Ally Piper - The Penny Hoarder

A small garden can save you a bundle at the grocery store: an average plot provides “an estimated 300 pounds of fresh produce worth $600,” according to a study by the National Gardening Association (NGA). That estimate is based on an average gardener’s investment of $70, so $530 is a pretty impressive return!

Blogger Kristina Seleshanko estimates her 12-by-14-foot and 33-by-3-foot gardens significantly cut her grocery bills during the summer of 2013. Her startup costs (including raising backyard chickens) were just $278, yet she calculates her harvest of eggs, tomatoes, kale, onions and potatoes would have cost her approximately $1,770.89 at the grocery store, equaling a savings of $1,492.89.

With returns like these, Penny Hoarders willing to get their hands dirty should take notice. It turns out, says the NGA, one of the top reasons to grow your own food in a vegetable garden is to save money on grocery bills. Here’s how to make the most of your garden to cut your grocery bills.

Plant What You Eat

“Grow stuff you eat!” exclaims Cape Cod, Massachusetts, backyard gardener Brittany Haskell. “I’m growing celery, green beans, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and squash.”

P. Allen Smith, author of "Seasonal Recipes from the Garden," suggests starting the planning process by looking at grocery receipts to figure out what to plant. If you regularly purchase fresh herbs at the grocery store, he suggests an alternative. “Spend $20 on herb plants and have enough to use all summer," he says. "Just do the math."

“Plant what is reasonable for where you live,” suggests homesteader and backyard gardener Alexandra Bodrie, from Sandwich, Massachusetts, who eats all her own produce from June to September. “The season is too short for watermelons on Cape Cod, but I get a bumper crop of green beans and peas.”

Start with Seeds

If you have the time and space, start seeds indoors in the late spring to save even more.

“Seeds are still a great deal. Since you usually get more than you can use, why not set up a seed exchange with your gardening friends,” says About.com gardening expert Marie Iannotti.

During a recent trip to the grocery store, I found tomatoes on the vine were $2.29 a pound, while a six-pack of tomato plants that will yield up to 15 to 25 pounds per plant at your local garden center in the spring is typically under $5, and a pack of seeds costs even less. The savings of starting your plants from seeds make that spaghetti dinner even more affordable.

Plan Well to Maximize Yield

Your garden doesn’t have to be huge to make an impact on your bottom line. The NGA found that while the average garden in the U.S. is 600 square feet, many are much smaller.

Maximize the space you have available by planting high-yield crops like tomatoes, onions and leaf lettuce. Less efficient crops include Brussel sprouts, celery and pumpkins -- though that doesn’t mean you have to skip these entirely.

Don’t underestimate your vertical space.Use whatever you have to allow climbing plants to grow up and save precious garden space,” suggests Bodrie.

Planning is essential when gardening to save money. “Take careful notes,” says Haskell. “I keep sheets about when I planted things, what does well, what doesn't, and how much of a harvest I get. All that helps me decide what and how much to plant the following year.For help planning your garden, check out this great chart from the NGA showing yield, dollars per pound and value.

Plant Now, Eat Later

“A shrewd gardener always plans to grow more vegetables than can be eaten fresh. The surplus can be preserved in a variety of ways for consumption during the winter months,” suggest staffers at the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment at UMass Amherst. Crops like carrots, potatoes, onions, winter squash and pumpkins require little to no processing for long-term storage.

Haskell also plants her garden with the winter in mind. “If you are diligent in harvesting and preserving correctly right away, you can make your produce last well into the winter. I didn't have to buy a pepper at all last winter.”

Both Haskell and Bodrie chop, blanch and freeze extra vegetables. A small chest freezer is a worthwhile investment if you are looking to enjoy farm fresh veggies all year long.  

Think Outside the Garden

“Food gardens aren’t just in backyards anymore.” The NGA reminds us that folks “grow food in containers on decks and patios, in community gardens, at schools, at senior centers, and even in front yards for everyone to see.”

