Jessica Sillers - The Penny Hoarder

The handyman looked at the plaster dangling from the top of our downstairs window. Then, he headed upstairs to check the seal on the window directly overhead.

“It needs some caulk,” he announced when he returned. “If I come out again and fix it, it’ll cost $250. Or, you can pick up caulk for two or three bucks and do it yourself.”

My husband and I exchanged a nervous glance. The last time I’d held a caulk gun was 10 years ago. He never had.

But we’d just been told how to knock 99% off our potential repair bill. It seemed like now was the perfect time to learn!

Homeowner Woes

When we moved into our first house, it seemed like everything started breaking. The toilet ran, the bathroom fan died and rain leaking in that same upstairs window loosened plaster in our dining room.

No wonder homeowners typically spend between 1% and 4% of the value of their home on annual maintenance and repairs.

Thankfully, you can save hundreds or even thousands annually by doing some of the repairs on your own. Here’s how.

Learn to Do DIY Home Repairs Online

Your phone may end up being your most important tool.

Home DIY apps can help at just about every stage of a home improvement project. Better yet, several great ones are free.

Houzz is a social media platform that connects home professionals and enthusiastic DIY remodelers. You’ll find all the design inspiration you could dream of, plus lots of tutorials.

Wikihow and YouTube are other excellent sources. The first time we scoped out the inner workings of our toilet tank, YouTube videos helped us replace the faulty valve.

When you’re ready to measure twice (or more) and cut once, Handyman Calculator has more than 100 different calculators and conversion tables. Not only does measuring correctly help you avoid mistakes, you’ll have a better idea of how much material to buy in the first place, reducing waste.

Take a Free Class or Workshop

You can find free in-person instruction at hardware stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s. Many locations offer weekly workshops.

You can learn to install tile, patch and paint plaster, and tackle other home projects. Some stores will even teach you how to make fun seasonal projects to decorate your house.

Community centers or a nearby community college might also offer home improvement classes for a nominal fee.

Volunteer to Build Experience

Want to do good and get hands-on experience with a real house? Sign up for a local Habitat for Humanity build.

Depending on the stage of the project, you might learn to saw lumber, put up drywall, caulk or paint. There’s someone on-hand to answer questions and make sure you work safely. The more you give back to your community, the more skilled you’ll get at various kinds of projects.

If you can, volunteer multiple times at the same site. You’ll see the progress of a project more clearly.

There’s also a better chance you’ll be there on a day when organizers have fewer volunteers scheduled, which gives you more hands-on time.

Lean on a Neighbor for Labor

Maybe you love the buzz of power tools, but hate finicky tile work. Meanwhile, an intricate backsplash is like a fun jigsaw puzzle to your neighbor, but chainsaws are a little too Leatherface for your comfort.

Why not trade labor to get your projects done?

Join forces with multiple neighbors and all of you have a better chance at getting some free help when you need it.

Here’s how to get a neighborhood DIY home repair co-op running smoothly:

  1. Invite neighbors to sign up for skills they’re comfortable contributing. Aim for a wide spread of possible jobs.
  1. Assign a fair value to jobs so no one feels taken advantage of later. Time can be a good measure, with an hour of work translating to one “point.”
  1. Give everyone in the co-op a certain number of points per month to earn or spend by giving or receiving services. Send a monthly email with members’ balances so people can hold each other accountable to do their fair share.
  1. Accidents can happen, so be prepared. Will co-op members pay for mistakes they make doing a job? Or will homeowners assume the risk of working with an amateur? Make a plan as a group before you get started and have all members sign off on the agreement.

Know When to Go Pro

You can learn to handle a lot of repairs yourself. If you’re in over your head, though, hire a professional.

If bungling a job will result in more extensive (and expensive) damage, and especially if the work is dangerous if done incorrectly, you’re better off calling in a pro from the beginning. Safety comes before savings.

Your Turn: How do you save on home repairs?

Jessica Sillers writes about taxes, small business and careers for various companies and websites. Her next home project is painting the living room.

Are you hosting Thanksgiving this year? If so, it’s time to figure out seating arrangements and plan your menu.

Last year, the average Thanksgiving dinner for 10 cost $49.41, up 37 cents from 2013. A roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings for less than $5 is a pretty good deal, but if you’re providing the food, it can still put a dent in your grocery budget.

I’m a bit of a grocery shopping geek, so I went over the price tags for some Thanksgiving favorites. Making strategic menu choices will help you stick to a budget, while still serving up a classic meal your family will love.

Here’s what to serve, and what to skip, for a thrifty Thanksgiving dinner.

