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8 Ways to Save by Going Back to Basics

U.S. News & World Report U.S. News & World Report 1/05/2015 Katy Marquardt

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Whether it's for political, ideological, economic or environmental reasons – or because it's just plain fun – a growing number of people are embracing elements of old-fashioned homesteading. Of course, people have been growing their own food and raising livestock for eons. But in recent years, such practices have taken hold in cities and suburban areas, and they've particularly caught on with younger generations. So-called "urban homesteading" can involve anything from setting up an apartment-balcony container garden to fencing off a section of the backyard for chickens, or even simple projects like canning your own jam. 

Saving money is just part of the appeal. Many people also have a strong desire to “do something physical in a world where we’re spending lot of time ‘liking’ things on Facebook and not doing something with our hands,” says Erik Knutzen, who co-authored “Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World,” with his wife, Kelly Coyne​. The Los Angeles-based couple also runs the site RootSimple.com, about DIY living.

Here are eight ways DIYers and aspiring homesteaders can snip their spending and embrace a back-to-basics lifestyle.

1. Feed your egg habit

© AP Photo/Michael Conroy

These days, it’s more common for city dwellers to have a chicken coop in the backyard, and many cities have allowed residents to keep egg-laying hens. “They’re very easy to raise,” says James Bertini​, co-founder of Denver Urban Homesteading. He adds that chickens require less work than taking care of a dog. The big question: Do you really save money with backyard chickens? “Compared to organic eggs at the supermarket, yes, but if you’re talking cheap eggs, no. But we’re eating better-quality food,” he says. According to BackYardChickens.com, the cost of hens can range from $3 to $30, depending on factors like age and breed, and feed costs approximately $15 a month for three hens. You could construct a coop for free with a little creativity and recycled materials; otherwise, you might purchase one for about $500, according to the site.

2. Be a backyard beekeeper

© AP Photo/Jimmy May

If chicken wrangling isn’t your thing, establishing a hive of honeybees might be a better fit (but check local ordinances to see if beekeeping is allowed). “The thing about bees is they take care of themselves, so it’s one of the least labor-intensive things you can do,” Knutzen says. “It can be a little intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s not that big of a deal.” He estimates that a basic setup, including boxes and a bee suit, costs $100 to $200. One hive could potentially produce 50 pounds of honey a year, he says, although you could also think of it as a community pollination service. 

3. Get into gardening

© Burger/Phanie/REX

Now is an ideal time to plant seeds, which, with a little attention, can become a bounty of homegrown produce you’ll enjoy all summer. Don’t have a green thumb? Try a low-maintenance herb garden, which can work for small spaces and will save you every time a recipe calls for a teaspoon of thyme or a handful of basil. First-timers might also consider planting a salad garden. “Some of my favorites are lettuces and arugula, simply because they are easy to grow and also don’t taste good from the store,” Knutzen says. He adds: “When there’s a short walk from the garden to your kitchen, things like lettuce, like tomatoes, give you bang for your buck.”

4. Brew your own beer or wine.

© Hero Images Inc./Hero Images

The basic supplies and ingredients will cost you, but making several gallons of beer or wine – which can be done in an afternoon – can be quite economical, says Trent Hamm​, U.S. News My Money blog contributor ​and founder of TheSimpleDollar.com. He estimates that $35 of ingredients will make seven six-packs or porter. Your startup costs will be higher: Figure $80 for a homebrewing kit that includes a primary fermenter, bottling bucket, siphon and other accessories. “Beyond the cost savings, a big part of the pleasure of homebrewing is the ability to experiment and try new beer styles and flavors that you can't buy in stores and to hone your favorite beer styles until they're absolutely perfect for your taste buds,” Hamm wrote in an email.

5. Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose

© AP Photo/SafeLawns.org, Paul Tukey

Sure, you can buy a top-of-the-line compost bin, but you can also reuse an old garbage can or construct your own with galvanized chicken wire. Want to save on gardening containers? Convert a plastic kiddie pool or plant a lettuce garden in an old tree stump. If you need supplies for a craft or home improvement project, see if there is an organization in your community that sells reclaimed materials, suggests Melissa Massello​, editor of ShoestringMag.com. “When people start doing DIY projects on Pinterest, you find there are so many ways to waste thousands of dollars – you can blow through your savings without anything to show for it,” she says. Before hitting up craft stores and home-improvement outlets, first check thrift stores, Craigslist’s “free” section and places like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, she says.

6. Embrace homemade cleaning products

© Jorge Cruz/Moodboard/Corbis

These are popular make-at-home items because their ingredients are simple, cheap and often only require a trip to the pantry. “Cleaning products are a no-brainer and the easiest thing in all of our writing,” Knutzen says. “It’s something even people in apartments can do – wherever you are, with the trinity of vinegar, Castile soap and baking soda, you can get rid of commercial cleaning supplies.” A bonus: These food-grade supplies are cheap and nontoxic. Massello saves citrus peels and stores them in a jar with white vinegar and a pinch of salt. Six to eight weeks later, she strains out the peels. “It makes the best home cleaner ... it cuts through weeks' worth of stovetop grease better than any infomercial product,” she says.

7. Customize condiments

© LOOK/amanaimages/Corbis

If you've developed a habit of splurging on high-end hot sauce, your wallet may feel the burn. Sauces, spreads and chutneys are often simple to make and require inexpensive ingredients. Plus, you can customize them to your liking. Have an overabundance of mint or basil? Blend them into pesto, and freeze the extras. “Condiments like mustards, fermented chili sauces … you can do some amazing stuff, and a lot cheaper and better,” Knutzen says. 

8. Blend your own personal care products

© Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/C

This is an easy introduction to the world of DIY, Massello says, and it also helps you rid the toxins from your cosmetics cabinet. She makes her own sunscreen, mosquito repellent and moisturizer, all of which share a common ingredient. “Ever since coconut oil has become a mainstream marketplace staple, we now joke that coconut oil is the new duct tape,” Massello says. She adds: “It’s a little more expensive than olive oil, but not nearly as expensive as anything you’d find at a department store beauty counter.” Other easy-to-make products include sugar and salt scrubs. For example, when grapefruit is on sale, she zests the fruit and adds a few tablespoons of the juice, a cup of melted coconut oil and an equal mix of sea salt and Epsom salt. “It makes the most amazing winter foot slougher and general exfoliant,” Massello says. A final tip: Keep the mixture in the refrigerator so it lasts longer.

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