I often fall into the trap of seeing a cost estimate online and thinking, “Ah, I, savvy anti-consumer than I am, shall devise a way to get the same results for a fraction of the price!” So I slave over making something, fixing something, finding something… and then I pass by the exact item I just made, sitting on the shelf of Home Goods, for twenty dollars less than the price I just paid to make it myself.
Why does this happen? I was raised with the general truism that making something yourself is less expensive than buying it new. And I think this used to be the case with almost everything.
But our world has changed a lot in a short amount of time. Certainly for our grandmothers, it was cheaper to sew their own dresses than buy them from a catalogue. But big, global economic factors have pulled down production prices for almost everything under the sun. And that has a huge effect on whether DIYing something is really going to save you money.
Trends travel faster than ever
In the misty days before the Internet, when Piggy and I were wee bairns with bone hair accessories, it was actually pretty hard to disseminate handicraft tutorials.
There was television—sorta. HGTV was founded in 1994, and the DIY Network in 1999. That was pretty late to the game, and initially they were pretty bad premium channels that struggled to fill their time slots. The TV format wasn’t exactly ideal for tutorials. You couldn’t pause, or rewind, or ask questions.
There were handcrafting magazines and books, which suffered from a similar issue—following complicated steps was hard to do in static pictures. The audience for these was also distinctly un-cool. The grandma vibe was strong. You could practically smell the tea rose wafting off the page. They just didn’t speak to the cool Youngs.
Most of the people I knew from that time who were great at handicrafts were professionals, had taken classes, or (most commonly) had learned from a parent. Wider interest clearly existed, but it was hampered by the ability to teach. In-person 1:1 learning was the ideal vehicle; it just happened to be really damn inefficient.
The internet introduced three revolutionary new opportunities. First, video repositories like Youtube made it possible to watch someone do something, pause, rewind, and rewatch as many times as they needed. Forums and comments sections made it easy to exchange ideas and have questions answered. And finally, social networks made it possible to share ideas quickly and widely—especially on Pinterest.
Thus began the fall of the dinosaurs, and the rise of the mammals.
Pinterest is maybe, kinda, sorta killing creativity
One downside to these new opportunities is that they’ve allowed ideas to travel too quickly. If you’ve found yourself thinking that everybody’s house, or everybody’s wedding, or everybody’s wardrobe is starting to look very familiar, you certainly aren’t alone. “Pin-dictability” is a budding concern.
There’s nothing wrong with hand-painted quotes on salvaged wooden signs, recipes starring bacon and avocado, novel uses for mason jars, or millennial pink. But the easy proliferation of these ideas is eroding the original spirit of DIY: using your creativity to make your existing resources become a novel solution to an individual need. It’s the difference between painting and paint-by-numbers. Though it’s hard to tell, because the latter is deliberate mimicry of the former.
And here’s where our financial aspect comes in.
The trend cycle has sped up considerably. Major retail companies are just as plugged into these cycles as the rest of us. They’re watching and producing, designing, and pricing accordingly. They’re churning out factory-made objects that look homemade, blurring the line between the anti-consumerist, artisan, skill-based aesthetic of handicrafts and, well… plain old consumerism.
More on how worker exploitation somewhere sucks for everyone, everywhere:
- Fast Fashion is Fucking Up the World
- Maury Povich Confirms Labor Shortages ARE the Father of American Business Ethics
- The Ugly Truth About Unpaid Internships
- Raising the Minimum Wage Would Make Our Lives Better
- It’s More Expensive to Be Poor Than to Be Rich
Resale markets aren’t competitive
Another financial aspect is that resale markets aren’t very competitive. America loves to buy new things. We’ve streamlined the process to make it incredibly easy. You can look at products from every angle, buy them online, and have them shipped straight to your door.
Conversely, selling your own goods is pretty difficult and time-consuming. I’ve recently been browsing for a few items on Poshmark, an online clothing reseller, and I’m exhausted just looking at the questions the sellers must answer. “Is this cotton? Does it stretch? What’s the measurement from pit to hem? Do you trade? Can you model it for me? Can you do rush shipping? Is this still available?”
I have some pretty nice things that I don’t wear anymore, for one reason or another. I’d like to see them paired with someone who really wants them. But nothing on this earth could compel me to resell them, based on the insane amount of work it seems to take. Or I’d just try to find my niche as an acid-tongued seller. “Why are you asking me if it’s still available? Yes, it’s still available, you thrice-accursed Lookie Lou!” It’s so much easier to just dump them in a donation bin and ignore the nagging feeling that you’re fast-fashion-abetting scum.
Because it’s so time-intensive to sell things online, the market for used items is poor. eBay is so overrun with cheap professional sellers it’s essentially become just another online retailer. Many true individual sellers are flakes, whether on free-for-all sites like Craigslist or assisted ones like Poshmark. The first item I bought there was a skirt I’d seen and liked at Target. It never shipped. Womp womp.
