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20 great frugal skills

Here's how to begin mastering these do-it-yourself and other basic skills that can save you money.

By MSN Money Partner Sep 11, 2012 2:38PM

This post comes from Meg Favreau at partner blog Wise Bread.  

Image: Landscape gardener standing in garden with shrubs and gardening tools. Copyright: Ocean, Corbis, Corbis


Independence is at the heart of frugality. The more that you can do for yourself, the less you have to pay others to do those things for you. But to be independent, you need skills.


The 20 skills below can help you become more independent and frugal. Some of them might come naturally, and some of them might be frustrating -- but they're all beneficial. And you don't need to develop full mastery to get the benefits. With many of these skills, just a little knowledge can provide a lot of help. (See also: "10 lifesaving skills everyone should know.")


1. Gardening

Growing your own food can be a great way to get fresh produce for very, very cheap -- as long as you know how to keep your plants from dying. I recommend that "budding" gardeners (I'm sorry, bad joke, I know) start with fresh herbs in containers. They can be grown inside or out, and since fresh herbs tend to be expensive at the grocery store, these plants offer a lot of value for a minimum of work. While every type of plant is different, having a couple of small container herbs will also help you get used to plants' needs -- how much sun, when to water them, etc.


If you're interested in starting a bigger garden, make sure to do your research before diving in. The last thing you want to do is pick a plant that will immediately wither in your oh-so-sunny yard or never truly thrive in your moderate climate. Get Rich Slowly has a great post on starting your first garden, and if you're interested in learning more about what grows well in your region, contact your local Cooperative Extension office.


2. Cooking

Always dining out is one of the most budget-busting (and possibly health-busting) things you can do. Thankfully, while cooking might seem daunting, it doesn't have to take a lot of time or effort. When I first started cooking, I focused on one-pot meals.


The first "recipe" I cooked for myself regularly was simply this: Mix drained canned kidney beans, thawed frozen spinach, and shredded cheddar or pepper jack cheese in the microwave or in a pot on the stovetop. When the cheese is melted, spoon the filling into a tortilla, wrap it up, and eat. It's fast, it's tasty, and it's pretty healthy -- and there are a lot of recipes out there like that.


Learning how to cook has become so much easier with the Internet. You can search for recipes for your favorite foods, and if you don't know how to do something the recipe calls for -- "What the heck is a braise?" -- you can search for a how-to video. There are great overviews on how to start cooking, too. Mark Bittman, the king of delicious, healthy, and simple cooking, did a Q&A about cooking at home. I also recommend this roundup post from The Kitchn that collects several basics, from cooking brown rice to roasting a chicken.


Also, if you have a friend who cooks regularly, offer to buy ingredients in exchange for preparing dinner together. You get to hang out with a friend and get a great cooking lesson.


3. Baking

I put cooking and baking separately because I find that people often think of them as two separate skills. I've talked to a lot of people who say "I'm a better cook than a baker," and vice versa. A lot of people are intimidated by baking because it seems less forgiving. Amounts need to be more exact. There are mysterious chemical processes afoot.


The truth is that baking, like cooking, can be very simple. Take beer bread, for example. It requires three ingredients -- beer, flour, and a little bit of sugar. You put it in a greased pan in an oven, and you get bread.


Yeast bread does get a little more complicated, but this homemade bread tutorial from The Simple Dollar talks you through the steps.


As for sweets, again -- start simple. Brownies are one of the most basic dessert recipes you can bake. Try this brownie recipe from Rachael Ray.


4. Canning/preserving

Buying (or growing) produce in bulk when it's cheap and in season makes frugal sense if you're able to preserve it for later. Canning can be intimidating -- sterilizing jars! Specialized equipment! But being able to preserve summer's best fruits and vegetables is worth the effort. Check out the USDA's home canning guide for all the basics.


If you don't want to go all the way with canning, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has information on freezing, drying, curing/smoking, fermenting, and pickling foods. In fact, making fridge pickles is one of my favorite easy ways to preserve vegetables ranging from carrots to cucumbers to okra.


5. Sewing

Sewing is a great example of a skill where just a little knowledge can help a lot. All you need is a needle and thread to sew on a button, mend a tear, or even hem clothing.


Of course, if you do want to get a sewing machine, you have many more options. There are several super useful, simple projects you can tackle after you learn how to use your machine, such as sewing curtains, making aprons, or even making an easy quilt. And when your skills really get up to snuff, well, it's time to sew your own wedding dress.


6. Knitting or crocheting

While sewing might be a more valuable skill when it comes to fixing things, knitting and crocheting allow you to make great cold-weather wear that's both useful and giftable (or even sellable). In my experience, the best way to learn these skills is to ask a friend to teach you or to take a class at a local yarn shop. Or you can try or the Guide to Crochet.


I also love these skills because they provide something relatively mindless to do while watching TV or riding on public transportation. (Post continues below.)

