Canning, Brewing and Other Old-Fashioned Skills: Do These Hobbies Save Money?

by Thursday Bram · 27 comments

This summer, I canned more than thirty pounds of tomatoes, along with preserving and drying plenty of other produce from my garden. I consider these projects to be something of a hobby — I could just as easily buy cans of tomatoes from the store (much more easily, actually). But I’m always trying to figure out whether these hobbies really save me any money in the long run. In fact, does any old fashioned skill still save you money?

The Cost of Acquiring Old Fashioned Skills

Just being able to can a few jars of jam or brew up a few bottles of beer requires an upfront investment these days. Where once a household that didn’t have hundreds of jars stashed away somewhere for canning season was unusual at best, it’s now rare to find a home with all the gear necessary to safely put up food. The same holds true of hobbies like knitting and brewing your own beer.

The start up cost of learning one of these skills involves getting the gear necessary. A few knitting needles might not cost very much, but when I started canning, I had to pick up a canning pot, plenty of jars and other accoutrements. You’ll likely find that, as you get better at a particular skill, you need other odds and ends, perhaps even considering buying the tools you already have with higher quality replacements.

You may also need some resources to learn the actual skill. I used to help my grandmother make jelly and I remembered a little bit of her instructions, but I invested in a couple of books to make sure that I knew what I was doing. Other options include taking classes or finding a friend to teach you. While most friends will help for free, you’ll likely have to pay for any other resources.

Before I canned my first jar of food, I probably spent more than one hundred dollars.

The Cost of Actually Having a Hobby

There is, of course, nothing wrong with having a hobby. But when understanding if a certain hobby saves us money, it’s important to be aware of what we’re really spending.

With a hobby that produces a product, such as home brewing, you have to have the starting ingredients. Maybe most of them come out of a garden or maybe you just pick them up from the store. Either way, the cost should be taken into account.

It’s also important to consider how much time you spend on a given project. What’s your hourly rate and how many hours did it take you to knit that scarf, or whatever else you’re doing? No matter how much fun you have doing it, the simple truth is that if you spent that time working, you’d be earning money, so thinking about how your savings stack up against your potential earnings is worth thinking about. It’s less of a crucial consideration as the actual costs of a given hobby, since most of us wouldn’t be working even if we weren’t practicing a certain skill.

If you haven’t been carefully tracking what you spend on your hobbies in terms of time and money, you aren’t alone. However, it can be tough to truly determine if you’re saving much money without a careful accounting. In my case, I also count up the hours I spend in my garden, making sure that I have all that produce to can. All things told, I spend quite a bit of time on the whole process, to the point that carefully tracking those details would take some work. I have general numbers, but because I consider both my gardening and my canning to be hobbies — things I do for my own enjoyment — I haven’t kept detailed records.

Your Actual Savings

When I include my time in calculating how much each jar of tomatoes that I preserves actually costs me, I’m paying close to double what I would pay at the store. I just don’t have the economy of scale to bring down the price that the different companies selling canned goods have. The cost does go down a little each year, as I don’t need to buy new jars every time I want to can something. If saving money is a priority for you as you’re taking up a new hobby, you can maximize those sorts of savings through careful tracking and tweaking of your approach — but I wouldn’t expect the amount you’re saving to have a lot of zeroes behind it.

You’ll find that the numbers often work out that way: our ancestors stopped canning their own food
and making their own clothes because they could buy the finished product cheaper and faster than doing it themselves. There are exceptions, of course, but taking up one of these old-fashioned skills should be considered far more of a hobby than a money saving opportunity.

There are other benefits beyond simply saving cash and those are worth considering when you’re practicing one of these skills. They may more than balance out the question of savings. When I can my own tomatoes, they taste much better than those sitting in cans at the supermarket. I also know exactly where my food comes from, so I’m not concerned about exposure to allergens or chemicals I don’t want in my dinner. One of my friends home brews regularly. His specialty is an amazing squash beer — something that you’d never find on the shelf. Another knits scarves that perfectly match her outfits, avoiding any need to hunt through the racks at the store.

