Updated on 05.31.13

Seven Frugal Things I’d Love To Try

Trent Hamm

For every frugal idea that I have and am able to implement, I have at least two or three that simply aren’t reasonable at the moment. They seem incredibly fun and, in the long run, would save some significant money, but due to various factors (my living location, the time investment required, etc.), they aren’t particularly feasible. So I thought I’d share them – perhaps you’re in a situation where you could give one of these ideas a shot (you can freely assume that I’m jealous).

Raise chickens My parents raised chickens when I was younger and it wasn’t as big of a chore as you might expect and it was useful in many ways: the eggs, of course, and the chicken meat, but we would occasionally scrape off some of their droppings in the fall and till them into the garden, replenishing the soil. The only problems were the noise and the smell, which were minimized by living in the country and keeping the chicken coop far from our home. Now, though, I live in an area where a chicken coop would not be particularly welcome – I guess I’ll have to hold onto this dream for a while.

millInstall a wind turbine I live in a very windy area, so as I’ve discussed before, a wind turbine can actually become profitable in less than a decade. Given a lifespan of forty years or so, it’s not only incredibly environmentally sound, it also turns a solid profit over time and vastly reduces your energy bill. Unfortunately, a wind turbine in my back yard wouldn’t exactly be smiled upon in the neighborhood.

Initiate a large community garden This is one where everyone is involved with a percentage of the effort and the expenses, and everyone takes equally from the food. You have to have a trusted arrangement with people and also need to have a centrally available location. My neighbor growing up used to do this – he had a ton of land and liked to garden somewhat, but he wanted a huge variety of vegetables. Thus, he co-oped his garden with the people living around him. Everyone was involved with the work in this multi-acre garden, and everyone got a share of the vegetables. It worked out really well and they’re actually still doing it.

Implement a home water recycling system Basically, I’d like a system where some home waste water (say, from the kitchen sink when rinsing stuff off, for example) could be drained into a receptacle which could then be used for watering the garden. This would save on water usage substantially. My father actually did this for a while using water from the shower / bathtub; it worked fine at first, but then the soap started to mess with the Ph of the soil, so I wouldn’t want to use bath water.

Install solar panels This idea is actually within reason – I might do it in the future when the efficiency of the panels grows and their price drops a bit more. Simply install them on the roof and have an electrician splice them into your home energy feed and suddenly you’re gobbling a lot less energy off of the electric company than before, meaning savings on your energy bill. (Read more about how solar panels affect home insurance rates.)

tomatoConstruct an enormous garden By enormous, I mean at least half an acre. The problem? This would devour our entire back yard and I also don’t have the time to properly devote to it. For now, I’ll stick to just a pair of small rectangular gardens – not all that long ago, I was content with just a tomato plant.

Practice manual lawn mowing I’m referring to using a non-electric lawnmower, which means you have to move across the lawn a bit slower and take multiple passes. I tried this a few times in the past, but I have a good portion of an acre to mow and the time commitment each week makes this not worthwhile (though it’s great for getting into shape). What I’d actually like to do is get three or four of them and do the yard all at the same time with my kids, all of us running around out there with our non-electric mowers – great for the environment, a good workout, and it can be fun, too.

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  1. Chris says:

    The water recycling system is a cool idea, but might actually be against the terms of service for the water company. I’m pretty sure they say you can only use the water once before returning it, at least in some areas. I’d do some research there, since you don’t want them charging you more or even cutting you off after you do the “right” thing.

  2. Wayne says:

    I have heard that if you’re harvesting energy (solar, wind etc.) and produce more electricity than your house consumes, you can actually sell it to your local electric company. I am not sure though, exactly how it works.

  3. Scott says:

    Non-electric mower? Are you talking about the old cylinder push mowers where the blade elements are driven by pushing them? I wouldn’t let me kids use them – those things are pretty dangerous.

  4. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Scott: I used to push one myself when I was about eight.

  5. Lauren says:

    Hey rain barrels are the way to go!
    Me and my mom(she lives in D.C.)have these. They are hooked to one gutter off your roof and they collect the rain from the roof a ten minute storm will fill them, there are many sites online to build your own, how to hook a hose on to drain off excess and a hose to use to get the water out.
    Try them you’ll love them! Mom was having problems with some flowers getting to many chemicals from the city water and the barrels took care of that too!

