Krista Lyons - The Penny Hoarder

I am a dumpster-diving hipster.

I’ve been peeking in apartment complex dumpsters and checking the back of furniture stores since 2007, before it was called “upcycling,” back when Pinterest was nothing more than a quirky website my sisters used to plan their weddings.

Now, you can’t log in to Pinterest without seeing a “Quick Easy DIY Project!” or an upcycled wooden pallet project. Although Pinterest has ruled my browser search history for the past few years, I’ve found that many of these perfect pins end up costing you more to DIY than it would to just buy a brand-new piece.

But as long as you’re willing to check your local dumpster, I’ve found you can do most DIY projects for $30 or less.

Here are a few of my real-life, Pinterest-worthy projects that prove dumpster diving can help you create the home of your dreams.

1. Shoe and Storage Bench

$7.99 for one yard of fabric from Jo-Ann Fabric

$6.39 for one pack of batting and padding from Jo-Ann Fabric

$5 for one small basket and $10 for one medium-sized basket from Dollar General

Total cost: $29.38

A similar bench at Pottery Barn costs $399, so this DIY might have saved me about $369.62.

Where I Found It

I found this bench, which has helped me maintain some semblance of organization by my front door, sitting on a curb in a middle-class suburban neighborhood with a sign that read “JUNK. FREE.”

Total Trash or Obvious Treasure?

It had terrible, candy-cane-striped fabric, and although the paint was in good condition, the bench was filthy and smelled like an ashtray. My husband wanted me to leave it behind because it was clearly trash.

What I Did

To start this project, I unscrewed the wooden board holding the cushion onto the bench, and cut off the fabric and padding. Next, I cleaned off as much of the grime as I could using soap and water. I made sure not to completely soak the wood, which could have caused irreversible damage.

Using a hot glue gun, I secured the batting and padding onto the board, creating the seat. Once the batting was secure, I pulled the fabric over the bench -- no sewing machine needed. Using a staple gun, I stapled the fabric in place on the back of the board.

Please note: If you have never worked with a staple gun before, it can be a little bit dangerous. Make sure to wear protective glasses and have a buddy to help you hold the fabric in place without getting anyone’s fingers too close to where you staple.

The stapling was the most frustrating part of the process, and caused several bouts of crying and general grumbling before it was complete.

Finally, I screwed the seating portion back onto the bench, put the baskets into the cubbies and voila! A shoe bench perfect for tying my shoes, hiding extra blankets and photo albums, and giving my front door a bit of pizzaz.

2. Armoire

$1.79 for paint brushes

$3.98 for a paint sample

Total cost: $5.77

A similar-size and -quality armoire costs $251 on Amazon, so this project saved me about $245.23.

Where I Found It

My armoire is, without a doubt, one of my best dumpster finds to date.

The trick to finding a great armoire to upcycle is to pay attention when a moving truck comes to your neighborhood.

If your neighbors are anything like mine (or the residents of several other apartment complexes I have lived in), an armoire is often the first thing to end up by the road instead of in the moving truck because of its size and weight.  

Total Trash or Obvious Treasure?

My armoire was somewhere in the middle of the trash-to-treasure spectrum. The inside was covered in stickers, so it had clearly belonged to a child.

It was also a little bit wobbly, which was easy to fix by unscrewing one of the legs a little bit to make it the same height as the other three legs. My husband tried to convince me it was trash, but I think that was mostly because it is very heavy and we had to carry it upstairs.

What I Did

I love the French farmhouse look when it comes to my furniture, which is easier to DIY than, say, a solid, perfectionist look. However, you can achieve nearly any look you like with a little bit of paint and a paint brush. The number of coats of paint you apply will determine how rustic or brand-new your finished piece will appear.

After two coats of paint from a Valspar paint sample (which was more than enough), I took a piece of sandpaper to some of the edges to give it that farmhouse feel. Within two hours, my dream armoire became a reality. This was one of my easiest projects yet, and painting the armoire was almost a zen experience.

Note that not all paint likes to stick on wood, particularly if it’s varnished. In these cases, it is best to ask the associate at your favorite home-improvement store to help you decide what paint sample to purchase. Alternatively, sand the varnish to make it rough, which will help the paint stick to the wood.

3. Wooden Crate Storage Shelves

$6.97 for one can of spray paint from Target

$2.50 for a pack of screws and anchors

Total cost: $9.47

Similar crates for shelves cost about $25 per pair, so I saved about $15.53.

Where I Found Them

Pinterest is full of great uses for wooden crates, so when I found two crates sitting outside my local Target, I knew I had to have them.

After asking the store manager for permission to take them and purchasing a can of turquoise spray paint, I was ready to begin.

Total Trash or Obvious Treasure?

When I found these crates, it was as though the heavens had opened up. Aside from a few spiderwebs, they were in fantastic condition. Evidently, they had been used to transport fruit, so they smelled a little better than other finds.

What I Did

My home office is important to me, so I knew turning these crates into bookshelves to hang over my desk would help me stay organized throughout the workday.

I began by spray-painting the crates outside. While they dried, I drilled anchors into the drywall to keep them secured to the walls.

Because of the weight of the books and the crates combined, it’s important to find a stud (see below) in the wall or to use anchors in the drywall. Just using screws alone in drywall means you risk the shelves and books falling on top of you, causing injury. When this happened to me, I not only lost my security deposit, but also sent my laptop to an untimely end.

To find a stud, I tap around the wall until I find the spot that sounds less hollow (like a dead spot). You can also buy an electronic stud finder if you prefer not to use this method.

Once the crates were dry, which only took about 30 minutes, I was ready to screw them into the anchors. If you don’t have a power drill, it is a great investment to make for projects that involve hanging anything on your walls. I purchased my power drill at The Home Depot for $28.83, but you can find most small drills for $25 or less.

If you don’t have access to a drill, you can use a screwdriver to safely secure the crate into the anchors, but it takes a lot more effort. You could also hang a project like this with heavy-duty nails -- just be sure to nail through the crate itself and into a stud.

Within 45 minutes, the crates became shelves and the project was complete. This project involved minimal frustration, and I felt like I channeled my inner HGTV spirit guide.

4. Bookshelves

$3.98 paint sample

$6.72 for four-pack of L shaped brackets

Total cost: $10.70

Similar wall-hanging bookshelves cost around $22 for two, so this project saved me $11.30.

Where I Found It

We’ve all had that one bookshelf we bought in our first year of college for $20 that we never seemed to get rid of. That is, until the paper-like, mock-wood back panel detached and the entire shelf collapsed into a heap.

You’ll most often find these shelves in apartment complex and even local college campus dumpsters, and they’ll help you create a masterpiece. I found mine in the dumpster of my local university.

Total Trash or Obvious Treasure?

At first glance, it looked like I had just brought home a pile of garbage. Really -- the original bookshelf had been ripped apart in a glorious show of exposed nails and splinters. But within that pile were two usable shelves.

(Note: I learned the importance of wearing gloves when you dig through a pile of wood. Don’t dig in the trash bare-handed. You will end up with more cuts, splinters and Tetanus shots than you want.)

What I Did

All you need are two or three of the center shelves from the bookshelf. I looked for shelves with at least one side of solid faux-wood.

To start, I painted my shelves with a color similar to the one I used for my crates. Since my office sometimes doubles as my niece’s bedroom, I chose a bright, kid-friendly color. While the paint dried, I got to work with the brackets.

When hanging the brackets for the shelves, it is important to not only use a measuring device, but a level as well. You can find free level apps for your smartphone that will do the trick. Mark on the wall where you want to screw in the brackets, and go ahead and insert the anchors.

Once I finished measuring, marking, drilling and hammering the anchors into the wall, it was time to screw the L shaped brackets into the bottom side of the shelf. When you screw the brackets into the shelves, you should use the measurements you used on the wall so everything lines up properly. I didn’t initially think about this and later had to fix it.

Once your shelves are on the wall, you can take them up another notch by screwing hooks into the underside of the lower one to hang anything else you might need. I use my hooks to hang my boxing gloves and wraps, while my niece uses hers to hang her artwork.

5. Chalk and Pin Board

$5.82 for one roll of chalkboard contact paper from Target

$2.98 burlap table runner from Walmart

Leftover spray paint from a previous project

Total cost: $8.80

Large chalk and pin boards of a similar size cost around $30, so this project saved me about $21.20.

Where I Found It

I live near a college campus, and when the students have all gone home after the fall or spring semesters, the curbs and dumpsters around my city seem to be filled with poster frames (usually featuring Bob Marley posters).

Total Trash or Obvious Treasure?

Treasure! Not only did I get a totally usable frame, but a Bob Marley poster as well -- score!

What I Did

All you need is spray paint (in my case, it was left over from my wooden crate shelf project), a roll of chalkboard contact paper and a burlap table runner.

To begin, I took apart the poster frame so I was left with just the plastic frame itself. This proved to be somewhat of a pain because it began to bow, bend and nearly break at one point, so make sure to be extra careful when dealing with the frame alone.

Once I finished wrangling the frame, I spray-painted it and got to work on the rest while it dried.

I threw away the clear plastic part of the frame because I was feeling extra confident that day -- if you save it, you get a do-over if you mess up the original project. You should be left with just the back of the frame, which is usually cardboard. If it isn’t cardboard, you will need to add some so your pushpins have something to stick into.

I covered half the front of the cardboard with the roll of chalkboard paper, which is self-adhesive. Using a hot glue gun, I attached the burlap to the other half of the cardboard, creating the faux cork board.

Once the frame was dry, the real challenge began.

The frame, already slightly bent from my clumsiness, didn’t fit well around the burlap. After a fair amount of wrestling, cussing and shouting at the frame, I was able to get it to go around the burlap part without popping off of the chalkboard side. I fastened it in place using the frame’s existing metal tabs.

Although this project was one of the seemingly smaller ones, it took the longest amount of time. In the end, it was totally worth it, because it has helped me stay organized with my work projects.

Dumpster Diving Pro Tips

While finding a great mattress is an important part of adulting, you likely won’t find it in the dumpster. The same goes for couches and most upholstered furniture. They may have been infested with fleas or bedbugs from their original home or from sitting next to a dumpster or curb for so long, or may have picked up smells that will never fully disappear.

It’s important to check any wood you find for termites before you bring it inside, or you might wind up with a very angry landlord (or be mad at yourself). If the wood seems to be rotting or flaking away in any spots, it’s best to avoid it. Not only will rotting wood not last long, but it can become moldy, warped and, in some cases, end up being dangerous to your health.

Before you take anything from a store dumpster or curb, make sure it’s up for grabs by checking with the owner. Not everything on a curb is meant for garbage pickup, and sometimes retailers reuse pallets and wooden crates.

Although some of these projects tested my patience, when I look at each piece, I feel accomplished. My total savings for all five projects was $662.88 versus buying the items brand-new.

Your Turn: Have you ever upcycled a dumpster treasure?

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Krista Lyons is a Tampa-based journalist and self-proclaimed poet. She has three cats who love to sit on her keyboard while she writes.