Why Your Garden-Grown Tomatoes Are Not Free


I’ve noticed a trend in the frugal living space that I want to address today because I feel a lot of people have been given a misleading message.

And the message goes something like this…

“Grow your own food – it’s free!”

“Just went out to the backyard and collected a basket of free eggs from my hens!”

“Nothing like free milk from my goats!”

“Just make your own <<fill in the blank>> from scratch – it’s so much cheaper!”

The problem? Unless you are extremely resourceful, chances are none of the above activities were truly free. And in some cases, they might not have even been cheaper than other alternatives.

Costs Associated with “Frugal Living” Activities

I’m going to take gardening as my main example for today’s post, but of course, you could fill in the blank with any number of homesteading-type activities.

Can gardening be done frugally? You bet it can – I’ve shared many such ideas on my blog and will continue to do so. You can make (or find!) inexpensive containers, save on seeds, construct cheap trellises for climbing bean vines, and the like. But let’s not kid ourselves. Those tomatoes that you harvest in August were probably not exactly “free food.”

DSCN2048 (800x600)

Here are some of the areas you may spend money on to get started with a garden:

  • Containers and growing space. Sure you can just shove some seeds in the ground. But for most of us, we need to improve the soil with amendments, or consider raised beds or other growing options.
  • Soil. One area that can be more difficult to save on is good quality, organic soil for veggie gardens. I spent roughly $30 on soil and compost for the grow bag I bought my son for his birthday. Yes, we are composting, but didn’t have any ready which meant an added expense.
  • Plants and seeds. I do find ways of saving money on plants and seeds – buying perennials, swapping plant shoots, propagating, sharing seed orders are all useful. But I do end up spending anywhere from $20-$40 or more per year on seeds and plants. This year, I spent over $100 as I ended up purchasing 6 new berry bushes. They should continue to bear fruit for me for years, but those berries will not be “free” per se.
  • Tools & Misc. There are miscellaneous expenses that can be associated with gardening you may not realize at the start. You may realize a week in you really need new gardening gloves, or a trowel. Maybe you’ve had it with the slugs and decided to use Sluggo {Amazon link}. Maybe you want to garden year round and decide grow lights would be useful. Maybe 2 years in you decide to expand the garden.
  • Preserving. If you grow items like tomatoes, apples, or peas, you may wish to preserve some of your bounty. This may incur additional fees for canning equipment, dehydrators, an extra freezer, and the like. (Of course, you can grow foods that practically preserve themselves and save money.)
  • Learning Curve & Mishaps. Sometimes in spite of our best intentions, things go wrong. You might realize mid-summer that the heirloom tomatoes you bought did not thrive in the free 5-gallon buckets on your deck or your slugs ate all your arugula. These things just happen. But they do represent a cost.

To reiterate – there are many ways to save creatively on nearly everything I’ve listed above. You can barter for tools, borrow your friend’s boiling water canner or maybe snag a free tomato plant at an Earth Day event. But I think it’s fair to let you know upfront what’s involved and that there will likely be some initial investment of time and money if you’re to be successful, particularly so if your goal is to grow all your own produce to avoid the store.

It’s also worth mentioning that one could easily dump thousands on a full-scale garden, too. For as many ways as you can run a frugal garden, there are more ways you can run a spendy one. (If you don’t know what I mean, take a stroll around Pinterest.)


Isn’t this the case for most frugal living activities you can think of? If you wish to raise chickens, you’ve got to build or buy a set-up to keep them safe and comfortable and provide for their ongoing care. If you wish to sew your own clothes, you need a sewing machine, fabric, and related supplies. If you want to make your own soap from scratch, you still need to obtain the ingredients and supplies. And so on.

If you really look at it, most of these things have at least some cost associated with them so it’s difficult to call the end result “free.”

But, here’s why they still may be worth doing

“Gee Angela, what a downer post!” you’re probably saying. “I like my chickens. I like my garden. I have a batch of kombucha brewing in my kitchen RIGHT NOW.”

Before you tar and feather me and hang me upside down by my toes, there’s something more I have to say.

100_8436 (800x600)

Just because starting a garden or raising chickens or brewing kombucha may not be free doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value! There may be wonderful, valid reasons for any/all of these activities that justify an initial investment of time and money. Here are just a few I came up with.

