One fairly common question I see from readers is whether or not making something on your own is cheaper than buying it in the store.
First of all, most of the things you make at home actually compare in terms of quality with a fairly high end version of that item in the store. Homemade bread is going to be far better than the cheapest store bread. Homemade pasta is going to be far better than the cheapest store pasta. Homemade laundry soap is going to be far better than the cheapest store laundry soap. This has been pretty much universally true with things I’ve made at home over the years. The homemade version is almost always significantly better than the cheapest version of an item at the store, and usually comparable to one of the more expensive versions.
In terms of price, however, the homemade version usually winds up being comparable in price to that cheapest version. This isn’t always true, as there are some homemade items that end up being cheaper and some homemade items that are very difficult to make cheaply, but it’s a pretty good standard to live by.
Given those two general standards, you’ll find that most homemade items have a financial cost compared to the cheapest version at the store (or maybe a bit less) but end up producing an item that’s comparable to an expensive version at the store. The issue here, of course, is time. Homemade items require some degree of time investment, so what you’re usually asking yourself is whether the time invested in making something at home is worth the savings of the expensive version of an item versus the cheap version. For many people, it’s not, which is why many people skip out on homemade items; for others, there is appeal to making things from scratch, so there’s an additional value in making something at home.
Let’s take a look at the cost comparison for several items I’ve made at home myself in the last year or so.
My typical “skeleton” recipe for homemade bread – meaning I’m not adding anything else, like unusual flours or herbs or spices – is just a tablespoon of dry yeast, three tablespoons of sugar, one tablespoon of salt, two tablespoons of oil, and about 6 1/2 cups of flour. This produces two loaves of bread that are roughly equivalent to a high quality store-bought loaf. I wrote about my bread recipe before and also discussed things to do with leftover bread in case you make too much.
A two pound bag of flour, which you can buy for about $1.50, contains enough flour for this recipe with about two cups left over. If you buy a five pound bag of flour, which you can buy for about $2 (I checked the store brand unbleached flour at Target, which is $1.99 for a five pound bag as of this writing), that’s enough to make three batches of this recipe. So, let’s say the flour costs about $0.66. The yeast probably adds another $0.10 and the other ingredients add about $0.10 more. You’re probably using $0.10 in energy by using the oven. So, the ingredients, all told, add up to about $1 for two loaves of bread. You can buy one loaf of the cheapest white bread you can find for $1; buying any bread comparable to this will be at least $3 per loaf. I actually think that this homemade bread is far better than store bread.
So, if you’re comparing homemade bread to the cheapest bread, you’ll save about $0.50 per loaf. If you’re comparing homemade bread to similar quality bread, you’ll save about $3 per loaf (depending on what you buy and consider comparable).
What about the work, though? You really have two options here. You can either make bread manually, which takes about 15-20 minutes of your time spread out over two hours, or you can use a bread machine, which reduces the time to about five minutes, after which you can hit a button and walk away. (However, in my opinion, bread machine bread isn’t quite as good as handmade bread, but it’s still far better than “cheapest loaf at the store.”) You can track down a bread machine at a Goodwill pretty easily, as there’s almost always one there.
So, are you willing to spend 15-20 minutes to save $1 (or $6), or 5 minutes if you have a bread machine? We often make our own bread, but not always – sometimes we’ll decide to ad-lib and have sandwiches for lunch one day and that usually involves just buying a loaf at the store. Part of that is because of the other small drawback of homemade bread – it doesn’t last quite as long because it’s not laden with preservatives. If I have spare time and our meal plan calls for bread, though, I’ll often make a loaf. I compare homemade bread to the higher quality version, so if I’m making it by hand, I’m saving about $20 per hour with the effort. I don’t consider bread machine bread to be quite as good, but it’s much faster, so I stick with the $20 per hour for my effort number with the bread machine, too.
The verdict? If I have a bit of advance warning and I also know it’ll be used up fast, I’ll always bake homemade bread because of the savings. It’s worth it.
