Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Picking up returnables for fun and profit

(Please do not crush your cans before you toss them from your moving car.)

My wife was a dutiful, frugal girl when she was young.  In primary school, she would routinely bring her dime or quarter every Tuesday on banking day, and have that money deposited in her bank account.  (You young people will not know about this, but back in the day, we actually had such a day at school.  But apparently, these programs are making a come-back.  Click on my title to learn more.)  At the end of several years of this kind of weekly deposits, she had saved several hundred dollars, which was quite an impressive sum in the 1950s.  When she went off to nursing school in 1965, her parents gave her $5 as spending money.  Months later, she still had that same 5-spot.  During three entire years at this school (she went year-round), during which her room and board were prepaid, she didn't spend more than about $25, although she used a Lazarus Department Store credit card to buy one dress for a Homecoming dance and a slip in preparation for our wedding shortly before she graduated.  That was it!

Those of you born to a later generation can not possibly believe what I am saying, but the appraisal above of what my future wife spent in college is the absolute truth.  We dated during most of that time.  We almost never went out, we never drank alcohol, we bought next to nothing.  We simply did not have the money to spend and, of course, a dollar went a lot farther than it does today. 

It should, therefore, come as little surprise that my wife collects empty soda and beer cans that she finds along the side of the road in rural New York.  Coke cans, DrPepper cans, Bud Light cans, plastic ginger ale containers.  Each one is worth a nickel.  The similarity in her mind between saving pennies each week at Dover Elementary School and picking up discarded nickels today is no accident.  As a child, she saw what that kind of regular saving could accomplish, and she never forgot that important financial lesson.

The problem is, the cost-benefit ratio is very different today than it was five decades ago.  To collect these nickels, we often stop the car in hazardous locations.  We have almost had our driver-side door taken off by a passing car, we have come close to putting the car in the drainage ditch in our attempt to move the car to a safe location off the road, and we have both twisted or sprained our ankles as we negotiated these same ditches.  Once I jumped into one of these pits to fetch a nickel or two and I ripped a hole in my $30 pants (= 600 cans).  Not a good deal.  Then, after you put the containers in the car, they invariably leak their remaining contents onto the seats or carpet and, for days, the car smells like you held a frat party in there. 

If the cans were crushed before being discarded by the side of road (data: about 5% of cans), they need to be straightened out enough so that the bar code can be read by the machine into which you feed them at the grocery store.  If they can not be straightened to the satisfaction of that contraption, you do not get your nickel.  I have fed some cans into that machine 8 or 10 times in an attempt to get it to read that code, only to have it belch out the can as if it was spitting on my torn pants.  The same thing happens if the can has been laying out in the weather for a couple of years; the bar code is so faint and unreadable that the machine gets the last laugh.

But this slow but sure strategy of accumulating wealth can pay off.  A few years ago, my wife was able to fly our two sons home from Denver without my knowing with pop can money to celebrate my 60th birthday.  And this is all with the return deposit at only a nickel.  There is discussion of raising the deposit to a dime in New York state.  If that happens, we might buy a second home in Costa Rica.  If the deposit ever went to a quarter, I would buy a fleet of used vehicles and hire a team of picker-uppers to scour Tompkins County for its booty.  Entrepreneurial opportunities abound. 

But already we have someone else picking up cans on the road in front of OUR house.  This is our territory, our grub stake, our can domain.  My wife has been hiding in our woods next to the road two days a week in hopes of ambushing the person.  She baits the shoulder of the road with 2-3 clean, Bud Light cans (I helped by emptying the cans) placed in a neat little bunch.  Irresistible.  We must stop this can poaching.

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