  1. You might save money over the long haul. An apple tree may cost $25 and you may spend twice that to prepare the land and soil for it, but an apple tree will live and produce fruit for many years. At some point, you’ll more than break even.
  2. You want to learn a valuable life skill. I believe the reason that so many homesteading activities have caught on is because there is a sense of pride in acquiring these self-sufficiency skills. I can’t tell you how I beamed seeing my first row of home-canned applesauce or eating my first garden-grown tomato. Others still may want to learn to make cheese or knit a sweater simply for the sake of learning how to do it. In my mind, this has merit.
  3. You want to know where your food has come from. Many people may grow a garden or raise their own livestock because they care deeply about the processes that have gone into their food. Growing/raising their own means they know exactly what chemicals were used (or NOT used), and where their dinner came from.
  4. You simply enjoy the process. One of the main reasons I choose to garden is because it’s a stress-reducer. Yes the garden gives me food, but it’s also a space I go to relax, reflect, and unwind. You might enjoy sewing your clothes (even though you could buy them just as cheaply at Walmart), raising your goat (even though you could buy feta at Costco for $5), or making your own gluten-free flours (even though WinCo sells many of them in bulk).

I’m sure you can think of other, valid reasons for taking on gardening, chicken raising, or other frugal living and homesteading type activities. But do consider that there may well be an initial cost of money and time spent learning to acquire these new skills.

DSCN0946 (800x416)

In my mind, if you want free food – go and eat some dandelion greens or blackberries. But to declare that beautiful head of organically-grown lettuce you plucked from your $25 raised bed filled with $50 worth of dirt and compost “free?” That may be a stretch.

Now it’s your turn: do you agree or disagree with my feeling that some of these activities may not be “free?” What other reasons do you have for making, raising, or growing your own food? If you’ve done some of these activities for free (as in NO money spent), how did you accomplish that?


  1. Clairissa says

    There is a book out there that talks about his topic. I think it’s called ” make the bread, buy the butter”. Its a good read.

  2. Shannon says

    I agree with you Angela. Everything has some type of expense. It could be a hard cost as you have noted or it could be a soft cost, such as my time to tend to (fill in the blank). I have the space and desire to have a nice garden. But I have decided it is not a wise choice for me at this point and time.

  3. says

    I’ve really struggled with this as people expect me to have a huge garden because I have a big yard and my mom is well-known for her green thumb but I have a few strawberries and a few tomatoes we plant each year and that’s it. Why, because we are on a private water system and our water is outrageously expensive! To water a huge garden would cost me several hundreds of dollars each month! (I know this because that’s how much it cost to prepare my yard for a brother’s outdoor wedding one summer). I can buy a lot of vegetables for a fraction of what it would cost me in real money to grow. So, I support other people’s efforts and save money and time :)

    • Angela Russell says

      I think you’ve done the math and see what makes the best sense for you.

      As a frugal living blogger, I’ve gotten many comments over the years from people who think I could do this, that, or the other for cheaper. In the end, I think it’s best for everyone to focus on their own stuff – what makes sense for them, and what doesn’t. For instance, I’m pretty sure I won’t ever have chickens (or at least anytime in the forseeable future). While it’s a frugal trendy thing to do, the math doesn’t add up to me and I don’t want the added responsibility. To each their own!

  4. says

    When I was growing up my parents had the most lucious, amazingly productive tomatoes that we could never figure out (never saw them plant seeds or go buy starters at a nursery). And then we got older and put 2 + 2 together as Dad managed the wastewater treatment plant in town and I’m sure you can figure out the rest of the “free” tomatoes origins. My sister and I stopped eating anything our dad grew, but they truly were free :0.

    • Angela Russell says

      Oh my word… now THAT is hilarious.

      And proof why “free” does not always equal “good!” lol!

  5. Bethany says

    I feel this way about hunting and fishing, many people say they do it because it is ‘free food’ for their family. After factoring in the cost of the tags, the gear, the time it take, that is some pretty expensive meat. I know that many people enjoy hunting but if you have to take a week off work to get a deer, that meat costs a lot of money!

    • Angela Russell says

      Definitely!! I totally think there is value to hunting and fishing (my husband is hoping to get into it this year), but yes – NOT free, and sometimes, NOT cheap I imagine!

      Do you ever find friends & family ask you for some of your “FREE” meat? (After all, it was FREE, right?) 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *