The Cost of Grass Cutting: DIY vs. Landscape Crew Analysis

1-DSC_0686-001I spend a lot of time on the mower.  Or at least I feel like I do.  2 hours a week on average.  Don’t interpret this as complaining about it- I wanted a big yard with space for two boys to play, a place where lots of trees could be planted (if they didn’t already exist), a space big enough that we had options to do whatever in the future.  Anyway, all this time spent cutting grass gives me plenty of time to think about various things (the chance to think is my favorite part about it) from my life in general, my kids, work, and topics for this blog.  That all sounds well and good, and you’re probably thinking “gosh, I wish I could spend 2 hours on a mower each week also!”

The truth is that 2 hours can be very hard to come by for me these days:

  1. My kids are far from the age where they can be left alone for hours at a time, and
  2. They are also a bit young to cut it themselves, and
  3. Mrs. TI (formerly Mrs. D3…i’ll get into the name change eventually) works every other weekend.

Needless to say, when I come home and see the neighbors grass looking neatly trimmed during the workday, or when I see a crew of 3 zipping along finishing what I can do in 1/3 of the time…I wonder is all of the time (and upfront expense) worth it?  Should I have given more thought about hiring someone to do thisWell it doesn’t take too long for me to go from thoughts such as these to researching, collecting data, making graphs, coming to some sort of conclusion (go ahead…laugh).

Going into this I really had no idea where the numbers would end up.  Did I spend too much on the mower?  Am I wasting my time DIYing?  Is the break even point ridiculously far away?  Let’s find out.

Assumptions

Our yard is 3.13 acres.  Your roughly looking at the “back” of it in the above picture, though due to where the previous owners put the house on the lot, we really don’t have traditional front, back, and side areas.  For the purpose of this exercise, we’ll call it 3 acres.

In my experience, our yard takes about 2 hours to cut, and about 1 hour to trim and edge.  We’ll use 3 hours for our landscaping crew estimates based on $/hr.

After cutting our yard for a cutting season and a half, I’m pretty confident that the number of cuts will break down close to this:

  • April – 4 cuts
  • May – 4 cuts
  • June – 4 cuts
  • July – 4 cuts
  • August – 4 cuts
  • September – 3 cuts
  • October – 2 cuts

Total number of cuts per year: 25.  Total hours cutting: 50.  Total hours cutting plus trimming/edging: 75.

I’ll be presenting two cases, with a few variables in each: DIY, with a variable cost of gas, and professional landscape crew with low, medium, and high cost estimates.

Cost Research: DIY

Otherwise known as the part where I tell you that I spent $9,000 on a mower and you stop reading, because now you are sure I am crazy…

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He convinced me he knew what he was doing…

But stick with me here.  I’ll explain.  There are 3 reasons I can think of to spend this much on a mower vs. a cheaper version:

  1. Deck Size.  When was the last time you saw a 60″ deck on a mower in a home store?  You didn’t, they don’t sell them.  A wider deck means less passes back and forth, which means less time spent mowing.  Do they make larger decks than 60″?  Yes, but they are not very common as they don’t fit on most trailers or through a lot of doors.
  2. Speed.  This mower cuts at 10 mph.  Or 12.  Something like that.  Sounds slow, right?  Most less expensive mowers cut at closer to half that speed.  This once again relates to total time for reasons I don’t need to explain.
  3. And the most important, Reliability.  I did a fair amount of research before this purchase, and do you know what the average “reliable” period of a home store mower seems to be these days?  3-4 years.  Pretty sorry.  This mower, on the other hand, is a proven champ, depended on by landscape crews everywhere, and lord willing it will last until someone invents the grass cutting equivalent of the rhoomba…  In my estimate, given 50 hours of usage per year, 10 years should be no problem, and 20 should be entirely possible.

5 year costs (hopefully they will last longer, but 5 year replacement should be a conservative estimate):

  • Gas String Trimmer – $210
  • Gas Edger – $160
  • Gas Blower – $150

Yearly maintenance costs:

  • Mower oil – $20
  • Mower filter – $15
  • Mower blades – $39
  • Small tool gas – $4
  • 2 cycle fuel mix – $3
  • Edger blades – $20
  • Trimmer string – $2

Gas prices are estimated (low/med/high) at current values of $3.50, $3.75 (current MD state average price), and $4.  I chose not to model increasing gas prices, though the net effect of this would make the landscape crew option more expensive as they have to use gas to get too and from their jobs, whereas I don’t.

