It’s tough to be frugal in the 21st century. It used to be that if you were poor, you did things for yourself to save money, but today, DIY is a mega-profitable industry, and those huge profits mean you are often not saving any money. Let’s look at a few examples:
- Growing up, my Mom had the time and talent to make clothes. She made high quality clothes for us at a fraction of the price similar quality clothes would cost in the stores. While somewhat cheaper clothing was available, it didn’t come with hand tailoring and customization. There was an upfront cost — a nice sewing machine — and knowledge needed, but it saved money. Now, the cost of making a nice shirt will be 4 or 5 times the cost of shirt imported from a sweatshop overseas. There’s no supply side reason denim costs $10/yard in the US, nevermind the zippers, buttons, thread and labor, when it’s the same denim used to make dollar store jeans. Buying second hand isn’t always a bargain either when the thrift store charges $15 for used dollar store jeans you can get new for $17.
- A few years ago, I priced out the supplies and equipment rental needed to add 15″ of insulation in my attic at Big Blue and Big Orange home improvement megastores. It was almost $100 cheaper to hire someone to do the same job, and when the blower broke down, they repaired it and had it running again in 15 minutes instead of requiring a trip back to the store for me. As a bonus, I didn’t spend all day in the attic, and a couple of guys earned some money for their families.
- Two years ago, I priced out building a shed. The material came out cheaper, true — but when I considered how many hours I would spend on the job, hours that I otherwise would spend on something more productive, hiring the local shed building pros to come out and spend half a day was not only cost effective, I didn’t have to run all over town trying to find all the parts I needed. Nor did I lose the next 3 weekends sweating over a shed in the back yard.
This is not to say you can’t save money at all with DIY. Calling a plumber out to replace a $15 faucet cartridge would cost me $100. It’s okay with me if Big Orange marks it up 185% over their cost because it’s the only way I’m getting it direct, and the only thing else I need is a screw driver. But when you are trying to be frugal, you have to look at the whole picture. Do not assume that doing it yourself is either good for you or good for your local economy.
Early I mentioned there was no supply-side reason for the high prices of sewing supplies and notions — however, there is a demand side reason. Most people who sew now do it as a hobby. It’s entertainment. Or it’s something special, like a child’s Halloween costume. And most of these people have at least one of two things in abundance: time and/or money. You choose to spend time and money on a gift for your child; it is not driven primarily by financial considerations.
So what, the reader is asking, does this have to do with gardening?
Everything. Garden shops, seed stores and catalogs know that many people who are gardening are doing it as hobby. Many gardeners are single income families because they choose to be, either permanently or temporarily while there are young children at home. Or, they are retired, and despite the high numbers of elderly people living in or near poverty, older people statistically have more disposable income than younger people (and what’s more, are more likely to spend it at home instead of in a bar, restaurant or on an experience like traveling). Like sewing, for this group gardening is entertainment. And so, prices go up, particularly for seeds and supplies that have a certain cache. Organic. Heirloom. Green.
If you are gardening for financial or preparedness reasons, you need to be very careful where your money goes. There is no supply-side reason why tomato seeds cost $4.50 for a packet of 20 seeds, while a $3.00 packet of broccoli seeds might have 300 seeds in it, seeds that took two years to produce and were harder to save. If you are not saving your own seeds, or are not part of a local community that has seed swaps or plant swaps, you may be at the mercy of catalog prices, whether they make financial sense or not.
The long term solutions include saving your own seed, but for most of us with small plots of land this may mean years of experimentation to find the one vegetable variety in each species that does best for us. That brings us back to the need for gardening communities and relationships that foster mutually beneficial exchanges. Don’t forget to check out your locally owned garden centers and farmers for seeds and transplants that may be cheaper than what you can order.
And whatever you do, be very wary of obscenely overpriced gardening kits, be they raised beds, rain barrels, hanging bag vegetable things or glorified self-watering containers. These are not marketed to you, the frugal gardener, they are marketed toward people for whom plunking down $150 for a square of four foot lengths of plastic and some connectors is a raised bed experience. You can do better. And if you are truly DIY clueless and don’t want to learn, this is an excellent opportunity to trade either a physical item or your expertise in some other subject for some handyman labor.