Austere Dumpy Beauty on $17,000 per Year

by Katy on September 29, 2011 · 26 comments

I somehow missed the fantastic In Maine, Gifts From The Sea and The Landfill NY Times article, which ran on August 31st and profiled the home of Michael Fleming, Jennifer Wurst and their adorable toddler son. Despite the couple living on $17,000 a year, their home is stunning.

Their decorating secret?

Hauling stuff home from the dump.

“Ms. Wurst’s favorite shopping site: a parked trailer at the Phippsburg dump.

“Some days it’s pure excitement, running back to the car to unload armfuls of stuff, only to go back for more!” she wrote in an e-mail. “It’s amazing what people throw out. I have found completely new (still in packaging) items such as my Bodum tea press/pot and even down throw pillows (still in packaging) and a fabulous ’50s-style wall-mounted can opener.”

She added, “It’s perfectly suited for the pantry in this house and we needed one and it was free.”

And the dump, she noted, “has the best return policy.”

I think I’m in love. Then again, I’ve always felt that separating oneself from consumerism awakens a style of creativity that otherwise lies dormant for the West Elm crowd.

Click HERE to read the entire article, which features a fantastic slideshow. And keep an eye on the photo of their bedroom. I really like how the the husband’s shirts are stored. Almost sculptural.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelli September 29, 2011 at 9:53 am

link not working–asks for log in….I would love to read this article! 🙂


Katy September 29, 2011 at 10:22 am

I put in a different link. It should hopefully work now.



Kelli September 29, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Thanks– fascinating article!!! — Amazing what they have created!!!


Becky September 29, 2011 at 10:09 am

Ah, the glories of trashpicking in coastal Maine! My in-laws in Harpswell get lots of awesome stuff at their dump too. In my inland Maine town, things that wind up in the little building at the dump have already been through 3 yard sales, an estate sale, been offered to all the grandchildren first, and sat in a barn for 5 years. 🙂

In all seriousness, Maine has a vibrant culture of trashpicking. Much of our population has been low-income for generations, yet all along the coast and rimming the lakes are vacation houses full of lovely and expensive new stuff that gets cleared out every few years in a burst of “redecorating” or when the place changes hands. Generally in Maine, the newer/bigger/fancier the house, the less likely it is to be occupied very often.


Teresa September 29, 2011 at 10:17 am
Rachel September 29, 2011 at 10:22 am

So beautiful! So inspirational! Ahhh I love it!


PigPennies September 29, 2011 at 11:15 am

So beautiful I can hardly stand it! Thanks for sharing, I never would have seen this otherwise. Such style….swoon!


Cate September 29, 2011 at 11:34 am

I love their house! So pretty and minimal. I wish I knew where to find a dump with such great finds, honestly!


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land September 29, 2011 at 1:38 pm

I absolutely love the wall sculptures. Makes me wish my hubby was artistic. But mine has a giant garden, so I think I did okay.


Indigo September 29, 2011 at 2:21 pm

A truly beautiful home that speaks volumes about those who live in it rather than where they bought it.

I had to have a good laugh though. Most of my stuff comes from roadside finds, flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores, I make it (I am an artist afterall) and yes.. the dump. So made a sign for my driveway out of driftwood and an old steel sign. It says “Welcome to the dump”.


AJ September 29, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Gorgeous! trash to treasure was never truer


Deborah September 29, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I love the house. However, as a public health official, I must warn folks about BED BUGS. While our thrift stores and second hand stores are doing a great job of making sure their products are bed bug-free, that is not the case with furniture found in dumpsters or on the side of the road. Bed bugs are extremely difficult to get rid of once they’ve entered your home. Hate to be a party pooper, but please, be careful


Katy September 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm

In the article it says that they bought their bed brand new.

Thanks for the reminder.



Robin September 30, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Bed bugs live in all sorts of places from clothes to furniture to drapes, etc. Pretty much anywhere – nasty things!


Liz October 4, 2011 at 10:43 am

It’s true… I fell victim to the scourge of bed bugs while a grad student in a foreign city! They like to hide in cracks in furniture (any kind of furniture – not just beds) but can travel on clothes and other textile items. Bed bugs are a very real problem, are extremely prevalent (not just in cities), and are virtually impossible to get rid of once they multiply. (It’s also a myth that they are only in dirty areas… they actually prefer clean areas.) That warning said, there are ways to protect against them when taking used items. You can run items through the washer (if possible) or send them for a spin in the dryer. You can leave furniture outside in the cold, etc..


Megyn @Minimalist Mommi September 29, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Just love it! Their house is so cozy! If I wasn’t SO picky, I’d be dumpster diving in a heart beat. Oh well. At least there’s Craig’s List!


Linda September 30, 2011 at 4:10 am

You don’t need to spend alot (or anything) to have a beautiful home!


Kris September 30, 2011 at 4:56 am

*sigh* I wish I had any sort of ability to put rooms together so beautifully!! I guess I do okay cost-wise, most of my stuff is handed down to me or purchased at outlets/thrift stores but I never manage to put it together in a way that is so striking.


