I have been perusing personal finance websites lately, and came across a fascinating post on Wisebread about making your own mustard. Blogger Marla Walters tried it after experiencing sticker shock when confronted with a recipe that called for whole-grain mustard, retailing at $5.50 for a 6-oz jar. The process took three attempts before she made a batch that didn’t leave her gagging, right there suggesting that this was, perhaps, not entirely economical. And indeed, she writes that she has three criteria for making a product yourself:
- Is the product I make better?
- Is it cheaper?
- How much time did it take?
These are good questions. She writes that making her own mustard didn’t cut the mustard, so to speak. But unfortunately, a lot of the money-saving tips out there don’t take these questions into account. I’ve written in the past of the whole afternoon I once spent making my own soup stock. It wasn’t better (that I can tell, I’m not a connoisseur). It was cheaper, but by about $4, so I didn’t come out ahead when you consider the opportunity cost of time. If you enjoy DIY projects, this is one thing, but as a frugality measure, the issue in our modern, currency-based economy is that it really works better for people and organizations to specialize. I write, and food manufacturing companies make soup stock and whole-grain mustard. This is why most of us don’t milk our own cows. Isn’t it great that farmers and dairy companies and distributors and grocery stores can all do what they do best and still get us a gallon for less than $5?
I am collecting stories of things we do or have done to save money. I always like Depression-era ones for their sheer over-the-top nature: making kids’ clothes out of feed sacks, collecting those little slivers of left-over soap and mashing them together, starching laundry with the water you used for boiling potatoes, and so forth.
When people were completely out of the cash economy, this may have made sense. But these days we are left with the vestiges of that, which is that frugality on little things is seen as the ultimate in housewifely virtue. This is true to the point where in Thomas Stanley and William Danko’s Millionaire Next Door, they print an “Ode to His Frugal Wife” in which a man gives his wife $8 million in stock in a company he took public. She thanked him, “never changing her position at the kitchen table, where she continued to cut out twenty-five and fifty-cents off food coupons from the week’s supply of newspapers.”
Um, OK. An $8 million portfolio goes up and down $8000 in the time it takes to flip through the newspaper to find $8 worth of coupons. We are supposed to view this story as an example of wise decision making?
Most of us aren’t dealing with these kinds of issues, and I understand why personal finance books and websites like to tout coupon-clipping, making one’s own mustard, or that perennial favorite, shopping around for a better deal on car insurance. These are variable costs, even if they are not huge percentages of a family budget (at least I hope mustard isn’t!), and we believe two things to be true:
- Most people cannot change their income
- The big costs (house mostly, car to a degree) are set.
One of the things I want to ask in this new book is whether these two statements are as true as we think they are. Certainly it’s hard to move right now. But from the interviews I’ve done so far, I think number 1 is definitely changing, and if you go into house hunting mode with the mindset of spending a lot less than you “could” afford by the various calculators, you can buy as much whole-grain mustard as you want.