Zeroscaping AKA Frugalscaping

Happy Fourth, everybody! I hope you’re enjoying the lake/beach/pool/park today–I’m headed over to a pool party in a bit, but wanted to blast out a quick post about zeroscaping, or as I like to call it, frugalscaping.

The first and only major expense since I paid off my student loans occurred in April, right after paying off the last of loans. I spent $1,800 on landscaping–but this wasn’t just about yard  beautification.

During the first weekend of April, I took delivery of 26 tons of 1.5″ washed river gravel, 3.5 tons of Hill Country white boulders, and a quarter-ton of black star gravel. And then I zeroscaped.

I mowed my lawn with the mower on the lowest setting, killed the grass with weed killer, capped most of the sprinkler heads, laid down the thickest weed barrier that money could buy, bordered the flower beds with boulders, and spread the gravel…all 26 tons, over my front and back yard, all in one three-day weekend.

The landscaping business that Michael and I ran specialized in this type of landscaping, so it only made sense to get high on my own supply.

The $1,800 is an investment. Here’s why–

Costs for a grassy yard in Austin:

  • Watering: $150/month (conservative by some estimates)
  • Mowing: $20/hour/week (I cut my own grass when I had it, but if I value my free-time at $20/hour, then this is a fair way to dollarize the task of mowing)
  • Fertilizer: $50/year

If there are six months of watering and mowing–April-September, conservatively–then that’s $900 in watering, $500 in mowing, and $50 in fertilizer for a total of $1,450. I literally haven’t turned my sprinklers on since I turned them off back in September to pay back my student loans.

With a balance of $350 after taking away $1,450 from $1,800, I’ll recoup my costs in the first two months of next season, and then it’s pure upside from there on out. The ROI helps because I did it all by myself–I can imagine a company charging $4k+ to do this, stretching out the payback period by several seasons.

Here are some pics of the backyard with the project 90% complete. Note that my yard was severely neglected since I stopped watering and fertilizing it in September and since I knew I was going to be razing it all as soon as I paid off my loans.



Weed barrier down. Just add gravel.

This is the “after.” Before I moved 26 tons of gravel with it, the edge was actually straight!


Another benefit was reclaiming floor and wall space in my garage after selling my lawn mower and fertilizer spreaders.


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28 responses to “Zeroscaping AKA Frugalscaping

  1. Looks good! I got to say it looks like a ton of work but it paid off! I love the hammock!
    Happy 4th!!

  2. This is great! How much would this cost for someone without a landscaping business?

    • $1,800 was retail pricing–I didn’t use the biz discount since this wasn’t a customer job. So $1,800 for tools and supplies. The design and labor were $0.

      • Thanks for answering. Backyard looks great, I’m looking to do something like this as well. Do you know if there are softer alternatives than rocks? So if anyone wanted to walk barefoot in my backyard they could?

      • Look into decomposed crushed granite–you might need a hardener to avoid erosion. Another possibility is pea gravel, but the risk there is cleaning leaves out of it–a blower will blow the leaves *and* the gravel, so this isn’t a good option if you have a lot of trees around. Synthetic mulch is another option, but might not be your first choice; I’ve also heard that it can be tough on the environment because it releases chemicals in the heat.

  3. Enrique

    Let’s hope not all your decisions in life are about making money. I like my green lawn.

    • Point taken, but I forgot to mention that another important benefit of frugalscaping is the significant reduction in the size of my environmental footprint. That alone makes this worth it.

  4. D Richardson

    Looks good, Joe. Something to think about for my back yard. My HOA would never allow that for the front, but should (live in Houston TX).

  5. Skye Brown

    I heard u on the Dave Ramsey Show and immediately forward ur site/ story to my lil brother who is drowning in school loan debt ($200k)… On a side note, I am very impressed with the landscaping project! Thanks for including the pictures.

  6. Gia

    Hey Joe,
    So…on this Independence Day I’ve read all of your posts and I wanted to comment and thank you very much for sharing your journey. I’m also on the path to pay off my student loans and your experiences helped validate some of my own and made me feel less alone. 🙂

    Congratulations and take care!
    Btw…yard looks great and I totally get why you did it. I was thinking of doing something similar at my house.

  7. Have you thought about how this will affect the resale value of the home? I imagine most buyers would want grass, so I would include the cost of reversion into the ROI calculations.

  8. Patrick

    I have looked into doing something like this but I had read that rock should be used in limited areas because it retains heat. How do you feel about rock vs. mulch use in xeriscaping?

    Also, just wanted to congratulate you on your loan payoff. I started reading back when MMM linked to you. Good work!