Don’t underestimate your garden’s value beyond its food. “Most importantly, it’s free entertainment,” says Bodrie, a single mother. “It takes work and time to tend your garden — time you would otherwise be out and about spending money — plus it is a great educational activity to do with the kids.”

You can start saving by growing herbs or pot-friendly veggies like tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce on a small patio or sunny window. Your state’s cooperative extension or master gardeners program typically offers great (and free!) advice for gardeners of all levels.

Your Turn: Do you keep a garden to grow your own food? What’s your best tip for new gardeners?

Ally Piper is a writer, designer and marketing director living on Cape Cod. She used to have a garden where she grew mammoth zucchini and is anxious to get her hands dirty again soon.

Looking for some extra cash? Look no further than the thousands of digital photos taking up space on your hard drive.

Pick your best photos and turn them into money by selling them on microstock websites.

The term “microstock” refers to the micropayments the sites charge customers for those images -- payments passed on to the photographers who took them. Most sites start their image pricing at just $1 for the smallest size, with costs increasing with image sizes.

Microstock sites, such as istockphoto.com or shutterstock.com, make it easy for amateurs with a passion for photography to get started selling their photos online.

Once approved as a contributor, most microstock sites do not charge photographers to upload photos to their portfolios. Instead, the sites take a percentage of each sale.

In the beginning you may make just 15% from each photo sold, but often that number can reach as much as 50%, especially if you’re willing to offer your photos exclusively to one site.

It’s all about quantity,” says stock photographer Eliza Snow. “It takes a different mindset to be able to say ‘I will sell this image 100 times for a $1’ versus one time at a gallery for $100.”

Quit Your Job and Sell Photos Instead

microstock

Snow has been an iStock contributor since 2005. She was able to quit her corporate job three years later and now makes a full-time income selling stock photos.

She is also co-founder of Everything Microstock, a site dedicated to helping beginners start taking and selling photos. The site includes a list of resources and impressive chart of microstock agencies worth checking out.

Photographer Rich Legg had an experience similar to Snow’s. He joined iStock in 2005 and by January 2008, selling stock photos was his main source of income. He started by setting small incremental financial goals -- pay for his monthly Internet fees, pay for his domain and website -- until he made it his goal to be able to pay his monthly mortgage payment from his stock photo sales by the end of 2007.

But, he’s quick to add, times have changed and someone entering the industry now may not be able to increase her income quite that quickly.

First Steps to Selling Stock Photos

To get started, it’s important to make sure you have the proper equipment. Your stock photography portfolio is not a place for iPhone photos.

Instead, invest in a good-quality digital camera. Snow recommends a camera where you control the settings, like a digital SLR, over a point-and-shoot camera. “Your camera must be able to shoot sharp images,” she says.

All images submitted to iStock are inspected by human eyes before being approved and posted online.

Legg also works as an image inspector for Getty Images (owner of iStock) and stresses the importance of learning the ins and outs of your camera so you can take technically-correct images.

While the application process for the bigger microstock photography sites like iStock or Shutterstock can be more difficult, Snow suggests getting started with one of the hundreds of other microstock sites. “Don’t feel dejected if you are rejected by the first site you apply to.”

Build Your Portfolio

microstock

Developing a diverse and robust portfolio is essential, since selling microstock is a numbers game. Legg recommends setting a goal of how many photos you will upload on a weekly, monthly or annual basis. His goal is 50 to 100 images a month, which is scaled back from the 200 images a month he uploaded when he was getting started.

Both photographers recommend considering the many potential commercial uses for your images and taking advantage of any connections you have to different industries.

“Breaking into landscape and nature is hard,” said Snow. “But if you have a brother-in-law who owns a dry cleaner and you can get behind-the-scenes photos, that is an excellent opportunity.”

“Look in your sphere of influence and see what you have access to,” suggests Legg.

Remember that in stock photography, generic is best. “There can’t be any recognizable brands in your photos,” said Legg. And photos with people or properties will require a model or property release be signed before selling the photo.

Help improve the chances of your images selling by using the correct keywords, suggests Snow. “Think of it like a Google search and all the ways people might search for your image.”