Jean September 30, 2011 at 8:54 am

Thanks for sharing this! This couple is an inspiration!


Liz October 4, 2011 at 10:39 am

I grew up in coastal Maine, and it’s true, “dump picking” is alive and well and nothing to be embarrassed about. I think that’s true of many areas of New England, which has a long history of frugality.

That said – I know Phippsburg. The sorts of things she may find at the Phippsburg dump are not going to be found in non-affluent inland areas. There are plenty of wealthy summer residents, and wealthy year-round residents. But if you live in a place where just about everyone is trying to make ends meet on a tiny income, you’re not going to get a brand new tea press, or down throw pillows. (I don’t think most people would have ever heard of a tea press.)

The same difference can be observed when comparing a Cambridge, MA Goodwill (which used to be my local Goodwill) and a Goodwill in a rough part of New Hampshire. I found all sorts of great stuff in Cambridge… never see anything good in NH.

Still the story is inspirational.


Liz October 4, 2011 at 11:00 am

I have to add one other thing, and I am not saying this bitterly, or resentfully, since I am pretty much the same. But I am always wary of stories like this, with people held up as examples. It is clear that they both come from affluent backgrounds. He was a ski bum before he settled down… they used to split their time between the Caribbean and New England, they spent a year backpacking around the world… these are not things that poor people do. These are not things that people with student loans do.

It is also likely that they are getting some sort of deal from a family friend, or the like, on their rental… even in Maine, an old farmhouse on tens of acres does not run that cheap. Heating is also very expensive. They could easily spend $17,000 just on rent and utilities, unless they have some sort of break on their rent. I also know that it is virtually impossible to live in Phippsburg without a car. Car insurance and gas and maintenance cost money, nevermind the initial cost of a car. I also assume they have some sort of safety net in the form of family. And, as I know from experience growing up in an old house in coastal Maine – stuff from the dump and flea markets look much more charming when you start with the backdrop of plaster walls, 4-panel doors, old woodwork, etc..

As much as this story has an initial “wow” factor, I have to think that it reminds me of many college friends who were wealthy enough to attend what is now a $58,000/year private college with no loans, and then had the luxury to become artists or self-described “bums”.

The story IS inspirational in that it makes the reader start thinking about ways they could


Liz October 5, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Whoops, submitted this not realizing I hadn’t finished my thought. I meant to say that the story IS inspirational in that it makes the reader start thinking about ways they could cut back… ways they could get desirable items for less, even if they only make relatively small changes.


jennifer October 11, 2011 at 6:24 pm

I’d like to clarify that we do not come from affluent backgrounds. Michaels father is still working (he’s in his late 70’s) – my parents are also still working… I did attend college and have student loans to pay off. The article did mention the fact I was a teacher during the day, then, waited tables (5 nights a week) at night for two years. This was done to save money and pay off school debt. We didn’t do anything (except work) for two years so we could travel around the world and we did it on a very tight budget. Camping much of the time and eating many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches…it is possible to fly many places and not spend tons of money getting there; but you need time to travel – check out around the world tickets (RTW). Being a ski bum, also included being a ski instructor… Most people who ‘shop’ for treasures realize the best places (areas) for quality items are in affluent areas – only makes sense…Martha’s Vineyard has a fabulous ‘freebie’ market…in regards to the comment on heating and utilities – we heat with wood only, we don’t own a microwave, coffee pot, (or any other of the numerous kitchen appliances filling up most counter tops/cabinets) there is not a TV in every room (we have an old TV to watch the occasional movie on) – movies from the library I may add – they are free – one stereo, no wifi (still only have dial-up), phone is a flat rate, no cell phone, one laptop, we hang our clothes outside (winter months next to wood stove), we turn lights off when not in use and we winterize the house every year. Also, our rent is very unusual for the area, but the house itself is also a lot of work…yes, we did have two vehicles, our car just quit on us, so we are now a one car family – and as the article stated they are (were) over 10 years old. What we have done is not typically done by people with or without money. What we have done, we’ve done on our own, in our own way. It’s also incredible what we do without! Last year was the first year we had to get by on so little – which the article also mentioned (I am a full time mom now) – A more accurate figure for our bare annual needs is around $19K – the household income was $17K last year; this year, and this year ONLY did we receive a small family loan to help us. So while these past two years were our most frugal, our lives have always been about living well on less. I also realize we are very fortunate to have space to grow a garden (and I have the skills), heat with wood (and have access to wood), access to great resources (transfer station, aka dump) – but it also requires stamina (it’s exhausting meeting such a tight budget and doing everything yourselves!), creativity and the ability to do without. A good eye helps too! And while it’s wonderful to be an inspiration to those who live on much more, we’d also like for those who struggle to get by on much less, to know, we understand how hard it is and we are very thankful for our abilities and resources – not everyone is so lucky.


Katy October 11, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing the details of your life with The Non-Consumer Advocate community. Your home is beautiful and it looks like your little boy is growing up with love and happiness.

Katy Wolk-Stanley


Cassie June 16, 2018 at 7:52 pm

Am I the only one who was floored by the fact that an antique Bedsheets can sell for $150? Wouldn’t it loose durability over the years?


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