  6. beth says:

    I’ve lived in urban neighborhoods where some people had chickens. I think there was a cap on the number they could have, and they weren’t allowed a rooster, but the chicken dream may not be as far off as you think!

  7. miguel says:

    I tried using a manual push mower for a while. They produce a very high quality cut, and the grass looks great, especially if you have Bermuda grass. The down side is that you have to maintain your grass pretty short to get a good cut. Once it gets too tall the blades have problems cutting it all.

    My friend that is a grass, and golf geek has a rotor type mower that is a gas version of the manual mower, and it gets beautiful results.

  8. MVP says:

    We live in a neighborhood on a quarter-acre and got two hens two years ago. They’re great conversation pieces and decent egg-producers and they require minimal work. But they’re terrible for your lawn and garden. We used to allow them to roam the backyard, but then we got sick of the “bombs” left everywhere and the tearing up of the lawn and flower beds. So, we built them a small chicken run and they seem pretty happy in there. Many metro areas (Portland, Ore., and Seattle, to name two) allow at least two hens in the city limits, so check your codes. Hens (as opposed to roosters) don’t make much noise (no more than a dog that barks occasionally) and I’ve never noticed a bad smell. Our neighbors have never complained.

  9. Ryan says:

    I saw a bit on This Old House about collecting water by diverting it from gutters into barrels. Here’s the how-to:


  10. Kevin says:

    Being an electrician who has taken photovoltaic training I can attest it is not as simple as “install them on the roof and have an electrician splice them into your home energy feed”

    There is a lot more planning and work involved in the design and installation

    Yes you can sell unused energy back to the electric company once you have a second meter installed. Though I’m a bigger fan of intalling a battery system to store this energy for yourself to use at night.

  11. 60 in 3 says:

    Here in the SF bay area, you can get enough tax rebates from city, county, state and federal that your installation of solar panels is essentially free. Your house value goes up, your electric bill goes to zero and it cost you nothing. Great deal for anyone who can afford the upfront costs.

    Also, why not replace your lawn with something more frugal and environmentally friendly? You have a number of choices. So called freedom lawns, which are essentially a nice way of saying you let the weeds grow, require much less water and work and are actually healthier and friendlier to the environment than pristine, single grass lawns. You may also consider putting in some shade trees and replacing the lawn with shade variety of grasses. They grow slower and the shade means they need less water.


  12. plonkee says:

    In the UK (where, lets be honest its not that sunny) solar hot water is more popular the PV panels. Its cheaper to install (about £2K-£3K, $4k-$6K) and its very effective for temperate climates. I don’t know how good it would be in Iowa but I bet it would work well in the Pacific NW or maybe New England.

  13. Monica says:

    As for the enormous garden, you can grow a *lot* more in a smaller space by using the technique of Square Foot Gardening.

  14. Dan says:

    If (when) you are able to implement a water recycling system, look into camp soaps. They are formulated to biodegrade so as to be more environmentally friendly when bathing in lakes or rivers. I’m not entirely sure that they would be garden-safe, but it would be a starting point. These cost more, but you’re saving some money on water and if the goal here is to be environmentally friendly, you might decide the cost is worth it.

    Re: Lawn mowing, we were close to buying a manual mower, but found they could not cut the grass long enough. Longer grass (roughly 2″) is great because you get fewer weeds in the lawn since the grass itself creates shade that stops the weeds from growing. We decided an electric (not internal combustion) mulching mower was the most environmentally friendly and still cheaper to run than the IC mower.

    My $.02

  15. Renee says:

    We live in Iowa and during the humid summer months we often run a dehumidifier. We recycle the water from it every time we empty the “bucket” by pouring the water onto houseplants and the potted plants outside on the porch.

  16. People call me nerdy for trying these types of things, hehe. But I love it!

  17. Judith says:

    When I retired this last spring, the school system where I taught gave me a nice Visa card as a gift. I spent the majority of it on a reel mower [My dad used to call them “Strong Arms”] and I have been mowing our 1/2+ acre yard this summer. I have found that I can mow about a half hour each evening — the grass is dry and the yard is in shade then — and get the entire yard done in 3 or 4 days; then I go back, mowing a different direction the next time. The lawn looks great all the time; my husband thought I was crazy, but he has commented several times on how nice it looks.