Homemade pasta is just flour and eggs, seriously. It’s three cups of flour and four eggs (and a tiny bit of salt and oil) to make enough pasta for my family for dinner. Here’s a basic recipe.
As noted above, the cost of the flour is about $0.33. The cost of the eggs is about the same – $0.33 – as I can find a dozen eggs at the store for $1 pretty regularly. The other ingredients add up to about $0.05. So, the total cost for a batch of handmade fettuccine for my family is about $0.72.
Here’s the catch – it’s fairly labor intensive. If I make it completely from scratch, it takes about half an hour per batch. Mostly, that involves mixing the flour and eggs, rolling out the dough as flat as possible, folding it over, rolling it out again, and then eventually rolling it up and slicing it. It’s a little faster if you have a manual pasta roller, which costs about $20 – you can cut the time down to about twenty minutes. You can make a lot of batches at once, but you have to lay them out to dry and then store them and they last about a month. You’re looking at about 30 minutes per batch.
Another option is to use a pasta making machine. It has one big time cost – the cleanup – and it’s expensive, but it can whip out a batch of homemade pasta with about a minute of effort (and about 15 minutes of waiting). If you want to make several batches, you can usually lay out one batch to dry while the next batch is being made, so it’s much more efficient, but you’re still talking about 15 minutes per batch.
I can buy a box of cheap pasta at the store for $0.99. Comparable high quality pasta costs about $4 for a comparable batch.
So, if I’m comparing handmade pasta without a machine to cheap store brand pasta, I’m saving about a quarter for 30 minutes of effort. That’s probably not worth it for most people. With a machine, it goes down to about 20 minutes of effort for a quarter.
If I’m comparing handmade pasta to high quality pasta, I’m spending about 30 minutes of effort to save $4. I’d say the homemade pasta is still just a little better, but this is a good comparison.
I consider completely handmade pasta to be just a bit better than the machine made pasta, but the machine made pasta blows cheap pasta out of the water and cuts the time in about half. However, a fully automated pasta machine costs about $200, so it’s really not worth it unless you’re going to be making pasta frequently.
The verdict? I’ll make handmade pasta for special occasions because it’s so tasty, but it’s not efficient enough to replace store-bought pasta for most meals. Also, a fully automated pasta machine probably isn’t worth it unless you’re using it all the time for years.
Homemade Laundry Soap
Today, it’s really simple. I put a cup of soap flakes, a cup of washing soda, and a cup of borax into a sealed container and shake it for thirty seconds or so. Then, I put a measuring tablespoon in there and scoop a tablespoon into each load of laundry. That ends up providing 48 loads of laundry, right there, at a cost of about $0.06 per load. Tide, by comparison, costs around $0.30 per load. Thus, over the course of a year of daily washing, this saves us about $75.
For us, as shown in this post, this homemade laundry soap does the trick. Having said that, I have learned over the years that different types of laundry soap and laundry detergent work differently depending on the kind of water you have in your washer. If your water is soft, this soap seems to work just as well (if not better) than laundry detergent; if you have really hard water, it seems like laundry detergent from the store is needed.
The verdict? Homemade laundry soap is a significant money saver for little effort for many water types. However, you should make a batch, use it, and observe the results for yourself, as different water will have different results with different soaps and detergents.
Living in a northern climate means that for about four months out of the year (or more), removing ice from your windshield in the morning is just part of the routine.
The usual methods, if you have plenty of time, are to start your car, turn on defrost mode, turn the air handling to recirculate the air, and turn up the heat. That will melt the ice eventually, and many people do this and just go back inside for a while. Another option is to use an ice scraper, which is usually a piece of curved plastic that can be scraped along a windshield to remove ice.
To save time, many people buy ice remover from an auto shop that does the job incredibly efficiently. Just spray it on your windows after starting your car, run the wipers when you get inside, and your car is a bit warm and ready to go, so you head out! Easy as can be… except that such ice remover mixes are fairly expensive.
I started using a homemade ice remover mix a few years ago and it works like a champ. All it is is a spray bottle with 1.5 cups of water, 1 cup isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol from your local pharmacy, which costs about $0.79), and a couple of drops of dishwashing soap. Just leave it inside your front door, shake it up as you walk out to your car, start your car, and then spray this stuff on the outsides of the windows. While it doesn’t completely make ice vanish like magic, especially on super-frigid days, it does make the defroster much more efficient and makes any scraping you do trivial. I would rate this stuff as being about 80% as effective as the store-bought solution at about 10% of the price, and it takes maybe fifteen seconds to mix up a spray bottle of it.
The verdict? If you live in a cold climate, having a bottle of this stuff inside your house to spray down windshields on a cold day is going to save you a lot of ice removal time for just pennies, and it’s incredibly effective for the cost. The store-bought stuff is a little better, but it’s also far more expensive and you’re still going to have to scrape off ice many days regardless of which you use (this spray just makes it way easier).
Homemade Dishwashing Detergent
Dishwashing detergent is expensive. Over the years, I’ve tried to find a formula that works really well as a homemade replacement to save $50 a year or so, but I’ve never been able to find one that actually did the trick consistently.
The issue is that the formulas I’ve tried do a good job when the dishes are all pre-rinsed and there’s nothing grimy on them, but they barely touch dishes that aren’t perfectly pre-rinsed. While store-bought detergents (I prefer Member’s Mark from Sam’s Club) don’t always get everything, they do a much better job than homemade recipes.
The best of the homemade recipes I’ve tried, and the one I wouldn’t mind using at least some of the time, is just one part vinegar, one part salt, two parts lemon juice, and three parts water. Mix all of that together and simmer it in a saucepan, stirring it regularly, until it cooks down into a gel-like substance (it’s kind of like thick applesauce). Then, put that in a pourable bottle and just pour it into the slot for detergent in your dishwasher. This needs to be stored in the fridge or else it will ferment a la preserved lemon. By my math, this recipe ends up costing us about $0.12 per load, compared to about $0.25 for store-bought dishwashing detergent. It does a good job, but it’s noticeably worse than the detergent from the store and takes extra effort, so it isn’t something we use at home.
The verdict? I’ve yet to find a homemade dishwashing detergent recipe that works well enough to replace buying it at the store. I’ve tried several formulations and none of them really work very well at all. The best one is cheaper than the dishwashing detergent we prefer, but it takes about twenty minutes of effort to make about thirty loads of cleaner, which saves about $4, and it’s just not quite as good.
Sarah and I have made homemade soap several times; here’s the details on one of our soap-making batches. Each time, we’ve made a ton of soap and used it for months if not years; in fact, if you check out most of our bathrooms, you’ll find bars of homemade soap in there.
The truth is that if you’re going to be making homemade soap, it’s really only going to be worthwhile if you make a ton of it – enough bars to last your home for years and probably some to give away as gifts. A small batch of completely from-scratch soap isn’t worth the effort, in my opinion.
The batch listed above costs about $34 in ingredients, according to my math. This ended up producing about 70 (!) bars of soap, and these bars are bigger than most of the typical bar soap you find at the store. They’re much more comparable to the large bars of handmade rough-hewn soap you’ll see at places like Whole Foods. You can certainly add to the cost by adding things like coloring, essential oils, oatmeal, and so on, but even then, you’re probably only raising the cost per bar up to about $0.60 per bar from the $0.50 of the basic recipe.
The cheapest bars of soap I was able to find at the store were $0.69 at regular price, and they were much smaller than the bars we made. I’d estimate that a comparable amount of “cheap” soap to our recipe is about $1. Thus, with our recipe, you’d save about $35 over the cheap soap.
However, you’re probably not going to invest the time and effort to make this soap if you’re just trying to get cheaper than Ivory. This recipe, from beginning to end, probably takes about three hours to make and requires some equipment – you’ll probably already have a lot of it, but you’ll have to buy a few things. Given the equipment and the time, it’s probably not efficient to make this just to beat the cheapest soap at the store.