Sweet Potatoes

Serve with: Orange zest, marshmallow, maple syrup, cinnamon

Skip: Pecans

Yams have gone up a few cents, but this dish is one of the most economical favorites on the Thanksgiving table.

Toppings give you the option to save or splurge. Pecans are getting more expensive: 8 ounces of nuts generally cost $8 to $10. But a bag of mini marshmallows costs about $2 at most supermarkets.

A generous squeeze of fresh orange juice and sprinkle of zest is even cheaper (and healthier, if you’re into that). One navel orange will set you back a little more than a buck.

If you have them on hand, pantry staples like maple syrup or spices taste delicious on sweet potatoes and let you skip adding other toppings to your cart.

Savings: Up to $10

Veggies

Serve: Carrots, broccoli florets

Skip: Spinach, asparagus

When it comes to veggies, two figures matter: retail price and price per edible cup. A “bargain” on artichokes is not appealing if you can’t eat most of the plant.

Plus, a bag of spinach wilts into a few bites once cooked. Instead, pick up hardy root vegetables or a veggie with minimal waste, like broccoli florets.

Savings: Up to $17 (assuming a gathering of 10 where everyone eats a cup of vegetables)

Comfort Starch

Serve: Mashed potatoes

Skip: Macaroni and cheese

The national average price for potatoes is 65 cents per pound, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as opposed to $1.28 for noodles.

To me, Thanksgiving comfort food needs to be homemade, no powdery mixes allowed. A block of cheddar costs $2.48 at Walmart. Compare that to a bulb of garlic (50 cents at my local Safeway) and a few tablespoons of butter. Mash ‘em up.

Savings: $0.75

Fruit Sauce

Serve: Cranberry sauce

Skip: Applesauce

Traditional cranberry sauce wins here, partly due to serving size. Ounce for ounce, cranberry has a slight lead at my local supermarket.

The difference between a hearty scoop of applesauce and a drizzle of cranberry over a turkey slice clinches the savings. Serve a 14-ounce can of cranberry instead of a 24-ounce jar of applesauce and pocket the difference.

Savings: $1.40

Main Dish

Serve: Turkey, unless you can’t store it

Pound for pound, the classic turkey is your best Thanksgiving buy. One blogger found turkeys in her area as low as 48 cents per pound last year! On average, 2014 shoppers bought their birds for about $1.18 per pound, or $17.70 for an average, 15-pounder.

Wondering why the main attraction is so cheap? Some stores sell turkeys at a loss just to get customers in the door.

To score the best deal, check the supermarkets in your area for special promotions. If you need to spend a certain amount to get the promotional price, don’t accidentally overspend on other items.

Tip: Shop for year-round essentials, like paper towels and cleaning supplies, rather than marked-up seasonal items.

If you’re hosting a small party, don’t have space to store leftovers -- or (gasp!) don’t like turkey that much -- consider a nontraditional main dish. A 3-pound turkey breast costs less than a whole bird -- in my area, around $13 -- even if the per-pound price is higher.

Pay attention to your supermarket’s butcher deals. A savory pork entree might fit your family and budget better than a huge turkey.

Savings: $5 if you choose a breast

Pie

Serve: Pumpkin

Skip: Pecan

As mentioned earlier, pecans are pricey. Safeway’s bakery lists pecan pie almost $10 higher than pumpkin. Buying a pie shell and pumpkin pie filling at Walmart will save you $3 over the cost of their ready-made pecan pie, a 37% savings.

Get to stores on time, though. A disappointing pumpkin harvest means markets expect to have enough for the Thanksgiving season, but may not get a backup shipment if they run out. (Of course, if you use your leftover Halloween pumpkin, you won’t have to worry about it!)

Savings: Up to $9.80

Use all of these tips and you can save up to $44 this year -- almost the cost of the national average for the whole dinner!

Of course, Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate. If the holiday wouldn’t be the same without your signature macaroni and cheese, dish up your family’s favorite. Choose money-saving swaps where you can, and you’ll be thankful for the abundance on the table and in your wallet.

Your Turn: How do you celebrate a thrifty Thanksgiving?

Jessica Sillers writes about taxes, small business and careers for various companies and websites. She’s bringing apple-cranberry pie this Thanksgiving.

When I started freelancing, taxes mystified me. I suddenly had to figure out quarterly deadlines, whether to use an EIN or my SSN, and what deductions I could claim.

Deductions can be especially confusing because there are so many -- and so many rules for each one! Ignore them, though, and you can miss out on a big tax refund.

