Shara Yuki Enay Birbirsa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
The new year brings with it new goals and opportunities for new experiences and growth. It’s also a time to take stock of the past 12 months, be grateful for the people and blessings in your life, figure out what can be improved and charge on ahead.
But some things don’t change, like my never-ending quest to learn new money-saving tips and tricks that I plan to carry over to 2015 and beyond.
By now, you all know that my family is tightwad royalty. Some of them will take any — and every — opportunity to save a buck, no matter how crazy and embarrassing the tactic. We’ve sort of built up a reputation (at least among Hawai‘i Herald readers) and we have no intention of being dethroned any time soon.
The matriarch of this frugal family was my late grandma, Barbara Kawamoto. She took being tight to a whole different level. If we didn’t finish all of the food on our plate — and I mean down to the last grain of rice — she would say, “No wasting, Shara! You come from a poor family.” And this was decades after she had struggled financially and had to worry about money. Still, *she raised four kids and two grandkids as if we weren’t sure where our next meal would come from. Grandma lived this way her entire life — and this was way before it became cool or trendy to recycle. She wasn’t trying to “go green” when she washed out Ziploc bags and hung them to dry so she could reuse them, or saved every little plastic shoyu-mustard container, the kind you get when you order Chinese takeout food.
It’s funny, but ever since I began airing my family’s money-saving techniques, people have come out of the woodworks to share their own tips and tricks, even outing their tightwad friends, coworkers and family members. I’ve received emails, letters in the mail and have even been stopped in the grocery store by folks who are proud to share in my family’s cheapskate antics. And they go deep, revealing some pretty embarrassing ways they save money — stuff so embarrassing you probably wouldn’t share them with your best friend. It’s almost like they’re trying to one-up me, and I love it. I’ve cracked up with total strangers in the aisles at Longs about their clever ideas, and I’ve been fortunate to learn a few new tricks that I am happy to pass on to all of you . . . like this one.
A few weeks ago, I was at a friend’s house — we were making chow mein for dinner. She lives with her grandmother and we were using one of her heavy-duty, stainless steel woks with a metal handle. The wok was full with vegetables and I needed to give the dish a good mix, so I asked my friend for a potholder so I wouldn’t burn my hand. She looked a little embarrassed before handing me something soft and beige. After doing a double take, I realized it was an old shoulder pad — and not a small, modest one, either. I’m talking about those football player-sized shoulder pads from the ’80s — you know, the kind Clair Huxtable had in “The Cosby Show,” the kind the women TV news anchors used to wear with their wispy, flipped-out hair and bright red lipstick. I tried not to laugh because I didn’t want my friend to feel any more embarrassed than she already was, so I just went with it. I grabbed that shoulder pad as if I had seen a dozen just like it and held the wok handle and stirred the noodles like it was no big deal.
“Oooh, you like my potholder?” my friend’s grandma asked with a smile.
“Yes, this is soooo smart!” I replied. “I never thought about using a shoulder pad as a pot holder, but it makes perfect sense.”
Grandma (and my friend) seemed happy — and relieved — that I didn’t think they were weird. But, really, they had no idea that I had stories of my own to tell about my background and lineage. To neutralize the situation, I shared with them some of the strange things my family does, like the time I went to my uncle’s house and saw that the top of the trash bag was folded over the sides of the trash can and being held in place with a thick strip of elastic, which, upon closer examination, I discovered was actually the waistband from someone’s old BVD. They got a kick out of that story because it made their potholder shoulder pad seem pretty normal. We all laughed and enjoyed our chow mein and tightwad stories. And, the best part of it was that nobody got burnt palms from the hot wok.
And then there was that cool gadget I saw years ago while shopping at KTA Super Stores, the chain of supermarkets on the Big Island that is owned and operated by the Taniguchi family. Some clever person gave strawberry guava branches a second life by screwing on an old beer bottle cap to an 8- or 9-inch branch so that the jagged edges of the metal bottle cap face outwards. When I saw this contraption in the store, I had no idea what it was until I read the packaging, which described the branch as a multipurpose tool. It could be used as a scraper to clean mud off your shoes or boots, or a back scratcher, or even as a fish scaler. It was ingenious! Someone was turning trash — an invasive species and old bottle caps (I was especially partial to this tool since it used an old Bud Light bottle cap, which is my beer of choice) — into something useful and marketable. I bought 10.
On Läna‘i, some people take hoarding to a whole new level. My grandparents used to say that when you grow up poor and don’t have a lot of things as a kid, you tend to hold on to stuff, whether or not you will ever use them again. If you drive around the city, you’ll see many yards that look like they could belong to Redd Foxx in the old TV sitcom, “Sanford and Son.” In fact, all I have to do is look out my bedroom window to see other uses for everyday household items.
For example, my neighbor likes plants, but instead of buying pots and planters for his garden, he uses things like old plastic vinegar jugs and laundry detergent containers. He’s even hung a few from his porch and they actually look pretty nice with vines and ferns cascading out of them. I’ve also seen him using an old Kikkoman shoyu can as a watering pail. But his best creation has got to be the old toilet bowl that he repurposed to grow a variety of beautiful succulents. At first, I thought he had replaced the toilet in his house, but hadn’t had a chance to take the old one to the dump. After a few weeks, however, I peaked over the bushes and was pleasantly surprised to see that he had found another use for his broken toilet. He also has herbs growing in old mayonnaise and jelly jars and a hat made from recycled soda cans that he wears while working in his yard.
Another Herald reader introduced herself at a luncheon and told me that she has a friend who can give new life to just about any plastic or Styrofoam container. “We joke that she alone could rid our landfill of half its garbage,” the woman said. Evidently, this woman’s friend takes old Styrofoam plate lunch containers and cuts out fun shapes, such as stars, teddy bears and hearts, glues a few of the same shapes together and makes her own coasters. She’s even given these to other thrifty gal pals and relatives as gifts. She also reuses old Tic Tac dispensers, turning them into pillboxes that she keeps in her purse, a case for safety pins and bobby pins, and a travel case for her earrings and pendants.
I also know another woman who washes out her Spam cans and then cuts them in half and nicely covers them with decorative origami or washi paper so she can use them as a holder for greeting cards, gift tags or loose notepaper. Her creations are super cute and totally resourceful. You would never guess that an ordinary Spam can could have a life beyond packing processed meat.
Thank you to all of you who have shared your creative, amazing — and, yes, sometimes crazy — ideas on how to reuse, recycle and repurpose everyday items. Whether you’re motivated to save money, like my family, or actually trying to save the Earth, keep sharing your good ideas. Who knows, I might be re-sharing them in a future column.
Shara Enay Birbirsa resides on the island of Läna‘i, where she is Pülama Läna‘i’s liaison with the community. Shara is a former writer for The Hawai‘i Herald and Hawaii Business magazine. She has been writing this Drama Queen Journals column since 2006.