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"This project can be done in a weekend!"

Five Ways DIYers Lie About Their Budgets

Most beautifulest table.

Like the table? Of course you do. It’s beautiful as shit. I made it myself and it only cost me $29.

(…Or did it?)

I found this poor wretch on Craigslist. It had a crust of chipping chalkboard paint—because apparently there are people who like to dine to a soundtrack of plates scraping across a blackboard. Underneath, it was solid wood, sturdily constructed, fully disassemblable, and priced to sell at only $25. Like the conventionally attractive nerd in an early 90s movie, it only needed its glasses lifted off to become beautiful.

After sanding the old paint off, I took some glossy white paint I had leftover from another project and applied it to the legs. Then I stained the tabletop with a $4 can of Minwax stain obtained on clearance from my local hardware store. The result is a beautiful handcrafted table that you’d never know cost $29!

There’s only one catch…

I lied.

What you have just read is a fat pack of lies. You’ve seen this Cinderella story play out on a thousand Pinterest boards. Design blogs love to brag about the butt-ugly bargain basket find transformed into a show-stopping piece. Cooking magazines promise complex and nutritious restaurant-quality food from a pile of inexpensive raw ingredients. Home blogs offer step-by-step tutorials on how to add value to your home with cheap, high-impact projects. Wedding forums are endless streams of ideas for transforming crappy trash into non-crappy non-trash.

“Do it yourself” is a staple of all budgeting advice. And it’s not bad advice! Generally speaking, the less you outsource labor and production, the less you spend. But there are a buttload of hidden costs DIYers gloss over in the process of humblebragging about their thriftiness. So before you bust out the spray adhesive, watch for these five types of misleading statements that hide the true cost of these projects.

1. Initial investment

“These cute napkins only cost $2 to make! I just ran them through my $200 sewing machine, and boom!”

This is bullshit.

Every adult should have a modest toolbox with basics like a hammer, a screwdriver, and a tape measurer. They’re $5 a pop, they’ll never wear out, and you’ll need them to do basic adult shit.

But what about a power sander? Saw horses? A circular saw? A set of socket wrenches? A power drill? Those things together cost at least $350, and I needed all of them to build my $29 table of lies. They’re not in the budget because I already owned them—or justified that I’d use them on future projects.

(And before you jump to tell me that you could save money by buying them used, girl, stop. I have been trolling Craigstlist since October looking for a jigsaw, and it’s been grim. I’m not typically a snob about a product’s age—in most cases, older stuff is sturdier anyway. But newer tools have more safety features and failsafes, and you know exactly how well they’ve been maintained and taken care of. I’ve found a lot of people trying to hawk blood-spattered bandsaws that remember the Carter administration for $70. Compare that to $90, the price that Amazon charges to bring a brand new one with a matching warranty to my front step. I’m not saying I’d never do it, but it hasn’t been worth it to me yet.)

Hey, you know what else my budget doesn’t include? A car, and gas to drive it. I was lucky: this table collapsed fully, and just barely fit into my car with all the seats folded down. If it had been 3/4 inch wider, I would’ve had to rent a pickup truck. (Yes, rent, not borrow. My friend group has a disproportionate number of people with doctorate degrees in movement.) Gas, insurance, and rental fees tally up to about $30-40 for one-two hours.

You know what else I needed? A work space. Until recently I was an apartment dweller, and even small sewing projects dominated our living area. When we eventually bought a home, we paid more for the large workshop in the basement. And who knows what that amounted to—$5,000? $10,000?

Bottom line is this: every project requires tools. Even the instructions on the back of a premixed packet of red velvet cake asks you to bust out a $150 stand mixer (or a $30 hand mixer if you’re a real woodsy type). Many of these tools are awesome things to have: they can last a lifetime and pay for themselves over and over. But you should weigh their potential usefulness before you buy, and account for their cost in the final tally.

Real quick, we love identifying the bullshit of DIY charlatans so we write about it a lot:

2. Existing materials

“I built this life-size replica of the USS Constitution using scrap wood and a packet of googly-eyes I had lying around!”

You liar!

Almost every DIY guide is guilty of supposing you have more than just tools. Online crafters seem to have never-ending piles of scrap wood, scrap paint, scrap fabric—scrap scraps of all stripes. Oftentimes it is of confusingly high quality, like it’s normal for bitches to have some marble slabs collecting dust in the back of the garage.

Consider that you are committing to a home large enough to house tons of superfluous stuff you may or may not need in the future. How much are you willing to pay, in rent or mortgage, property taxes, electricity, and heat, all to house a dragon’s hoard of ice cream makers and embroidery floss?

Throw another $70 worth of real cost onto this $29 table, for which I used “leftover” paint, sealant, sand paper, wood glue, drop cloths, respirators, paint brushes, tack cloth, rags, and furniture pads. While already extant, they cost me money in the past, and we all know that time is a flat circle.

3. Mythical bargains

“For this project, you’ll need six dozen gold bars. I found these at an estate sale for $4, but I’ve also seen them on clearance at Home Goods for $2.50.”

Bullshit!

This is the one that most drives me crazy. It’s true that bargains are out there to be had, but luck plays heavily into your ability to discover them, and it isn’t really fair to set an expectation of a hole-in-one piece for a hole-in-one price. Most flea markets, estate sales, and online auctions have caught onto which vintage knickknacks are currently in-demand and have adjusted prices accordingly. Trendiness drives up the price of everything, even if it’s literal garbage. (Don’t believe me? See what empty Twinings Tea tins go for on eBay.)

