Thinking about cutting costs by growing vegetables

It all started in a grocery store holding a plastic container full of lettuce

Yep.  Back around the beginning of June, I found myself in a grocery store holding yet another 16 oz container of ready-to-eat lettuce.  The going rate for that item is $5+/lb.  For some reason, it finally came to me that's about the same price as a pound of ground beef - and I tend to think of meat as the expensive stuff! 

That realization hit home because salad is a large part of almost all of our dinners.  We go through a lot of salad!  Throw in some tomatoes and carrots and the cost of those fresh salads adds up fast.  I took a moment to calculate a rough estimate of weekly salad expenses:

  • 2 - 1lb Containers of ready to eat lettuce: $10
  • 1 - Package of shredded carrots: $2
  • 2 - 10 oz of cherry tomatoes: $8
  • 1 - cucumber: $1

$21 X 52 weeks = $1092/yr on basic salad ingredients, alone!  Yikes.  Then there's fruit and other veggies, too.  I knew that it's pricey to eat fresh these days but I didn't appreciate HOW pricey it is!

Of course, one way to cut down on those costs is to just eat less fresh produce.  But that goes against current recommendations for a healthy diet and, besides, decreasing dietary fiber hasn't worked well for us in the past.   We can't sacrifice our veggies to save a few bucks - if there is any way around having to do so.

I've never been much of a gardener, but it sure seems like we should be able cut down on our fresh produce expenditures by growing some of this stuff, ourselves.  And now that I've got a little extra time on my hands, and there's available space out in the yard, growing our own seems like a logical solution.  But, before getting too excited and running out and doing something rash, I hit Google to do a little research. 

Bottom line: will it really save any money and is it worth it?

The first thing to figure out is if we will really save money by growing our own vegetables.  The idea seems so straight forward.  Buy some seeds for a couple dollars a packet.  That's cheap.  Plant the seeds in the ground and let them grow.  Harvest produce and save a bundle.  But after looking at quite a few online posts, I've come to the conclusion that the answer to whether or not growing your own veggies will save money is ...... it depends.  Some folks claim to do real well.  Others end up spending more than they get back.  Unfortunately, most of the reports are anecdotal and leave out a lot of details, which makes it hard to evaluate their findings and put things in perspective.

While researching, I stumbled upon some data that I figured I could use to generate a ballpark estimate, a sort of reality check.  I'm not claiming that these data are valid or that I put much time into checking them out - they simply were convenient for making a quick rough estimate. 

One of those tidbits I came across claims that it would take about 2 acres of farmland for a family of 4 to live entirely off the land.  Thankfully, that's a lot more land than the typical suburban home has to work with.  And most of us are just trying to find a way to take a bite out of our fresh produce costs, not trying to do it all.  So what can a typical homeowner manage?

Estimating square feet available for a typical home garden

average house/lot proportionsAn article posted just last year puts the current average lot size at about 0.14 acres - or 6098 sq ft.  The average house is now estimated to be about 2500 sq ft, leaving about 3600 sq ft of yard.  Let's assume that the garden will be in the backyard (in some locales it's illegal to be in the front yard!) and that the backyard is roughly 1/3 of the yard space (maybe less, maybe more - your mileage may vary).  That weighs in at about 1200 sq ft.  Now, not all that space will be usable.  Some pathways will be needed to access the various plants, etc.  So maybe 2/3 of the backyard space could be actual working garden space - or around 800 sq ft.

Estimating yield per square foot of traditional garden

traditional garden layoutSo, what can we expect to get out of 800 sq ft?  The Oregon State University's Journal of Extension published a study that examined the yields from several previously published reports.  Some of the reports weren't recent (to compare with current economics, they extrapolated costs using Consumer Price Index adjustments), so I'm guessing that traditional gardening methods were used for those studies.  What they found is that the typical home garden requires around $200/yr in expenses and may yield on the order of $680 worth of food.  The average yield (excluding labor costs) was normalized to $0.88 sq ft - but they were quick to point out that the variation in that estimate was so large that the number may not be all that accurate.   So, of course, I'm gonna use it anyway.

Making that ballpark estimate

Divide $680 by $0.88 and I estimate the average garden plot size of their studies to be 772 sq ft.  So, for my reference backyard garden of maybe 800 sq ft, a $700 return from a garden that size is not unreasonable to expect.  If we also use their annual expenses estimate of around $200, I get an expected annual net savings of around $500.  They estimated that gardeners put in an average of 70 hrs/yr of work on their gardens.   Doing the math, that works out to around $7/hr

Their conclusions are more of less consistent with other estimates I ran across.  One couple  tracked their expenses and estimated the value of their produce over the span of a year.  Their costs were just over $300/yr and they estimated they produced about $600 worth of food.   They figure they put in 60 hrs of labor.  That works out to a net of about $5/hr.

Yet another article on the website quotes a paper put out by the National Gardening Association in 2009 that estimates an average annual return of $530 on a $70 investment.  Couldn't find that article to read how they generated those figures.  That $70 annual expenses looks a bit lower than what I've usually seen reported.  However, most writers do note that the yearly costs trend downwards as tools, soil, seeds and irrigation equipment are acquired over the years and eventually take much less of a bite out of the yearly budget.  So maybe the $70/yr expenses target is something we can look forward to down the road in a couple of years.

Looks like the answer to the 'saving money with a garden' question is a qualified 'yes' and whether it's 'worth it' is a toss up

Based upon the calculations, it's probably reasonable to expect that growing food in the backyard may yield somewhere around $700 of produce - roughly equivalent to 70 hrs of a job paying minimum wage ($7.25/hr).  That's not a huge savings.  At that price point it's probably a matter of preference as to whether you'd rather toil in the garden or take a low paying part time job and simply pay for store-bought produce.

How much might it help out?

Earlier, I estimated how much we spend on salad ingredients, alone.  $700/yr worth of produce would only put a good sized dent in our salad expenses.  But we're probably outside the normal curve when it comes to fresh veggie intakes.   A source I ran across estimates average annual household consumption of fruits and veggies to be:

  • $270/yr on fresh fruit
  • $115/yr on processed fruit
  • $236/yr on fresh vegetables
  • $130/yr on processed veg

Adding those up, I get that average annual produce expenditures are on the order of $751/yr.  So a backyard outputting $700/yr worth of produce might go a long ways toward replacing those trips to the produce aisle.  Of course, year-round production may be challenging for areas where the seasons are markedly different.  That may require careful selection of suitable crops and maybe even some sort of protective enclosure.  If that's the route taken, it may significantly increase the upfront costs and affect the short term ROI.  Otherwise, the garden may only cover the produce costs during the growing seasons and the actual benefit may be considerably less than the calculated estimates.

In the end, the decision is to go for it

There are plenty of posts out there arguing that monetary relief is not the only, and maybe not the most important, reason to grow our own vegetables.  There are 'intangible benefits' attributed to gardening.  It could be good exercise.  Nasty chemicals may be avoided - or at least you'll know which ones you should be worrying about if you're the one who applied them.  Lots of arguments in favor of doing the deed. 

But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that there's a yard out there and something needs to be done with it.  Might as well be something that results in some food on the table.  So now that's settled, the next questions are:

  • What should/can we grow where we live?
  • How much of each item should we grow?
  • What needs to be done to grow those crops?

Those are some of the topics I waded through when starting out and will talk about in the next post.  Stay tuned.