small change toward a rich life

Urban homestead failure still a frugal success

If, as I do, one reads many books and blogs espousing a culture of frugality and anti-consumerism, one will quickly and repeatedly cross paths with the cousin community of urban homesteaders and do-it-yourselfers.

I am seduced by the whole idea of urban homesteading, for reasons of both ethics and aesthetics. But I fear I am a near-total failure at actually doing it.

pantry shelves stacked with home-canned jarsA proper homesteading housewife is supposed to, at the very least, be an expert at: vegetable and herb gardening, chicken raising, home canning, cooking and baking. Extra points awarded if you also brew beer or make wine, or keep bees or goats, or make your own cheese. Serious carpentry and construction chops are required too, unless you have a spouse who’s happy to pitch in and build chicken coops and lettuce tables upon request.

I can only claim street cred in cooking. Everything else, I watch other people do. I look at photos of sassy chickens and voluptuous tomatoes and orderly Ball-jar pantries from afar, with admiration and a wistfulness that sometimes edges into guilt. I feel the pressure to do ALL THE THINGS.

•   •   •

But it’s not just the perception that ‘everyone else is doing this’ that drives me. I spent a good two decades fully intending that someday I would be a home gardener. It started with a project in my ninth-grade biology class: each student got a small plot in which she could plant two vegetables of her choice. I chose green beans and okra.

okra plant with pod and flowerWe tended that garden all semester long, and near the end we got to pick our harvest and bring it home. The experience of making something out of almost nothing — a few tiny seeds and some water — was transformative. In the end, I had enough of each vegetable to make a single meal for my parents and myself. I was so proud of the accomplishment … I’d almost call it joy.

I’ve made the occasional stab at minor gardening as an adult, but circumstances had never permitted more. When we bought this house — the first time I’d ever lived in a non-rental — I thought this was my chance to dig into some real gardening at last.

By the time we’d finished settling in, I’d missed the garden-starting window for the year, so I contented myself with buying a couple of cherry tomato starts and installing them in containers on the back deck.

sungold tomato plants in containersI quickly learned that tomatoes must be watered EVERY SINGLE MORNING without fail or Bad Things start to happen. This was a lot to ask on top of a clock-punching day job and a 45-minute morning commute, especially for someone who is Not a Morning Person. Despite my regular lapses in this area, we did have some lovely tomatoes. (Especially the Sun Golds. If you want to grow cherry tomatoes, I cannot recommend Sun Golds highly enough.) And eating them was a pleasure, certainly … but a mild one, compared to my recollection of fourteen-year-old first-time gardening joy.

For a few years now I’ve lacked both job and commute, which seems like it would make me the perfect candidate for full-scale gardening. But each year I weigh the downsides — my bad knee which makes any sort of ground-level work quite painful, the fact that we can’t expect to be living in this house for multiple growing seasons, the hours I’d have to steal from all the other projects I’m invested in — and sign up for a CSA share instead.

I am definitely not doing ALL THE THINGS. I’m not even doing most of the things.

How do I fight off the subsequent feelings of inadequacy? In part, with cold hard numbers.

•   •   •

As best I can tell, my failure to homestead isn’t negatively impacting our bottom line. Most of these activities are not money-savers; on the contrary, they can easily turn into money sinks.

I found this more than a little surprising, when I first looked into it, because ‘common wisdom’ says that doing-it-yourself saves money. But as it turns out, DIY is hardly a synonym for frugality. Here are how four of the most popular homesteading activities stack up, financially:

Chicken raising

Buff Orpington henCompared with buying eggs from comparably-raised chickens at the grocery or farmers’ market, raising your own chickens is a break-even venture at best — and that’s with a lot of luck (as regards predation, chick gender, and illness) and some highly creative cost-cutting measures (in the areas of shelter construction and feed). The numbers don’t improve much with subsequent years, and many people end up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in the hole.

Backyard chickens are trendy, so a lot of people have done the math. Check out Joshua Levin’s article on Backyard Chicken Economics for a best-case scenario, as well as chapter two of Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter for one of the worst. After reading a number of such stories, buying eggs from your hip chicken-raising neighbor may start to sound like a much better idea.

Vegetable gardening

raised-bed gardensIf you’re new to vegetable gardening, the first year is likely to be a money-loser, due to the cost of infrastructure setup and a general learning curve. However, if you stick with it for a second full year — and are lucky with pests and weather — you may creep a few hundred dollars into the black. The bad news is that even after years of practice, you still won’t be making minimum wage for your labor. See J.D. Roth’s three years of meticulously recorded Garden Project data, and Michael Tortorello’s Starter Garden blog.

