emergencies.

Obtainium is much easier to cope with if you have a barn in which to store your finds until you can use them. Rain, snow, heat, and cold will not improve any raw materials, so if the tool shed is full you may have to pass up that pile of shingles. I tell myself that someone else will excel with them and leave them behind. Something else will come along.

So if you need something, and want it for no-cost to very low-cost, look around! Put the word out to everyone you know that you want boxes of unused ceramic tile (garden edging), dead electric blankets (quilt batting), old TV sets (second son’s experiments). Look through Freecycle and Craigslist. Learn the trash routes around you and when the regular bulk-pickup day is. That glass top patio table will appear and encourage you to build a patio to put it on. Every item you save from the landfill will save you money. It will open your eyes to the possibilities around you. You may meet your neighbors rooting around in their trash. You learn new skills putting all your finds into use. Mongo and obtainium are all around, waiting for you to see them.

Next Week: Seeking Virtue by Hanging Laundry