    • I haven’t really noticed a problem with heat in the backyard. Have you noticed how black asphalt seems to be hotter than white concrete in the summer? I think the light absorption vs. light reflection thing comes into play, here–black absorbs the light and holds the heat, while white reflects it and therefore stays cooler.

      Aesthetically, I think a mix of rocks and mulch is better than 100% rock, but keep in mind that mulch needs to be refreshed every one to three years as it fades and breaks down. It also grows weeds direclty in it, while the only weeds you’ll get in a rockbed are from below the weed barrier that the rocks are sitting on. I have a healthy balance of mulch and rock in my front yard where aesthetics really matter, and I took a more low-maintenace approach in the backyard.

  9. Sarah

    Joe, come out to Westlake I’ll convince my mom to hire my “internet friend” to do her lawn. Her lawn is seriously a huge clusterfuck of awfulness. You could get the balance on your mortgage wiped out with just her lawn.

    • Haha…she sounds just like all of my neighbors. I’m really surprised I didn’t see more people on my street zeroscape after they came by and told me how good my yard looks. Must have been lip service. Or maybe they’re getting really scary estimates from landscaping companies.

  10. Sarah

    Lol, but seriously, if the biz ever picks up again there is a neighborhood in WL called Lost Creek I’ve seen lots of homes w/ xeriscaped lawns there and we’re not talking ginormous lawns (about the size of lawns in Scofield and the like) so it should be in yall’s wheelhouse. There’s a park there where you could put up some flyers. I probably should have posted this comment 8 months ago….sorry

    • Haha 🙂 ok, good to know–thanks for the tip.

    • Bob

      Agree with Sarah, I looked at houses in Lost Creek a few years back and noticed a lot of frugalscaped lawns there. She’s right about the comparison to homes in Scofield. Houses there aren’t the mcmansion types that you’d associate with Westlake. It’s frugal homes for people who just want to live in a good school district and don’t care about keeping up w/ the Joneses. Maybe a good place for you to move in the future when the Mrs and kids come along.

      Also, I don’t think you have to worry about the resale value of your home being affected, remember Austinites love to keep it green and weird (not that your yard looks weird.)

  11. This was gaining popularity in Australia during our recent drought years because of the water required for lawns being impractical in a country like ours. However we usually use more shrubs and trees in order to minimise the glare and heat reflecting up from the stones. Do you think you’ll plant a few more trees as I imagine Austin TX must be hot in summer?

    • That’s cool…I didn’t know ya’ll did that Down Under. It would make sense to plant more stuff back there if I actually spent any meanginful time in my backyard, but I don’t, so the benefit wouldn’t be very impactful and wouldn’t really outweight the cost of the trees/shrubs, the cost to water them, and the time to plant them and prune them. Maybe when I sell the house I’ll do it.

  12. Amanda

    Please don’t stop writing. Just heard you on Ramsey. Your post regarding the decision to gravel the lawn was exactly the right direction to go. Don’t stop!

  13. Your back yard looks really neat. Great before and after pictures. Thanks for sharing!

  14. We live in Tampa Florida, and our yard is just grey gritty dirty sand. The few weed like grasses that will grow in it stay torn up by our two rambunctious dogs (whom we love, they are our children). We have thought about doing something exactly like what you have done but wondered how it would be for the dogs? They are larger dogs with big paws. Any advice for us? Thank you!

  15. Michael

    This article doesn’t mention the big PITA that a zero-scaped yard creates. In a matter of a couple of years, if that, dirt and composted leaves and such make their way between the rocks, and you’re then stuck w/a weed garden that you constantly have to maintain with a blower (to get as much of the dust/dirt removed) and herbicide, a menace to someone bringing up kids who can’t play on rocks and even if they could, would you want them to play with herbicide soaked rocks? Or, you’re on your hands and knees with rocks jabbing into your butt as you weed your rock garden every two weeks. A lawn is a much better way to go in my opinion, and I live in a pretty dry area (north range area of Colorado). You can never completely eliminate dirt buildup in your rock garden, even if you regularly hit it with the blower. I have a 1/3 acre lot of grass in the back (and zero-scaled front that I hate – I just bought the house), and if I water as needed (rather than put the sprinkler system on auto), I can get through the summer with only a couple of the driest months giving me the $90 or so water bill. Well worth having a nice lawn.

    • 2 years later and my yard still looks awesome and requires about 10 hours of work a year. You might want to consider getting a better blower/better technique? And you definitely don’t live in TX with that water bill keeping your lawn green.

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