Depending on your priorities, one of these hobbies may provide you with an end result that is more valuable to you than what you can get at the store, no matter the price considerations. While saving money is nice, getting something you simply can’t buy can be an even better deal. Take a careful look at the numbers and determine what your priorities are, assuming that you don’t get enough enjoyment out of your hobbies to keep doing them without financial incentive.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • James says:

    in 1933 Ralph Borsodi wrote ‘Flight from the City’. He found that he and his wife could produce and can tomatoes at a cost between 20% to 30% less than store-bought canned tomatoes. It was the distribution network – warehouses, wholesalers, transportation, retailers – and advertising that drove the price of commercial products above the cost of doing it at home.

  • Hidden savings not mentioned. says:

    Canning pays for itself is surprisingly subtle ways.
    1. How much are you willing to pay for the cleanest food you can afford for yourself and your loved ones?

    2. Make good gifts that don’t usually go to waste. A wise recipient will know item number 1. of this communication.

    3. A canner lasts many years… probably outlives their owners. That is the biggest expense of canning. So, they really aren’t that expensive and all the canning supplies can oftentimes be found in thrift stores.

    4. If you had to buy the highest quality clean food you would have to work 25% more to earn that dollar you are spending on that item. Each spendable dollar has about 25% over that spendable dollar… possibly more (if one considers to and from a job, clothing costs, social costs… in having that job). Taxes and deductions come out of that ‘gross’ amount on that paycheck that you never see for spendable $.
    God bless us one and all!

  • Denimflyz says:

    I have canned for years, learning from my Amish grandparents. I do all of this “work” because I have to. I am on disability income, I get no help from any government agency and I do not want help.
    I love canning, dehydrating, and other “home skills” as I know what is in my food, and my family’s food. I also like control that if the SHTF senario hits, which I am sure it will, just don’t know when, I can grow and barter what I need and be able to survive somehow.
    I urge all to consider some kind of lifestyle support from the corporate grocery and the corporate mega-farms and do you own thing somehow, however small it is. Support your farmers markets and local farmers.
    I also am careful of who I talk to about canning, and storing food, as it seems the law enforcement is now taking interest in this in my area…

  • Veronica B says:

    And– not to mention communities with active homebrewer clubs usually have cluster brews (e.g. many people bring stuff to work together) or a location where people can go to brew if they do not have the required equipment.

  • Veronica B says:

    We garden, can food, brew, and I knit at home. I don’t do any of them to save money on food, clothing, or beer– I do them to save me from spending money elsewhere. Mainly, we do all these hobbies to keep our sanity. Nothing is worse than staying home with nothing to do but sit on a couch. I like participating in such activities because I wake up on the weekends and know there are many things I can do. I can stay home and have “family” time without the need to fork out cash for happiness. Best of all— I can fully enjoy things I have made knowing where they came from and all the love that went into them.

  • Anonymous says:

    Do you consider grocery shopping a hobby? If not, you’re comparing oranges to applesauce. What makes it a hobby is added elements, enjoyment, satisfaction, not just the financial aspect. Golf is a hobby, does anyone who plays ask whether it saves them money relative to, well, whatever they’d do instead.

    Also, I am a homebrewer. I started brewing over twenty five years ago, so the initial investment is long since amortized. Recently I have been brewing high quality hand crafted recipes for ingredient costs totally under $10 per gallon and approximately three hours of my time. I can’t buy a six pack of quality microbrews for what it costs me to brew a gallon of my own. Some of mine is as good or better than what I can buy, some isn’t, but there’s an enjoyment in learning and improving and a tremendous reward in producing a brew that comes out tasting the way I wanted it to. Can’t get the same feeling from buying a commercial brew even if it tastes the way I wanted it too. That’s the part that can’t be compared.