“Don’t forget that often in addition to photos, microstock sites typically also sell audio and video clips and illustrations,” added Snow.

Is Microstock the Only Way to Go?

It all depends on how hard you want to work. While Snow and Legg sell exclusively on the microstock website istockphoto.com, photographer David Seaver prefers to have more control of his images and income. Seaver sells stock photos directly from his website, but is quick to admit that stock photography is not a huge part of his business.

He has also approached publications directly in the past about providing photos and suggests reviewing their websites for photography guidelines before contacting the editors.

His advice for beginners is to shoot something you enjoy. “There can be a market for images of anything,” he said.

Your Turn: Have you sold your photographs as stock images?

Ally Piper is a writer and marketing strategist. She recently relocated to Cape Cod with her husband and loves taking photos (not for sale, yet) of the natural beauty that surrounds her there.

It’s a common misconception that eating locally grown and produced food means spending more.

In fact, “the best way to save money on produce in general is to buy it in season,” says About.com Local Food blogger Molly Watson, “so shopping at farmers markets is a great step in the right direction.”

Shopping and saving at your local farmers market requires a different approach than the one you use at the grocery store, but with these tips it’s easy to start enjoying the benefits of eating local.

Here’s how you can save money while shopping at your local farmers market.

1. Ditch Your List

If you go to the market looking for something specific, you’ll likely be disappointed and end up spending more than you intended.

Instead, “keep your mind open and just see what is available and then create a recipe based on what you get,” suggests shopper Brittany Haskell.

Local food enthusiast and registered dietician Nicole Cormier calls this practice intuitive cooking. “You don’t want your food to go to waste, so it is important to explore using vegetables in new ways.”

My trusted resource for making the most of what I find at the farmers market is the cookbook From Asparagus to Zucchini: A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh Seasonal Produce.

This handy guide has an alphabetical listing of common veggies with recipes, cooking and storage tips to help you make the most of whatever produce is fresh, available and inexpensive.

2. Shop What’s In Season

There is nothing like a sweet strawberry in the middle of the winter, but health- and budget-wise it’s not the way to eat. Shopping locally forces you to learn about the seasonality of food.

“Agricultural products are more expensive early or late in the season,” according to EatLocalGrown.com.

“Farmers work hard to come to market ‘first’ or ‘last’ with a particular product. If everyone at a market has a particular product, the price will drop, but if only one vendor has an item, he or she can set the price individually. To save big cash, buy products at the peak of their season.

Food budget blogger Tiffany of The Nourishing Home agrees. “In-season produce is usually more affordable, better tasting and contains more nutrients compared to produce that is not in season and is shipped from a far away location.”

She offers two great resources to help you know what to look for during different times of the year: “Know what’s in season before you shop using this cool page from the Natural Resources Defense Council. It allows you to see what’s in-season by state, by month and by food!”

“Another option is Locavore, a free app that shows you what’s in season and what local markets carry what you’re looking for.”

Yes, yet another way your smartphone can help you save money!

3. Choose Seconds

Not all your food needs to look perfect or pretty.

“Check with the farms about seconds -- vegetables that they would not sell to a restaurant, but would eat themselves,” suggests Cormier.

The Carson City Farmer’s Market agrees, explaining, “Many farmers also sell ‘seconds’ - produce that is slightly bruised or not as large as the full-priced items, yet tastes just as great or is perfect for canning.”

You might have to cut off a few bruises, but your veggies will taste just as good as their prettier cousins.

4. Buy in Bulk

Purchasing in larger quantities also helps the pennies add up. The trick to buying in bulk is to make sure you have proper storage.

“If you have an extra freezer, buying bulk meats and veggies from local farmers is an option,” says Cormier.

A quick search on Craigslist pulls up a number of inexpensive local chest freezers, and Cormier also suggests investing in a vacuum sealer.

5. Carry Cash, Especially Quarters

Cash is king at your local farmers’ market, but apparently so are quarters, advises EatLocalGrown.com.

“You can often get great deals if you pay in quarters, especially at a Sunday market! Quarters are a hot commodity at farmers markets because farmers commonly run out of them when giving change. If you show up with rolls of quarters, you are likely to find a farmer that will give you a tomato or beans or something just for using your quarters.”

