August 3 2010|02.22 PM UTC

Kathryn Hawkins

Should You Buy or DIY? How to Save Money by Starting from Scratch

Category: Featured

Can you improve your finances by making everything from scratch? It depends. Find out when it makes sense to do it yourself, and when it’s smarter to go shopping.

At PerkStreet Financial, we’re big fans of living well while living within your means. That includes saving money by shrinking your bills, or eliminating bills entirely! In many cases, you can save quite a bit by tackling projects yourself, rather than buying pre-made products or hiring outside help. We’ve rounded up some of the most common situations to help you decide when you should buy, and when you should DIY.

Food

When to buy: Many basic staples can be purchased cheaply in bulk, including rice, cereal, and flour. If you eat meat, you’ll need to pick it up from a local farm or grocery store, unless you hunt your own food.

When to DIY: “Grow your own produce,” advises Tsia Carson, author of Craftivity and editor of the DIY site Supernaturale.com. “The cost of seeds is always much less than purchasing vegetables in the store.” With a small garden plot and a little spare time, you can grow fresh herbs, tomatoes, zucchini, and many other vegetables for a fraction of what you’d pay at a grocery store.

Drink beer? Homebrew supplies will pay themselves off after a few batches. And when it comes to snack foods, you can save money and stay heart-healthy by making your own popcorn, chips, and other goodies.

Clothing

When to buy: If you’re simply looking for cheap clothing that’s not likely to last beyond a few washes, picking up a couple of low-cost items from your local discount department store will do the trick.

When to DIY: It’s usually cheaper to buy pre-made—however, if you want a high-quality product, you’re better off making your own. “I make a lot of my daughter’s clothes, and they’re better quality than what you can buy in the store,” says Carson. “You’ll end up with something more beautiful.”

Alterations are always worth doing yourself, too, especially with some seamstress and tailor services costing as much as $50. “Any kind of mending, darning, sewing, you can figure out yourself,” says Carson.

Cleaning

When to buy: Invest in some high-quality equipment, such as mops, brooms, buckets, and sponges.

When to DIY: It’s simple and cost-effective to make your own cleaning solutions, including floor cleaners, window cleaners, and laundry soap. “All of those things cost pennies to make, and they’re just as effective as commercial products,” says Carson. Better yet, you’ll know everything that goes into them, so there’s no need to worry about toxic chemicals.

Home Repairs and Renovations

When to buy: The stakes are high when it comes to your home, so if you’re not confident in your ability to do something properly, you should always hire a professional. This is especially true when it comes to potentially dangerous projects, like electrical work and roofing.

When to DIY: If you’re renting, there are lots of inexpensive home improvements you can make that aren’t a big time or financial commitment. If you own and you’re up to the challenge of the self-training and manual labor required for home repairs and renovations, you can save thousands over hiring a contractor.

Lois De Vries and her husband Dan Freed of Lafayette, New Jersey, have independently tackled many design and remodeling jobs around their home and garden, including transforming a kiddie pool into a fountain receptor for around $500. (see photos) Though home renovation projects can be tough, “for people who know how to do it, or are willing to learn, they can save a great proportion of what the project would cost otherwise,” says De Vries.

DIY Resources

Want to dive into DIY culture and rein in your budget, but not sure where to begin? These resources can help:

  • DIY Network: A cable channel and website featuring videos and articles on home improvements you can do yourself.
  • Instructables: A huge community forum for sharing all sorts of quirky DIY ideas, from building solar panels to weaving spider silk thread.
  • Supernaturale: A great site for crafts and DIY culture, run by Tsia Carson.
  • eHow.com: Video lessons on lots of DIY projects, including “How to Mend & Hem Clothes”
  • Care2.com: Find out more about how to create your own green home cleaning kit

Kathryn Hawkins is making a batch of homebrewed beer next weekend. In addition to writing for PerkStreet, Kathryn is the editor and owner of Gimundo.com, and has written for Chow.com, BNET.com, GOOD Magazine, E: The Environmental Magazine, Wildlife Conservation, and many other publications.

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