Gardening is also going to be a personal loss if you end up giving away (or worse, composting) the excess because you don’t have a plan for preservation. Planting only what you need is a nice idea, but Nature just isn’t predictable enough for that. Every garden report I’ve seen talks about winding up with too much of one thing and not enough of something else. Which brings us to …

Home canning

home-canned tomatoes and salsa You have to be a serious gardener to make the math work out in favor of home canning. Even if you mostly buy used, recouping your initial investment into jars and canning equipment requires cheap produce in significant quantities, and a couple of container plants or one trip to a you-pick farm is not going to cut it. Pressure canners are particularly expensive, but without one you’re limited to the water bath method, which is only safe for preserving tomatoes, fruit jams, and pickles. (And you can’t use a water bath on a glass-top induction stove.)

If you do have a big garden, then you can rack up some savings — maybe not in the first year, but definitely by the second. But remember, those are the same dollars you’re gaining from gardening, not additional ones. And though I had no luck finding any documentation of the total time spent canning, you can be certain that once you add in those hours your equivalent wage, already low from gardening, drops even farther. On the other hand, since the ongoing expenses of canning are small — just $10-$15 in supplies each year after the first, according to this fact sheet from the University of Kentucky — it gets more lucrative as the years go by.


pots on a stovetopIn fact, of all the major homesteading skills, the one I do regularly engage in — home cooking — is generally thought to be the most financially effective. Perversely, it’s the least well-documented and hardest to calculate. Mark Bittman did a cost analysis of two simple homemade meals against McDonalds fast food, but part of his point was that the two things weren’t even close to equivalent in nutrition. And although the home meals were much less expensive, Bittman didn’t include in his calculations the cost of energy and labor involved in home cooking — costs which are included in the price of fast food.

In my case, in order to accurately compare my cooking against the cost of restaurant meals of similar quality and nutrition, I’d need expense data broken out in ways I don’t currently track. Items like toilet paper and pet food would have to be subtracted from the ‘grocery’ budget, and the cost of cookware, appliances, and servingware added in. Plus I’d need to calculate a portion of cooking gas, water, and electricity, and track hours of labor.

So while the substantial drop in our total expenses indicates we must be saving money by cooking over eating in restaurants, I can’t quantify exactly how much, or how that stacks up against the hours I put into shopping, planning, preparation, and cleanup. Besides which, I’ve already collected a kitchen full of high-quality appliances and cookware; it would not surprise me too much if, just as with chickens and gardens, it would take a brand new cook a couple of years to recoup startup costs.

•   •   •

I’ve only covered four popular DIY skills, but I suspect it’s a similar story for all the rest. I have a good friend who’s a blue-ribbon knitter — she sells original patterns, speaks at knitting conventions, and teaches classes — and she frankly admits that she doesn’t even make back her yarn supply costs. For her, that’s never been the point.

smiling kids holding backyard chickensI think the main lesson here is: if you want to grow, raise, or make your own anything, do so because the result is better, or the process is enjoyable, or (ideally) both — not purely because it’s cheaper, because there’s a good chance it’s not. As Michael Tortorello says, “If gardening were ultimately about cash yields, we’d all move to California and plant medical marijuana.”

If keeping costs down is important — if the idea of sinking hundreds of unrecoverable dollars into a homesteading project causes you some alarm — don’t start anything that you don’t intend to stick with for at least two full years, and preferably more. Not sure if you’ll like it? Try finding, or making, a friend who’s been doing it for a few years and is willing to let you help out. That way you can get a taste of the long-term reality, while picking up important details that will help you succeed if you do give it a go on your own.

The non-monetary benefits of cooking — satisfaction, pleasure, pride, enjoyment, health — would make it worthwhile for me even if it didn’t save us a cent. So far, that hasn’t been true for any of the other popular self-sufficiency skills.

But I am still able to vicariously enjoy other people’s homesteading projects — for a mere fraction of the satisfaction, true, but none of the work!


15 responses

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  1. Rosie says

    I started my first vegetable garden this year, and “transformative” is a great word for the way I’ve felt making meals that didn’t come to me from a supermarket (and to the supermarket by truck), and knowing that my food is still alive when I eat it. (Lettuces are awesome for that because you can eat them raw or blend into green smoothies–and they just keep producing leaves.) Thanks for another great post.

    • Karawynn says

      Yay! I’m glad that’s working out for you.

