You pay for WHAT?
November 4, 2010 2:48 AM   Subscribe

What things would you would never consider paying money for, once you learned how easy it was to do/make/fix yourself?

This was spurred by a discussion with a friend whose family had never made garlic bread (foreign family) and considered it an exotic treat to buy the horrible tinfoil-wrapped stuff at Safeway. I had never considered that someone wouldn't know how to make garlic bread, but there are probably a lot of dishes I pay for at ethnic restaurants that are laughably easy to make. Ideally these should be things that you can explain to neophytes in less than 5 minutes with no understanding of the fundamental principles, no specialized equipment, and no chance of catastrophic failure.
posted by benzenedream to Grab Bag (101 answers total) 436 users marked this as a favorite
Soup. Any kind of soup.
posted by halogen at 2:53 AM on November 4, 2010 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Whipped cream.

Real coffee.

Rice (boil in the bag rice is the height of idiocy.)
posted by DarlingBri at 2:54 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Chapattis and dhal. I can barely boil an egg because the timing is beyond me but homemade chappattis and dhal are pretty much unkillable. You don't even need the special pan or anything, just a normal one will do.

easy chapatti recipe
posted by shinybaum at 2:58 AM on November 4, 2010 [10 favorites]

Corned beef: all you really have to do is mix an immense amount of salt and sugar and spices with water to make brine and leave a big chunk of beef in it for about 24 hours. I find the normal brisket cut that they use for corned beef to be disgustingly fatty so it's really nice to be able to pick the cut you use. Recipes in the free hundred-year-old cookbooks on Google Books.
posted by XMLicious at 3:00 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Applesauce and tomato sauce. Both are easy, quick, cheap, and more delicious when homemade.
posted by neushoorn at 3:04 AM on November 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

Bagels. Seriously, you're mixing bread and letting it sit for almost the entire process. You can do so many other things at the same time. But I've also accepted that they won't be pretty because I'm not all that good at rolling them yet.
posted by theichibun at 3:04 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Stock as opposed to stock cubes. Pizza. Mayonnaise. Tomato pasta sauces. Pesto. Grilled chicken. Bread. [not talking about restaurant visits, of course]
posted by Namlit at 3:11 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Dips. Guacamole is easy as can be. And, as I recently discovered, so is tzatziki. Minimal ingredients, nothing fancy needed, and cheap as chips.
posted by twirlypen at 3:20 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Baby food. It's pretty much a case of just making adult food without the salt and spices and then blending to the desired consistency. I can make a hundred baby meals for freezing in a couple of hours with no problem.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:22 AM on November 4, 2010 [7 favorites]

Beef jerky. Anybody who can put together a marinade and spices can make their own jerky with a regular oven. Compared to the convenience store junk seen most places, even the worst homemade jerky is a step up and quite a bit cheaper.
posted by Saydur at 3:24 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Peppermint tea. It grows like a weed, and a few leaves, lightly crushed and steeped in boiling water, makes a better brew than anything you can buy in a bag.

Hot chocolate powder. I just mix a couple of teaspoons of Dutch process cocoa with a spoon of sugar. It's probably not a whole lot cheaper, but it tastes amazing and isn't as sickly sweet as packaged brands.

Hummus. Drain a can of chickpeas (garbanzo beans), add the juice of a lemon, a slosh of olive oil and half a clove of garlic. Blend till smooth. Traditional recipes are probably more involved, but even this version is much better than the stuff they sell in pots at the grocery store.

Not food-related, but: hemming trousers. If you own or can get access to a sewing machine, it's crazy to pay a seamstress $15 to do it for you -- which seems to be the going rate where I live. Ditto for replacing buttons or mending split seams, and those, you can do by hand. Unless a garment is very complex or very expensive, I just fix it myself.
posted by embrangled at 3:26 AM on November 4, 2010 [7 favorites]

Oh, and tahini. The hummus needs a dash of tahini.
posted by embrangled at 3:28 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Dinner rolls, applesauce, pesto, tomato sauce (unless it's Bove's, because good goddamn), sandwich bread, iced tea, muffins, cheesecake.
posted by spinturtle at 3:47 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oooh, I'm gonna try homemade beef jerky now.

This thread made me hungry for one of my favorite meals - canned salmon, though it's not exactly something you normally pay for anyways. You have to get past your squickyness because the cans contain nearly a whole fish (gutted and headless and tailless), which you have to remove the spine from, but after that you're golden. A little rice on the side, some fine mustard and fresh pepper, and you've got a princely meal. I have also found the various fish sauces from south-east asian cultures to be highly efficacious condiments.

Not only that but salmon is packed with Omega-3's and the mercury levels are some of the lowest available in any fish because it's usually caught by Alaskan fishermen in the deep Pacific. (Canned fish on average has less mercury than fresh fish.)

No one should be buying egg breakfast sandwiches. Here's my 3 minute method for making them, from a breakfast thread.
posted by XMLicious at 3:58 AM on November 4, 2010

Macaroni & cheese.


Ground coffee.

posted by unSane at 4:09 AM on November 4, 2010

2nding hot chocolate - apparently the fact that I make it from "scratch" is completely baffling to visitors during winter months. Same with brownies and regular sheet cake. Stuff from a box requires you to add an egg and milk anyway, why get the box at all? It's always tastier and I can use better chocolate if I do it from scratch.

A lot of the time, however, the food thing is a matter of service, which you can't do at home for yourself no matter what (specifically I'm thinking of stuff like breakfast, which is easy to make, but the luxury of diner breakfast is glorious).

As for non-food stuff (you didn't specify), my main one is basic clothing maintenance sewing, like reinforcing buttons, hemming pants, pressing shirts, repairing small tears. I once had a roommate who, so convinced was he that attaching a button required esoteric knowledge of some sort of (and I quote) "special knot technique", refused to learn until I sat him down and brandished a needle at his face until he relented. All this sort of stuff requires is an iron and a run of the mill sewing kit, which basic hotels provide so you should have them too.
posted by Mizu at 4:11 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Are we just talking food? I have some non-food examples:

Hats and scarves. Knitting them is actually less cost-effective, but you get better results.

