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Our DIY Life // How We Save (and Sometimes Splurge) By Doing It Ourselves

hippie alert, you guys. though we look every bit the conventional couple (maybe minus the makeup and frequent haircuts), we like some things that put us firmly in the crunchy category. hippie or hipster? you be the judge. :-)

we have always loved doing things ourselves. before we moved into our current house, we diy’ed a kitchen, two bathrooms, a fireplace, and a home office, and we’ve done loads of house painting. and we’re the people that friends and family call on for help with their projects — we once stripped eight rooms of wallpaper in a weekend, and are now staunchly against wallpaper for life, no matter how pretty it might be. we also just love getting our hands dirty, and were stoked to finally have room for canning equipment in our house, for example. moving out of our city condo and into our mountain house represented a lot of the diy ethos to us: finally being able to make more of the things we use and consume.

what’s funny in retrospect is how little the money piece has mattered to us in questions of diy, at least with the small stuff. (it for sure mattered when we were talking about spending $3K to diy a bathroom vs. $20k to hire it out!) for us, the joy was always in the doing, and in knowing exactly what’s in something, and not in knowing how much money we’ve saved. like when bloggers talk about making their own laundry detergent to save money, we always think, “we’d do that to avoid the harsh chemicals that are in regular detergent, but we doubt we’d actually save any dollars.”

but of course that was then. and this is our running-like-hell-toward-early-retirement now. money matters. especially the saving of it. so now when we diy things, it’s just as much about saving money as it is about the joy of making something. though, as we’ll share below, there are a few things we still insist on diying, even though we’re pretty sure we pay more to do it that way.

how we save by diying:

growing our own sprouts — probably the quintessential hippie food. :-) also one of the priciest foods you can buy at the grocery store. fortunately, growing sprouts is one of the easiest things you can do, and the start-up costs are super minimal. you need a sprouting jar lid and some seeds, which last a long time. here’s a great tutorial to get you started.

making our own kombucha — you were warned on the hippie front. :-) another thing that’s expensive at the store, but cheap to make at home. you can get started for next to nothing if you can get a scoby (the yeast colony that ferments the tea) from a friend — and if you have a friend who makes kombucha, they are probably drowning in extra scobys!. all you need is a big jar, a scoby, and some sweetened tea. here’s a good breakdown of how to do it.

canning our own food — this one is on the line, because we certainly spend more on the food we turn into jam and conserves than we would on some jar of welch’s that’s full of high fructose corn syrup. but we value quality a lot, and want to know that we’re not ingesting pesticides or weird preservatives. so our homemade jams are certainly cheaper than buying top-of-the-line organic preserves at whole foods.

sewing our own curtains and pillows — we like for our home to look nice, and think of home design as an amateur hobby of ours. but curtains and pillows can be absurdly expensive. so instead of buying them, we sew ’em ourselves. mucho dinero saved, and you get more fabric choices.

composting — we compost mainly to keep food scraps out of the landfill, but we also think of it as diying our own fertilizer, the best fertilizer there is. composting takes almost no time, no skill and requires very little start-up cost. we built a bin out of old fence slats, but you can make one out of just about anything — no need to buy some $100 tumbling bin!

maintaining our own lawn — a no-brainer, especially if you have as little lawn as we do. our bigger problem is falling pine needles, which we have to pick up regularly lest they increase our fire danger. paying folks for this would cost a lot, but doing it ourselves costs only our time.

cleaning our own carpets — if you have pets, you understand. carpet cleaning costs a fortune, but renting the rug doctor costs $20 a pop. it’s more work, but worth it.

maintaining the “toys” — bikes, skis, mountaineering gear… we do as much of the maintenance on ’em as we can. it may seem intimidating to sharpen crampons by hand, but it’s really just spending some quality time with a file. occasionally, we still have to take skis in for a base grind, though we do all the tuning and waxing ourselves, and likewise bikes sometimes still need a pro’s expertise. but we want to up our skills and do even more of the work ourselves in retirement, which leads us so…

how we’d love to save even more by diying:

making more of our food from scratch — we make a lot of things currently, but we’d like to regularly make our own ice cream, tortillas, chips and bread. all of them are doable but time consuming, and when we retire we’ll have the time!

