I had this fantasy that I could create our dream homestead for a few hundred dollars. I re-purposed wood, salvaged fencing, and begged, borrowed, or rescued (from the landfill) everything we needed to get started.
The results were astonishing — for about six months. Then stuff started falling apart. I won't say it was a disaster. But, I learned a lot about how to homestead for real, rather than for show.
After my early failures, I made a commitment to quality and craftsmanship on the homestead. That doesn't mean I don't try to save money when I can. However, I am much more judicious about when to free-source and DIY and when to hand-over over my limited budget for quality supplies and services.
If you are new to homesteading, I want to save you time and money with my top 20 tips on when to pay for quality and when to pinch pennies on the homestead.
When to Pay for Quality on the Homestead
Our homestead came with several beautiful sheds built using home-milled wood. Unfortunately, the former owner didn't cure the wood for the foundation, framing, and floors.
As the wood dried, it shrank, causing gaps and torquing the frame. The pillars quickly rotted, and the buildings sank. Now those once-beautiful outbuildings are collapsing.
Unless you want to have a similar problem, don't skimp on anything structural or weather-facing. Buy the best foundation materials, structural timbers, framing wood, brackets, and roofing that you can afford.
We've tried bamboo, pallets, and cut branch fences. They might work in areas that don't have four seasons, heavy winds, and deer pressure. However, they simply don't work well for us in North Carolina.
There's a reason why farmers use welded wire fencing. It costs more up front. Yet, it requires less maintenance and lasts longer than alternatives.
Also, use heavy-duty, steel t-posts or 4-5 inch diameter treated wood posts. Make three-post corners with brace bars. Use proper connectors and tensioning tools to install your fence.
3. Feed Storage
Using an old drum or trash seems like a cheap way to store feed. Except that later, when you have rats or mice, you'll spend way more to solve your pest problem than you saved on storage bins. Use 100% pest-proof feed bins and save yourself some trouble.
4. Garden Tools
Tool heads should be durable and handles replaceable. Blades should be easy to sharpen with a whetstone. Tools that have plastic parts, or can't be disassembled, are a lousy investment. If you can't imagine fixing it when it brakes, it's not worth buying.
The kind of cooking you do on the homestead simply can't be done in non-stick aluminum. You only need a few good pans, and they should last you a lifetime. Go ahead and buy the best (e.g., cast iron). You deserve it!
Good soil takes vast amounts of compost, mulch, soil inoculant, minerals, pH adjustments, and more. By investing in good soil before you plant, you set yourself up for growing more food with fewer problems.
Buying large quantities of input soil for a new garden should be a one-time investment. After your initial contributions, you can create your compost systems, crop rotations, and cover-cropping plans to support your soil.
7. Breeding livestock
Breeding with less than excellent livestock results in birth defects, costly vet visits, and reduced long-term performance. It makes it difficult to sell your offspring. This leads to price reductions and additional overhead costs for unsold animals.
Or, you end up culling poor performers and starting over.
8. Solar-powered anything
After throwing away too many cheap, solar-powered lights and under-powered fence chargers, I finally learned my lesson. The most expensive part of any solar-powered appliance is the battery system. Unfortunately, cheap solar stuff always comes with bad battery systems.
Purchase a stellar off-grid solar system with good batteries, rather than a bunch of short-lived solar equipment. Then, you can use that system to run your lights, pumps, charges, etc. and spend way less buying the non-solar versions of those items.
You can find good deals on used equipment, such as when conscientious owners decide to upgrade. Even when buying used, though, high-quality equipment holds its value and costs more.
Whether buying new or used, look for all metal parts and manuals with useful illustrations and troubleshooting guides. Choose models that have been in production for a while. Check the after-market parts scene to find out what parts are being replaced, so you know what to expect.
When to Pinch Pennies
1. Decorative Details
The most beautiful homesteads are often made so by the artful use of salvaged or broken materials. Also, for eco-homesteaders, keeping things from the landfill is pretty much a moral imperative.
Most people may not notice how well-built your buildings are, even though that's critically important to homesteading success. However, they will see the creative ways you make your homestead personal. They'll be even more impressed when you tell them you did it with salvaged stuff.
Gardeners are usually happy to share root divisions, volunteer plants, cuttings, and seeds. You can buy cheap rootstock, take scion cuttings, and graft your fruit trees for a fraction of the price. Strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries like to multiply, and most small growers don't mind letting you dig up extras.
Even if you don't have your own stand of trees, other property owners are happy to have you come clear branches and debris after logging land. There are almost always come, cut, and haul ads in Craigslist for free wood (particularly following severe storms).
4. Mulch and Compost
Electric companies routinely cut down trees to keep their access paths clear. They would LOVE to drop mulch at a nearby home rather than haul it far away. If you see them in your neighborhood, ask them to dump that debris at your place.
Your neighbors would also be thrilled for you to rake up their fall leaves. Bagged lawn clippings are also reasonably easy to come by (ask about herbicide use first). Old hay can be had for free after winter too.
5. Livestock Feed
If you choose livestock breeds that are well-adapted to forage, you can get away with feeding them a more extensive range of foods than animals bred to be raised commercially. For example, commercial white leghorns or Cornish-cross meat chickens need bagged feed to remain healthy. However, a hardy, dual-purpose heritage breed chicken can do great on kitchen scraps, forage, and fermented scratch.
Pathways define spaces and direct traffic on a homestead. They keep guests from walking on new plantings and prevent compaction in growing areas. You can use simple tricks to create the illusion of formal pathways to save money.
Mow the area where you want people to walk shorter than other areas. Dig small trenches on either side of pathways to make obvious lanes. Grow fast-growing plants along your paths (e.g., mints or elderberry). Use cut logs or wine bottles as temporary markers until mature plants define your paths.
7. Arbors and Trellises
Using a chainsaw, you can cut down young trees or branches and whip up a rustic arbor or trellis in hours. With proper screws or strong twine to make your connections, these can hold up for as long as store-bought versions.
After you've spent on soil, you can save on food. You can grow a year's worth of canning tomatoes for the price of a packet of seeds and the use of your stove. For $10 in seed potatoes, you can grow hundreds of pounds of potatoes. Two sweet potatoes can start all the slips you need to produce a hundred thousand calories of food.
9. Personal Care Products
With a few safety precautions, making soap is no more difficult than making cookie batter. Beeswax, oil, and the herb of your choice are all you need to make some remedies. Deodorant is optional on the homestead! Save tons with natural dentistry for tooth and gum care.
10. Cleaning Products
11. Innovative Practices
We supply water to our garden using an elevated irrigation pond, a used 55-gallon drum, and a feed trough ball-valve. This saves us hundreds of dollars in electricity and water costs each year and makes use of free rain.
There is so much an innovative homesteader can do to create a beautiful homestead on a budget. Just remember to keep quality at the core of what you do and spend wisely when necessary to save trouble in the long-run. Over time you will get to know when to pinch pennies, but learn from our experience rather and save yourself a lot of double work.