Leave-in conditioner is regular conditioner + water.

"Surf spray" is the above + sea salt and a tiny bit of hair gel.

Wrinkle-releaser spray is fabric softener + water.

I use plain cornstarch as translucent face powder after noticing it was the first ingredient in a $30 powder at Sephora. Weird, but it works.

Seconding guacamole and hummus. Also, I make brownies and cookies from scratch, not the boxed mixes. I still buy canned frosting, but the real stuff is way better.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:12 AM on November 4, 2010 [22 favorites]

Bacon. I'm shocked at how many people I know who buy the pre-cooked kind.

Ditto rice, soup and mac & cheese.

The packaged pasta meals.
posted by SoulOnIce at 4:21 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do this with almost everything, which is both very rewarding and extraordinarily frustrating. I have this - compulsion, I guess I should say - that if I want something, I should be able to produce it from scratch, i.e. grow the grain for the chickens that lay the eggs that go on my breakfast plate.

Things we make ourselves:
-tomato sauce, apple sauce
-baked goods (girlfriend makes bread, cakes, etc.)
-herbs (usually... I've had terrible luck with our garden lately)
-desktop computers
-cat toys
posted by backseatpilot at 4:22 AM on November 4, 2010

Curry (I still buy the curry paste, so I'm not sure how "do-it-yourself" that is)
chicken soup

Sewing on buttons

Everything else, I really don't know how to do. :(
posted by TrishaLynn at 4:46 AM on November 4, 2010

Our generic criteria for dining out is that we try to go to places that make things we do not have skills to make, which use ingredients we would rarely or never get to use.

Thus, anything we make ourselves is worth it, to the extent that we have time, energy and money to make it on our own.

Ideally these should be things that you can explain to neophytes in less than 5 minutes with no understanding of the fundamental principles, no specialized equipment, and no chance of catastrophic failure.

With respect, other than reheating a microwave dinner or putting bread into a toaster — bruschetta, maybe — there are very few meals that can be prepared in under five minutes, from scratch, with those criteria.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:48 AM on November 4, 2010

I make my own wallets. I got a few squares of leather in the colour I wanted from a leather merchant for £25, and I've already made 2 wallets to my own specification, rather than what manufacturers think would be useful. You can't get wallets in the colours I want, so DIY is the way to go.

It's not nearly as difficult as it may look. The hardest part is piercing holes through 2 or 3 layers of leather, though I'm sure there is a better tool out there than a drawing pin. You also need some strong thread, perhaps made from rayon. The results are worth it - people keep asking me where I bought my wallet.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 4:58 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Installing faucets and light fixtures.
posted by something something at 4:59 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

One exception I can think of is marshmallows, which I went to great effort to make, back in the eighties, only to find them nearly identical to the cheap commercial ones. That recipe and many others along the lines you're asking about are included in the book
posted by Ery at 5:05 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Most things covered by a Haynes manual.
Using 2-Stroke oil instead of Diesel Redex or similar in my fuel.
Fixing or altering plumbing.
Fixing or altering woodwork.
Building, installing, troubleshooting IT equipment.
Satellite television installation.
Minor electrical repairs.
Writing small scripts or applications that replicate functionality in pay-for software.
Making colouring pages or "3 Rs" activity sheets for my daughter.
Page layout, graphic design, web development work for my daughter's school.

Most of these things are relatively straightforward, and shouldn't result in catastrophic failure as long as you pay attention and take your time.

Use of specialised tools or equipment depends on your definition of specialised; most things on my list would require tools that you would have in a reasonable home tool kit.
posted by NordyneDefenceDynamics at 5:06 AM on November 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

[oops, broke the link]
The recipe for marshmallows, and many others along the lines you're asking about, are included in the book Better Than Store Bought.
posted by Ery at 5:07 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

seconding NordyneDefenceDynamics on the regular mechanical maintenance on motor vehicles.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:16 AM on November 4, 2010

Chocolate syrup
Focaccia bread
Tomato sauce
Oil and filter changes in my cars
Painting a room
Carpet cleaning
posted by Thorzdad at 5:23 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Avgolemono soup and butternut squash soup.
Cocoa (I use Alton Brown's recipe).
Bread (quick no-knead).
posted by theredpen at 5:30 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Pancake mix. It takes me all of five minutes to mix up 5 lbs. of mix which I store in a canister with the instructions to make the pancakes taped on the side. Mine is considerably healthier than box mixes (and I can substitute in whole wheat flour or other whole grains for a portion of the regular flour) and has far fewer additives. And it tastes way better when made up!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:33 AM on November 4, 2010 [9 favorites]

Semiprecious stone jewelry. Seriously--learn some basic skills, find a decent supplier or two, and you'll never be able to pay retail ever again.
posted by availablelight at 5:42 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Jams.
For example, strawberry jam. Put some sugar and strawberries in a pan & cook = jam!
You don't have to can it, just keep in a fridge and eat within a week.

Also, herbs.
Grow some on your windowsill if you don't have a garden. Rosemary, basil, thyme, chives, mint...

Also, language lessons and learning new software. There is so much information and resources available online, and you can teach yourself almost anything. Video tutorials, forums, flashcards, online grammars, dictionaries, help files etc.
posted by leigh1 at 5:51 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bagels. Seriously, you're mixing bread and letting it sit for almost the entire process. You can do so many other things at the same time. But I've also accepted that they won't be pretty because I'm not all that good at rolling them yet.