      Even though I’m not gardening, I feel like I’m, you know, helping the planet by supporting my all-local CSA — it’s not quite as close as ‘my backyard’, but that food isn’t being shipped very far.

  2. Patrick says

    Growing a small garden this year,

    Mostly doing it because super market tomatoes aren’t nearly as tasty as homegrown ones. And I like having access to fresh herbs (basil and oregano for home cooking)

    I must agree, you definitely don’t make money off home gardens but you do increase quality of life a little.

    • Karawynn says

      Yeah, supermarket tomatoes are pretty terrible, compared to homegrown or locally-farmed. Strawberries are another thing that I think has just been bred into tastelessness.

      I don’t see myself ever keeping a full garden, given the cost, time commitment, and the physical limitations of my bad knee. But containers are not out of the question. Maybe next year I’ll grow a few herbs and tomatoes and drop back to a smaller CSA share. We’ll see …

  3. Dogs or Dollars says

    I am experiencing a similar sense of wonder to Rosie, when consuming food I have nurtured (for month) form minuscule seed to giant cabbage or even medium onion. Freaking Awesome.

    That said, being the frugal minded urban homesteader, there are ways to make this ‘hobby’ cheaper. But you have to be diligent and constantly on the look out. The only reason I will come close to breaking even on chickens next year is because we retro-fitted our garden shed as their coop, as opposed to building from scratch. I’ve spent almost $0 on the lumber for my raised beds, choosing to glean it from free piles. That took months, but again puts me slightly ahead on the cost/benefit curve. Slightly.

    Such things make an already painstaking past time that much more painstaking. But keeping the fiscal reality in mind while enjoying the catharsis of the thing is a fine balance, and a necessity in my opinion.

    • Karawynn says

      Yeah, you’ve been doing amazingly well on the scrounging-and-construction front, so I don’t doubt that you will be one of the few chicken owners who eventually breaks even. Joshua Levin, whose cost breakdown I linked to above, made a coop out of a discarded dresser. (!)

      Other key strategies seem to be feeding kitchen scraps and using chicken poop to replace compost in the garden. (I loved this quote from Erica: “I’m never breaking even on eggs, but I’m pretty sure these chickens are going to shit their way to garden profitability.”)

      But there’s also the question of what to do with older hens who stop laying. If you’re willing to kill and eat them, no problem. But a lot of backyard chicken owners understandably balk at that … which means feeding those hens for several more years, and blows any chance of coming out ahead on the whole endeavor.

  4. Elizabeth says

    I think that rarely the idea of the DIY lifestyle is solely to save money. As you said, it can be a sinkhole, depending about how you go about it. We happen to be big into the DIY skills. My husband makes soap and bakes, while I knit, cook, sew, and garden. Like Dogs or Dollars said, there are ways to make our hobbies cheaper. Yarn is hugely pricey at the store, so we keep a look out on Freecycle, Craigslist, yard sales, or the thrift stores. Soap is another costly project, so we make big enough batches to last a while and make everything the same formula. The trick to the DIY stuff is to stack projects, so you are using either the same materials or resources to get more done at the same time. In our house, the oven doesn’t come on unless it is being used to cook multiple things.

    • Karawynn says

      Yes, doing ALL THE THINGS does seem to have a huge benefit — there’s a synchronicity. Like using your chicken poop to fertilize your garden, and using your garden discards to feed your chickens.

      I really admire people who are managing to make it all work. I … don’t think I can even aspire to that. And my spouse is not the DIY type at all, unless it involves a computer.

      Do you really get good yarn from those free/cheap sources? I mean, colors and fiber composition that you would have otherwise bought, or that you would actually wear? Surprising but very cool, if so.

  5. Charley says

    We have a 15×15 foot terrace on our sixth-floor apartment, so our only option is container gardening. Via a great book on urban gardening (“You Grow, Girl”), and some experimentation, we’ve learned that our optimal crops are herbs, peppers, and certain kinds of tomatoes. It’s worth it for the fresh herbs and tomatoes alone (and verily, you have to water them Every Single Morning).

    We do some canning of pickles and sauces, mostly to optimize buying things at the local farmer’s market when they’re cheap. Canned pickles, tomato sauce, peaches, and especially lemon confit are our big winners.

    • Karawynn says

      Wait, don’t you live in Illinois? They grow lemons in Illinois? Or am I misremembering …

      I have never used lemon confit in cooking before. What do you do with it? (Anything that doesn’t involve meat or poultry?)

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