Free food just for having a couple of coins? That’s not a bad deal at all.

6. Build Relationships

It’s all about who you know, and shopping locally is no exception to the rule.

"Form a relationship with your local farmers and let them know that you’ll take any ‘need to sell quickly’ produce off their hands at a discounted price. Then use it right away or freeze. I often buy extra zucchini for bread and muffins," Erin Chase of $5 Dinners told AllYou.

Once you have a good connection with a farmer or two, see whether you can trade non-food items for your produce.

The key here is to build a relationship first, before trying to barter -- vendors may be less willing to barter with strangers.

"Vendors often are willing to engage in old-fashioned bartering,” Kelly Thompson and Kasey Trenum of Time 2 Save told AllYou.

“Try trading your stockpile items, including cleaning supplies, paper products and toiletries, for fresh fruits and vegetables."

7. Go Regardless of the Weather

With such a short season, farmers markets are usually open rain or shine.

“You can usually get great deals when the weather is bad,” suggests ValPak.com.

“Rain, cold and even excessive heat drive away customers, so the farmer may offer discounts in order to get sales. Fewer customers also means that you can spend a few minutes talking to the farmer to build a relationship.”

8. Shop Late

Arriving late can be a bit of a gamble, but regular shoppers say they often find their best deals in the market’s last 30 minutes.

“The selection won't be as good and stands may be out of popular items, but vendors would often rather sell what's left at a slightly reduced price than haul it home,” says Watson.

“Don't assume the farmers have nothing else to do with their goods, however, and offer a pittance. Rounding down to the nearest dollar (or $5 increment for larger amounts) or getting a free item thrown in for purchases of multiples is the more likely scenario.”

EatLocalGrown.com suggests this smart strategy:

If you do show up to the market right before closing time on a consistent basis, make sure that you are willfully entering into a mutually beneficial relationship. If a farmer gives you a good deal before closing time, do him or her a favor by purchasing a sizable amount of food. For instance, say, “I see that you have some food left over, and I want to help you out. What can you give me for $20?”

By initially offering a set amount of money and giving the farmer a choice in what to sell you, the farmer will be inclined to give you both a good deal and the best of what his or her table has to offer.

9. Consider Joining a CSA

CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture, another great option for adding more local produce to your diet.

By joining a CSA, you agree to purchase a “share” of produce from a farmer over the course of the season and pick up new items weekly.

“While you typically do have to pay upfront, the average share is about $30/week and you’ll have a bounty of fresh produce to enjoy,” says Cormier.

When I was part of a CSA a few years ago, I purchased a half share for the season, saved a bundle and still had veggies to spare. Get started shopping local by checking out this directory to find a farmers market near you.

Your Turn: Do you shop at farmers markets? What’s your best strategy to save money at the same time?

Disclosure: You wouldn’t believe how much coffee The Penny Hoarder team goes through. This post contains affiliate links so we can keep the grinds stocked!

Ally Piper is a writer, designer and marketing director. She loves to cook and eat local food and blogs about life, business and balance.

Warehouse membership clubs can save you money if you shop smart.

The big three -- Sam’s Club, Costco and BJ’s -- offer significant savings and benefits to their more than 120 million members, said L.A. Times consumer columnist David Lazarus in an interview on Marketplace.org.

While annual membership fees typically start at around $50 and go up from there, offering more incentives and benefits at higher levels, many members leave money on the table by not taking advantage of everything membership has to offer.

How Much Money Can You Save?

While your trip to the warehouse club will not entirely replace going to the grocery store, Today.com reports that, “according to a Consumers' Checkbook survey published by the not-for-profit Center for the Study of Services, BJ’s prices were on average 29% lower, Costco’s 30% lower, and Sam’s 33% lower than the largest supermarket chains.”

Adds Lazarus, “According to one recent study, any family that spends about $150 a week at a typical supermarket could save more than $2,000 a year shopping at these big clubs.”

Make the most of your membership fee with these strategies.

