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Oakland on a Dime

One of the best-kept Oakland secrets is that the Oakland Public Library, just like its better-funded Berkeley sister, currently has a tool lending library.

This means you can go and borrow anything from a power saw to a wrench or putty knife totally free, provided you return it on time.

The Oakland Library is a treasure trove of freeness in some other unexpected way as well.

Want to sue somebody? Lawyers in the library offer free legal assistance, advice and information every first Thursday of the month.

Of course, the main point of the library is books. And while Mills has its own collection, any California resident can join any Bay Area library in Berkeley, Oakland or San Francisco-expanding the amount of books you can access without paying.

The public libraries have larger selections of fiction and non-academic books than Mills and they offer more CD and DVD options.

The Berkeley library has an especially good selection of DVDs, so you can cancel your Netflix subscription or Blockbuster account.

Probably the most dreaded and reviled part of a new semester is coughing up hundreds of dollars for the semester’s textbooks. The most important rules for buying textbooks is to buy them used, early and not from the bookstore. The bookstore knows it has a captive market and prices textbooks accordingly. For the insanely cheap there is always the option of just reading the reserve book at the library, which is OK but the limited access might impair your learning.

Another rather novel way to deal with the evil price of textbooks is, a textbook rental company. Cheaper than even the cheapest used copy, allows you to keep a textbook for an entire semester, even highlight in the book and then return it.

To buy your textbook, try Just type in the ISBN number, author or title of your textbook and it will show you the prices from all the major on-line booksellers.

This semester, I only spent 50 dollars on books by shopping online. The downside of this method is the lag time between ordering your books and receiving them. Also, you must be vigilant you are getting the correct edition.

Finally, sell your books back promptly at the end of the semester. The bookstore at Mills does buy books back but they do not pay as much as other places. However, it is convenient and quick.

But if you wait too long to re-sell your book, a new edition might come out causing the value of your textbook to plummet, or the professor might change the required text and the Mills bookstore won’t buy it back.

Web sites like or offer free shipping and competitive prices.

Some also buy non-textbooks, so if you need some extra cash I suggest you raid your bookshelf.

Oakland on a dime

It may seem a little early to think about summer travels, but in this economy, the earlier the better. Traveling can be expensive. There are transportation and lodging costs, food and entrance fees. But like anything, there are some good ways to save on traveling.

Getting There Cheaper

Taking a long-distance train trip? Find a buddy and go halfsies on a sleeper car. It will cost only $10 more than a regular seat and will be so much more comfortable.

Need a ride? Check out the Craigslist Rideshare board. Rides are offered anywhere by people already heading there so look for somewhere interesting to go and contact that person. This is especially useful if you are heading to Los Angeles, as there are many driving offers for people going south. You split gas money with the driver and meet new people along the way. I haven’t done it and can’t vouch for safety, so pick your road companions carefully.

Or, if you’re only going to San Francisco and you are too broke for BART, check out the new casual carpool at MacArthur and High streets on weekday mornings. Commuters heading to the city who would rather take the toll-free carpool lane pick up passengers and drop them off in downtown San Francisco. It is free, but rides back are a lot more chance-y.

Staying There Cheaper

Meeting people can be hard in a hotel and still pretty hard in a hostel, plus you have to pay for your stay. But there are ways to stay for free in your destination of choice, if you don’t mind a futon. hooks up would-be couch crashers with generous hosts across the world. According to its website, there are more than 700,000 couches available across the world. This is great for a three or four day trip but don’t count on getting a couch for two weeks. This website is free and there are safeguards, such as reporting, so you don’t end up at Mr. and Mrs. Creepy’s flophouse. Other similar websites with the basic idea of bringing together travelers and local hosts are,, and

Having an apartment in San Francisco or Berkeley is actually a ticket to Paris or Rome. So desirable and famous is the Bay Area that if you maintain a clean apartment in a minimally nice neighborhood, you can swap for one across the world. Unfortunately, a lot of swap sites charge an annual fee. allows you to choose between paying $65 for U.S. only homes for one year or $95 for the entire world. That’s cheaper than a hostel and nicer too. is aimed at the academic community but anyone, seemingly, can use it. It costs $35 to post a home for a 14-month period.

Oakland on a dime


If you are one of the many students who plan to stay on campus this semester for spring break, don’t dread a week of boredom and sleeping in. (Who dreads sleeping in anyway?) The Bay Area is filled with opportunities to get outside, get exercise and be one with nature.

For those wishing to live the carefree life of a pirate, but don’t know how to sail, boating at Lake Merritt is the next best thing. For $8 an hour, anyone can captain their own paddle boat, canoe, rowboat or kayak. There isn’t a lot of shade on the high seas of Lake Merritt, so bring a hat or sunscreen if you do go.

Camping in the Bay Area is not as far away as one might think and spring break, before peak season, is the perfect time to go. A mere 15 minutes from campus is Lake Chabot, an over 5,000-acre public park with camping, hiking and biking trails. Tent sites cost $18 and are classified as, um, ‘primitive.’

