Building on a Budget

Since the last post was on tightening up my finances, let’s continue down that path and explore how to keep that wallet fat with a building hobby.

a man holds an old worn axe
Spoiler alert: it might be physically intensive. Photo by Kaboompics .com on

It should be noted that “building hobby” refers to personal projects – cabinets, potting benches, weird little tables, etc. Do not skimp on materials for projects where doing so would risk safety or where the materials need to withstand significant weight or weather conditions. You don’t want to use old, termite-chewed posts for the new pergola beside your house because when that thing falls, it’ll take out your gutters and a chunk of roof.

Projects begin with a plan.

The plan is the step where you have the most control over your project’s expenses. Say you want to make a basic storage bench to keep by your front door for shoes. You have some scrap wood, but some of the lengths are a bit short. Also, some of the pieces are stained or blemished.

Rather than set your heart on a polished wood throne of a bench, maybe your storage bench will be low to the ground with small cubbies. Cover it with some old paint and add height on top of the bench with some cushions from a thrift store.

I look for inspiration on pinterest, as well as higher end stores like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn. Once I have some ideas in mind, I’ll search for build plans that others have made, such as those over at Ana White. While I’ll ultimately draw my own plans, it’s good to check over the plans of others to make sure I’m not forgetting a step.

One of the first things I built when I moved into my house was a storage unit for my entryway. Six years later, it’s still as solid as the day I built it.

Get your supplies second-hand.

Like the cushions in the bench example above, second-hand supplies are a great way to drastically cut down on expenses for the stuff you do actually have to buy. This isn’t exactly a new concept, and most frugalistas will tell you to a) determine whether or not you really need the thing, and b) if you do need the thing, buy it used. Getting supplies second-hand, whether you find stuff on the curb (make sure it’s marked for take-away!) or buy from a re-store, also saves the environment some grief.

Check around for stores that sell reclaimed building supplies. One of my favorite places in New Orleans is The Green Project. I build this entry table with a cabinet door and wood I found there:

The other materials were paint (of course), modeling clay for the fish, clear floral gems for the “bubbles,” and resin to seal everything in.

While The Green Project is a place local to my area, there are several options where you might find free or cheap building supplies:

In terms of paint, you can usually find discounted buckets by the paint desk at Lowes or Home Depot. That probably won’t be the cheapest option; however, it might be better quality than something that’s been sitting in someone’s garage for who knows how long. If your project involves wood that needs to stand up to prolonged exposure, old or poor quality paint might lead to cracking and rot.

Or recycle an old project.

This option is more feasible if you’re years into building stuff and don’t have anyone around to complain when you start tearing apart bookcases.

My master bedroom has an old little alcove. One year, I decided to turn it into a reading nook, complete with a padded storage bench and bookcase. However, it was dark and tight. I ended up just reading on my bed most of the time.

Eventually, I needed to build a hide-away cabinet for a massive new litter box that now resides in the living room. Out comes the reading nook. Supports for a bench became supports for what my friend called “The Shit Shack.” Plywood and fiber board transferred over too, and the only thing I had to buy for the project was a bit of contact paper that looked like marble to class up the inside (oh – and to make cleaning easier). A new kitty W.C. for less than the cost of a bag of litter!

A note on tools —

Many of the places where you can find reclaimed building supplies also have secondhand power tools. Be careful, though, as these are often sold “as-is” and might not be returnable if they don’t work. I got lucky and inherited my first tools from my granny. Over the years, my parents have also gifted me with more tools for Christmas and my birthday.

If you have time to wait, try to purchase your tools around Father’s Day, when home improvement stores have sales.

If buying isn’t option, your area might have a tool “lending library.” These are community, co-op-type spaces where you can find low- or no-cost tools to borrow. Many also hold free or inexpensive workshops or offer volunteer opportunities where you can learn or hone your skills.

An even cheaper option? Make friends with your neighbors and borrow their tools. Return them cleaned and in excellent condition, ideally accompanied by a six-pack or a tray of cookies.


Tightening My Belt

Normally, I’d say I’m somewhat thrifty. I regularly check on my bank accounts. I make myself wait on major purchases. If I need something, I research deals and coupons, or I wait for sales.

But this year? I’ve spent a little more wildly than normal this year.

  1. New turfstone driveway
  2. Turning my front yard into a garden
  3. Expanding my shed and turning part of it into a greenhouse

All of these projects together total more than the average American family spends on food (groceries and eating out) and entertainment in a year.

food salad restaurant person
Like this but replace the food with lumber, and the plates with lumber, and all the utensils and jewelry, and – you know, everything is lumber now. Photo by Stokpic on

That sounds outrageous. It feels outrageous. But I planned for these projects, and they were all paid for in cash. And, ya know, I love coming home and being greeted by a big, beautiful garden – sprigs of gaura waving in breeze, pink and orange zinnias blooming in clusters of little petals, butterflies skipping around on cosmos. Seeing a lawn that was overgrown 95% of the time (because when you mow in Louisiana, it stays neat for about two hours) depressed the heck out of me.

But some things are changing. I’ve spent the past several years renting out part of my house on AirBnB. I’ve met people from all over the world and, overall, hosting has been an excellent experience. My occupancy rate is around 85%, and while it’s deeply satisfying to provide a safe and comfortable place for visitors to our quirky, creative city…

Y’all, I’m tired.

Low-level stress underlies my every day. Will someone accidentally letting the cats outside? Will the next guest is going to rate me poorly because they expect me to play board games with them every night, even though they won’t say anything to my face about it*? And though I find cleaning satisfying, scrubbing the toilet can be a total skeezefest.

That combined with the stress of my regular job means that some days, I teeter on the edge of a meltdown.

What does all of this have to do with “Tightening My Belt”?

Renting out my rooms brings in extra money – usually at least $1000 per month. Those of you who can do math and followed the link at the beginning of this post will realize that amount easily covers even the most expensive of project-years. In non-project-years, that extra dough means I can get away with just sorta watching my finances but not counting every penny. That makes me sound like a slacker, but I do regularly budget.

My favorite tool for tracking expenses is Microsoft Excel, and I’ve tailored it over the years to suit my needs.

Budget example

Everyone should have some way of tracking his or her money. There are programs and websites to help with this – You Need a Budget, Mint, and the Personal Finance subreddit are solid places to start.

I love the flexibility of an Excel spreadsheet for budgeting.

In the image above, you can see how I track sources of income at the top (“Inflow“). Then I split my expenses (“Outflow“) into broad categories that are divvied up into more narrow areas. Based on studying my spending habits, I’ve estimated my expected expenses. Those are compared with what I’ve actually spent to then determine what’s “Left in the Pot.”

At the very bottom of the spreadsheet, each of the Outflow columns are totaled, and this is used to calculate the Balance at the top of the sheet (Total Inflow minus Actual Total Outflow).

Budget example2
Oops – looks like I’ve blown past my budget in this example…

The final column (“Percentage“) shows my Expected Outflow as a percentage of my Total Inflow. In other words, if I want my hobbies to be 5% of my total planned income, I can adjust the Expected budget for that category until I reach 5%.

How should a budget be split up?

If you search, “How to budget,” many of the top results describe 50-20-30 rule. These guidelines put 50% of your income to living essentials (mortgage, transportation, food, etc.), 20% to financial goals (savings, debt repayment, etc.), and 30% for things you want but don’t need (travel, toys).

I sort of follow the 50-20-30 rule. On my “essential living” costs like mortgage and utilities (the category I’ve named “Bills”), I aim for less than 40% – preferably closer to 35%. Electricity and water are how I can control the percentage here because my usage impacts the cost. Unlike 50-20-30, my transportation costs are not included here, because that’s a highly flexible category for me (I live in an area where it’s possible to bike to work).

brass faucet
Photo by Hossam M. Omar on

Once I set my “essential living” category, I consider how much I want to save or invest that month. Rather than basing this off my Total Inflow, I have it set as a percentage of the Balance predicted to be leftover at the end of the month’s expenses. The primary reason I’ve done this is because I’m trying to shrink my budget right now, but I still want to save. I’m in the process of adjusting my Expected Outflow numbers to be as conservative as possible, while remaining realistic. Failing to meet the high bar set for savings because you were too harsh when predicting your food budget can be pretty discouraging.

After a month or so with my newly-tightened budget, I’ll reassess how I figure out my savings/investment goal. All that said, though, right now I’m at about 25% of my Total budget example 3Inflow.

The rest of the categories have greater flexibility and “lower” priority. It feels weird to say food is a “low” priority, but I still have quite a bit of wiggle room there. Right now, it’s less of a concern to me than building my savings. On that note…

How much should you keep in your savings account?

At the bare minimum, aim for 6 months’ worth of your expenses (Expected Outflow). A more comfortable amount for me is 12 months because I’ll occasionally use a few “months” to pay for larger projects. If I do this when my account is at the 12-month mark, I can still maintain a safe emergency cushion. In other words, what I consider my savings account is half emergency fund and half rotating major expense fund.

So how are actual expenses tracked?

budget example 5Each month of my budget is actually a pair of worksheets in Excel. “A” is what you’ve seen so far – categories, totals, and comparisons. “B” is where we get down to business.

budget example 4

I track the date, where I spent the money, the amount, and the type of expense. At places like Costco where I buy a broad variety of things, I’ll split the receipt across the relevant categories. In the image above, the selected box also has an arrow because it contains a list directed linked to the narrow categories on the “A” sheet. In other words, if I need to switch around my categories titles, it’s just as simple as rewording whatever is on “A.”

If you want, you can use my Excel budget too.

Use it as it’s made or tailor this budget to suit your financial lifestyle. The downside of using something like this is you have to regularly devote time to entering every expense (as opposed to many of the professional products that automatically connect with your accounts). However, this one’s free, it’s easily tweaked, and I feel a bit more comfortable without having my accounts connected to another entity.

