Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Do you need a LAWN SERVICE? Try not to!

Lawn services have proliferated in America in the last 20 years.  Today, lawn service companies, with their ratty two-axle trailers and small armies of quasi-legal immigrants and leaf blowers are a regular sight in many suburban neighborhoods.  But hiring a lawn service can cost thousands of dollars a year.  Is this worthwhile?

As I note in my Great American Lawn posting, you can squander a ton of money trying to make a "perfect" lawn around your home, fighting nature in the process.  And as houses are getting bigger and being put on larger and larger lots - and as Americans decide they are "too busy" yakking on their cell phones and driving all over hell's half-acre, they hire lawn services to mow their lawns for them.

I once worked for a fellow who hired a lawn service to mow his lawn.  While the Mexicans were doing his lawn, he would drive to the gym to "get some exercise" - burning gas both ways and paying money for the privilege.  As we all know, exercise is something that should only be done under expert supervision, and only after you have paid money to do it!  Or maybe not....

Anyway, it struck me as odd that here was another example of how our lifestyles have become yet more sedentary, where we pay people or use machines to do our work for us, and then pay other people and use other machines to exercise us.  It makes no frigging sense, if you ask me.

Subscription services, as I have noted in the past, can add up over time, to the point where you have subscription fatigue.  Some folks pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month for these "little fees" that cumulatively are enough to make the payments on a BMW.  And a nice one, too.

We have been aggressive in trying to eliminate such fees, or at least reduce them.  Dumping the Cable Cabal ($100 a month for many people) in favor of Netflix ($9.99 a month), for example.  Or going to a pay as you go cell plan ($200 a year) versus the 450 minute a month plan ($80 a month).   Dumping junk coverage and upping deductibles on insurance policies is another example.  And the savings add up to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a month.

Our lawn service is one of the last of these to go away.  We had it because we lived here only seasonally (6 months a year) and we needed someone to mow the lawn while away.  But now that we are "full time" (which cut our living expenses by more than half) it really is not necessary.   And the costs are pretty high and the savings pretty big.

How big?    Well, at about $100 a month average, we are talking anywhere from $1200 to $1400 a year in costs.  This is a pretty big number in two ways.  First, as a percentage of disposable income it might account for as much as 10% of disposable income for someone making $100,000 a year.  Second, over time, this adds up to the tens of thousands of dollars, particularly in opportunity cost to your retirement savings.

A well-made lawnmower with a Honda engine, can be bought at the local big-box lumberteria for about $250 and should last several years.  You may have to buy other ancillary items (a weed-eater or a leaf-blower, although the latter are annoying as all get out).  For a reasonably sized lawn it should take no more than an hour or two a month to mow, and the exercise, while not "scientifically designed" by your personal trainer, will burn calories.  In other words, we all need the exercise.

So even assuming the cost of a lawn mower, gas, and the like, there is a savings of at least $1000 a year.   And some of that money can be put into making the lawn more attractive (if you want to go the chemical route) or in planting non-lawn items.

The lawn service can also be annoying as well.  We've had several, at numerous properties, and oftentimes they damage things in their hurry to mow as many houses as possible - they girdle trees and scar sidewalks.  They blow leaves off your walkway, but in the process blow copious amounts of dust and pollen into your house, if you have any windows open.  Sometimes, they make more work than they solve.  Recently, I had to clean our entire screened porch, after the lawn service leaf-blower guy blew in a ton of dust from his leaf blower.  It took him 10 minutes to do this, and 2 hours for me to clean.  How is this saving me time or money?

Our goal is to plant more native plants (decorative grasses, palms, and the like) to take up more and more yard, to minimize the actual lawn area.  This way, the amount of lawn to be mowed will be very small, and it will take less time to take care of and cost a lot less to own.

And the savings will be equal to over $25,000 at retirement, if invested at a 5% rate of return.  Having a lawn service is a nice luxury.  But it is an expensive one.  And while many folks think they can afford it, they fail to take into account the overall costs and impact on their net worth, as well as their disposable income.

Smaller lawns, no lawns, no lawn service.  That's my goal.  I have no desire to own a perfect greensward - certainly not at the cost of over $1000 a year.  Lawns suck.  I realized this as a teenager, and 30 years later, am finally figuring it out again.