Financially Independent, Retired Early(ish) at 57.

Poverty leaves a mark.

Peas in a bowl.
A bowl of ‘free’ peas that grew from the pea straw mulch. We’ve been eating ‘free’ peas for over 2 months.

It’s no secret that financially nowadays, I’m doing ok. Working is a choice, not a necessity, which is why next year I’m dropping back to part-time. Two of the boys have moved out, which means I only have 2 on my hands, but they’re adults so apart from feeding and housing them, they run their own lives. Money isn’t tight anymore… and yet I still cling to my economies. Why is that?

Three years ago I moved into The Best House in Melbourne. After waiting 18 months for my geo-arbitrage plan to come to fruition, the money came through and I installed some gorgeous landscaping in the back yard, including some wicking veggie beds. When the soil the landscaper used turned out to be awful, I had a thought. Why not bring home the veggie scraps from work? The canteen services 2,400 kids and 200 teachers, while the Food Tech rooms throw out heaps of scraps. Compost galore – for free!

A year later, the system is still going strong. I have a little container on my desk that teachers put their scraps in, (you wouldn’t believe how many bananas they go through each day!); the Food Tech room leaves a bag of scraps for me most days, but the real bonanza is the canteen every Wednesday and Friday.

Yesterday I was chatting with the manager as I lifted out the garbage bag from the bin and popped in a fresh one for next week.

“I asked the timetabler if I could work Wednesdays and Fridays next year so I can keep picking up the scraps and it looks like I’ve got them,” I said.

“That’s great,” Tania replied. “Actually, I’m a bit surprised that you’re still doing this. Isn’t it a hassle?”

Wicking beds overflowing with plants.
Some of these plants are what has grown from last year’s plants – self-sown. Some are from the pea straw. Most have grown from the compost materials I brought home from school.

“Sometimes,” I said. Then I went on to say something about organic fertiliser or some such thing, to make me sound legit, like a real tree-hugger.

But really??

I want free fertiliser. Why would I pass up the chance to improve my garden’s soil for free, even if – yes – sometimes it IS a PIA to race down there and then drag it to the car during lunchtimes. Do you know how many bags of compost I would’ve had to buy over the past year to equal what the school scraps + the compost tumblers + time have produced???

Well, I don’t know either, but it would have been a lot of bags bought and a LOT of money spent.

As I was carrying that heavy garbage full of veggie scraps back along the street towards my car, I was thinking about that little conversation. She’s right. Doing this twice a week every week IS a hassle. As soon as I get home I have to deal with the compost, either putting it in the tumbling compost bins or bringing it inside and pulverising some of it in the thermomix for the worms. Sometimes, after school when I get back to the car, it smells a little… fruit cocktail-ish, especially in summer.

This would be more than enough to turn most people off, but not me. Now that I know this resource is here, it’d be such a waste not to use it.

I walked and thought. Maybe people who haven’t had to struggle very much are quicker to let inconvenient things go? I remembered back to the days when the kids were small. They’d go and stay with their father every two weeks, and at the end of the weekend sometimes they’d come home with a box of fruit and veggies from the fruit shop he owned.

Child support was erratic in those days. Money was tight. If those boys came through the door with a box of free food I made sure we used EVERY scrap of it. Anything that got thrown out was like me throwing away money. Child support money. I wasn’t in a position to do that.

Rosemary in a pot.
I grow herbs, like this Rosemary. I cut and dry it sometimes, so I have both fresh and dried whenever I need it. Herbs are ridiculously expensive – grow your own if you can.

Sometimes leftover food gets put into the staff common room. Unused loaves of bread from a fund-raising sausage sizzle, lemons from someone’s tree, a box of tomatoes… that sort of thing. If they’re placed on the tables, they’re free game for anyone who wants them.

It’s astonishing to me how those items can sit there for hours without being snapped up. People, even the young teachers with massive mortgages and/or young kids, won’t pick up a loaf of free bread or a handful of tomatoes to make a pasta sauce for dinner with. I don’t understand it. They’ll let perfectly good food sit there and potentially go to waste because… I don’t know… maybe they don’t want to be seen walking back to their desks with a loaf of yesterday’s bread?

Three days ago someone left a big box piled with potatoes on the table. I walked into the common room to fill up my water bottle and thought, “Great! Both boys are home for dinner tonight,’ so I took 3 potatoes. All good.

The next morning I walked in and there were still some potatoes in the box. Really?? They were the oddly shaped ones; the ones where you’d have to put a little bit of effort into peeling them to get all the skin off. But they were still fine. I waited until recess, then said loudly, “Well, if no one else wants them, I’ll take them!” and I scooped them up.

