Creative Ways to Save Money: Upcycle

Before recycling/discarding an old item or purchasing a new item, use your problem-solving skills and find a creative way to use the things you have. Upcycle!

Upcycling is a hot topic right now. But it reminds me of a gestalt psychology concept from the 1940s: overcoming functional fixedness.

Functional Fixedness

Remember back to your Intro Psych courses. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits us to use an object only as it’s traditionally used. It’s a term coined by Gestalt Psychologist Karl Dunker.

In his famous candle problem, subjects are given:

  • candle
  • box of tacks
  • book of matches

They are asked to find a way to fix the candle on the wall and light it so that the wax doesn’t drip on the table below.

This was a test of people’s problem-solving abilities. Some tried to tack the candle to the wall. Some tried to melt the wax and use the melted wax to adhere the candle to the wall.

But it was in scenarios when the tacks were taken out of the box and set beside the box (thus allowing them to think of the box as not just a holder for the tacks but another object that could be used to solve the problem) that subjects were able to see the solution: tack the box to the wall and set the candle on the box, then use the match to light it.

Functional fixedness can be a problem because it prevents us from thinking about creative solutions.

  • When something has outgrown its usefulness, we throw it away or recycle it
  • When we need an item, we go out and buy it rather than thinking of what we already have that can serve that purpose

Upcycling is one way to challenge ourselves to overcome functional fixedness.

Why Upcycle

There are a number of benefits to upcycling, including:

  • exercising our creativity
  • saving money
  • limiting waste
  • reducing the demand on earth’s resources from creating and shipping new things*

*I’ve previously written about the most inspirational personal finance posts, which includes one from Leo Babauta about the true cost of stuff.

Here are examples of upcycling:


Instead of going out and purchasing mason jars, you can reuse salsa, pickle, jelly, candle, and other glass jars.

Tip: To remove the label, mix a tablespoon of cooking oil and a tablespoon of baking soda together. Rub the mixture on the label and let it sit for 10 minutes. Then rub off the label.

drinking glasses
utensil holders during parties

toothbrush holder
Old salsa jar turned into toothbrush holder


Old plastic cups

kids’ toothbrush holder

My son had a nice tumbler cup that had a crack in it. Water would accumulate inside after every wash. But I didn’t want to throw it away. When he needed a new toothbrush holder, instead of buying one I used the old tumbler. The pirate ship on the cup went well with the ocean theme of his bathroom.

You can see the crack in the tumbler below the rim and above the pirate ship
drain stopper

My friend Stephanie’s kitchen drain stopper was missing. She looked into buying a replacement. It was “only $4,” but instead of buying it she looked around for anything that could be repurposed. Her husband found an old snack container that was missing it’s lid. A few holes were drilled in the bottom and it made a perfect drain stopper!

Holes drilled in the bottom of an old snack container

Perfect fit!

Contact lens cases

paint holder

If you wear contacts, you likely have dozens of contact lens cases around. What do you do with all of them? I found they work perfect for either portioning out small amounts of paint or mixing paint for art projects.

Finally! A way to repurpose old contact lens cases.

ipod case

soap dish

I kept this old ipod case around for years. First I used it as a box to keep my gift cards. Then I used it to hold the “box tops” for the kiddo’s school.

When my soap dish broke, I looked around for something that could serve in it’s place. The top of the ipod case was the perfect size, matched my bathroom decore, and was easy to clean!

Top of ipod case replaced my old soap dish
makeup brush holder

Because I keep my countertops clear, I needed a container that fit into my drawer. The bottom of the ipod case was a perfect fit.

Bottom of ipod case used for make-up brushes

Chinese Food Containers

Drawer organizers

The clear, plastic lids of Chinese food containers work well for holding my make-up. They fit into my bathroom drawer and match my ipod case brush holder.

They’re easy to take in and out of the drawer.

Bulb syringe

water dropper

Every time I had a baby, I received multiple bulb syringes. Many went unused. When I mounted plants to our walls, I needed a way to water them without spilling water.

Bulb syringe used to water succulents

Single-serving chip containers

pots for transplanting small plants

While I don’t buy snacks in single-serving packaging, my kids are often getting these from friends and family. Someone brought us a large box of these chips from a warehouse club. Instead of recycling the plastic chip containers, I save them to transplant succulents that I’m propagating.

I was actually looking to purchase dozens of plastic pots, so this discovery came at the perfect time (and saved me a lot of money)!

Plastic milk bottle

“watering can”

We punched holes in the top of a quart-sized milk container and removed the label. It’s perfect for lightly watering my succulents.

Plastic Platter from Catering Order

Succulent propagating container

If you haven’t already guessed, I love succulents! Do you remember when I received $60 worth of chicken tenders for free? I saved the platters and use them for my succulents until they’re ready to be transplanted.

Chicken tender tray turned succulent tray



banana holder

Why spend money on a banana holder? An S-hook from an old strap works just as well. We use it to hang the bananas in our pantry.

Reusable nursing pads

cotton ball replacements

I chose reusable cotton nursing pads rather than disposable ones. Since I stopped nursing, I started using them for applying rubbing alcohol or witch hazel rather than using disposable cotton balls.


grout cleaning brush
We all know the tip about using old toothbrushes to clean hard-to-reach places, such as grout or behind the sink.
stain remover

We also use old toothbrushes to help remove stains out of clothes.

Tip: Pour a little laundry detergent (or Dawn dish soap for a grease/oil stain) on the stain and rub it with the toothbrush. Then launder as usual.

Vegetable scraps

soup broth

I previously posted on how we save our vegetable scraps and make our own soup broth. This saves $24 a month off our grocery bill during the Fall and Winter months. It’s perfect for vegetarian soups, but also works great with soups containing meat (mmm, chicken tortilla soup).

My food scrap container

Once you’ve strained the vegetable scraps after making broth, they can be used to make compost to fertilize your garden.


Take Home Message

Do some of these ideas appear simple? Then why doesn’t everyone upcycle?

These days things (especially those made from plastic) are so inexpensive.

For many of us, it’s more “convenient” to throw something away and buy something new. It’s also easier to buy something for a particular purpose than to problem-solve another solution.

I’m not a creative person, but I’m starting to challenge myself to overcome functional fixedness. To not do so would be irresponsible to my finances and to our planet.

How can you overcome functional fixedness and upcycle to save money or save the earth?

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