  • Donna says:

    I personally consider all of these things to be valuable life skills. My husband enjoys canning; I like to preserve my garden bounty by dehydration if possible, especially my herbs. Yes, I use an electric dehydrator, but if cost (or power) should become a consideration, I can dry things on screens in the sun. We compost and raise veggies from seed, lowering our inital cost considerably. And not counting the cost of reusable equipment and bottles, his homebrews average less than $2 each- not bad when you consider that the European styles he prefers are $4-$12 each in a store. Even the bottle tops are reusable, if you choose the wire and stopper types.

    Cost-effective or not, in a crisis, people who have life skills are far better prepared to cope than those who do not.

  • Olivia says:

    To NancyB

    I agree with you about the jellies and have only made watermelon rind pickles, but they’re great too.

  • NancyB says:

    I live out in the country, about 25 miles from the nearest grocery store or Wal-Mart. With the cost of gasoline being what it is, a trip to the store adds quite a premium to the items I have to buy and lug home. I feel that anything I can add to my pantry from the garden is a cost savings and the time spent averages out. I do not quantify home made goods on an hourly wage basis since I retired. However, I would be putting out the money to buy from the store.

    I was lucky enough to learn how to make pickles, jam & jelly from my grandmother. There is nowhere near to go out to eat that tastes better than what I can cook at home, so why bother driving that far? While it may seem more work to some people, I also think it is important to keep survival skills alive. It may be more important than you know and it is important to be prepared for whatever may come. Stock up those pantries…

  • Jozie says:

    actually I disagree that it is more expensive, but perhaps this may be dependent on the part of the country one lives in. I formed a small group in the town I live in, (in the countryside), in which each member agrees to mass-plant and either dehydrate, can, smoke (as in meats) or freeze, their fresh produce/farm animal product. We then take our one product, which is much easier to maintain than many, and we exchange.
    There is minimal cost except the start up and over the years we have begun to each maintain now a few items and so our total product exchange is greater, further alleviating our costs.
    you can pretty much call it exchange or barter, but as prices go up, and the governement cracks down on buying and selling with more taxes and regulations-everyone will need to rely on their neighbors, friends and families. So form strong bonds now.

  • Ducklady says:

    As long as you think of canning as a hobby, you’ll treat it like a hobby and it will easily cost you money. I grew up in a time and place where canning was a way of life and a survival skill. And, make no mistake about it, it’s *work* when you approach it as work. If you want to save money, you have to do some *work*. If you want to treat something as a hobby and not put in your time and effort (work) you’ll likely spend money. It’s a silly question to ask if a hobby saves money–that’s not what hobbies are for. They’re for pleasure, remember?

    As for saving money with canning… once you’re set up (and Goodwill and yard sales are your best friend here, plus your library has all the books you need) you are set for life, except to buy lids. When you amortize the cost of jars, water bath and/or pressure canner and approach canning as a serious project–which means figuring out how many cans of what your family needs to get through the winter and where you can grow or buy canning fruits/veggies cheaply–you will save money, you’ll know what’s in that jar you’re opening in January (no chemicals leaching from the white coating in your store-bought tomato tins, for example).

    You’ll also save time and money on trash disposal. Our town instituted pay-as-you-throw mandatory, expensive bags. We have trouble filling them up, largely because we’re not throwing away food packaging. It was surprising when we first started on this system because we had no idea how much trash disposal prevention we were doing simply by canning.

    I have to say that canning IS work. I finally, at the age of 60, allowed myself to buy a freezer. We raise our our meat chickens and buy a lamb, pig or side of beef once a year (look ma, no styrofoam trays cluttering up our trash) so we know what we’re eating. After taking a break from the hard work of canning as work, last year I found a source of heirloom canning tomatoes for 50 cents a pound. I canned up 30 quarts and actually *enjoyed* it.

    Trust me, the reason people stopped canning wasn’t money. My guess is Granma wanted a break. Nothing is free and canning to save money is a whole lot like work. I’m happy I took a break, but I’m happy to be canning again, also. Mixed bag, like most things in life.