  18. hickepedia says:

    Rain barrels are a great idea if you’re in an area with plentiful groundwater. However, in states where water rights are much tightly controlled due to short supply (like Colorado), rain barrels and cisterns are actually illegal. Make sure you check your local laws before using something that diverts runoff.

    We’ve got a system in place that lets us use leftover filtered tapwater (from our refrigerator’s water dispenser) to water our houseplants. What my wife and I started doing is to pour leftover ice water (and ice cubes) into a gallon pitcher beside the sink whenever we’re done with a glass. We also put the remainder of our toddler’s sippy cups of water in there, too, since the one-way valve prevents the inevitable floaties from getting into the water. This gives us a source of “free” filtered water for houseplants that’s free of some of the chemicals and calcium in tap water (we have very hard tap water), and we also aren’t just pouring the water down the drain after having run it through the refrigerator’s filter unit to make chilled water or ice cubes.

  19. Jakob says:

    This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title o.us poetry. Thanks for informative article

  20. Elizabeth says:

    You are talking about my dream, too! To heck with a lawn! If we weren’t living in a rent house, I’d tear out all that water loving grass and put in either some practical drought proof plants or extend our garden to the front and side yards. I think veggies in the front flower bed is a practical idea. As for chickens, I’d already have invested in some if I could figure out what to do with them in the winter. Here in NW MT we get some yucky weather and we just don’t have enough room for them in the garage. Building a shed out back for them is not an option our landlord would go for…..unless we left it in place when we moved. (And that’s not an option we’d go for!)

  21. David says:

    Second the comment about collecting rainwater from gutters. We’re in a bit of drought right now, and my friend cannot water her lawn and garden. With about $60, I was able to rig her up a non-tacky system that used her existing gutters to collect rainwater, with a spigot for filling a canister. The key is to place it in the shade so it does not evaporate quickly. This has already saved her $30 in 4 months, by her calculations, and saved from using the city’s water supply. If you want a really cheap method for this (and have neighbors that won’t look down on you), just find some rubbermaid canisters to place directly under your gutters, but it’s not difficult to create something that doesn’t look tacky.

    Solar panels are not a great idea unless you use a good battery system. However, when you start talking batteries, you’re really only going to save money over a decade, and won’t see any initial benefits. As has been said, if you can manage to collect more power than you use, you can sell it back to the grid.

  22. MVP says:

    Elizabeth, chickens generally survive very well in the coldest and hottest of climates. The first year, we worried all the time when it snowed, but lemme tell you, those girls are pretty much small heaters ;) They have lots of down that keeps them warm. In the hot summer, they also do fine. We just make sure they’ve got food, water and access to shelter at all times and they’re pretty maintenance-free. The only thing we invested in was a heated water dish ($20) because in winter their water freezes, and I got sick of refilling several times a day.

  23. MVP says:

    Also, the chicken “shelter” can be a very simple coop that you can move around your yard and dissasemble when you move out of your rented house. Google “chicken tractors” if you’re really interested in exploring this idea.

  24. Amy says:

    I second the Square-Foot gardening technique, or even better, google biointensive garden. I believe John Jeavons is the author (my books are all packed for a move).

    Here’s a neat little article about “front yard gardens”.


  25. Will says:

    I have seen installations that combine small scale solar and the wind turbine.

    One place had both those plus a 16 inch or so, water driven generator on a small running spring on the property. The turbine on the wind driven generator was only about 18″. (But spun like a jet driven prop in fairly low wind. I don’t remember the solar panels exactly since I see so many of those, but I think the two of them were about 40f2 each. The key was that it all fed into a shed with a huge, (the most expensive part I think), array of batteries. I think they were totally off the grid, so all of this was required and the excess could not feed back to the power company.

  26. Casey says:

    If you are not already aware of it, check out Make magazine. They have a lot of interesting projects in a lot of areas that you might find interesting.

  27. Tao Kuei says:

    Since you’re always giving everyone else some useful free advice, including some good hacks, I thought I’d share with you this solar panel hack I found on a blog a while back, this article just reminded me of it.

  28. Davy says:

    Forget the chickens – geese are better egg producers AND they mow the lawn.

  29. Esme says:

    Geese mow the lawn, but they can be territorial nasty mofo’s if they decide they don’t like you. And they could not like you just because you’re walking across what they perceive as THEIR end of the lawn.
    Stick with chickens, they’re easier to manage.

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