As I was on my way to my desk, someone said, “It’s great you’re using them for your compost.” I smiled and nodded, but inside I was thinking, ‘Are you crazy? This is another free serve of potatoes for dinner!’

Spice rack.
The dried herbs end up here.

Now, I’m no different from the rest of the staff in many ways. We are all middle-class, we all live within an hour’s drive of the school, we’re all tertiary educated, we’ve all travelled overseas. Of course, I’m astonishingly good-looking, but so are some of the others.

I think the real difference when it comes to things like this is that most of them haven’t been on the bare bones of their ar**s financially. Like I said at the beginning of this post, financially I’m doing ok now. But the years and years of being totally responsible for the well-being of the 4 boys when I was on the sole parents’ pension and with child support at (usually) $20/month have left their mark.

I had a ridiculously small amount of money to manage each fortnight. The mortgage had to be paid, then the bills and then what was leftover was spread among groceries, clothing – little boys grow fast! – and everything else. I owned one credit card, but I paid it off each month. I knew that if I strayed too far into debt I could lose the house and then the boys and I would be even more vulnerable than we were.

Every dollar was important.

When my aunt asked me if I’d like to pick up the unsold bread at a bakery in East Brighton every Tuesday night, I leapt at it. We kept going back to that bakery for the next 15 years. Every Tuesday we’d put 3 laundry baskets in the back of the station wagon and we’d pick up whatever hadn’t sold that day. That shop saved my family thousands of dollars over the time we went there.

Baskets of bread, pies, sausage rolls, bagels, hot cross buns, Boston buns – you name it, it was there. The best rye bread I’ve ever tasted, to this day. The boys and I would go in the back door of the shop and we’d load up the baskets. One basket was for us. I’d put in enough bread to last us a week ( I had a huge freezer) and enough pies and baked goods for dinner that night. One basket would be for friends, while the third one (once I was back at school) was filled with morning tea items to take to work the following day to put in the common room.

Later, when I had the chooks, I’d bring home bread and the unwanted pies and pasties to feed them for a day. It made the chicken feed last that little bit longer.

Feeding my family this unwanted bread definitely tipped the balance of my finances towards the black. It was an absolute life-line that I’ll always be so grateful for. Was it a hassle to drive 2 suburbs away every Tuesday night to do this. YES. It was NEVER convenient. But I did it every week because it was free food and it saved my family from some desperate times.

Me with some bread.
Me, back in 2014, with a laundry basketful of bread in the background.

Is it any wonder now that when I see a box of lemons on the table in the common room, I’ll take a couple? Or when the sausage sizzle bread is piled up, I’ll grab a loaf? Poverty leaves a mark on you, deep inside. On the outside, I’m the same as everyone else at work. But I think about money a little differently.

To me, there’s no shame in taking a loaf of free bread or a handful of potatoes in front of everyone in the room. Why would there be? Free food (or free compost) is a way of eking out my resources just a little bit longer.

Past Frogdancer had to do that as a way of ensuring the boys survived and thrived. Learning how to satisfy our all of our needs and some of our wants wasn’t easy and there were many tears shed and scary moments endured along the way.

As for Present Frogdancer? Because of Past Frogdancer’s efforts, I’m doing ok. But she and I are both agreed – if something is going for free and you can use it, it’s criminally wasteful not to take it and be grateful.

Even if it’s a hassle.


  1. FullTimeFinance

    It’s odd you know, but it never leaves you no matter how far towards wealthy you move.

    • FrogdancerJones

      Maybe we’re the modern equivalent of the Depression-era people, the ones who scrimped and scraped all their lives and their Boomer kids laughed at them for being stingy.

  2. Bethh

    I was probably in my early 30s when I suddenly recognized that rosemary grew in large plantings on every block where I lived! I’ve never paid for it since (and now grow my own). I haven’t done a proper herb garden though.

    I love that you put some energy into your compost project, and how terrific that you’ve saved time, money, and packaging by not buying it instead! It’s very sensible to me- frugal and eco-friendly together.

    • FrogdancerJones

      We have some growing outside a house, along their fence line, further up the street. I wonder how many people realise?

  3. Lucinda

    Well done, Past Frogdancer. I take freebies too. Can’t stand waste. I need to get my act together and make more compost. As you say, it’d save lots in bought compound fertiliser.

    • FrogdancerJones

      At least I’m not the only one!!!

  4. gofi

    For years, I’ve only ever used paper from the recycle bin in my office. Now that I think of it, I’m going to cut them in small notepad sizes, clip them with the many clippers that are laying around and leave them around for folks to use. How’s that for taking inspiration? 🙂 lovely read miss.

