Negabucks – What’s Your Hobby Time Worth?

I love food, gardening and economics, so it follows that I’m interested in looking at gardening from an micro and nano-economic perspective. As someone who gardens on a scale large enough to make a pretty significant dent in our family food budget, my gardening hobby is intimately tied to our household budgetary realities.
Just another day at the office
So I suppose I could argue that my gardening is more than a hobby. Maybe it’s a hobby-job.When Nick and I talk about this we use the term negabucks. I think Nick made that word up. Negabucks means money “made” through not spending. Example: At the YuppieHippie Market, a good 1 pound loaf of whole wheat bread costs $4. At home, I make an equivalent loaf with $1 worth of flour, yeast, etc. Making that loaf instead of buying it has earned me $3 negabucks.
For now, ignore the energy cost of heating up the stove, just like you probably ignore the energy cost in driving to the store when thinking about how much a loaf of bread will cost you. It’s enough to think in broad strokes to get the general idea.
The problem with negabuck calculus is accounting for your own DIY labor. Let’s think of two women making that $3 negabuck loaf of bread.
It takes Sam an hour to make that loaf of bread, and she hates every stupid, sticky, dough-covered minute of it. $3 negabucks isn’t a very compelling reason for Sam to make her own bread. She’s probably much better served buying bread at the market or going paleo and having a lettuce wrap.
Helen adores making bread – making bread is a relaxing, soothing activity that centers her and gives her a real sense of accomplishment – she’d make a loaf of bread for free. Heck, if she didn’t need bread, Helen might still make a loaf just for the experience of doing so, and give it to her neighbor, Sam. If she did this, she’d actually lose $1 worth of ingredients, but that wouldn’t matter because her own bread making joy would far exceed the $1 ingredient cost.
The same hour spent doing the same thing is accorded very different value by Sam and Helen.
Which brings me to the million dollar question: “Is gardening worth it?”
I get asked this a lot. People want to know if they can save money growing their own food. The answer is: “Yes, absolutely!” if you feel Helen-ish about gardening. But it’s: “No, it’s probably not worth it,” if you feel Sam-ish about grubbing in the dirt. 
Last year in January I started tallying up the value of what I harvested. I stopped in May before the bulk of the harvest even happened (I learned it’s a pain in the ass to weigh everything you harvest), and was already at over $400 profit. If you factor in the value-added products (bread, canned peaches, yogurt, jams, granola bars, frozen berries, etc.) that I make routinely, I am confident that my hobby-job nets the family at least $6000 negabucks a year.
However, I spend at least 20 hours a week planning, planting, weeding, harvesting, preserving, cooking from scratch, making the bread and yogurt, etc. to make that happen, so my nega-buck wage is probably a bit under $6 an hour.
Is that worth it? To me, absolutely, or I wouldn’t do it. (Plus it keeps me out of therapy.) Other people, non-gardener-types, would feel very differently about that work-to-reward ratio, and who could blame them? You couldn’t pay me $6 a hour to play video games for 20 hours a week, yet many people would kill for that job.
So, does your time in the garden pay, or does it even matter to you?


  1. says

    Great post! And I love the "Negabucks" term….you may want to copyright that!

    Was it "worth" it for us to garden this year? If you're talking actual savings, it would be a big NO. One handful of tomatoes, two quarter-sized potatoes, spring floods and summer drought.

    But there's always next year! And, it keeps me from spending money at Shrink! :)

  2. Anonymous says

    Another factor for us — how much do we need to save that $$ vs. how much time do I have? My time is in good supply; my money isn't. ;)

    I've noticed that divide more and more lately, where some of my UH friends do it because they find it emotionally rewarding, or because it's their ethical conviction, or even because it's "cool". They could shop at the YuppieHippie store and buy $4 bread if they didn't do it. And some of my UH friends garden and preserve foods and glean and make their own laundry soap because they want their families to have good stuff, and they can't afford the $4 loaf of bread. Most are somewhere kinda in the middle, though.

  3. says

    If the world as we know it comes to an end, and you have to really rely on your gardening and preserving skills, then would all this experience in the garden be worth it? You betcha!

    If you want to know where your food comes from and be 100% sure it is the cleanest most local food you can obtain for your family, is it worth it? You betcha.

    If you add in the health benefits of being outside, interacting with your kids/family, clearing your mind, getting in healthy exercise, is it worth it? You betcha!

    If you are teaching life long skills to your kids or grandkids, is it worth it? You betcha!

    There are some things that you just cannot put a price tag on. Gardening is one of those things that provides so many more benefits than just the value of the food brought in. It's either a way of life, or it's not. It goes along with one's whole philosophy of life.

    A similarity: Going to the garden and communing with your inner spirit, with Mother Nature, with peace, in my mind, is similar to going to a place of worship and communing with your Higher Spirit (what ever one's religion may be)… You cannot put a price tag on what it costs you for your time there because you gain so much from the process….It's priceless.

  4. says

    Carolyn – I'm glad you like the term! It is a play on "negawatts", an energy conservation term in use since the 90's to refer to reduction in use as contrasted with increase in production.

  5. says

    Love the post. I've done similar calculations for my own efforts, and I'd say $6/hr is pretty good wages. Mine come out quite a bit less. Plus, I like to eat out from time to time, and can blow in a night any savings I may have accrued from gardening for the whole prior month.

    You're talking about opportunity costs — what is the time spent doing this worth to me? That's the difference between Helen and Sam. And, as Marci so rightly pointed out, a constant shortfall of microeconomics is its inability to account for the intangibles, such as skills useful in the future. These things are embodied in culture. It's why people keep doing things they don't need to do anymore, and why cultures traditional reinforce many of these habits. Old cultures understand that things run round in cycles. Microeconomics reflects the consuming behaviors of a given culture. That's all!

  6. says

    Yes, it's always worth it to us! It does actually save money and it adds so much value to our lives as well.

    I used to try and quantify the savings, but over time I realized that I really cannot quantify the feeling of sunshine on my back as I harvest nutritious organic foods that I grew together with my family. :)

  7. says

    Very nice post. Not just for hobbies, but for any life-love.

    For example, I love gardening, and programming, and running a startup.

    Only one of those makes money, the other 2 are marginal (so far), but very fun & fulfilling.

    Life is not just about $, but those who ENJOY life are the big winners by any account, NEGABUCKS or not.

  8. Anonymous says

    Miss Erica, you do get folks to pondering, don't you? I love the "negabucks" too.

    My soil is pretty poor, so my wage would be sorry, but then playing in the dirt is fun. And food you grow yourself is just more thrilling.

    brenda from arkansas

  9. says

    i love this post. it's something i think about often since i, too, spend an inordinate amount of time on the homesteading front, but then of course it's worth it to me since I'm a helen. unfortunately, my husband is a sam and can't seem to fathom why i even bother when i could get a regular job and pay more of the bills and simply buy that darn bread goddammit! *sigh*

    god, i'm so relieved that I had somewhere to vent that since i can't write it on my own blog. the husband does actually read it. now that i think about it, he must see some value in it somewhere :)

  10. says

    I love this post and thinking about these things. I should probably keep track and then take the money for myself out of our grocery budget. For some reason i have been stocking up a bit for something (hopefully Winter and not a zombie apocolypse) so I haven't been taking a "cut" for myself yet. We use a bit of egg money for the ice cream truck for my daughters and then I bought milk with it the other day too. :)

  11. says

    Love, love, love this post! While I don't consider myself an urban homesteader (no chickens – seems like one needs livestock to be called that?) I do 'homestead' (or "homemake radically") as much as possible because I have much more TIME than MONEY. I, too, would consider myself a Helen, and find great pleasure in making (any)things myself.

    I'm not sure if I've broken even yet after paying for garden amendments (new community garden space), and I still have to buy most produce to can/freeze (although I have grown/foraged enough to put a bit away), but there are definite savings by DIYing most everything we use and eat around the house. Plus, just the outright joy I get from knowing I made "this" or "that"…


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