The cost to produce new items is so low (thank you, global exploitation) that it doesn’t make financial sense to sell used items. These new items are often cheaply made. The DIY aesthetic is to repurpose what you already have in new and novel ways—but all we have is cheap new stuff.
Vintage is in
I have ranted in the past about mason jars in particular (you may read said rant here). Their original aesthetic appeal was that they were utilitarian, ubiquitous, and utterly plain. Function over form. People who actually lived in farmhouses were tripping over them. They were so common as to be almost invisible. That’s what made repurposing them as form-first objects a fascinating artistic statement.
So now that the rustic farmhouse aesthetic is having its moment, people just go out and buy them from Walmart. Cute. Hashtag rustic shit is really having its moment. And as always, demand changes markets.
I used to go to flea markets, rummage sales, and swap meets pretty frequently. (I grew up artsy and kinda-gay in a one-horse town in the middle of cornfields in the Midwest. The coolest place in town was the Barnes & Noble Cafe, because it didn’t close until a shocking ten pee em!) You used to find a lot more dirt-cheap DIY components.
The feeling is different now. There’s something picked-clean about them. Buyers have snapped up anything that can be easily repainted and upsold. Sellers have responded to demands for these on-trend items by raising prices, or selling the choice stuff online.
One of my most treasured possessions is a beautiful mirror. It’s so old that the surface is mottled like a bird’s egg. Transparent in some places, dully reflective in others, covered all over with rust-colored spots. The whole thing is held in by a dry wooden frame that once had cream-colored paint, but it’s almost all chipped away now. It’s gorgeous—exactly the kind of vintage item one would hope to find. And I got it for one dollar at a flea market in the year 2000.
People love to brag about these kinds of finds, but I really think they’re getting harder and harder to find. The resale market has responded to a strong demand for vintage items by raising prices for “the right kind” of vintage items.
Acquisition hard mode
I can buy anything online in about one to two minutes. And I don’t have to pick it up—it’ll come to me. And research is super easy! You just read the comments or sort by user ratings.
Do-it-yourself projects really aren’t like this at all. They require substantial investments of time, money, and effort. You have to watch videos or read blogs to learn how to do things. You have to troll Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace or Home Depot for components. You likely have to travel to pick them up yourself. You maybe have to be willing to wait for the right time, too; almost all of my projects are seasonal. It’s no fun spray-painting indoors during a blizzard. I’ve done it, and I had the ultramarine blue feet to prove it.
And then there’s the time involved in the doing part of doing it yourself. Time, as the cliche goes, is money. If it takes me a week’s worth of evenings to sew my own curtains, did I make a good choice? I could’ve freelanced during that time instead, and earned more than enough money to buy some at a discount store and make a net profit. And in this alternate timeline, I could’ve saved a bunch of money not owning a sewing machine. We’ve written before about how the cost of owning a bunch of specialized DIY tools can vastly inflate the “cheap and easy” DIY project.
For these calculations, it often comes down to enjoyment. Do you find it fun and relaxing to fold the origami flowers for your wedding centerpieces? Or is it tedious? In my mind, enjoyment is a totally valid reason to spend a bit more. I take a lot of pride when I can respond to a compliment with “Thanks, I made it myself!”
In all things, moderation
So no, it’s not your imagination. DIYing is no longer a surefire way of saving money. Sometimes it’s just as expensive, or more expensive, than buying new. The world has a deep bench of desperate people willing to work in factories for low wages. Their time, sadly, is a lot cheaper than yours.
In order to get the most out of a DIY project, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis for each project. If you can pay for someone else to do it for $10, and making it yourself would cost $100, maybe don’t do it. But I also think it’s fair to err heavily on the side that creates less waste, and doesn’t perpetuate the cycle of exploitative, planet-ruining consumerism. Especially if doing it yourself makes you, y’know, happy!
I feel like my inner crotchety old lady has really come out to play already… but I’m gonna take a risk and let her out even more. Kids today just aren’t that creative! Remember the feeling of being a kid, and having a giant mixed bucket of foot-wrecking Legos? And you just looked through it and found a couple pieces that inspired you to make a spaceship, or a zoo, or something that looked disturbingly like a dungeon? (Please don’t tell me that was just me. I had very Harlequin sensibilities in my tender years.)
The point is, you worked with what you had on hand. I’ve hit this stride with some of my DIY projects, and it feels amazing. You don’t have to hunt for something with these specific properties, or follow the exact steps of some guide you found online—you’re just creating. That’s an exhilarating and freeing feeling that cannot be bought.
DIY enthusiasts might enjoy these other articles:
- Five Ways DIYers Lie About Their Budgets
- The Only Advice You’ll Ever Need for a Cheap-Ass Wedding
- When Should You Release Your Death Grip on Your Precious Money and Hire a Professional?
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