This actually really surprises me. I've spent a considerable portion of my life baking, and my first job was as a bagel baker, and I think bagels are a royal pain to make. You have to boil them before baking them, which is messy and takes a long time in a home kitchen. Unless you live in a place with no good commercial bagels, which is quite possible since most places don't include enough gluten in their dough, buying bagels is significantly easier. Good commercial bagels also tend to be better because they have commercial kettles that keep their heat with a load of bagels, and a hotter oven in which to bake them.
posted by OmieWise at 5:58 AM on November 4, 2010 [9 favorites]

all purpose cleaning spray- I use vinegar and water
toilet bowl cleaner- sprinkle baking soda around the sides, then pour vinegar over it– yay fizz! Put a drop of eucalyptus oil and shut the lid for a few minutes before scrubbing. Oh, and use baking soda and vinegar-water spray to clean the tub.
posted by to recite so charmingly at 5:59 AM on November 4, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Tuning up a bicycle.
posted by ghharr at 6:18 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are we only talking about food? Because learning to cut my own bangs/hair (nothing fancy. Just how to give myself a few layers) has saved me a lot of money.
posted by pimli at 6:27 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I make most of my own clothes. Actually, I've made all of them for the last three years with the exception of some maternity clothes (too tired to bother until recently) and underwear for the last three years. I've gotten fast at it and I have a good stock of favorite patterns, so it's easy to whip something out that will fit automatically in a small amount of time. I have a nice stock of vintage-style dresses tailored to my size and even the silk ones cost less than $30.

I made lots of mistakes at first, but it got easier once I figured out what colors and shapes look good on my pear-shaped body.

I've also made all of the pies in our household for years. I have a flaky, chewy pie crust recipe that I have down to a science:
  • 1 1/3 cups of bread-making flour
  • 1 stick salted butter
  • 1/3 cup super cold ice water

Put the flour into a large mixing bowl. Cut the stick of butter into small pieces and then cut it into the flour until the mixture is crumbly and there are no pieces of butter left larger than the size of a pea. I like to use a fork in one hand and a butter knife in the other to smoosh everything together. Be careful not to overwork.

Next, add your water a little at a time until you can roll the dough up into a ball; you probably won't need all of it. Cover it with saran wrap and keep it in the fridge for at least an hour. Freeze if you'll need it after 3 days.

The trick to having extra flaky crust is to make sure that the butter stays as solid as possible and only melts in the oven. To make sure this never happens, I never touch the dough with my hands until it's ready to be balled up and placed in the refrigerator. I also dice my butter and then freeze it for 30 minutes. I also freeze the mixing bowl for 30 minutes.

I also make all of our baguettes:
  • 1/2 tsp of active dry yeast
  • 1/2 tsp of sugar
  • 3/4 cup of warm water
  • 2 cups of bread flower
  • Pinch of salt
  • ~1 tbsp oil

Combine the yeast, sugar and warm water in a glass. Let them sit for a few minutes until the yeast foams. While waiting combine the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Stir in the liquid a little at a time using a fork. After all of the liquid had been added, knead with one hand. Add a little extra flour to make the dough elastic.

Pour the oil into a new bowl (I usually use olive oil), and plop your dough ball in, turning it until coated. Cover the bowl with a towel and let it rise for 90 minutes.

Take the dough and squish it into a long loaf shape and put it on a cookie sheet. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and bake for 20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.

The coolest thing about this recipe is that if you leave out 1/2 cup of flour you can use the dough to make thick, yeasty pizza crusts.

We also have chickens for eggs. (City chickens!) They're great pets and the eggs taste much better.

I guess all of the above makes us sound like psuedo-homesteaders, but we're just cheapskates with occasional free time.
posted by Alison at 6:29 AM on November 4, 2010 [55 favorites]

Tax returns. I used to go to H&R Block to have my taxes done. However, they charge you extra for every item they have to input, so one year when I had a lot of receipts they charged me $150 for about 15 minutes work. And my taxes were really simple — just one income and some tuition, RRSP and dental/medical receipts. I was furious, and I informed them I was never coming back.

For a few years after that I hired a friend of a friend, who was working her way up through the accounting certification levels, to do them for about $30. Then she stopped doing freelance tax returns, so I bought tax return software for about $20 and did them myself. Then the next year I used an online tax preparer program for about $15. I've done that ever since, and since I have an account there a lot of my information has already been automatically entered into the current year's form when I open it. I could get the forms and do it for free, of course, but I think it's worth it to pay the $15 because the program checks my form for mistakes and apparently their customers also get some assistance should their be problems with the return.
posted by orange swan at 6:29 AM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Water. You can get it free of charge from a tap/faucet/cooler.
posted by TheRaven at 6:31 AM on November 4, 2010 [20 favorites]

Best answer: Cranberry sauce and hot chocolate
posted by belladonna at 6:35 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mechanical repairs (yah, takes time to build and continually add to tool kit), and most foods that don't require a lot of chop/prep time.
posted by buzzman at 6:35 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Making your own butter is so easy it's embarassing. And tasty, too!
posted by spinturtle at 6:38 AM on November 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

i made all of my daughter's baby food using this food mill

i make most of my daughter's dolls by needle felting, although mine are considerably less complex than in this link and take me about 15 minutes...
posted by lakersfan1222 at 6:45 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Fried rice. Maybe it's just because I grew up in my parents' restaurant, but paying for fried rice is like paying to rummage around in someone's fridge for leftovers.
posted by advicepig at 6:54 AM on November 4, 2010 [12 favorites]

Best answer: I never pay for dry cleaning (my very few) silk blouses or cashmere sweaters. You may be reluctant to wash such items with Woolite on the delicate cycle, but I'm not. I'm reluctant to pay for dry cleaning. I've never shrunken any of these pieces. I take them out right after the cycle ends and lay them out in a rack in the laundry room or outside, depending on the weather. I've been doing this for years. The pieces still look great.

I never pay for black bean soup either. Now that I live near Trader Joe's, I take one can of their black beans, rinse them, put the rinsed beans in a pot, and add a container of their fresh roasted corn salsa, and a cup or less of vegetable or chicken stock. If i'm not feeling lazy, I use my immersion blender to partially process the soup. Without the stock or cooking, this beans/salsa combo also makes a great bean salad.

Pizza isn't good in my area, so I make my own, using store-bought pizza dough.

