Keeping Home Business Startup Costs Under Control

January 24, 2006

by Janet Attard

Reprinted and adapted from Business Know-How: An Operational Guide for Home-based and Micro-sized Businesses

Years ago, it seemed like the only people who ever worked at home were novelists, babysitters and artists. Today, business owners and telecommuting employees in a wide range of professions work from home some or all of the time. And with them at home are many of the same types of business equipment they would have in a corporate office.

Buying so much new equipment and merchandise during your startup days can put your new business (and maybe your family) into a big credit crunch. But starting a home business doesn’t mean you have to go broke. Here are several ways you can control costs as you start your home business.

Let necessity dictate what equipment and supplies to buy
There’s never any shortage of cool new things to buy when you’re in business or starting one. New tools, supplies, furniture, equipment, software, training materials and books are all appealing, and potentially useful. But they all add to your cost of doing business. Before you buy new supplies, equipment, inventory, books or software make sure you really need it. Although that sounds like common sense, overbuying and buying on impulse are common mistakes and sometimes put small businesses into a big financial hole.

Newcomers to business are most often tempted to overbuy, but established business owners aren’t immune to the practice either. To control your own spending, carefully consider how you will use what you want to buy, and when you will need it. Are you managing now without the product you want to buy? Is there a specific contract you will be able to get if you have the piece of equipment you want to buy? Are you sure the contract would go to you and not to a competitor? Can you subcontract out a part of a job until you see whether there will be enough orders to pay back your investment in a reasonable amount of time? Or is your productivity and ability to compete being impaired because you don’t have the item you want? Will the item you want to purchase be something you will use every day, or only occasionally? Can you afford to buy the item and pay the credit card bill when it arrives?

Use all available space
If you are running out of space in your home office, chances are you have used all available table and cabinet tops to equipment, supplies or inventory. But what about the walls and the floor? Could you be more productive if there were cabinets on the walls or storage space under your table tops? The office superstores have a wide variety of hutches, shelving and roll-away furniture that can give you the space you need.

Make space in a closet
One way to make more space if you work in a small room is to build your office into the closet. Remove the door, add bookshelves, and a table top for the computer. Purchase a low, rollaway file cabinet to fit under the table top.

Turn file cabinets and a door into a desk
It’s an old trick, but one that works: get two, two-drawer file cabinets that are the same height, and then top them with an inexpensive door. You’ll get a desk that;s wide enough to hold a monitor and hard drive and keyboard, at a fraction of the cost of regular office furniture.

If the height of the file cabinet/desk is to high to be comfortable to work at, get a chair with a pneumatic seat and a foot rest. Then raise your seat up to a comfortable work height.

Buy furniture and equipment at garage sales and auctions
If you are looking for items you can use in a home office, garage sales can be a good place to find used bargains. You’re best bet: look in weekly shoppers or newspapers for garage sales being held in high-income neighborhoods. Pay particular attention to those that indicate the sale is being held because the family is moving out of the area. Plan to get to those sales at the very earliest date and time indicated in the ad. If there’s a phone number, call ahead and find out if they are selling what you want and if you can look before the sale starts.

Find treasures in the trash
Office furniture and equipment doesn’t have to be new to be serviceable. You can often find what you want at considerable savings or even free if you are willing to accept merchandise that isn’t brand new. My son once got me a commercial 4-drawer filing cabinet for free because his employer was throwing it out. My son asked if he could have it, the employer said yes, and I’ve been using it ever since. Savings? About $125-$150.

Finding sources of used goods is easier than you may think, too. One way to find used merchandise is to look in the yellow pages. Search for the category of goods you want to buy and look for the words Used or Remanufactured in ads. Or, look in the classified advertising section of newspapers and trade magazines for used items for sale and auction notices. Keep your ears open for news of companies leaving town, closing divisions, or closing down, too. They may be willing to sell you furniture or equipment for pennies on the dollar. The owner of a chemical laboratory once got all the lab tables and a hood he needed for expansion for a few hundred dollars by purchasing them from a company that was closing its laboratory division.

Trade up!
One enterprising woman spotted slightly outdated computer when she was shopping for office furniture at a garage sale. She bought the computer for $65 and then took it to a computer shop which gave her $500 for it as a trade-in on the purchase of a new computer she wanted.

The same person bought some office furnishings she didn’t need herself at an auction, and then resold them for a profit at a yard sale. She used those profits to buy office supplies.

Match your work surface to the job it has to do
If you are going to be sitting or standing at your work area for more than a few minutes at a time, be sure it is comfortable and adequate for your needs. Measure any equipment you plan to put on a desk to table to be sure that it fits and that there is adequate space around it to work. A conventional 17-inch computer monitor is about 20 inches deep. If your desk is only 26 inches deep (as many desks sold or home use are), the keyboard is going to come right up to the monitor base and you’ll be sitting so close to the monitor that you’ll get a headache or eye strain.

Get rid of what you don’t need
That old computer sitting on the corner of your desk may have sentimental value, but are you actually using it? If not, toss it out. If it has programs and data you might need sometime in the future, retrieve the data first, or store the computer in the basement or another room.

Clean your file cabinets out before you buy another file cabinet, too. If you have been in business long, you’ll be surprised at what you will find. If there are records you think you may need, but don’t need to access regularly , put them in a plastic storage container and move them to a basement or garage or other out-of-the way area. Make copies of important documents such as your business license, certificate of incorporation, long term contracts or other essential information. Put the originals in a safe deposit bank and keep the photocopies with your other store records.

Shop for office supplies and equipment at midnight
Or, shop any time of the day or night that it’s convenient. All the major office supply stores have Internet sites, and many have free shipping for orders over a certain amount.  Since it’s unlikely that you’lll see as many products in an online store as you will in the retail outlets for the same product, you will be less likely to see and purchase items you don’t really need.

Recycle paper
Chances are you print out a lot of information that you don’t need to keep. To keep costs down, don’t throw out the sheets of paper after you’ve read them. Recycle them. Either feed them back through your printer and use the blank sides for rough drafts of your work, , or do what Marilyn Strong, of Strong Communications Group in Castlegar, B.C. Canada does. She cuts up the paper into notepaper size and staple it together in small notepads.

Copyright 2000, Janet Attard

About the author
Janet Attard is the owner of Attard Communications, Inc., which provides editorial content, online community and web development services. She is the founder of the award-winning  Business Know-How small business web site and information resource. Janet is also the author of The Home Office And Small Business Answer Book and of Business Know-How: An Operational Guide For Home-Based and Micro-Sized Businesses with Limited Budgets.  She can be reached at (631) 467-6826 or by email at


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