Check for a Store App

The App Store and Google Play stores are always good to check before you even head out the door.

For example, the free Sam's Club Scan & Go app for iPhones lets you scan your items as you add them to your cart. When you're ready to go, you check out with the app and skip the line altogether.

It might not save you actual cash, but what's your time worth?

Comparison Shop

It sounds simple, but many people overlook this option: Compare prices on your common purchases between the warehouse store and your usual grocery store.

Lifehacker.com suggests “[using] your old grocery receipts and a day pass to the warehouse store to see how much a membership would -- or wouldn't -- save you.”

Frugal Farmer blogger Laurie notices her biggest savings on dairy products. “Just on dairy products alone, our family saves a good 30-40% off of regular Walmart grocery store prices when we buy at the warehouse club instead,” she shares in an article on Frugalrules.com.

Share a Membership

If you find a friend to split the cost of the membership with you, you’ll both save and no one has to store or use everything you buy.

Another option, if you live near family members with memberships of their own, is to tag along on their shopping trips to pick up a few items without committing to a membership.

Expand Your Shopping List

Warehouse stores aren’t just good for toothpaste and toilet paper. Be sure to thoroughly review the membership pamphlets and paperwork available at the club you join to see what else they offer.

Other deals available at your store might include:

Gas

Many clubs also sell gas at a discounted rate.

In fact, his warehouse club is the only place my father fills up, often saving up to 10 cents a gallon over nearby gas stations.

Electronics

You could save up to 50% on big-ticket electronics when you purchase them at a warehouse club, according to Allyou.com.

Prescription Drugs

Trent at The Simple Dollar suggests this might be the sweetest deal of all.

“Many prescriptions are substantially cheaper through warehouses, so this can be a real boon to your budget. For example, 100 pills that cost $40 at WalMart may run just $10 to $12 at Sam's Club. Surveys indicate you can save anywhere from 25 to 77% on many prescriptions at a warehouse.”

Sam’s Club shares on their website that “in 2012, plus members using the discount saved on average $16 per prescription versus the regular Sam’s retail price.” (Like this idea? Click to tweet it!)

Eyeglasses, Hearing Aids and Health Screenings

While not all the clubs outline their exact member benefits and savings on their websites, Sam’s Club boasts $40 off a regular-priced pair of prescription eyeglasses as well as free hearing tests and health screenings at some of their locations.

Alcohol

You can save 35% or more on hard liquor and 25% on beer, according to Consumer Reportswith the best savings on high-end items.

Organic Products

The Organic Consumers Association offers these suggestions in their website’s Dollar Stretcher feature:

“The big warehouse stores are carrying more and more organic products and you can often get a great deal. In our area, eggs, canned tomatoes, milk, dog food ... and environmentally friendly laundry soap are cheaper here than anywhere else.”

Pet Food

Consumer Savings expert Sarah Platte found and shared with KARE 11 in Minnesota that “for a 52-pound bag of dog food, it will be $24.99 at a warehouse club -- the same price as a 30-pound bag at the grocery store.”

She suggests stocking up, since the warehouse price is 40% cheaper.

Tires

Yahoo Finance suggests that, “the price may be cheaper and the installation practically free. What’s more, your tires can be changed while you shop, making it a convenient way to cross one more thing off your to-do list.”

Caskets and Urns

It’s not something many people like to think about, but these items can be pricy.

Both BJ’s and Costco offer caskets and urns for sale online with shipping included. The rates are most likely less than you’ll pay at your local funeral home and FTC regulations protect your right to shop for your casket or urn anywhere without the funeral home charging an additional fee.

Read the Fine Print for More

It pays to read the membership paperwork at your local club.

Other benefits can include discounted movie tickets, small business loans, discounted merchant services processing for businesses, or discounts on car purchases and travel.

Membership Isn’t Always Required

Looking for an even better deal? In many states, you can skip the membership and still save on alcohol and prescription drugs.

According to KnowHowTo.com, “what Costco and other warehouse clubs such as Sam's Club don't tell you is that there are a couple of items that they are legally obliged to sell to anyone in the general public -- even if you don’t have a paid membership.

