Ask a foodie why they’re in the kitchen whipping up a few pints of homemade chocolate chunk ice cream, kneading whole wheat bread dough or canning tomato sauce, and cost-effectiveness likely hasn’t crossed his or her mind.
Making things from scratch is a great way to have control over what’s in your food. “Oftentimes, you can reduce the calories, fat content or preservatives content,” say Lia LoBello and Erin Howard, the founders of Yay! DIY.
Other benefits: learning a new skill and bragging rights that you made something many other won’t even attempt.
But is going the do-it-yourself route ever really a money-saver? The short answer: it depends, but in most cases, no. Home cooks who want to make the DIY route more affordable need to think about five hurdles:
1. Ingredient prices
Buying the ingredients to make, say, bread or yogurt, can be as expensive — if not more so — than buying those items straight from the shelves. For example, a three-pack of yeast costs $2.39, while a full-size loaf of Wonder Bread is $2. (Even if you splurged on a $4 artisan loaf from your local bakery, you may still come out ahead cost-wise.)
The gap widens if you go organic. “It would cost me much more to buy the [organic] cream alone than it would to purchase a few pints of organic ice cream,” says Melanie Downey, the founder of natural skincare line Wilava. She does it anyway. “The fresh taste you get from making your own ice cream from the best ingredients doesn’t compare to anything you can get at the store,” she says.
Solution: Combine coupons and store sales to cut costs when you can, and when you can’t, just purchase the size with the lowest unit price (usually, the biggest size-wise). Try to use ingredients from your pantry, fridge or even your garden in lieu of buying them. (Downey uses fruit from her garden.)
2. Time commitment
Tossing food in your supermarket cart and battling long checkout lines is relatively tame compared with four hours of time in and near the kitchen to make bread, or the overnight wait and half-hour of active time for homemade yogurt. That’s time you could spend doing any number of other things.
Solution: Keep at it. Novice DIY-ers can cut the time spent as they get better at making a particular food, says Claire Fountain of For the Taste of It.
If you have the storage space, large batches offer a bigger payoff without much additional time. “In those cases where you bake or cook in bulk and freeze your own goods, it can be a money saving event,” Fountain says.
Adding in pricey equipment like a bread maker ($70 to $220 at Bed, Bath & Beyond) or ice cream maker ($30 to $300) reduces the time commitment but adds to the cost. Think of it this way: if a pint of Ben & Jerry’s costs $4.50 and you can make your own for roughly $3 in ingredients, you need to make 20 batches in the cheapest machine just to break even.
Solution: Keep cost-per-use in mind when you’re deciding which — if any — model to buy. If your plan is to make your own yogurt, ice cream, etc., just a few times a year, look for lower-cost solutions. Yogurt can be made using canning jars instead of a yogurt maker, for example, while the ice cream is easily made using the tried-and-true coffee-can method.
4. Cooking skills
Frugal Foodie has had five spectacular cooking disasters so far in her lifetime, two of them involving attempts on homemade yogurt. Handling active cultures of yeast (bread) and bacteria (yogurt) isn’t a foolproof process.
Solution: Follow the instructions exactly and start with basic recipes until you get the hang of things (Frugal Foodie is now a yogurt master).
5. Quantity eaten
With fewer preservatives in them, homemade goods just don’t last as long. (Those expensive ingredients, like yeast, also have a relatively short shelf life.)
Solution: Stick to items you consume frequently. Military spouse Amy Bushatz found that making her own baby food was one of the rare times homemade saved money without a big time commitment. “An hour of steaming and food processing and I have enough pureed carrots in the freezer to last us two weeks using the equivalent of two jars every day,” she says. By her estimates, that one batch saved $10.
Get creative with how you use homemade goods that spoil fast. “The only downside [to my homemade bread] is that it doesn’t last as long,” says Linsey Knerl, a.k.a. The Freelance Farmer. So she incorporates recipes that call for stale bread, including a French toast casserole and homemade stuffing.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.