  • Almostima says:

    Respectfully, I think your analysis misses a ton of intangibles. For instance: if you are gardening anyway, then you very likely have more than you can consume fresh. So, if you have the skills to put up food by preserving it, then you are saving natural resources that would rot on the vine or in the ground. I can’t tell you how many citrus trees I pass on the street that have so much fruit on them the owners don’t know what to do with it all.

    As a person who bills by the hour, I HATE the concept that if you dare to do anything outside of work you are actually costing yourself money. It’s stressful and oppressive. People should be able to take time out to do things that make them happy/have some utility without feeling like there’s a timer going in the background.

    Then there’s the gift-giving aspects. I’ve been known to give co-workers who go the extra mile for me a jar of fig jam as a random thank you. (not only are they kind enough to give the jar back when they are done with it, but it helps foster a better sense of community at work and is more personal than a starbucks gift card for $5). And I know that I love getting similar consumable 0gifts from family members during the holidays because I know it was made with love, and didn’t cost them an arm and a leg to do.

    Also, there’s no need to spend money on cookbooks when there’s a ton of resources online offering free recipes.

    • Nora says:

      Thank you for pointing out that not everything in life should be reduced to a price. As Wilde said, “A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” There is plenty of cynicism to go around, and it is way past time to think in terms of value. A happy life is one that is not focused on things and money but one that is focused on human relationships and activities that bring pleasure.

  • SavingWisely says:

    Great article, i grow my own vegetables it not only saves on money but also time and gas. If you could include me in your blog roll that would be awesome.

  • Olivia says:

    If we would have had to dump $100 into the proposition we would never had done it. We did it because money was tight and some one gave us several bags of apples. We got our stuff at yard sales. $4 for the canner and $3 per dozen jars, about 50 cents each for the funnel and grabber. Some jars were gifts too. New lids from the grocery store. The sugar we bought. Though labor intensive (they were small apples) we made 17 quarts. It cost far less than store bought and we really liked the chunky slightly tangy homemade stuff.

  • Marcia says:

    I grew up canning with my mom and just really started. Last year we bought strawberries and made jam.

    This year we had a bumper crop of tangerines from our tree and made marmalade.

    I would say that one pint was about 44 cents, plus the cost of the jar, which was about 90 cents. Still, that is cheaper than the grocery store. Yes, I bought the water bath canner, but I’m going to amortize that over 20 years. I hope to reuse the jars.

    Of course, it was 5 hours of work for two people, but it was a good learning experience.

  • LifeAndMyFinances says:

    My only hobby right now is maintaining my website, but in the future I hope to garden. While I don’t often enjoy vegetables, I think I would learn to appreciate them more if I worked hard at growing them. Plus, when my wife and I decide to have children, it will be a great learning experience for them. 🙂

    • Nora says:

      When you eat vegetables that are harvested when they are ripe, you will realize what you have been missing. I think that much of our obesity problem in this country can be traced back to our miserable produce and to factory farming. Because things are picked before they ripen (they are firmer for shipping) and many foods develop their flavor and nutrients during ripening, we are sold fruits and vegetables that are green, flavorless and often mealy in texture. We and the food manufacturers compensate by adding salt, sugar and fats to make the produce palatable – barely.

      As for meats and chicken, they are injected with water, which is euphemistically called “juice”. The end result is that the water comes out during cooking and the meat that remains is dry and flavorless. What we have done to food is a national disgrace.

  • Dale Clark says:

    It has always seemed to me that doing things like canning, sewing, home brewing is more about taking back our lives from the corporations. Sure you may spend a few extra hours in the garden or behind the sewing machine but that time, in my opinion could not be spent doing anything better. There is always something far more satisfying about a tomato from my uncles garden, or a shot of….let’s just call it poppa’s special drink then there is in grabbing a can or a bottle off a shelf from wal-mart. Also, knowing no chemicals or questionable techniques where used to produce these things far out weigh the “cost” in my eyes.