Download the Example Budget Spreadsheet here.

How will tightening the belt impact my projects?

As I mentioned in the beginning, this was an extremely busy year for big projects. Moving forward, my projects will either be small-scale – i.e. laying a few basic 12″x12″ pavers – or they’ll be made from recycled resources. Fortunately, I have quit a bit of scrap wood leftover from the shed and fence.

In terms of gardening, I have a pretty good handle on growing most of the plants I favor from seed, which can be a tiny fraction of the price of a mature plant. The subtropical climate where I live also encourages lush growth, so long as there’s enough water. As to the latter point, I have a pretty good irrigation system in place in both my front and back yards.

I’m in a privileged position to cut back while maintaining a satisfying lifestyle. Necessary infrastructure, like the aforementioned irrigation systems, is already paid for and in place. My savings account isn’t quite where I’d like it to be, but it’s still plenty to take me through an emergency. I receive regular paychecks and have access to good healthcare. Being in a position where stopping (temporarily or permanently) a secondary source of income is possible? That’s a luxury, and I’m thankful for the choice.




*Story time: a couple spent a week with me. We chatted a bit when we crossed paths in the kitchen or living room, same as I’ve done with guests for years. The couple was always smiling and seemed happy. A few days after their departure, they left a scathing review, stating that they’d felt totally unwelcome and had wished to place board games and have much longer conversations. After 100+ 5-star reviews, I was shocked and took the poor review very personally for a while.

There are a huge range of accommodations on AirBnB, ranging from hotel-like experiences to basically couch-surfing and communal living. If you’re looking for a host who will be a huge social part of your visit – someone to eat dinner or watch movies with – that will be advertised on the listing or it should be clarified through messages before your stay.

A Total Yard Revamp: By the Numbers

Okay, folks. Here is the part I am usually most curious about: how much stuff did I buy for Operation: Chaos into Beauty?

Note:  I did not include the driveway demo/install here, because that was a unique requirement and didn’t have that much to do with turning a lawn into a garden.

The purpose of this post is to give those of you out there with a desire to take on a similar project some idea of the cost. As a reminder, here’s the plan of my yard:


Each of those grid blocks is 1ft x 1ft, to give you an idea of scale. Now let’s get to those numbers!


From my first trip to the store to filling in my walkways, this project took 10 weeks to complete. Could it have been finished sooner? Of course. But I had evenings and weekends to work (and one of those weekends was spent on a mini-vacation).


This project took 162 retaining wall blocks (lined up along the left edge of my garden), about 40 more than I’d calculated. This is a prime example of project creep.


101 bags of mulch ended up going into the yard. Could I have used more? Yeah. This is another area where the number kept creeping up. Next time, I’ll rent a pickup and buy in bulk. Granted, this can be difficult to coordinate when you’re one person, working full-time. But we aren’t doing this because it’s easy, right?


I drive a RAV4, which has excellent cargo space for something so easy to drive and park. However, the size of my car means that I took 15 trips to Lowes for materials. Although I ordered some things online and shopped at a few other places, Lowes was my main source for piecemeal materials because they offer me a 10% veterans discount.

Now let’s talk money!

Y’all. I didn’t have a firm number when I planned this project, and it ended up costing me. I don’t have any serious regrets, but I spent more than I would’ve guessed.

(quiet sobbing into my empty purse)

But on a serious note, I could afford it. Don’t take on a project like this unless you have the cash. How much cash?


Let’s break that number down:

  • $409.89 in plants (this also includes plant-related items like weed cloth; the tiller rental cost also went here)
  • $195.49 in mulch
  • $155.87 in irrigation (I splurged on automatic timers for my soaker hoses – these are an essential if you live in a hot climate)
  • $429.59 in what I called “hard materials,” which includes things like retaining wall blocks and plastic edging
  • $417.18 in fencing (including the stain)
  • $286.05 for the dry creekbed materials
  • $185.59 in decor (including things like the glider bench and birdbath)

There are definitely areas that could’ve been slimmed down. The dry creekbed was more or less a whim . . . that ended up costing major moolah. That was a planning (or lack thereof) fail. And if I’d bought my mulch in bulk, I could’ve saved money there. I was actually surprised to see my plants total because I was buying them on clearance and in seed form – except that I’d buy plants on almost every trip to the store.

All in all, I’m very happy with how the yard’s looking so far. If you plan to undertake a project like this, here are a few tips:

  • Take advantage of discounts and sales.
  • If you’re on a tight budget, start with a small scale and build up from there (so you can avoid an expense whim).
  • Work at a slow and steady pace so you don’t burn yourself out.
  • Be prepared for a ton of neighbors to come out of the woodwork and talk to you while you’re trying to shovel mulch/stain a fence/etc. It won’t matter if you look like garbage and have earbuds in your ears. They will force themselves in your way.

But the most important tip:

  • Do it. If this is something you really want to do, don’t wait.