Cost Research: Professional Landscape Crew

During my research, I came up with 3 different ways that many landscape company owners use to estimate (or bid) jobs.  They are:

  1. $35 – 50 per acre of mowing, trimming/edging extra
  2. $1 per minute
  3. $40 – 50 per hour

Applying these cost estimates to my yard results in low/med/high estimates of $120/150/180 per cut.  I spot checked these numbers with a quick estimate from the owner of a landscape company, and got an estimate of $150, so our range should be accurate.

Results

The moment you’ve all been waiting for, I know:

Mower Cost 1I was truly shocked by these results.  I expected the high initial investment in the mower + power equipment to set me back some time, pushing the break even time back closer to a decade, but that is not the case for any of the cost estimates.  We’ll examine the break even points in more detail in a moment, but first let’s look at a few numbers from this graph:

  • Total DIY cost after 10 years: $14k, after 20: $20k
  • Low estimate crew cost after 10 years: $30k, after 20: $60k
  • Medium estimate crew cost after 10 years: $37k, after 20: $75k
  • High estimate crew cost after 10 years: $45k, after 20: $90k
  • Total DIY cost per year (average based on 20 year mower life): $1k
  • Total crew cost estimate per year (low/med/high): $3k/3.75k/4.5k

Mower Cost 2Zooming in we can see that the break even point, regardless of the DIY price of gas is 2 years for the high and medium crew estimates, and 3 years for the low crew estimate.  In my case, I would expect my landscape crew cost would be much closer to the high end than the low due to a) lots of curb and b) lots of trees to mow around (not the ones I planted…the 70 or so “green wall” evergreens planted by the previous owner).

It’s somewhat comforting to know that even though I will still be paying the mower off by the end of this cutting season (see more details about this in my debt reduction series) I would have paid just as much to have someone else cut it…and would have nothing more to show for it than grass that is not tall…

Conclusions

Perhaps it’s not about the money, but about the time, or a perceived lack of expertise/ability.  Unless there are serious errors in my reasoning above, I don’t see how a financial case could ever be made to not do it yourself.  And yet, many people do not, and many landscaping companies make good money based on the simple fact that people will pay 2 or 3 times more to have someone else do something that they could do themselves if they wanted to.  I don’t have anything against landscaping companies…some nice days I think I would rather sit on a mower all day than at a desk.  But it is interesting when you examine the financials.  Perhaps some people are unwilling to give up even a few hours a week from their loved ones or hobbies (maybe those few hours are the only ones they have free…I know all about that!) and that is a reasonable tradeoff to “buy” back more of your weekend.

Another interesting thing is that these numbers don’t invalidate spending less (and likely more often) on cheaper mowers as a way to save money vs. having a crew cut for you.  Given the likely reliability, it will cost more in the long run than spending a larger initial investment on a commercial mower, but then again, we treat many large purchases as nearly “disposable” these days (I decided a while back that it was silly to spend $400 on a vacuum when I could buy a $100 vacuum every year that works just as well for a few years as the more expensive one does (also) for a few years…).  Why not apply the same philosophy to mowers?  My answer to that is once again, time.  You can spend less on mowers more often, but you will undoubtedly spend more time cutting.

Our specific situation my not apply to yours very well- you may have more or less to cut.  You can still take the average estimates of $1/minute or $40-50 per hour you spend working and multiply that times the number of times you expect to have to cut each season.  For me it is 25 times, 75 hours.  If you run these numbers and it turns out that you are paying for the cost of a brand new mower of whatever size you need each year or two…you should probably be doing it yourself!

And now, if you’ve made it this far, prepare to be teased for an upcoming THROWDOWN :)

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Comments

  1. Dom says

    Why do you not include your personal time as worth anything? While I totally appreciate the concept of “doing something that gives you time alone and is not questioned” as a social construct for a happy marriage, I feel like I undervalue exactly what my time is worth when I do that. Like it or not, that time spent is the only thing you can’t get back in any of this; are you that confident there’s nothing else that makes a better use of that time in a busy schedule?

    Just curious as to your thoughts on that question. It’s been posed to me a few times, recently, and it’s a deceptively deep question I found.

    • says

      Good question. The simple answer is that I don’t relate my personal time to a dollar value. Getting someone else to cut the grass isn’t going to result in me making money elsewhere to offset the cost. Not only that, but I’d be paying much more per hour to get someone else to cut it for me than I make at my job…that seems excessive, and too good of an opportunity for savings to pass up.

      Some day the boys will help me with this and it will be a “family” activity anyway :)

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