I make my own thick, French-style hot chocolate. Heat up a cup or two of whole milk, melt pieces of a 4-8 oz. high quality dark chocolate bar into it (and a splash of espresso or coffee if you have some lying around), let it sit while you go out cross-country skiing, then reheat carefully so it doesn't burn, and "drink" with a spoon. Follow next day by cross-country skiing, sans the hot chocolate at the end, so as not to wake up the third day five pounds heavier. David Liebovitz has the precise instructions on his website. Basically, good French hot chocolate is a hot chocolate bar with milk added. Never paid for that in France either once I found David's recipe.
posted by Elsie at 6:55 AM on November 4, 2010 [6 favorites]

Shoe care (polishing or using a suede brush), blankets/quilts, bread, soup, stock, preserves, and other kitcheny stuff.
posted by catlet at 7:06 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: BBQ Sauce. Bonus points if you make your own ketchup for the base ingredient!
posted by matty at 7:22 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always been a tinkerer, so I'm all about repairing and installing things myself. My criteria are that if I CAN do it, and I can do it to the quality level I can live with, and I have the time, I do it myself. I can paint a wall beautifully. I cannot paint a car fender. Don't have the equipment or patience or opportunity to practice long enough to do a good enough job that it won't jump out at me every single time I look at it.

Auto repairs is a big one- I have saved untold thousands of dollars maintaining my own vehicles, and enjoyed a good 60% of it. I'm so cheap I do my own alignments...

Computer stuff, but that's because that's what I do for a living. I'll toss it in the canal before I pay someone to do anything like that.

Taxes are a HUGE one. Just follow the instructions. It tells you everything you need to know. If it says "enter the number from line 38 of form 3425 here" then you see what form 3425 is, and fill it out if it pertains to you. Admittedly, this is a LOT easier in the Internet age where you can just download any form you want.

Here is one that boggled my mind. I live in a building with shared laundry. I was washing my shower curtains. The always-has-no-money building busybody comes by and asks me why in the world I'm washing them- just buy new ones!

(But I've also learned that sometimes the do-it-yourself ethic is an exercise in disappointment. I wish I had the time or skills to do even a tenth of these things myself...

But I also am missing the imaginary area on my tastebuds that can taste the love and effort put into food. There are very few "homemade" things that I ever though tasted better than an above-average restaurant version.

And don't get me wrong- I am as cheap as they come, and I have tried a lot of these things. Especially the baking things- they always taste exactly like the brand of flour and yeast that's available. Which just isn't as flavorful or fresh as good-commercial bakery products.

If anyone can tell me how to fix that, I'd appreciate it. And yes, I've tried King Arthur flour. Makes a good "hearty white" bread.

And tap water people: can you seriously not taste the difference between tap water and filtered/spring water? NYC is the only place with decent tap water, and Chicago if your pipes are hooked up to the right water intake.)
posted by gjc at 7:39 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fruit leather (blend fruit and spices, spread and dry. My next attempt is savory vegetable leathers which can be eaten plain or dissolved in water to make soup.)
Dried fruit (anything that is approaching over-ripe gets dried)
Beef Jerky (who makes jerky with curry and fish sauce? ME!)

(I love my dehydrator.)

Baby food

Drywall (nix that. Small Drywall Patches. drywall repair is easy. drywalling a large space is easy too, but screw that, I'd rather pay someone than fight the dust again.)
posted by Seamus at 7:43 AM on November 4, 2010

I hate to pay for bottled water. Tap water where I live is way better, and there's no plastic bottle or shipping.
Car washing. I have a hose and a driveway.
Dry cleaning, mostly. Most stuff can be washed carefully at home. Jackets and pool pants go the dry cleaners occasionally.
Pancake mix. Not as good as homemade, and homemade are much better.
I hardly ever buy clothes new/retail. Goodwill, outlet and clearance.

Many things listed above are things I buy for convenience some of the time, even if I can make them better/cheaper.
posted by theora55 at 7:48 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not directly answering your question:

I agree that a lot of things on this list are easy to make. However, based on a limited kitchen (and a limited budget), some of the crappy store-bought versions are more than sufficient. I know it's cliche, but Trader Joe's versions of some of these foods seem a bit less toxic (Mac 'n Cheese, Hot Chocolate, etc.) than what you would find in a standard supermarket and the convenience factor is still there.

Other reasons the convenience versions are useful:
-Middle schooler can be trusted to make Easy Mac in the microwave, but I'd rather he stay away from the stove
-Dorm living or other situations where accessing a kitchen (particularly a dishwasher/sink) is difficult
-Making things "on the go," like putting a packet of hot cocoa into a travel mug and dumping in hot water rushing out the door rather than mixing something on the stove

That being said, I have a sewing machine and use it extensively. I really dislike shopping, and buying clothes from the thrift store/sizing them down is much faster than searching for and trying on clothes in a regular store. Plus, limited guilt if a $0.99 skirt just doesn't work out.
posted by lovelylucy at 7:50 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Pasta. It's actually incredibly easy to make, and pasta machines (the hand-cranked kind) are very inexpensive. Even Mr. Narrative, who barely cooks, managed to make pasta from scratch that was super tasty on his first try.

Bonus tip: if the pasta machine gets squeaky, spray-on olive oil works perfectly to smooth things out.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:51 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Yogurt--heat milk to nearly boiling, cool, add a couple of tablespoon of your last yogurt batch, set in a warm place for six to eight hours and you are done. Super simple!
Granola--oats mixed with nuts that have been mashed, sprinkle with brown sugar, add a mixture of oil, maple syrup, and salt, stir, bake at 225 for an hour or two and your done. Also simple (and lots less expensive/more tasty than the store bought stuff).
Baked goods--so simple (a cake mix), a little less simple (cookies), more involved but still easy (cinnamon rolls).
posted by MsKim at 8:11 AM on November 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Curtains can be worth making yourself. They aren't hard to make — they are just big rectangles. At minimum, hem them on four sides and buy a package of clips with rings to attach them to the curtain rod. Or make a bigger hem on the top and slide the curtain rod into it. If you're up for a challenge, you can make tabs or even pinch pleats or roman blinds.

