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Cash-Saving Renovation Tips from Mr. Money Mustache

Thirtysomething retiree reveals his secrets to keeping renovation costs low

Finance blogger Mr. Money Mustache is a thirtysomething retiree who has achieved, in his words, "Financial Freedom Through Badassity." On his blog, he writes about how he lives a lifestyle that's 50 percent less expensive than most of his peers. This Old House asked him to share his money-saving renovation tips, including where to splurge and (of course!) save.

What are your biggest tips for saving money on household projects?

The biggest tip is to pace yourself. Many people race to get everything done before they move in, or before the holidays, or some other deadline, and this just cranks up the stress and the expense.

Now living in and renovating my fourth house, I've finally learned to relax and work at a more leisurely pace. This gives me time to do all the highest-value projects myself instead of hiring them out. It also allows me to score many high-end materials at a fraction of normal cost via Craigslist and the recycled-building-supply store. As a bonus, you get time to savor each finished project along the way, so you can get years of rewards rather than a single thrill, which you get bored with within a few months.

How can people save the most money on renovations?

I'm probably biased because I've been interested in carpentry since I was a kid, but I just can't overstate the benefits of taking on at least some of the projects around your own house. Especially in older places, the personal decisions and the love required to get a truly satisfying end result can flow much more easily from the owner than from some random contractor. And the skills tend to come more quickly than most people expect. Just the work of finding and supervising a person, then dealing with inevitable mistakes and misunderstandings, can often be larger than just doing something yourself.

But I'm not worried about putting my fellow carpenters out of business with that advice, since not many people will take it. There will always be a shortage of people qualified and interested enough to do really good work on houses, so my second piece of advice is to go into one of the trades yourself if you enjoy it. It's great, satisfying work that pays well. Having done careers in both the cubicle and the workshop, I'll take creating real-world things any day!

What types of things are worth a splurge around the house?

For me, it's functional and artistic spaces and the tools that let me enjoy them every day. For example, I built my new kitchen with big, slightly pricey windows overlooking a park. I have good appliances in there, good knives and pots and pans, and good food.

All of this is much more expensive than eating macaroni and cheese in a windowless galley kitchen in an apartment, but since this room is the foundation of my family life as well as a lot of gatherings of friends, I feel very glad I spent the money on it.

What household purchases have you regretted, if any?

The worst one was when I actually hired one of those door-to-door window sales companies to replace the windows in my first house. This was back before I knew how to install my own windows and do the framing to add or resize window openings.

Although the windows themselves were fairly solid, I can see in retrospect they were way overpriced. I should have waited a few years while I learned the skills, then installed bigger windows with nice wood interiors for a much lower cost than those vinyl salesman specials. Or at least hired a company that does not sell door-to-door!

Want more Mr. Money Mustache advice? Check out his blog, where he's done posts like How to Sell a House, Cut your Power Bill by 80%, and The Radiant Heat Experiment.