States where you can purchase alcohol without a membership include California, New York, Hawaii, Texas and apparently my home state of Massachusetts. You’ll need to do some investigation of your state’s rules and regulations or speak to a manager at your local warehouse club to see what rules regarding alcohol sales apply to your state.

As for prescription drugs, Trent at The Simple Dollar notes, “Federal law stipulates warehouse stores may not require club membership to use the pharmacy, meaning you don't need to recoup a membership fee to save money on prescriptions.”

KnowHowTo.com states, “unlike the alcohol regulations, purchasing medication without a membership is nationwide and is very well known.” If you’re having issues, get in touch with your state’s pharmacy board.

Your Turn: Are you a member of a warehouse club? How do you make the most of your membership?

Ally Piper is a writer, designer and marketing director living on Cape Cod. She blogs about life, business and balance at allypiper.com.

How much food do you throw away on a weekly basis? Whether it’s the leftover takeout that sat in the fridge just a little too long, or the bunch of kale that wilted before there was time to turn it into kale chips, most of us have had to regretfully throw out an item or two.

The average family wastes $600 of food each year, says registered dietician Nicole Cormier. That number actually sounds conservative when you consider that Americans threw away 36.4 million tons of food waste in 2012, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Click to tweet this statistic.)

Wouldn’t you rather have that $600 in your pocket than in your trash can? Here are some smart strategies to help waste less food and save more money, straight from Cormier and other experts.

1. Take Inventory of Your Food

Cormier suggests making a list of what you have in your cabinets and refrigerator before you head to the grocery store or farmers market. It’s a simple task, but it will save you a bundle in wasted food so you don’t wind up with more food than you can eat before it goes bad.

I like to clean out my freezer and pantry completely every month or so, to make sure I’m using everything up before buying new or duplicate products. You might not want to go that far, but keeping an up-to-date list of what’s in the back of the cupboards or the bottom of the freezer will help you make the most of your food purchases.

2. Cook Intuitively

“The challenge is you don’t want food to go to waste,” said Cormier.  “A skill to develop is to practice more intuitive cooking where you pull from what you have to create new and interesting dishes.” This tip spoke to me right away because it’s exactly how I cook! Before assuming we have nothing to eat, I always take a closer look at what I have on hand and I’m often surprised with the tasty meals I can create.

Greatist.com suggests designating one dinner each week as a “use-it-up” meal. Instead of cooking an entirely new meal, look around your cupboards and fridge for leftovers and food that might otherwise get overlooked. A few solid options: “casseroles, frittatas, soups and smoothies are all forgiving dishes, that embrace food that's close to turning, like overripe bananas, limp asparagus or slightly wilted carrots,” chef Aaron French told Whole Living.

3. Buy Less

It sounds like a simple concept, but in the heat of the moment under those fluorescent grocery-store lights, it’s easy to go overboard. Instead, Cormier suggests just buying what you know you will use.

Depending on where you live, taking a more European approach to shopping and picking up fresh produce every few days will ensure you only buy and keep on hand what you need. Huffington Post writer Karen Cordaway calls this the Fresh Food Rule.

Only buy as many fresh items as you and your household will eat for the next two or three days,” she advises. “Buying certain fruits in bulk can seem like a deal. If your whole family can't eat two oranges a day to make the savings worthwhile, those vitamin C packed spheres will likely end up in the garbage can, too, throwing away food and money.”

4. Stock up on Roots

Root vegetables that is! Root vegetables -- beets, carrots, turnips, sweet potatoes, yams, onions and garlic -- last much longer than greens when stored properly, so it’s ok to buy extra or take advantage of bulk savings.

Roots “are best stored in a cool, dark, humid room. When storing them in the refrigerator, keep roots in a paper or plastic bag in the crisper. Storing them uncovered causes them to soften and go bad quickly,” recommends Julia Mueller on Oh My Veggies.