But as with anything, do the math and your research before you decide to buy or make. It's not always cheaper to make things from scratch.

For instance, I was going to make living room curtains two years ago. But, when I went to Fabriclands, I didn't find any fabric I liked and I did find curtains on sale for $25 a set that were just what I wanted, except that they were 3" too short and somewhat too wide. In order to buy fabric cheaper I'd have to get it for less than $7 a metre, which wasn't at all likely. I bought the ready made curtains, cut a strip off each side to make them the right width, and used some of the cut off fabric to make tabs, which made the curtains the right length. And presto, for $50 and a few hours' work, I had two sets of 8' curtains.
posted by orange swan at 8:16 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pesto sauce!

Just blend olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, parm. cheese and basil. Then voila. It always tastes better than what you buy in a store.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 8:42 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

A treadmill or Stairmaster. You don't even need shoes. Just go outside and start running. Hills are optional.
posted by jasondigitized at 8:43 AM on November 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

You people make me feel lazy.

I have paid for only one haircut in the last 16 years. Once I learned how to cut my short, somewhat mannish hair myself I didn't see the point. I thought it might be time for a change about seven years ago and tried a stylist. Hated the cut and went back to doing it myself.
posted by FlamingBore at 9:02 AM on November 4, 2010


Simply too easy to make a pile and/or Gedye bin.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:06 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The gym. I have a set of those elastic bands which sadly sit on a shelf, unloved, but were great when I did regularly use them.

New electrical circuits, demolishing stuff, chopping firewood, networking and computer-related

Food-wise - risotto (the 40 minutes of stirring is strangely theraputic), cooked beetroot, mixed salads, salad dressing, any sort of pancake/yorkshire pudding mix, as they are basically just flour anyway.

I rarely buy beer, as a buddy and I regularly all-grain brew 10gal batches, and I typically have two styles on tap, but I think if you included all the startup costs we are currently running at about $10/pint!
posted by nicktf at 9:09 AM on November 4, 2010

Response by poster: Great suggestions! The question is not limited to just food. Anything should be fair game, e.g. taxes, auto repair as mentioned. I realize anything is do-able if you read the instructions, do some background research, and proceed cautiously. I'm thinking of moments when you slapped your forehead after seeing how easy it was to do something that looked complicated when prepackaged or delivered.

One other food example would be caramel -- once I made my own, the store bought stuff tastes like toxic waste in comparison. The only trick is figuring out the timing of browning the sugar, and it's not like sugar is expensive to waste on a few trial batches.
posted by benzenedream at 9:16 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Heuvos Rancheros, or our version of them.

Last night I arrived home a bit haggard and Mrs. W suggested I take a shower, while she made dinner. Over the summer, we had Heuvos Rancheros at a local restaurant for the first time, and both thought they were yummy, though not something we would have thought of ever ourselves. So, for dinner last night Mrs. W combined a soft taco, some ground turkey meat with taco seasoning on it (that we had used for tacos a few days before), some left over beans, cheddar cheese, and she topped the whole thing with two poached eggs (because I love them.) It was yummy, and particularly good after a trying day.

The only other thing I will add to the list is haircuts -- Mrs. W has cut my hair for the last 5 or 6 years. It saves a lot of money, and as a bonus, she will always like the way my hair looks because she did it herself. (This does require the person doing it to know how to cut hair, of course.)
posted by wittgenstein at 9:49 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Roasted pumpkin seeds. If your local grocery, coop, or whoever sells them raw and bulk, they're very easy to make yourself. Throw in a plain skillet with no added fat, heat them and brown to taste, maybe 5-10 minutes. Smell and taste great when fresh and hot, too.
posted by gimonca at 10:08 AM on November 4, 2010

About 8 years ago I was in the grocery store buying my weekly bread, looked down at the price, and just said "no way". I've been making it ever since. After a few years I did buy a bread maker from King Arthur but we haven't really looked back since, except for special stuff like the occasional emergency Portuguese Sweet Bread or bagels. The later is on my "list of things to figure out" though. Unfortunately this thread just lengthened that list quite a bit.
posted by jwells at 10:28 AM on November 4, 2010

I change my own oil in my car, takes just as long as jiffy lube and saves at least $15 every time.
posted by Felex at 10:46 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Lots of these are good ideas and I'm the type to do pretty much everything myself, but this one satisfied the head-slapping criteria:

Mayonaise. It takes a little elbow grease, and you really do have to use a glass or enameled bowl, but not only is it fast and easy, and cheaper and better than store bought, people think you're some kind of wizard for doing it.

Focaccia too. It's really a very primitive bread. Mine came out as good as any I'd ever had on the first try, and this was while I was still struggling to make successful bread of any kind.
posted by cmoj at 10:48 AM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: With regard to auto repair, I've done my own brake jobs and the brake jobs for friends' cars for years. Once they realize how easy it is, and the massive amounts of margin a shop makes on this service, it's a pretty compelling reason to do it yourself on a weekend afternoon.

Even on most modern cars you don't need super-special tools; you just need to be careful and patient.
posted by apranica at 10:55 AM on November 4, 2010

Car repairs. I will never take my car in for brake pads and rotors again. Used to pay a minimum of $300 per go. Now it's $70-80 and a little bit of sweat, doesn't count my repair manual I purchased on amazon for $7. Seriously, $7 for a car repair manual. Buy it. I will try pretty much any car repair first as long as I believe I reasonably have the tools and study first. Replace a pulley or serpentine belt? Done by #1. Replace a windshield or tires? I don't have those tools and won't reasonably get them, call in the professional.

Computer repairs of all types. I've always done my own repairs, but I've also taught others to do their own. All of the errors are well documented on the internet, and it's not worth paying the $100+ for someone else to do it. Computer repairs are also my way of getting artwork from my right-brained friends, because trading is awesome.