  • KM says:

    I knit not to save money, but because I love doing it and because I can make something custom and perfect for me that I would never be able to find in a store, like you point out with home brews. And being a hobby, you do it anyway, so it does save you money because you don’t buy your hobby supplies AND the finished product. This is especially true if you have already worked your 40 hours a week or are not able to get a job or at least a full-time job. My grandma is retired and she keeps up our garden because she has nothing else to do anyway and she enjoys it. I once tried to crochet toys for sale, but I also realized that I would make something like $2/hr at best and decided to just make toys for my son and knit/crochet only things that we would use ourselves. It’s not worth it unless you knit fast and can sell the stuff for $200+.

  • marci says:

    There are a lot of ways to lessen the cost of the initial start ups on these – like garage sales, rummage sales, second hand stores, word of mouth ( I need….), inheiritance, freecycle want notice, craigslist, borrowing, etc.

    Our extension office has canners that can be borrowed. Jars can be had for the asking – just put the word out – or for 10 cents at garage sales. Fabrics and yarn abound at sales. A pressure canner can be good for your lifetime. Seeds and starts from friends… just ask. Most are anxious to share.

    I figure it’s 25 cents per jar to can something – anything – that comes to me from my garden or a freebie from a friend. That’s electricity, canning lid, wash water, clean up, etc. I can’t buy a quart of veggies, meat, fish, for 25 cents. I can’t buy pjs for the grandkids for 10 cents… which is what it cost recently at a bag sale for a dozen bathrobes for $1 bag sale – washed up the fabric and cut out pj’s 🙂

    And with the prices of food going higher and higher, it will soon be economical for most everyone to can their own, I fear. And time? Well I don’t figure time counts into the equation…. I don’t watch tv, so I have LOTS of time available for the important things in life.

    It’s a creative outlet – and it is very satisfying.

  • Practical Parsimony says:

    I don’t consider sewing, crocheting, or canning as hobbies any more than I considering cooking at home a hobby. They are a way of life, a way to get a superior product, and highly satisfying endeavors. I am a young 64 and have been canning for About 50 of those years, the last 35 on my on and before that with my mother. I have been sewing for 60 years and own about 8 machines that I do use. All have different functions. I have been crocheting for 56 years and make baby blankets and doll blankets and Christmas ornaments.

    As for saving money, if a person doesn’t have the money to spend on a product, then the price of making at home is really not the issue as far as I am concerned. The important part is that the person does not do without a needed item, whether it is food or a warm scarf or hat.

    Quality, safety and taste, aesthetics? All subjects for a blog of their own?

    • Adam says:

      You go girl, and as an “old” 28 year old gay man who knits, sews, cans and even brews, I would just like to say that if you’re looking for a cheap way into these activities you can find it, I mean they figured most of this out before Macy’s was around. I found a canner at my local thrift store for $3.00 including the rack. Each jar is a quarter and my biggest cost so far as been lids. I grow my own vegetables and there’s nothing more satisfying than that, except being able to keep and use it all for myself because I know how to boil a jar the right way. Don’t even get me started about the apocalypse.

      • Practical Parsimony says:

        I really need a couple of gay men friends. Oh, I am straight, but gay guys make very nice friends. All the gay guys in this small town are afraid someone will find out. I know who many of them are, but they are fearful, so I don’t try to make an acquaintance into a friend.

  • Dan Ray says:

    I garden, too, and I agree that it’s done for taste and pleasure; it won’t put money in your pockets. But I’d suggest that there is a savings of a sort: The time spent gardening and canning is considerable, and while you’re at it, you’re not engaging in any other money-spending activity. You’re not at the mall, you’re not in a restaurant, you’re not paying $6 for movie popcorn.

    So while gardening and canning may not put money in your pocket, the time spent on these pleasurable activities reduces the odds of money flowing out.

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