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Tuesday, Feb. 08, 2005 - 1:41 p.m.

~ more bang for my buck ~

When I was little, a dollar was a lot of money. And I fully understood that. On Saturday Summer mornings, my grandmother would pull out a dollar from her white vinyl pocketbook and give it to me. "If you don't spend this all day long, I'll give you another one tonight." And off we would go, tag sale-ing with Grandpa chauffeuring the Cadillac. Most Saturdays, I emerged with my dollar intact despite the glorious array of rhinestone jewelry spilling out of waterstained satin-lined boxes, Barbie outfits missing only the pair of tube-like tights or one plastic high-heeled torture device to make a complete set, stuffed animals begging for a new home with their button eyes, and board games promising hours of fun. I emerged with my dollar intact mostly due to my grandfather and grandmother being unable to deny me pretty much anything, so along with my limp dollar bill I often had a stack of Trixie Belden books, clip-on earrings in Day-Glo colors pinching my earlobes and oversized, mirrored sunglasses sliding down my nose just perfect for dress-up. And I got that extra dollar, to boot!

I'm not skilled with money now -- my credit card companies would happily agree with that statement -- but I still value what a dollar can buy. Bargains are a bitch to pass up and it is rare when I can come up with more reasons NOT to grab a bargain than reasons TO grab it.

Clearance racks are my friend. Not a tolerant person, I am extraordinarily patient when it comes to realizing that almost everything ends up at AJ Wright (TJ Maxx's and Marshall's low-rent relative). And clearance at places like AJ Wright (and OddLot, Mr. Amazing, X-Pect Discount and Family Dollar) means ridiculously low prices. Target, Filene's, Sears, and even the jumbled reduced rack every grocery store and drugstore has also are fertile ground for steals and deals. Textured silver pots for my bountiful collection of plants: $2 each from Shaw's. Huge, enamel-green boxes perfect for storing my afghans: $4 each at Target during their insane post-holiday blowout. A black and white place setting for four complete with mugs, dessert plates, bowls, dishes, glasses and flatware: $10 at my neighborhood Dollar Store. A silver mesh desk set including a business card holder, a large Post-It holder, a wastebasket, a pen holder, a bowl for paperclips and a three-section letter holder: $4 from Brooks Pharmacy.

Discount store shopping is gratifying, but I did cut my penny-pinching teeth at garage sales. Warm weather means Spring cleaning means, yup, you guessed it, folks deciding to set up a few folding tables and put price stickers on bathroom rugs, unmatched sets of coffee mugs, Crockpots still in the box, and computer monitors roughly the size and weight of toilet bowls. Half a dozen pairs of gently-used shoes in my exact size: $3 per pair. Two heavy five-foot high mirrors with carved wooden frames: $5 each. Mr. Man knows to carry cash in his pocket when we go a-strollin' on non-Winter weekends. He's even been known to lure me away from my online Cribbage games with the line, "I've got a twenty in my pocket and I bet we'll find some yard sales." Ah, he loves me.

But sometimes it's raining or our neighbors have opted to spend their weekend having Quality Family Time that does not involve them holding a cashbox while sitting in a lawnchair on their driveway as strangers poke through unwanted wedding gifts and outdated housewares. Without a bargain on the horizon, my life feels a little Craigslist is every clearance rack, bargain basement, tag sale, and rich neighborhood Bit Item Trash Day rolled into one beautifully organized and easy-to-navigate free Web site. Craigslist is the World's Best Online Tag Sale. (They also have listings for housing, volunteer opportunities, chat forums, job postings, and much, much more.) Craigslist has pretty much furnished our entire apartment. Three 6x9 patterned area rugs: $25 each. A five-foot pine table with a shelf running along the entire length: $10. A black wrought-iron baker's rack with glass shelves: $25. A purple table from Ikea still in the box that was supposed to be a computer desk but we use as a kitchen table: $40. A contemporary white table with six chairs: $25. Two four-foot high curved metal CD racks: $25 for the pair...with delivery!

Of course, what's better that a bargain? Something that is free! I've lugged home -- okay, Mr. Man has lugged home -- many a curbside find I've stumbled upon. A butcherblock kitchen island on wheels. A low, four-foot long white bookcase. A six-foot high wooden bookcase. And my pride and joy -- a sectional couch. I still have the note that was pinned to it: "Please take me home." Garbage Picker, Dumpster Diver, Trashaholic...I think I prefer Curb Treasure Specialist.

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