My other favorite money-saver: buy spices in bulk. My local grocery has most spices under $4/pound in bulk. Get a bunch of cheapo spice jars and fill them yourself with the bulk spices and save a bunch of money. I probably save around $100/year in my couple yearly spice runs and don't feel guilty about disposing of some old and stale spices.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:01 AM on November 4, 2010

2nding taxes and haircuts. Oil changes and brake jobs too.

Also homebrewing beer. My wife got me the startup kit for about 100 USD and the first batch I brewed (double IPA) was sensational. And this was with malt syrup, not grains which the enthusiasts prefer. By now I've amortized the costs and it's costing me a few dollars/gallon.

Pizza dough! Throw 15 ounces of flour in a food processor along with 1 tsp salt, 1 tbls sugar and 2 tsp yeast. With the machine running drizzle in 1 tbsp olive oil and as much hot tap water as it takes to come together. Turn out into an oiled bowl and put in a warmed oven. 45 min later you've got enough pizza dough for two 14" pizzas.
posted by werkzeuger at 11:10 AM on November 4, 2010

Cornbread. The easy recipe's right on the container of corn meal.

Music and audio entertainment: the radio (left end of the dial only) and library CDs. Also from the library: DVDs. And books, of course. The selection may be incredible, if you live in or near an affluent area.
posted by Rash at 11:13 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, clothes washing powder. There are infinite variations on the recipe, and I never bother to make the liquid, but my recipe is one grated bar of ivory soap, two cups each of borax and washing soda (it'll be in the detergent aisle). Use about a third as much as you would from a box of tide or whatever. It costs about 1/10 as much as commercial detergent by volume, so you're saving on a 3000% markup, the bastards. Dish washing detergent (for a machine) is the same thing without the ivory, and white vinegar in the "rinse aid" thingy.

If you don't use the vinegar your dishes will be pretty cloudy. Other than that neither me nor my roommates have been able to detect any difference between the bootleg and store bought detergents.
posted by cmoj at 11:15 AM on November 4, 2010 [9 favorites]

Salad dressing. Equal parts olive oil & red or white wine vinegar, a squirt of mustard to emulsify, a tiny bit of sugar or honey to cut into the mustard's tartness, a pinch of salt and pepper, and you have a simple, tasty dressing that works with pretty much any green salad. I typically make one serving at a time, but it's just as easy to make a larger batch and keep in an empty store-bought bottle in your fridge.
posted by perpetual lurker at 11:16 AM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Cut up chickens, and boneless/skinless chicken breasts. It takes about five minutes to cut up a whole chicken into its component parts, maybe another ten minutes (max!) to skin/bone the breasts. Bag/freeze - cheaper/better than the many-times-more-expensive counterparts found at the meat counter (especially if you're buying organic whole chickens).
Pre-ground coffee. When I drank coffee, I got a good burr grinder and only bought (small quantities of) fresh-roasted beans. So much better than pre-ground.
Stew meat. Similar to chickens, buying chuck roast (or a good 7-bone roast) and cutting it up yourself is cheaper/better than buying pre-cut meat. Way cheaper!
Growing vegetables vs. buying them. Especially 'exotic' greens like leaf lettuce, radicchio, or arugula, but really anything we can grow in our yard is better in most ways -especially nutritionally and from the flavor standpoint.
posted by dbmcd at 12:01 PM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Crispy taco shells. It's pretty easy to buy corn tortillas, and then fry them into taco shape. For some reason this amazes people whenever I've made them. The ones in the box at the store taste worse than cardboard.
posted by shinyshiny at 1:24 PM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Homemade laundry detergent is pretty easy to do and super cheap.
posted by dog food sugar at 1:35 PM on November 4, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Microwave popcorn. My mom taught me how to make popcorn on the stove when I was 15 and I never looked back. Store-bought popcorn isn't exactly going to break the bank, but stove top is way tastier and super easy to make.

1. Coat the bottom of a medium sized saucepan in vegetable oil and set the burner to medium-high.

2. Drop 2-3 kernels of popcorn in the oil and cover as you wait for it to heat up. When you hear the kernels pop, you know the oil is ready.

3. Pour in enough kernels of popcorn to coat the bottom of the pan. I know that doesn't sound very precise, but eyeballing is OK. Just one layer of kernels, like this.

4. Cover the pan and use the handle to slide the pan back and forth over the burner, so the kernels move around inside the pan. Keep doing this until you hear the rest of the kernels start to pop (it should take about 1 or 2 minutes). The first time I tried this by myself I didn't move the pan enough and the entire bottom layer of the popcorn was burned to a crisp, so always remember to keep it moving.

5. The popping happens quickly and the popcorn can burn if you keep the pan on the stove for too long after it starts, so transfer the piping hot deliciousness to a big bowl post haste and add salt.

Laughably easy. No specialized equipment. Very little chance of catastrophic failure.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 2:03 PM on November 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'd never pay for "ready meals". They're sodium-and-additive-packed garbage and I can cook much better meals myself with very little trouble and at far lower cost.
posted by Decani at 2:54 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of these things are things I prefer to just buy or order in a restaurant because I find them to be complicated and time consuming. Sure, I'm aware of how bagels are made. I still find it a million times simpler to pay $1 for a bagel in a shop rather than having to buy all the ingredients, roll out dough, follow the recipe properly in terms of kneading and rising and punching and resting and all that, shape the dough into bagel shapes, boil them, bake a batch of bagels, etc. Going to a bagel shop takes 10 minutes. Baking bagels is an all day, or possibly multi-day project.

My biggies:

Stock. Add vegetable scraps, salt, and herbs/spices, to water. Boil. Reduce. Strain. Done

Windex. Half white vinegar, half water in a spray bottle. Done.

Taxes, if you neither own valuable property/investments nor are a 100% freelancer. It's still relatively easy even if you have a few 1099 forms.

Ricotta cheese. Heat milk to scalding/foaming. Add a few tablespoons of vinegar or lemon juice. Strain with cheesecloth (or even a paper towel!). Done.

