How to pinch pennies around the house

Ground level view up of a bell pepper plant planted by Modesto resident Dan Yockey in a neighbor's garden Wednesday.
Ground level view up of a bell pepper plant planted by Modesto resident Dan Yockey in a neighbor's garden Wednesday. Modesto Bee - Adrian Mendoza

Tight times require some creativity and common sense. There are dozens of ways to pinch pennies around the house, starting with simple things like turning off the lights when you leave a room (all those watts add up) or dialing down the thermostat.

In the garden, conservation pays dividends threefold in saving money, water and time. It makes the fruit of your efforts that much sweeter.

As part of our weeklong series, here are more ways to save, this time around the home and garden.

Plant Vegetables

Under optimum conditions, one $1.99 packet of tomato seeds can produce 750 pounds of tomatoes. A half-ounce of lettuce seeds is enough to grow 12,000 heads; a typical $2 packet may contain 1,000 seeds. That's a lot of green for not much coin.

Make-It-Yourself Containers

You can make your own growing pots for seedlings out of newspaper. This will help to get those veggies growing early. As an alternative to expensive peat pots or plastic containers, try this idea courtesy of the California Garden Clubs' Kids Growing Strong program.

You need a page of black-and-white newspaper, a half-liter plastic water bottle and tape (cellophane or masking work fine). Cut a 5-inch strip of newspaper lengthwise (that's about 22 inches long).

Use the bottle as a mold. Place the bottle sideways on the sheet with about 1½ inches of paper extending past the bottom of the bottle. Roll the newsprint around the bottle into a cylinder. Secure the end with a little tape.

Fold the edge over the bottle bottom and secure with tape. Slide the newspaper off the bottle and you have a 3½-inch-tall pot. Fill with potting mix and plant a seed. Place pot in a tray or saucer and add water.

When ready to transplant in the garden, you can put the whole pot in the ground; the newspaper will dissolve, just like the peat pot.


Talk about turning trash into treasure. Composting recycles garden rubbish and kitchen scraps into nurturing fertilizer. The city of Modesto (, 538-2557) and other municipalities offer programs on easy backyard composting and discounts on composting bins.

Be Fertilizer Savvy

Your plants aren't fickle about brand names; they'll grow with the cheap stuff. When shopping for fertilizers, look at the numbers (the nutrients, not the price) on the side of the box. A typical balanced fertilizer will have a "grade" such as 10-10-10 (denoting the percentages of available nitrogen, phosphate and potash, respectively; the major nutrients needed for plant growth and development). Buy by the grade.

Coffee Grounds Mulch

Coffee grounds make great mulch for roses and other blooming plants, especially those that love acid soils such as camellias or azaleas. Ask your favorite barista for coffee grounds at your neighborhood coffee place.

Newspaper Mulch

Recycled newspaper is another effective mulch in the vegetable and flower garden. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends using a quarter-inch-thick layer of newspapers around plants (that's the thickness of a typical Saturday edition of The Bee). Use primarily black-and-white pages; color inks may harm sensitive plants. (According to our production department, The Bee now uses mostly nontoxic soy-based inks, so our pages should be safe to use. But the full-color advertising inserts may not be.) A layer of newspaper -- which may take several months to break down -- helps regulate soil temperature and conserve moisture; that saves water and time weeding.


That's money slipping through those cracks in your home. By properly sealing your home from the elements, you stop heat loss. That means lower energy bills. Look at the weatherstripping around windows and doors, too.

Cold-Water Treatment

Wash your clothes in cold water. You'll save energy and money every load.

Bottle Your Own Water

Instead of buying bottled water at $1 or more per gallon, refrigerate tap water in a glass bottle or non-PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic container. Filter the water first if you prefer.

White Vinegar

Grandma was right; vinegar makes a great cleaner. At under $2 a quart, it's cheaper and safer to use than many commercial cleaners. For glass cleaning, combine one part vinegar to three parts water and put it in a mister. Vinegar is very effective in removing rust and lime deposits. It brightens aluminum and (when mixed with salt in a paste) can remove tarnish from copper. Soak shower heads and sink aerators in a half-cup of vinegar mixed with a quart of water to unclog holes and improve water flow. (But keep vinegar away from bleach; the combination can create noxious fumes.)

Baking Soda

Another natural wonder that removes odors as well as grime. Dissolve four tablespoons (a quarter-cup) of baking soda in one quart of water for a general household cleaner. (It's very good for floors and counters in the kitchen or bath.) Mixed with salt, use it to clean enamel, ceramic or glass baking dishes, or to remove coffee stains from cups and counter tops. It also works well on removing soap scum.

Turn Down the Thermostat

For every 2 degrees lower in winter, you'll save an estimated 10 percent on your heating bill. Put on a sweater and add another blanket to the bed.

Be "Green"

Save money through tax credits and rebates. Homeowners can save on their 2009 federal income tax by improving their house's energy efficiency. That will save even more money for years to come with lower utility bills. The tax-incentive program includes up to $500 in credits for insulation, windows, exterior doors, central air conditioner, heat pump, water heater, furnaces and high-efficiency fans for heating and cooling systems. For more information, see