5. Proper Storage is Key

It’s not just root vegetables that require special care in storage. Put your greens directly in the refrigerator and they will be wilted by the end of the day. But as Cormier recommends, “store them in a bag, like a clear small trash bag, and they will last much longer.” Waxy boxes, the type you might get from a grocery store or farmer, are also great for keeping greens and vegetables from going soft in the refrigerator.

Food Republic has a great infographic that shows the proper ways to store items in the fridge for maximum efficiency.

If you do purchase too much food, don’t be afraid to freeze extra meat, bread and vegetables. If you’re lucky enough to have a vacuum sealer on hand, use it to seal your food for maximum freshness. For vegetables, simply blanch them before sealing them in the freezer bag. (If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, you can do the same with zip-closure bags and a straw.)

Your Turn: How do you keep from wasting food?

Ally Piper is a writer, designer and marketing director living on Cape Cod. She blogs about life, business and balance at allypiper.com.

All the homes my husband and I saw while house shopping last spring were incredibly well-insulated, according to the realtors we spoke with. We were impressed, but more so when we learned that the local utility company provided the insulation for free.

Despite the fact that it sounded too good to be true, I started investigating our options shortly after closing on a single-family house on Cape Cod. I couldn’t believe it: not only would my utility company help pay for new insulation, they would also provide a free energy audit to make sure my house was as energy efficient as possible.

According to the Alliance to Save Energy, “the average U.S. household spends $5,550 a year on energy. But buying energy-efficient appliances, making energy-efficient home improvements, and taking energy-efficient actions every day can save hundreds of dollars.”

Ready to learn about local resources that can help you make your home more energy-efficient?

My Free Energy Audit

We live in Massachusetts, so my local electric provider directed me to Mass Save, an initiative sponsored by Massachusetts’ gas and electric utilities and energy efficiency service providers. The program offers services, incentives, training, and information on energy efficiency to help residents like me manage our energy usage and energy-related costs. After spending the winter renting a house that cost over $1,000 a month to heat, I was excited to learn about this program and schedule an audit.

The energy specialist assigned to our case arrived early, reviewed our most recent utility bills, and got right to work. She surveyed the outside of our house as well as our living quarters, basement and attic. She tested our water heater, checked the type of insulation we had in place and offered a multi-page report with suggestions for improvement. She answered our questions about everything from Energy Star ratings on appliances to the most efficient light blubs. It was like having our own personal energy guru for a few hours!

Our “new” house was tired and in need of some updates, so it was welcome news to learn that the home energy assessment qualified us for a rebate program that provides up to $2,000 towards insulation improvements. We also qualified for the HEAT Loan program, which provides 0% interest loans for customers like us looking to make high-efficiency improvements including replacing windows and updating heating, hot water and air conditioning systems.

But the best part of the audit was when our specialist opened the trunk of her car to pass out free goodies to help us make changes right away. She loaded us up with new energy-efficient lightbulbs, water-saving showerheads, an eco-friendly power strip and a programmable thermostat. While the total value of the audit and items she gave us was $243.94, the out-of-pocket cost to us was $0!

Finding Savings for Your Home

What if you don’t live in Massachusetts like we do? It appears most states have similar programs. The best resource for locating a program near you is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE). The site allows you to search by state and provides links to participating organizations and incentive programs.

If you’re confused about where to start, Energy.gov produced a helpful guide covering everything from air conditioning to lightbulbs; download it for free on their website.

DIY Energy Audits

If you aren’t ready for the commitment of an in-home assessment, consider a DIY option instead. EnergyStar.gov offers the Home Energy Yardstick, a simple online program that assesses your home’s annual energy use against similar homes in your area and offers suggestions for improvement and savings. It’s free to participate and all you need to get started are the last 12 consecutive months of utility bills.

Trying to find your energy information? Check out Green Button, an “industry-led effort that responds to a White House call-to-action: provide electricity customers with easy access to their energy usage data in a consumer-friendly and computer-friendly format.”

Need any more reason to schedule an appointment or give your home a quick audit? Not only do these energy-efficient changes help your bottom line, but they’re good for the environment too.

Your Turn: Have you had an energy audit or tried the Home Energy Yardstick? How much did you save on your utility bill?