Also, clearance items are on clearance for a reason. That reason is: they suck and no one wants to buy them. Where are these crafters finding gorgeous brocade silks on clearance racks at fabric stores? Because every time I go, all I find is misprinted Dora the Explorer fleece and lime green polyester netting. Even when bargains can be found, it takes time and patience to look for them. Some people have desk jobs where they can discreetly peek around, but some people don’t, and that time spent searching is a part of their valuable free time.

In this case, I got a steal. $25 for a solid wood table is an attainable but deeply unrealistic goal. I would’ve paid twice as much for the exact same table and still considered it a fine deal.

4. Time and labor

“This project can be done in a weekend!”

That is one big pile of shit.

… A weekend on the Island of Mermaids, in Never-Never Land, where a single weekend lasts ten thousand years.

I estimate I spent six hours sanding the table down, four hours doing a few coats of paint, eight hours doing a few rounds of staining, four hours of a few coats of sealant, two hours shopping and shlepping, and an hour disassembling and reassembling. That’s 25 hours worth of labor, stretched out over many weeks to accommodate long drying times.

At time of publication, I charge $100 an hour as a freelancer. So that’s another theoretical $2,500 added to the price tag.

Now, this is a little bit of a bullshit statistic. Man cannot live on bread alone; I tinker around for 40 hours a week on a computer, and I have limited desire to come home and do it for several more hours. I like working with my hands, and as long as my basic financial needs are met, I’m happy to trade revenue for relaxation. And there is no guarantee I would’ve had freelance opportunities in the queue. But it is another cost to consider.

I’m also perennially pissed off by the “have your husband/friend/brother who’s a contractor/plumber/carpenter/welder/magician do this part!” Not because of sexism, but because not everyone has those connections, damnit. My friends are great people, but they are mostly city-dwelling artists. Their skill sets are closer to that of Jareth, King of the Goblins (singing, dancing, contact juggling, light seduction) than Jesus of Nazareth (noted charitable carpenter). Be honest and factor in the cost of needing to hire professional help as needed.

5. Mixed results

“I always get compliments.”

I responded in the "least untruthful" manner that I could.

In the course of building my table, I spilled a can of stain and had to go buy another. I gunked up my sink and will have to ungunk it eventually. I lost one screw. I did the stain against the grain when I should’ve done it with, and you can tell. My Thanksgiving guests said they couldn’t, but they’re polite liars.

All things considered, I’m still terribly proud of myself, and of my final product. But it’s possible to invest many, many hours and many, many dollars in a DIY project and watch it go completely sideways. You may have to repurchase materials to try again, or end up scrapping your project entirely. You even run the risk of injuring yourself or damaging the tools you’ve invested in (including your entire home, depending on what you’re getting into). In my case, I bought the table just before buying a home—perhaps it wouldn’t fit and I would’ve had to turn around and put it right back on Craigslist. I also could’ve cut off my finger or set fire to myself. My mother-in-law is already 100% convinced I have The Paint Fume Cancer, and I have no evidence to refute her.

Regretsy.

The point is to consider the likelihood and consequences of Regretsy-level failure in your budget.

So what did the table really cost?

Somewhere between $29 and $12,595, I guess.

(And that can of Minwax was not on clearance, it was full price. I def lied about that. Jacobean is a lovely and in-demand color, do you think Home Depot is a ship of fools?)

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2 thoughts to “Five Ways DIYers Lie About Their Budgets”

  1. 1. I thought it would be cool to make a “USA!” wreath for the summer time, so I pulled up hand-dandy Pinterest and started searching. I found a sweet wreath made out of red, white, and blue bandanas and glue-on stars that looked pretty rad and fairly simple and decided I’d give that a shot. I wandered into Michaels and grabbed a whole bunch of bandanas, a wreath frame, and some wooden stars (I have the hot glue gun and the red, white, and blue paint for the stars at home). I park my goodies at the register, and watch as the numbers tick upward, eventually stopping at OVER FIFTY DOLLARS. I sputtered for a moment, apologized profusely to the poor woman behind the counter, and went to put the stuff back. As I was doing the walk of shame through the store, I found a rustic wooden pre-made patriotic wreath for FIVE DOLLARS on clearance. Definitely made the right choice there.

    2. The last two years, I have made incredibly elaborate Halloween costumes. 2016 I made a full-blown replica of Eliza’s dress from the broadway musical Hamilton (complete with historically accurate undergarments and stays). 2017 I made a full cosplay suit for Captain Marvel, including this crazy 3-D carbon fibre print vinyl stretch material. Both years I spent north of $150 on my costumes, not including the scraps of material that I used to mock up the pattern, the thread, the interfacing I already had from other projects, and the sewing machine that I grabbed 5 years ago. Also, it’s SO FRUSTRATING when it’s 3AM on 10/31, and you realize that you cut both sleeves with the shiny side of the satin on the same side, rather than opposites, and you wind up saying “fuck it” and sewing one sleeve with the shiny side in, and hoping that nobody will notice.

    Yup, I’ve played the DIY game many times, and usually it’s not cheaper, it’s not easier, and it’s not going to look as perfect, but god damn if you don’t feel incredibly proud when you finish.

  2. Oh man, #4 really gets my goat! One of my absolute biggest pet peeves are the tiny house shows where someone “builds” the house themselves and only “spends” $3,000. And then you find out that their brother is a master plumber, their dad is a general contractor, they got all the materials from dad’s job site castoffs, and the happy home owner is placing the house on the parents’ back nine, for free, forever.

    Arghhhhhh!!!

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