French Press coffee. Boil water. Grind beans. Add boiled water to grounds. Set timer for 4 minutes. When the timer goes off, press down on the rod and COFFEE'S UP!
posted by Sara C. at 3:25 PM on November 4, 2010

Computer repairs, of course, and building my own systems.

My latest discovery was when I recharged my car's AC myself. $8 for the right hose/adapter for my '05 Mitsibishi, $10 for a can of R134A, and 15-20 minutes of my time shaking a can back and forth. Most auto places will run *sales* where they charge $75 to do the same thing.
posted by mrbill at 3:37 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Software, and operating systems in particular. That people pay Apple for OSX upgrades that bring in features Ubuntu's had for ages is tragic. And it has newer versions of free software.
posted by pwnguin at 4:44 PM on November 4, 2010

People might not agree in terms of price and convenience, but I don't understand how people tolerate store-bought mayo after trying the homemade stuff. It's a world of difference. Which reminds, salad dressing in general--it takes like 5 freakin' minutes to make a decent vinaigrette, and if you make it simple enough it'll keep about a work week in the fridge in a reused screwtop jar. Just add fresh herbs to the portion you use right before dressing. I mean g'ah. It's just fat and acid and flavor/seasoning of your choice, whipped together.
posted by ifjuly at 5:09 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Microwave popcorn: put kernels in bottom of paper bag. Fold top of bag over. Microwave until popping almost done. Perfect.

(Also, tomato sauce and macaroni and cheese.)
posted by ms.v. at 5:30 PM on November 4, 2010

Best answer: Eggs. Not everyone has the space to keep chickens, of course, but if you do they're pretty low maintenance, surprisingly entertaining to watch, and give you a constant supply of fresh eggs.

All sorts of pasta sauces. A good bolognaise is actually pretty time consuming, but not at all difficult. Carbonara is so stupidly simple and quick (and yummy with eggs from your own chooks) I can't believe I'd ever paid for it.

Pasta itself I'm on the fence about. It's not hard to make, but it is pretty effortful. And it's easy to get wrong, and when it does it's very frustrating. So we make pasta for special occasions, and buy good pre-made pasta the rest of the time.

Stock. Throw a few bits of chicken in some water and simmer for a few hours. What could be easier. And it makes the house smell nice when it's cooking.

Dog Food. We usually just boil up some cheap veggies and the occasional bit of meat (like the left-over chicken from the stock), stick it in bags and put it in the freezer. The only time we buy dog food is when we're travelling and need something a bit more easily transportable.

All that said, sometimes you're more than happy to pay for convenience. I'm perfectly capable of mowing the lawn, but I'd rather pay someone to do it so I don't have to worry about it, for example. So I'm not going to judge anyone for not making/doing their own stuff.
posted by damonism at 6:14 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Absolutely everything about bicycle maintenance up to and including replacing the front shock.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 10:01 PM on November 4, 2010

I disagree slightly about pizza because the kind I like is thin crust and cooked in a 800-900F oven, so you'll not be able to duplicate that at home. And for pancakes, I'm still content to order them when I go out if they're interesting in some way (pumpkin, lemon ricotta, etc) or I know that the kitchen is doing the "separate and whip the egg whites" bit for me. But having the dry ingredients premixed is a great timesaver, as someone mentioned earlier.

And yes, using pre-made Thai curry paste is acceptable. Even Thai people (and restaurants) do it, because you're not always going to have access to all of the fresh ingredients you need to make your own curry paste. Works best if you have a brand from Thailand like Maesri, Mae Ploy, or Nittaya.

My contributions:

DIY chili powder is awesome and way more flavorful than the stuff in a spice jar. I used the "chili paste" methodology outlined on Serious Eats. Alton Brown also has one for a dry chili powder.

Iced coffee using the cold brew method:

1. Place grounds and water mixture into bowl, where you have 2 parts water for every 1 part grounds. Let rest overnight with a resting period of 12 hours being ideal for steeping. Make sure all grounds are wet.
2. Place a big square of cheesecloth, double layered, over measuring cup. Pour grounds-and-water mixture into measuring cup, slowly, to filter out the grounds.
3. Make a "bag" of the grounds, squeezing to get all the water out. Drain and place "bag" of grounds into the trash. Scrape leftover grounds from mixing bowl into the trash using a paper towel.
4. Pour coffee concentrate from measuring cup into thermos or similar container. Add milk and sugar as desired. I like a 1:1 ratio of milk to coffee concentrate.

Rinse off your mixing bowl and measuring cup with a little soap and water, and you're done.
posted by kathryn at 10:54 PM on November 4, 2010

Non-Microwave Popcorn: Sizzle some oil, drop in a kernel, when it pops put them all in, cover and wait a minute. Faster and superior to microwave popcorn.
posted by xammerboy at 10:56 PM on November 4, 2010

With cold brew coffee, the part that gets me going back to my neighborhood cafe is the repeated straining (I've never seen a recipe that only calls for one straining stage, unlike kathryn's). Also the part where you need to keep cheesecloth on hand as a necessary tool of making a cup of coffee. Or the part where you have to have the foresight to make it the night before. But I'm getting there. Maybe next summer.
posted by Sara C. at 11:04 PM on November 4, 2010

I'm not sure how I miss this, it's awesome.

As others have said, bacon, BBQ sauce, and pasta sauce. Easiest pasta sauce I know: mince shallots and garlic. Slice mushrooms. matchstick some trimmings from your homemade bacon. Cook the bacon, add the shallots and cook till wilted. Add some olive oil, then add garlic, then mushrooms (before the garlic gets browned). Once the mushrooms are slightly cooked, splash some white wine. After that, you can add fresh chopped basil, or parmesan, or whatever flavor you want. Eat with linguine, because that's what Mrs. Ghidorah likes.