Ally Piper is a writer, designer and marketing director living on Cape Cod. She blogs about life, business and balance at allypiper.com.

This post is part of our Weird Business Series. Check out the other installments to learn about more weird businesses you could start!

You’d always test drive a car before buying it, right? And you’ve probably heard of rent-to-own furniture stores. But have you ever thought about renting chickens?

This up and coming home-based industry brings a whole new meaning to “try it before you buy it.” Rent-a-chicken services provide would-be backyard farmers with everything they need -- the hens, coop, bedding, training and feed -- for a short-term rental. With a growing interest in local food, organic gardening and getting back to our roots, rent-a-chicken services are popping up in cities and towns all over the U.S.

Is this the business for you? Here’s what you need to know before launching your own rent-a-chicken operation.

Who Wants to Rent Chickens?

Many potential customers are attracted to the romanticized idea of farming and the thought of getting closer to their food. A short-term chicken rental is a great way to test the waters without commitment or major investment.

“Often one person is more into the idea and the rental gives the entire family the opportunity to see how raising chickens will affect their lifestyle before fully committing,” said Melissa Allphin, owner of Coop and Caboodle in Birmingham, Alabama.

Tyler Phillips, who co-founded Rent A Coop with his girlfriend, Diana Samata, explains that many of his renters use the service as an educational opportunity to teach important lessons about where food comes from and getting back to nature. He rents to a lot of families with young children who are embarking on a family project, as well as schools and daycares looking for a unique educational experience for their students.

How Much Can You Earn Renting Chickens?

Both businesses earn most of their money through rental fees, though each offers additional services to boost their incomes.

Coop and Caboodle charges $395 for a six-month rental of two hens, a coop and 50 pounds of feed. Rent a Coop, which focuses on shorter-term rentals, offers a four-week package for $160, including two hens, a coop, 50 pounds of feed and a bag of pine shavings for bedding. Renters can extend their contract by another four weeks for $125.

Allphin says her well-educated clientele is willing to pay a premium for organic and “designer chickens” known for laying unique eggs. “While savvy chicken farmers know they can get a bird for $10 at the local feed store, I can charge close to $50 for my designer birds.”

“It’s a low-cost business to start, not requiring too much capital,” said Phillips. In addition to renting hens, Allphin sells feed to former renters who decide to keep their chickens, builds coop upgrades and provides new or additional birds to customers wanting to expand their backyard farms. Phillips offers a chick-hatching rental program where participants get seven fertile eggs and the supplies they need to care for them for a month.

Customer service is key in this type of business. Allphin conducts hour-long training sessions with her renters making sure they feel comfortable. Phillips developed an instruction pamphlet that accompanies each rental and operates what he jokingly refers to as the “chicken hotline” to answer questions 24/7.

The Demand for Chicken Rentals is Growing… Really

The phenomenon of renting chickens and coops began in Australia in 2001 with the founding of Rentachook. More than 10 years later, it’s now the number one home industry in the country, according to Allphin.

When Phillips launched Rent a Coop in Potomac, Maryland, two years ago, there was just one other business offering the service in the U.S. Now he estimates there are at least twenty across the country -- and more on the way based on the inquiries he’s been getting from folks interested in starting similar businesses. (Click to tweet this idea.)

In fact, based on requests for rentals from customers as far away as New York and Connecticut, he plans to expand in the near future. “Until six months ago we only served customers within a 50-mile radius of the DC metro area,” he said. It helps that more communities are opening up to the idea. Phillips has noticed a lot of cities in his area, including Annapolis, are now pro-chicken. “Before you needed to get permission from the major and the coop needed to be 100 feet away,” he said. “Now it is allowed with certain restrictions.”

While Phillips contemplates expanding, Allphin once again sold out of all her hens earlier this year and is having trouble keeping up with the demand for her unique service. She finds that most of her customers end up “loving and keeping their hens.”

Your Turn: Would you start a rent-a-chicken business?

Ally Piper is a writer and marketing strategist. She recently relocated to Cape Cod with her husband and isnt getting chickens anytime soon.