The Free Shelf
by Diane Stark
I don’t know how you did this, but with your coupons, your total comes to $2.47,” the drugstore clerk announced with a smile.
I shrugged one shoulder. “You just use coupons on items that are already on sale,” I said. “And between both discounts, it makes some stuff practically free.” I grinned as I loaded three full bags of toiletry items into my cart. “I’m so excited that I got all of this for less than three bucks,” I said.
“It’s great for you, but if all of our customers shopped like you do, we’d be out of business,” the clerk joked back.
When I arrived home from my errands, I asked my children to unload our purchases.
“Where do you want us to put the shampoo and the toothpaste?” one of them asked.
“In the linen closet, please,” I answered.
“On the free shelf?”
“The what?” I asked, caught off guard.
“Oh, Mom, that’s what we call it,” my oldest daughter, Lea, explained. “The shelf where we keep the body wash and the soap and everything else we get free. We call it the free shelf.”
I chuckled and nodded. “Yeah, put all of it on the free shelf then.”
But moments later, Lea came back. “Mom, there’s not enough room on the free shelf for all of this stuff.”
“Well, sure there is,” I said, going to take a look for myself. But she was right. The free shelf was indeed overflowing with hygiene items that I’d picked up at the drugstore for free or next to nothing.
“What are we going to do with all of this stuff, Mom?” Lea asked. “There’s enough body wash here to last our family a year or more.”
Between us, we counted 11 tubes of toothpaste, 9 bottles of shampoo, 16 packages of deodorant, and over 20 bars of soap. Yes, the free shelf was indeed overflowing. And every week, as I shopped the store’s sales, I was adding to the collection. But for what?
I thought for a minute. “Lea, Honey, I think we’re going to turn our free shelf here into a ministry.”
“There are people in our own town who can’t afford to buy soap and toothpaste and other things we take for granted. Why not start sharing our free shelf with people in need?”
Lea grinned. “Mom, that’s a great idea! We can help other people and it won’t even cost us very much.”
I spoke to a local food bank and they said they’d love to have whatever toiletry items we could spare. Over the next few weeks, our little “free shelf ministry” became a family affair. My husband bought not one, but two Sunday newspapers so we’d have plenty of coupons to use. My daughters eagerly cut them out, while my sons scoured the sale ads.
“Mom, if we buy this brand of deodorant this week with this coupon, we can get them for 22 cents each,” my son said, beyond excited. “And it doesn’t look like there’s a limit on how many you can get.”
We began scouring the Internet for printable coupons so that we’d be able to get more items for less money.
One day at the drugstore, when the lady behind me in line heard my total, she said, “How did you do that? How did you get a whole cart full of stuff for six bucks?”
I explained that I watch the sale ads and combine those with my coupons to get items for free or nearly so. I patted my son on the shoulder and said, “I have a lot of help with it too.”
“But why do you need 20 sticks of deodorant?” She asked.
“It’s not for us,” I said. “We donate a lot of it.”
The woman’s eyes lit up. “You’ve got to teach me how to do this. In fact, I want you to teach all the women in my church. Think of the difference we could make if everyone shopped this way.”
A few days later, armed with a few hundred coupons and a dozen Sunday newspapers, I taught a group of strangers how to build their own “free shelf.”
“It makes it easier if you have help,” I said, “but even if you don’t, you can still pick up a lot of items for just a little money.”
The last time I dropped off some of my freebies at the food pantry, one of the volunteers stopped me and said, “You’ve been spreading the word, haven’t you? We’ve got six or seven women now, women just like you, who donate stuff they’ve gotten for free. It’s really filling a need around here.”
Tears filled my eyes as I realized just how much God really can do with so little.