In my first year, for example, I didn’t set aside a separate home office space, and missed a chance to claim back a chunk of my rent.

Starting to track your deductions now means you’ll have the records you need in April to make the most of your savings potential. This guide will help you claim useful tax deductions for your freelance business, while keeping the IRS happy.

What Counts as a Home Office?

You may be able to claim part of your home expenses (think mortgage, interest, utility bills and repairs) for your business.

The most important requirement is you have to use your home office exclusively and regularly for work. You can’t claim that your dining room is your office by day, or deduct an office you use once a month.

A separate room you work in Monday to Friday, or even a section of a room reserved for your desk and laptop, is more likely to be a deductible home office.

What to Do Now

Mark out your office space. In rooms that share work and living space, try using an area rug or room divider to create boundaries.

In addition, learn about how to file your deduction. The IRS recently added a simplified set of rules for claiming a home office. You can choose to calculate your work space’s square-foot percentage, keep records of all your home-related expenses and calculate your house’s depreciation.

Or, you can claim up to 300 square feet of office space at $5 per square foot. If one method doesn’t work for you, you can switch next year.

Can I Deduct My Laptop?

Your work furniture, rug, printer and motivational poster are deductible parts of your office, too.

Again, you’ve got options. If you can prove you’ve used a new purchase for business more than 50% of the time, you may be able to deduct the full value immediately.

Fell short or haven’t kept usage records? No worries.

You can deduct a percentage of the price of most tech equipment and furniture based on a five- or seven-year depreciation scale (click here and scroll to Table 4 for details).

What to Do Now

Ask an accountant how to track your usage percentages if you want to claim the full amount of new business equipment.

I use RescueTime on my computer, which sends me a weekly productivity report. This may or may not be enough on its own to convince the government, but records will at least make it easier for a CPA to determine what further action to take.

Am I Traveling for Business or Pleasure?

A vacation is a chance to land a great assignment, but writing a magazine article while abroad doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on a business trip.

The rule of thumb is you need to have a business reason to travel before you book your trip. Selling photographs or articles later won’t retroactively make the trip business-related.

Plan a valid business trip by scheduling travel-related work assignments or conferences.

The business aspects will have to make up the primary reason for the trip. If you plan a two-week Paris vacation that includes a three-day conference, you probably won’t get to deduct airfare, although you can deduct the conference fees.

If your trip has a true business purpose, you can deduct your airfare, train tickets, lodging and meals, dry cleaning and any other normal expense. You can also deduct your mileage for travel to a temporary gig (one that you expect to run less than a year).

What to Do Now

Schedule your business trips for the rest of the year. If any take place in great locations, have fun!

Just be sure to keep firm boundaries on what’s business and what’s personal.

Your visit to MOMA for an art magazine assignment counts as a business expense. The Broadway show you attended with your family that night, not so much.

If you’re unsure, keep clear records and ask your accountant.

If It’s a Business Dinner, Can I Get the Lobster?

You’re doing a face-to-face interview over lunch. If this meal is on Uncle Sam’s dime, can you treat yourself to the priciest dish on the menu? Well, maybe.

The IRS typically allows you to deduct only 50% of a meal or other business-related entertainment expense. If you’re on a tight budget, the $95 prix fixe menu may still hurt.

You also can’t claim “lavish or extravagant” entertainment deductions. That doesn’t mean you can never deduct a fancy outing, but that the entertainment has to fit the business occasion. You probably won’t interview a stay-at-home dad in the same place as a senator.

What to Do Now

Keep those receipts! Note who you were with and what purpose the meeting served.

What’s a “Necessary” Expense?

Many freelancers struggle with imposter syndrome. When they read the IRS only allows “ordinary and necessary” business deductions, they may second-guess their way out of money they deserve.

The IRS defines “necessary” as “helpful and appropriate,” and states explicitly that an expense does not have to be indispensable to be considered necessary.”

Your organization software, the monthly magazine subscription that inspires you, and your writer’s group membership dues can all be necessary parts of how you run your freelance business.

What to Do Now

Don’t sell yourself short! Find a records system that works for you and list everything that helps you get the work done.

If tax season rolls around and you’re still not sure whether a particular expense counts, ask a pro. Chances are, if you think something is a true business expense, the IRS will, too.

Your Turn: Freelancers, what do you do during the year to make it easier to claim your deductions during tax season?

This post does not constitute tax advice. For specific advice, please see a tax professional.

Jessica Sillers is a freelance writer living in the Washington, DC area. She’s written about taxes, small business and careers for various companies and websites.