Angel Island in San Francisco suffered a major wildfire in the fall but is fully open again and just as beautiful as ever. Angel Island offers amazing views of the city and the bay, excellent paved(!) biking trails, a museum dedicated to the immigration experiences on the West Coast and even Segway tours on the weekends. Unfortunately, Segway tours cost $68 but camping costs just $15. Although Jack London Square offers ferry service starting May 16, those wishing to head to Angel Island will have to either go to Pier 41 in San Francisco or Tiburon in Marin. The Tiburon service has better parking options and costs $13.50 per adult, plus extra charges if you bring your bike.

A great place for parenting students and those who like agriculture is Hidden Villa on the peninsula. Located in Los Altos, about an hour south of Oakland, the 1,600-acre organic working farm is open to the public and even has a hostel, should you feel really inclined to live the farming life. According to its website, the farm tour is a “first-time learning experience where [children] can taste a root, touch a wool sweater on the hoof, find out what cows give them, and begin to understand the importance of the farm and garden in their lives.” Touch a wool sweater on the hoof? Most city adults don’t even know what that means. Farm tours are available Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and cost $7 per person.

For more sedentary outdoors time, plan a picnic. Dolores Park is the ultimate in hipster-watching and its location in San Francisco’s Mission district means it is protected from the wind and fog that burdens the rest of the city. Fort Funston on the San Francisco-Daly City border is hipster-free and perfect for dog watching because it is a dog park. It’s one of the nice ones with a lot of space for people and dogs. Plus, watching dogs socialize amongst their own is kind of cute.

Lastly, a secret spot that even a lot of San Franciscans don’t know about is Cayuga Park. Cayuga Park was a once run-down, bottle-strewn city park underneath the BART tracks until a lawyer-turned-city gardener, Demetrio Braceros, transformed it into his own personal artistic statement. He filled the edges of the park with hundreds of woodcarvings, everything from mermaids to dogs to baseball players. Some of the carvings are tiny and placed in trees, while some are life size.

Oakland on a dime

I love the flea market but the only large one in Oakland, the Laney College Flea Market, has a suspicious amount of car radios and other small electronic items. The vibe is more back alley deal than fun treasure hunting. So I must wait every year for the mere two days when the White Elephant Sale throws open its doors to rummage sale heaven.

For 50 years, the Oakland Museum Women’s Board has raised money for the museum by throwing an annual rummage sale. Since 2000, the museum has occupied a 96,000 square foot warehouse in our own Fruitvale neighborhood that is filled to the brim with the fabulous, useful and unusual items that can be found at any rummage sale. But at the White Elephant Sale, there is just far more of all of it. Since January, over 900 volunteers have organized the sale, which has raised 1.3 million dollars over the past few years.

But I wouldn’t mention it if it were just a labor of love that benefited a local institution. No, the White Elephant Sale has the best of the best deals in town. All of the seventeen departments (including books, furniture, clothing, art, and sewing to name a few) has a corner of the warehouse easily the size of a small shop but with prices that are far below anywhere else.

Due to the fact that the Women’s Board runs the show, the quality of items are high, a bit on the Piedmont lady side of taste. When I went to check out how things were going this year, I saw a loom ($300), an antique waffle press ($10) and a silver, owl-shaped salt holder that came with a tiny mother-of-pearl spoon ($7). But there are also plenty of bicycles, tools and sporting equipment to keep everyone happy.

Oakland resident Robin McLean has gone to the sale for two years. “I am not much of a flea market person, but I like this because it’s well organized.”

Nothing is really expensive at the White Elephant Sale, but on Sunday afternoon things get down right crazy when many departments, including books, sewing, and the children’s, sell items by the bag. Volunteer Carol Jellison said this time is utter chaos. But the deals may just be worth it for those that can brave a few pointy elbows.

“Come early, get a map and make a plan of attack.” This was the advice for newbies I received from Women’s Board president and Mills alumna, Tamara Hege.

Totally free to enter, the event is on the weekend of March 8 and 9 starting at 10:00 a.m. and ending at 4 p.m. Located at 333 Lancaster Street, just off the 880 Freeway/ Fruitvale exit near the Oakland Estuary. The warehouse is about a 10 minute walk from Fruitvale Bart Station. There is no parking lot, and expect to be searching for a spot for quite a while if you drive.

For more information visit:

Oakland on a dime

The expression “There is no such thing as a free lunch” has never been at its most accurate.

Now that the global economy is feeling the post Housing Boom blues, expect to see a lot more invitations to events where the lunch is “brown bag,” meaning you bring it yourself. But there are still free lunches to be had, and if not lunch, then maybe a single Hors d’oeuvre or a cocktail.

It is ironic that artists are often called starving but even the tiniest gallery’s art opening will have a couple bottles of wine and some cheese wedges ready for any art-loving visitor.

Going just for the drinks and food is probably a bit too much even for me, so it works out that I love art, making opening night shows a cheap date with snacks included. First Thursdays in San Francisco feature fancy downtown galleries with generous imbibibal offerings and interesting displays.