7. Exercising

Unlike many of the other items on this list, improving your exercise skills might not save you money directly. But a healthy lifestyle can help eliminate medical visits and improve your mental health.


Several types of exercise -- even something as simple as running -- can be daunting when you first start them. Even if you plan to approach exercise frugally, it can be beneficial to talk to an expert or take a class before you start doing it on your own. For example, go to a running store and get fit for the right running shoes for your body, or take a yoga class before using free online yoga videos so a teacher can help you learn the proper alignment.


8. Making minor household repairs

There are several things around the house that you want to hire a professional for. But when it comes to minor fixes like unclogging a drain, fixing a hole in drywall, or installing shelves, you can save hundreds of dollars by doing just a little work.


9. Making gifts and cards

Not only are handmade gifts and cards from the heart, they can be a lot cheaper than that store-bought stuff. Check out our list of gifts you can make today and five great homemade greeting cards.


10. Writing

Want to communicate efficiently, be taken seriously, and land great jobs? Then shine up those writing skills. Being able to accurately get your point across will always serve you well.


Now available online, "The Elements of Style" is the granddaddy of all grammar and usage books; it will re-teach you everything you forgot from school. But writing is about much more than knowing where to put your commas. You can read all of the guides to writing that you want (seriously, do that) but, like any other skill, writing improves primarily through practice.


11. Haggling and negotiation

Haggling can save you money on everything from furniture to medical care, and knowing how to negotiate can mean the difference between a good starting salary and a great one. Wise Bread's own Kentin Waits has a great guide to the seven laws of negotiation.


12. Painting

I'm not talking about artistic painting (although that certainly has its benefits). If you can paint a room or even paint the outside of your house, you can save a lot.


13. Budgeting

A solid budget is at the core of any good personal finance plan. It's what helps you ensure that you're saving some of your money while also getting to spend some on things that really matter to you. There are several ways to budget. Check out our pieces on the first step to budgeting, budgeting for people who hate planning, and the envelope system.


14. Selling/marketing

If you ever plan to have a yard sale, list an item on Craigslist, or market yourself as a job applicant, it behooves you to know how to make whatever you're selling as appealing as possible. (And no, being good at selling things doesn't mean doing your best sleazy car salesman impression.)


15. Getting rid of pests

Some things, like bedbugs and roaches, usually require a professional. But you can deal with ants, mice, and other pests yourself.


16. Fixing broken things

Yes, "broken things" is a pretty loose term. The skill to learn here might be better described as problem solving, and a little bit of online research and elbow grease can save you a lot of money.


For example, when my laptop stopped booting up correctly a few months ago, I was sure I needed a new computer or at least a new drive. But some online searching showed me that my particular laptop has a design flaw that pinches one of the cables. Thanks to an online tutorial, I not only knew that I could get a replacement cable for under $50, but I also learned how to fix that part so it didn't pinch the cable again.


17. Entertaining yourself

Frugality 101: You're going to spend a lot of money if you think that having fun means you always need to go to the movies, a bar, or another establishment where you pay to play. While it might seem silly, entertaining yourself is a skill, and one that you can get better at as you discover new things that you find enjoyable. Read. Make something. Visit friends. Go for a hike. Cook something new. Find a free event. Draw. Do a crossword puzzle. There are many, many ways to have cheap fun.


18. Changing your oil

Most laypeople don't know how to fix the stuff that goes really wrong with a car, but you can at the very least do a lot of your regular maintenance. The most intimidating of that regular maintenance (at least in my opinion) is changing your oil. But it's totally doable. Check out this step-by-step how-to with photos from Edmunds.

19. Changing a tire

If you get a flat and you don't have roadside assistance through your insurance or an organization like AAA, you'll probably be stuck with a hefty fee. Don't let that happen. Popular Mechanics tells (and shows) you everything you need to know to change a tire.


20. Couponing

Some people love couponing, and others think it's just not worth it -- but good couponing skills can save you money. At the very least, you should get in the habit of searching for online coupon codes. A quick search can save you a few bucks.


Did I miss any of your favorite frugal skills? Leave your thoughts in the comments.


More on Wise Bread and MSN Money:

Sep 12, 2012 5:20PM

I have tried everything on the list.  If it doesn't work for me I let it go.  My budget is my list of biils


Sep 18, 2012 11:25AM

Two biggies are cleaning your own house and mowing/maintaining your own yard.

Seems so many people forgot how to do these things, and they also provide healthy

exercise/fresh air.  So you also avoid having to pay to spend time in those indoor, germ-filled

workout centers, etc.!

Sep 28, 2012 6:26PM
Buying in bulk!  Stop paying for all that extra packaging, and do it yourself.  Most products are cheaper in bulk, and it's a "green" alternative, as well.  If you know a hunter who would be willing to share, so much the better.  Stock the freezer with a hind quarter, side of pork, bulk poultry, stuff from your garden, your home-baked goodies, whatever.  A full freezer is more efficient to operate, you'll eat healthier food, save money, and be ready for anything!
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