Other than that, any form of seasoning in packets. Taco seasoning? Cumin, garlic, red chile, black pepper, salt, a bit of coriander. Curry powder? Tumeric, garam masala, cumin, coriander, garlic, ginger, chile pepper. You control the flavors, you control the heat. After you figure out the basics, you can add or subtract new flavors.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:36 PM on November 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cleaners: I'm always boggled why people pay for cleaning products. All you need is a spray bottle. Fill it with equal parts water and vinegar. For grease-cutting power add a few tablespoons of essential orange oil (readily available at health food stores and online). This recipe is all natural and totally effective. Save your money.

Bathroom Products: BAKING SODA, BAKING SODA, BAKING SODA. Need I say more? Okay, so it won't provide bubbles, but add it to your bath water and it really does soften your skin and (bonus!) helps prevent ring-around-the-tub. Add a little sprinkle of baking soda to your face wash for an excellent exfoliating experience. Good bye dead skin cells. Use it on your toothbrush. Your teeth will feel amazing.

Perfume: What a terrible hoax. You wouldn't douse yourself in Lysol, so why would you spray perfume all over your body? It's basically the same thing. Artificial fragrances are composed of a myriad of potentially harmful chemicals. Yuck.

Air Freshener: Also, yuck. Does your house really need to smell like Vanilla Spice all the damn time? Humans are messy and smelly. Stop denying your biology and get over it. Open a window.
posted by Surinam Toad at 11:43 PM on November 4, 2010 [4 favorites]

Oh totally 2nd-ing Kathryn's iced coffee. I do a little more expensive home version with a Toddy filter. Then I have a week's worth of iced coffee in the fridge because it will cold filter brew a whole pound of coffee at once. But her one cup brew is brilliant. I am so stealing that when I forget to make the big batch.
posted by dog food sugar at 2:14 AM on November 5, 2010

Best answer: This may be a loose interpretation of "doing," but I never buy houseplants. I take clippings from malls or public spaces and root them myself. Occasionally I beg them from the windows of strangers-- it's amazing what a brief compliment (in daylight!) will win you.
posted by fritillary at 4:50 AM on November 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I usually have cheesecloth on hand for doing other things (like making cinnamon sticks easier to remove from hot cider or bay leaves from soup). There will be some sediment at the bottom of the iced coffee but I don't mind it. :)
posted by kathryn at 6:31 AM on November 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Replacing a cracked screen on my (HP) laptop. I looked up the instructions for how to do it on the HP website, and all it took was a small phillips head screwdriver and a new LCD panel. I ordered that off ebay, using the sticker on the back of the cracked panel to get the model number. Cost in parts was $140, and about two hours time. Everybody quoted me $400 or $450 to have it done "professionally."

Protip: If you do this, keep very careful track of the pieces you remove, particularly the tiny screws. I taped everything onto index cards, labeling the card with what step in the process, what the piece/screws were for, and any orientation info about the part that seemed like I might forget.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 2:14 PM on November 5, 2010

Sweets/baked goods. I rarely order/buy them anymore, because almost anything I make will taste better than what I can buy. Bonus: never ordering restaurant desserts=way less calories consumed.

This thread is teh awesome.
posted by killy willy at 4:48 PM on November 5, 2010

This is not a tip, per se, but I recently discovered the key to turning 'not bad for stuff I made myself' curry into amazingly good curry was some good, high-fat yogurt served alongside.

Presumably if you made your own yogurt, as suggested above, this would fit the criteria.
posted by nicoleincanada at 5:23 PM on November 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, I forgot curry. I always make my own from scratch. The big secret is all the funny spices you never have and think you can skip. Fenugreek, in particular, but also tamarind and mustard seed and, well, you get it. And make your own garam masala, for goodness sake! A spice grinder is a must.
posted by unSane at 5:38 PM on November 7, 2010

Response by poster: One other cooking tip that has saved me immeasurable time - Microwaving Fish. So much easier than poaching and just as good.
posted by benzenedream at 5:46 PM on November 7, 2010

Seconding bulk shopping. In Canada we have Bulk Barn, which is a GODSEND for things like spices, grains, loose-leaf tea ... and if you're my boyfriend, candy! I make my own granola and it's soooooo much cheaper than buying that super organic healthy stuff in a box that's like $12 and when you open the box you find out the actual package of granola is exactly half the size of the box. A tip for granola: dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, sunflower seeds galore. Yes nuts are expensive, but less so at these bulk stores, and they add a whole heckuvalotta protein and other nutrients. I personally recommend honey over brown sugar and a slow cooker over the oven -- especially if you're prone to burning food, like me.

A slow cooker is also a good investment if you decide to make some of these delicious recipes.
posted by Menomena at 8:45 PM on November 7, 2010

Air Freshener: Also, yuck. Does your house really need to smell like Vanilla Spice all the damn time? Humans are messy and smelly. Stop denying your biology and get over it. Open a window.

But it's nice to have a pleasant-smelling home. Especially if you cook a lot. DIY option: boil water and cinnamon on the stove.
posted by Menomena at 8:47 PM on November 7, 2010

Best answer: Regarding car repairs: any time the "Check Engine" or "Service Engine Soon" light appears on your dashboard, just take your car to the closest auto parts store and ask one of the people there to "read the error code". Google the error code number to get an idea which part to replace and how to replace it yourself.
posted by klarck at 9:54 PM on November 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

I bake my own bread - I've had a few mistakes, but if I buy bread from the store now it's only because I've ran out of flour, I'm lazy and want the bread NOW, or it's somethig like tiger bread which I can't make at home.

I never buy takeaway drinks unless it's something I can't make at home or I have the need for a stop when out - I mean, I'm not someone who buys on their way to work. I'm a tea drinker and a bag in some hot water won't taste any different if I pay someone £2 to do it for me. (Though I wish Pret's Vanilla Chai was commercially available...) I would rather get some leaf tea and a strainer for my desk.
posted by mippy at 6:15 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am an avid home coffee roaster and I want to second roasting coffee, but I'm not sure it really belongs on this list because the learning curve is a little steep and your expectations and palette need adjusting. You need to accumulate several weeks or even months worth of sensory learning before you really have it down, but you will probably make something drinkable in your first few tries.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:48 PM on December 21, 2010

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