brewing our own hard cider — we love hard cider, and it can be pricy. we’d love to try this approach from sustainable life blog, which he swears is easy and cost-effective. plus maybe over time we could experiment with different juice blends and different yeast, and even be so presumptuous as to label it “artisanal.” ;-)

sewing our own technical gear — we have sewing skills, and would love to make our own sleeping bags and technical jackets when our current ones wear out. it would be cool not to advertise for any name brands, and to be able to customize them exactly how we’d like. tech fabrics like goretex are available at specialty fabric stores, so this isn’t as wacky an idea as it sounds.

doing our own car care — every winter and spring, we have to swap tires, which we could easily tackle. people have been changing their own oil since cars were invented, and we feel like we could tackle that. so far, we’ve basically replaced windshield wiper blades and washed our cars, but we know we can learn more skills and do better.

taking on large home maintenance projects — right now we still have to hire out big jobs like restaining the exterior of our house, or putting in a fence. we hope to be able to take these on once we have more time on our hands.

how we splurge by diying:

making our own almond milk — we’re almost positive that buying almond milk at the store would cost less, but then we’d be throwing away a carton that we’d rather not waste, and we’d be consuming the carageenan and other stabilizers they add just so you don’t have to shake it up before pouring it. we can handle shaking a bottle, thanks. here’s a tutorial similar to how we make ours, though we use agave instead of a date, and no cinnamon. bonus: you have almond flour leftover that you can bake with! (here’s a great link from ditching the daily grind that also includes a recipe for using the almond pulp.)

making our own personal care products — this falls in the category once again of things that we could definitely buy for less, but then we’d be using products with questionable ingredients. we’d rather pay a little more to know what’s in our stuff. some of the products we make for ourselves include: hand salve and cream, body and face scrub, toothpaste, headache balm, “vaporub,” lip balm, and face masks. (we’ve made our own deodorant, too, but let’s be honest — no natural deodorants work especially well.) we make all of these products from oils, clays and emulsifying waxes sold in bulk at our local food coop and essential oils sold by our local hippie oil purveyor. so on top of feeling good that we know exactly what we’re putting on ourselves, we like not throwing away all the packaging that comes with conventional products.

if you notice a common theme throughout all of these diy tasks, it’s this: none of these things are hard to do! sometimes diy seems intimidating, and we would for sure think twice before trying, for example, to restore a 3000 square food victorian home from 1890. but none of what we’re talking about requires that level of know-how. some of the tasks are intuitive, and at most they require five minutes on youtube to figure out. so don’t let the mystique of diy projects psych you out!

what do you diy? have you found some tasks that save you money? or anything like our almond milk or care products that you diy even though you know it’s costing you more? any projects you’ve been dying to try but haven’t yet? share your ideas in the comments!

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52 replies »

  1. My boyfriend and I got really into homebrewing a few years ago, which I suppose is a form of DIY. Unfortunately, much like your personal care products, I am sure that it costs us more to brew our own beer than it would to buy beer at the store. The ingredients in each batch aren’t bad, but the equipment costs really add up. That said, it is a really fun hobby and we love to experiment with new types of beer, so the added cost its worth it to us.

    • That’s one of those things that we think is great to do, even if you don’t save money — so long as you don’t buy all the gear and then give up on the hobby! We love the feeling of making things ourselves, and being able to customize anything we want. It’s awesome you guys are doing that with your beer. Sounds super fun!

  2. We love DIY! We’ve tackled many of the projects you outlined like sprouting, car care, DIY home renovations and making deodorant (have effective recipe, will share). There is little more rewarding than being able to take care of things ourselves. Now, if we had more time, we’d do even more–nut milk and coconut milk are high on my list.

    • Please do share that recipe! And once you make nut milk and coconut milk once, you’ll realize how easy they are. Just a few quick steps, and you’re done.

      • Good to know! I shared the recipe via Twitter. Making your own deo involves a little trial and error, particularly in mixing the ingredients. It works best if you measure and mix the dry ingredients before adding the coconut oil–then stir quickly. I refill the containers from commercial deo and store in the fridge. This isn’t something that travels well though given the low melting point, but it’s the most effective deo I’ve ever used, commercial or otherwise. Good luck!

      • Thanks for sharing the recipe! I’m going to try it with lecithin added to the coconut oil, and see if that works well to help solidify it. I’ve noticed that some raw recipes, and a natural deodorant I like pretty well, use lecithin instead of beeswax. I’ll let you know!

  3. Love this post! We would SO get along! I’ve been making kefir for a while and recently started a ginger bug. Just yesterday I bottled it to make homemade fermented soda…I’ll be posting about it soon :) My friend is about to give me Scoby to start brewing Kombucha, can’t wait! And of course we have homemade toothpaste, cleaning products, lip balms, sunscreen, bug spray, and a few other things I’ll be posting about soon. No matter how badly I’ve been wanting to do it, I’ve never gotten around to composting yet :( Thanks for the ideas, I’m obsessed with DIYing!

    • We would for sure get along. :-) I had meant to update the post (which I wrote before your almond milk post) with the link back to your recipe, but I just did that! And I can’t wait to hear how your ginger soda and kombucha go. The only bummer with kombucha is that it starts slowly, but before you know it you’ll be drowning in the stuff!

  4. Oh yeah, The Mr brews his own beer and we’ve made apple cider before, its great and super simple! Reminds me we should make another batch! ;)

  5. I do home brewing, and it’s usually about $40/ 5 gallons or ~48 bottles worth. So it generally comes out to ~$1 per beer. Not much of a money saver since most 6 packs of “better” beer are about $7-$8 anyway. But I can tailor it to what I want, if I want a hoppy wheat, done! A black wheat with some rye, why not? an Anchor steam clone, done! Also, cider is super easy, but my first try came out really dry as it was 13% abv. However, if you added a shot of regular cider to it, voila, it was tasty cider again.

    I also started roasting my own coffee beans. Savings wise I get ~5 lbs of green beans for about $27-$30 so ~$6/lb versus $8-$10 at the store, so a little but not much. I drink the $3 per lb pre-ground stuff when I forget to grind beans at night, so no coffee snobbery here, lol. Grinding in the morning wakes up the kiddos and doubles the hectic pace of the morning instantly. The upside is I get to change the roast with every 1/2 – 1 lb batch I roast, and the beans are fresh roasted every other week – or when I run out. It’s fun and I get to experiment with the different flavors the degree of roasting adds. Also, you don’t need an expensive machine. I started with our toaster oven and then graduated to a $20 Swirly pop popcorn maker and it works perfectly!

    • That’s exactly why we love DIYing — you get exactly what you want, and you have the joy of knowing you made it. Plus the making itself is fun! Your beers sound tasty. :-)

      The coffee roasting idea is something we will certainly do in retirement. Right now we’re paying $15-20/lb (!!!!!), but I insist on organic, and the Mr. is super snobby about his coffee. :-) Feels like we could save a tidy bit by roasting it ourselves!

      • You can get 5 lb organic bags of beans from Amazon for $22 on up depending on your style, so it’s definitely there for some savings and fun. When I get more free time in FIRE, I can get the homebrew costs down even more by doing whole grain. It just takes a lot longer, and I can’t afford that much time devoted to beer right now. Ironic using “I can’t afford it” referring to time.

  6. Most of my DIY recipes have been total flops. Though I always make my own enchilada sauce and chicken stock and freeze them and we do always have some kefir brewing on the counter which we use for kefir/yogurt/buttermilk (which I would argue is even more hippie than sprouts). What kind of sprouts do you grow?

    • Haha — Yeah, kefir is way up the hippie scale! :-) We grow lots of different kinds of sprouts — we always have something going in the jar. Right now it’s a mix of alfalfa, which I like the flavor of the best, and broccoli, for the higher nutrient value. Last week, we sprouted garbanzos and lentils, and sunflower seeds. :-)

      Don’t give up on DIY just because you’ve had a few wonky experiments! It’s so worth it to get the enjoyment of hand crafted goodness, even if you have to do some trial and error to get there. :-)

  7. Since I’ve started doing more things myself, I’ve definitely noticed the financial and personal benefits that you mentioned. I’ve also been enjoying the fact that I’m less reliant upon others, particularly big corporations. My latest venture has been getting up the courage to trim my dog’s nails myself rather than bringing him to PetSmart. It actually ended up being a lot less stressful than usual and, although my first attempt looks pretty scraggly, I was really proud of the end result!

    • Can your dog please teach our dogs to chill out when it’s nail clipping time? :-) That’s always a stressful even around here.

      I love the mission you’re on, and all of the many changes you’re taking on in the name of less waste. Keep it up!

  8. OMG the hippies are taking over the FI blogosphere! I grew up in a family of huge DIYers. I just thought that’s how it was growing up. Wanted a deck or a porch? Dad and I built it. House needed stain? Dad stained it. Need new light fixture? Dad wired it.

    Nowadays I rent and don’t have to do much DIY. Plus its hard in my somewhat small Manhattan apartment. But whether I eventually buy my own place some day or hit the road in an RV, you can bet your bottom dollar I won’t be hiring anyone to do any maintenance or remodeling! It’s great seeing yourselves in-sourcing so many things!

    • I grew up in a home where we were neither handy nor outsourcers. We just moved often, and always into new houses, so never had to fix anything! :-) But clearly I wanted to be able to get my hands dirty, and we both like the feeling of being proud that we did something ourselves. Mostly we just feel like modern life has separated too many of us from that satisfaction, and we want to be able to handle our business. Love that you plan to do the same thing once you’re in a house or RV!

  9. That’s a pretty comprehensive list! Learning new DIY skills always makes me feel like a life champion. Next on my DIY list is learning to properly sew. Besides basic mending, I am useless with sewing.

    If you end up making the homemade cider, do report back :). My husband loves hard cider, and it’d be interesting to hear if it was worth making at home.

    • Like most DIY things, sewing is much easier if you break it down. It’s basically cutting, ironing and stitching some easy lines. :-) I have faith you’ll master it in no time! And yes, we’ll definitely report back on the cider! Hoping to make some this fall when we have local apples.

  10. Quite an extensive list of diy.

    Our list is limited to modt opf the gardening. Zdd to that the sewing mzgic my wife has to fix some cloths. She also makes nice dresss for rhe girls, but that is a splurge as buying in a retail store is cheaper. But we all love the dresses…

    • It can definitely be worth it to spend a little more if it gives you an artistic outlet and you enjoy the final product — it sounds like the dresses your wife makes for your daughters fit the bill!

  11. Ah! Making your own kombucha, you’d fit right in here in Eugene. ;) This is a big one for us that we need to master! We love kombucha, but it comes at such a hefty price tag. My fiancé & I tried to brew our own batch, but unfortunately it grew a tiny bit of mold (even though we were careful between each step) and had to throw the whole batch out. The goal is to try again, but now that we’re in a smaller place there is much less room. We shall try again & make it work!

    • If at first your kombucha molds, try try again. :-) We make it in a supersized mason jar in a spare closet, so I’m sure you can find some space!

  12. I would love to live by the mountains and get into DIY like you 2 have! Especially these days, I’ve been particularly obsessed with composting (or wanting to compost), and feel so guilty for tossing tons of organic veggie and fruit scraps into the trash. :(

    In my experience, DIY deodorant works SOOOO much better than the store bought stuff (and doubles as toothpaste)! I wouldn’t go back. Just a simple coconut oil and baking soda mix, with essential oil for a scent. I also DIY washing detergent and dishwasher detergent, and use white vinegar for fabric softener and general cleaner, and apple cider vinegar as a hair clarifier. All of this costs more than products from the store, but I find the DIY products to be far far superior, plus it’s worth not having all these harsh chemicals surrounding us. Next I have to figure out how to make a shampoo that actually cleans my hair. I haven’t had good luck with DIY shampoo, so please let me know if you’ve found a good recipe!

    Long live hippie life!! :)

    • DIY shampoo is tough, and I haven’t found the magic formula yet. Please share if you do! Though nothing was the DIY disaster that conditioner was — pretty sure I accidentally invented hair glue. :-)

  13. I LOVE THIS POST! My DIY life began with sprouting alfalfa seed – so easy! I love the idea about sewing technical gear – I had no idea you could buy the materials. That’s so cool! The best part is that more tech gear fits you like a glove, the more efficient it probably will be. Making it yourself could lead to even higher performance!

    • You’re already a DIY pro! :-) Technical fabric is expensive enough that you don’t want to experiment with it! You want to make sure you get it right the first time. But, as you noted, having it customized to be exactly what we want, and have it fit perfectly, makes it feel like a worthy goal to make it ourselves.

  14. I honestly had no idea what a kombucha is before I read this post. I already searched for local places that sell it…I want to give it a go. :)

    The only DIY we regularly do is cooking from scratch. We all prefer home cooked meals over restaurant food and I enjoy cooking and trying new recipes. When I used to go to the gym, I made my own energy balls/bites. We are big fans of Quest protein bars but it became too expensive to have them before and after workouts, so I decided to make my own.

    Thanks for sharing these DIY ideas. The boys in the house will probably like the idea of home brewing!

    • Don’t get yourself hooked on kombucha unless you plan to make it — it’s expensive! ;-)

      Love that you make your own energy bars, too — at least in the U.S., most bars have so much junk in them, even though they claim to be “healthy.” Much cheaper AND healthier to make your own!

  15. I’m not much of a DIYer, since I don’t have a ton of needs or wants and I’d much rather be outside walking or reading or planning my next travel adventure. I’m also a construction project manager by career, and the last thing I want to do is make it a hobby of mine. :) I do like playing with home décor, but I just go thrift shopping for cool stuff instead of make my own.

    I DIY my own personal care, but very, very simply. Basically I use things from my kitchen. I started using 7th Generation dish soap as laundry soap. You only need a TBSP, so it is much cheaper than detergent. I love multi-purposing.

    One thing I really want to get into from a DIY standpoint is foraging. I spend a lot of money on berries and salad fixings, and from what I’ve read, I can get these around my neighborhood for free. I’m looking for a mentor though before I jump into this.

    • Totally makes sense that you wouldn’t want to take on construction at home if that’s your work! :-D

      For us, it totally helps that DIY aligns with our interests. If we weren’t into it, we wouldn’t do it just to save money. But we LOVE making things of all sorts. If you’re more into getting out and adventuring, then great!

      Foraging sounds amazing, and is something we’d also like to do more of. A friend has the scoop on all the apple trees on public lands in our time (not quite foraging, but sort of), and we’re going to go out with her next month. But once we retire, we want to learn to hunt morel mushrooms, which are abundant with the spring rains, but also hard to spot without practice. We can’t wait until we have more time for that sort of thing, and can do more than just snag a few raspberries along a trail. Good luck!

      • Morels are supposedly decadent. Have you read “Omnivore’s Dilemma”? He talks a lot about that in the fourth meal. That is awesome that you found someone. There is a cool site that you might be interested in: fallingfruit.org. It lists local places where there is edible food. Until I find a mentor though, this will continue to be research and not experiment. :)

        I’d love to see a post on what you learn when you get more experienced!

  16. We save a lot of money with Mr. Smith doing all of our car maintenance and repairs. We are really proud of the vegetable garden and plan to start storing some of our harvest for the winter. I would love more time to work on crafty things, like crocheting and refashioning old clothing. As you noted, there will be more time for that when we reach our goal of financial semi-independence.

    • We’re jealous of everyone with a productive garden! Our yard is all shade! And can’t wait, like you, to get more craft time in retirement. :-)

  17. My go-to DIY is making food from scratch but we’ve been dabbling in gardening and home renovations to get our feet wet in other areas of DIYing as well. I need to buy a canning set and sewing machine already because we’re still buying canned goods (not a fan) and my windows are curtain-less because I refuse to buy over-priced curtains at the store. I will definitely be looking at your link to homemade almond milk (yum) and say thank you for reminding me of DIY projects I’d like to tackle this fall. :)

    • I’d say you guys are doing more than dabbling with your kitchen remodel! Do you know anyone else who has a sewing machine? If I had it to do again, I’d much rather share with someone than own one full-time… I just don’t use it enough for that! Same for canning equipment. That activity comes in spurts, but there’s no reason to have all the gear at my fingertips every day. Can’t wait to see what you create!

  18. DH is helping a friend with bottling hard cider this weekend. They say it is waaay easier than beer. An thing they note is that you should use apple juice from different kinds of apples or you get a bland cider.