If you’re making this to save money, you’re aiming to replace handcrafted soap, and that’s where you can save money. Similar handcrafted soap is often sold for $3-4 per bar, thus this recipe is likely saving you hundreds of dollars over the course of using 70 bars of it.
The verdict? This isn’t worth it if you just buy cheap soap at the store. It is worth it, however, if you’re comparing it to buying hand-crafted soap, which is really what you’re making here. It takes a lot of time and some equipment, but it’s a pretty fool-proof method if you take it slow and are careful with it. You just can’t view this as a savings over buying jumbo packs of Ivory soap or store brand soap, because it’s not.
I swear I get a coffee-related question every week, so let’s just have it out.
Coffee is very much dependent on personal taste. Different people simply like different coffees. For me, I am pretty flexible in terms of the beans, but I absolutely prefer cold brew coffee, to the point that I basically don’t even drink other types of coffee. They taste too acidic to me.
Thus, the only way I can really fairly talk about coffee is to discuss what I personally do, which is make cold brew.
I have a simple cold brew coffee maker that I picked up at a kitchen supply store sale for about $10. It’s similar to this one, except the pitcher is glass. It’s all I need to make cold brew coffee – no filters or anything else.
My wife has a simple coffee grinder, which I set on “coarse” and grind 3/4 cup coffee beans when I want to make a batch. I grind 3/4 cup of beans, then take the grounds and put them in the filter, then I pour four cups of cold water over it and stick it in the fridge and let it sit for 16 to 24 hours. I remove the grounds and add them to the compost or toss them and save the liquid, which is about four cups of cold brew coffee. I toss the coffee maker in the dishwasher. That’s it. It takes maybe five minutes. I store it in the fridge and drink it cold, but if I want it hot, I can just microwave it. (If I bought pre-ground coffee, I’d use about 1/4 cup grounds in the cold brew maker.)
My “standard” beans are Eight O’Clock original beans, which you can buy for $19.14 on Amazon. That bag gets me about 16 batches of coffee. Each batch has 4 cups in it. That’s 64 cups of coffee for $19.14 in beans and the negligible cost of water. Let’s say I drink 16 ounces at a time, or two cups. A 16 ounce coffee by my method costs $0.60 and takes maybe a minute’s worth of effort.
For comparison’s sake, a venti (20 ounce) black coffee at Starbucks costs $2.45. That’s a pretty good baseline comparison point. I’m saving about $1.70 each time I drink 20 ounces of coffee at home versus Starbucks.
I don’t add creamer or other flavorings to my coffee, but if you do, I’m pretty confident in saying that creamer and sweetener at home is going to be cheaper than at a coffee shop. While I didn’t get into the details, my wife immediately reported that the creamer she uses is substantially cheaper than the cost difference of flavored coffee at a coffee shop and it’s not even close.
The verdict? If you drink coffee on a daily or near-daily basis, finding a method of making it at home versus buying it at a coffee shop is almost guaranteed to save you significant money. The cold brew method I use is really easy; I spend maybe two or three minutes and make enough coffee for me for two or three days (I drink 12-16 oz. per day), and it saves around $3 over buying the equivalent at Starbucks and I like the flavor of what I make better.
I get a personal joy out of trying to make as many things at home as I can and figuring out whether or not they save money. After a trial run or two, the things I make at home from scratch are usually better than most items at the store, so the question is whether the time is worth it. As you can see… sometimes it’s worth it and sometimes it isn’t.
In summary, I consider homemade coffee and homemade laundry soap and homemade de-icer to be worth it almost always. I consider homemade bread to be worth it most of the time. I consider homemade soap to be worth it, but it’s a real job – thankfully, you’re making a lot of it at once. I consider homemade pasta to be worth it on special occasions, but not as an everyday thing. I don’t consider homemade dishwashing soap to be worth it, period (though it smells good).
My general advice is to try making it yourself and make up your own mind about things. You’ll almost always learn something in the process and you might end up finding a better way of doing things in your own life.