    • FrogdancerJones

      That’s a really good idea and it’s so easy to do.
      I tell you what – people will appreciate it. I have 2 people who live in apartments and they bring in THEIR veggie scraps for me to take home for the compost, just so they feel like they’re not wasting that resource. I bet you’ll have some people who’ll feel the same.

  5. Mandy

    In our house we have a saying “free is our favourite flavour”. It started as a single mum of two boys under five and was a necessity. Now it’s a tool to ensure we meet our goals of debt freedom and early retirement.

    • FrogdancerJones

      You sound a bit like our household!

  6. Karen

    Great post and interestingly enough it leaves a mark on the next generation too. My mum struggled a lot financially after split with my dad and her constant focus on that has meant I’m also been focussed on same thing. It’ll be a challenge to recognize when I’m FI, accept it without fear I think.

    • FrogdancerJones

      That’s an interesting point.
      My boys are all in their 20’s now and 3 of them are all on top of their finances. My third, Ryan24, is particularly conscious of where he spends his money – he’s a true valuist.

  7. Penny Lane

    I am with you Frogdancer – why pay when you can access free.

  8. Snarking to Freedom

    I only really had 3 tough years (1 year in grad school, followed by the first 2 years of work) but the mark has never left me. I still only buy the seasonal, cheap vegetables, will use up everything in the fridge and always look for free or used anything (just got 3 free huge planters doing a river clean up, score!). But it is all for the best, it means we can survive in tough situations. And this way of living was basically normal until the 1950s.

  9. Girt

    This is really food for thought since I think I act more like the teachers you speak of who don’t avail themselves of the opportunities to help themsleves. As my eyes open, I see many opportunities around me to waste less and utilise abundant resources around me. For instance, this week is the first time I have viewed the abundant cherry plum tree in my yard as a food source for my family rather than just the birds (if I can get them first).

    The embarrassing reality is I haven’t had to worry about poverty seriously in my life. Even now I am trying to waste less since it is the sensible and honorable thing to do, rather than as a dire need.

    • FrogdancerJones

      Funny! I was wondering if I could fit a plum tree in my plans for my new front yard!

  10. MisFIRE

    There’s an amazing bakery near our house that puts out all the bread at night that they didn’t sell. I’ve asked about it before and was told some farmers pick it up to feed to their chickens. (!) And frequently it just goes to waste. I’ve picked it up a couple times and had a variety of breads for weeks. I admire your dedication to the compost – we had a compost bin in our backyard for quite a while – our city actually gives them out for free – and it was great for our plants, but then rats started to eat their way into the bin and we couldn’t figure out how to solve that problem.

    • FrogdancerJones

      I had a traditional compost bin at the old place – it was useless. Too hard to manage.
      I bought a couple of tumbling compost bins and they’re great! They’re up off the ground so no rat problem – you turn them a couple of times a week so the compost actually gets oxygen through it instead of being left to moulder. So much easier!

  11. freddy smidlap

    i get it. i never had the responsibility for seeing after young humans but we’ve never been too good for anything in our house except cheap wine. i would rather go without than have bad wine. we still get plenty of household items off the street on trash day. our kitchen table came from the curb and most of the outdoor furniture. those facts have nothing to do with what we could “afford.”

    • FrogdancerJones

      Most of my furniture is second hand. I’ve made it a rule, though, that nothing comes through the door unless I love it.
      I had too many years of living with things that I bought because it was cheap and would “do for a while” that I then had to look at for a couple of decades!

  12. Abigail @ipickuppennies

    My mom had a similar e patience of barely making ends meet at two times in her life, and they definitely still affect her to this day. She’s learned to indulge herself now and then but mainly she’s very frugal and, like you, abhors food going to waste. She and her sweetie practically make it a game to see what food they can make to use up whatever’s in danger of going bad. It’s a pretty great habit to have and it sounds like it’s served you well.

    • FrogdancerJones

      I just bought two of your Mum’s books!

  13. A Dime Saved

    I really related to this post. We had some tough times and we were so close to the brink. EVERY single penny meant something. When you live that reality its very hard to ever move past that. Every so often I like to remind myself of things we considered luxuries at one point (tissues, chicken, meat etc) and I remember the value of every dollar.

    • FrogdancerJones

      The good thing is that we know we can survive hard times because we know when, where and how to cut expenses to the bone.
      Hopefully, though, we’ll never need to use that knowledge again!

  14. Ana

    Great read. I believe poverty does leave a mark. I can’t stand any waste. I’d take the potatoes, too. Love all the composting you do. It’s a win for you and the environment. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • FrogdancerJones

      I have a picture in my mind now of us wrestling each other to get to the potatoes!!

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