The downside of SF’s art night is the attitude: snobby to the max. But if you can brave (or like to join in on) art snootiness, then you’ll have a lot of fun.

San Francisco in the late nineties had briefly perfected the art of the launch party. Every dot com start up would, through a lavish, fully catered soiree, celebrate its IPO or web launch.

Had the whole thing not gone bust, those parties would undoubtedly be listed on My open bar features very cheap or free booze and food (but mostly booze) around San Francisco (the website doesn’t cover Oakland yet).

Usually the events are at bars and are promoting something or another but who cares really? They will tell you when you get there and if you stay long enough, you’ll probably forget it before you leave.

Eating in a bona fide restaurant (with a waiter and everything) can be expensive. Even without appetizers or drinks, eating out is at least 25 percent higher than prices listed on the menu once you calculate taxes and a tip.

But has made the whole proposition a little more palatable. Here’s the deal: you type in your zip code, and they’ll list restaurants that they have partnered with to offer deals. You pay $3 for a $10 gift card, $10 for $25 gift card and $20 for a $50 gift card.

Generally, there is a minimum purchase above the gift card price, but overall, you can save some dough.

Finally, never forget to look at Mills College to soothe away those hunger pains.

Read Student News you’d be surprised by how many meetings feature pizza and how many lectures and concerts are followed by receptions with goodies like tea and cookies. Look at flyers. Plus it is a good way to learn about the interesting things people are doing on campus.

Eating at home instead of out is generally a money saver but you can make it an even bigger one.

Coupons have gone online and has a nice selection. Buying seasonal produce is much cheaper than buying prepared foods and buying your produce from the Farmers’ Market makes it even cheaper.

The federal government estimates that groceries eat up 15 percent of a household’s budget each year isn’t there something else you’d rather be doing with that money?


First Thursdays in SF:

49 Geary is a building filled with art galleries which makes it a one stop shopping for art openings. It is just around the corner from Powell Bart.

Next Issue: The excitement of the White Elephant Sale

Oakland on a dime:

It occurred to me the other day as I was happily searching for coupons online that I had become something I once feared, but now embrace: cheap. Some people, and I used to be among them, would be horrified to be called cheap. But after years of being a student, I have come to the conclusion that being cheap does not imply being ungenerous and that unless I attach a moral value to spending money, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being cheap.

Of course, I differentiate between cheapness and selfishness and believe that being cheap is just a way to set priorities. Look at Bill Gates. The multi-billionaire cuts his own hair but is undoubtedly considered one of the great philanthropists of our time. He just prioritizes curing malaria over looking fashionable. The founder of Ikea, Ingver Kramprad, is a one of the richest men in the world but he flies coach and drives a 15-year old Volvo, according to a 2007 article. Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor-genius, lives in the same house he bought fifty years ago for a mere $31,000, according to the same article.

The point is, being frugal, cheap, penny-pinching etc., is not just for poor people, it is for clever people. And so I embrace this by finding deals everywhere I can and I will help you to do it too.

So you know to flash your student ID at the Cinema and fake your age on the bus, but there are so many more (and more legal) ways to save money. Really being cheap is not for the faint of heart. It requires time, patience, research and imperviousness to people thinking that you are, in fact, cheap. Still if you think of saving money as a game, you win every time.

If you are just setting up your apartment and want to furnish it quickly, try Craigslist. For the ultimate in shabby chic (but more importantly absolutely free) click the free section. Typically, the owner of the free couch will gladly give it to you gratis with the all-important caveat that you pick it up. So if you have a car (or a friend who does) this is an excellent way to pick up a free piece of furniture or (oddly) a pile of dirt. There is almost always a free “pile of dirt” listed in this section.

You know those free samples that make trips to Costco just that much more special? Well, skip the trip and have the samples sent straight to your home. When a company is rolling out a new product, they want people to try it and will often offer samples on their website to build word of mouth. I have gotten shampoo, fruit-roll ups and health bars. Both The Free Site and the Free Stuff Channel have done the legwork for you by listing tons of free samples by category with up-to-date links. Beware of anything that requires you to “complete offers,” which usually means they want a credit card. This type of sample is more trouble and likely more costly than it’s worth. Of course, in order for any producer to send you something, they’ll need your address and you might get lifelong advertisements from them – a drawback. Plus, they generally want an e-mail address. In order to keep your inbox clear of endless product information, just set-up another e-mail account at Yahoo or Gmail and list that e-mail address every time you sign up for something. But if you don’t mind junk mail, then free samples online are a good way to get free stuff and without much work at all.

Another, more substantive form of the free sample is a book that will be shortly published called an Advanced Reading Copy. Books especially thrive on word of mouth publicity and so publishers have free copies of books to give out to people who will, the theory goes, enjoy the book and tell their friends about it. Of course, the last part is not required. Mega publisher Harper Collins has a program called First Look and they refresh their book list every month. Plus they’ll screen selections based on the books you like. A bibliophile website, Library Thing, also organizes ARCs for its members, and membership is free.


Free stuff on Craigslist:

Free Samples:


Free Advanced Reading Copies: and


Next Issue: There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch