Today we’re covering a subject near to my heart. Too near to my heart. Like a clogged aortic valve that’s ready to blow. It’s lies about DIYing!
This is a subject I’ve been dying to set the record straight on. Because the internet is busting at the seams with of lying liars and the lie-ful lies they lyingly lie.
Let me start off by asking you a question: do you like this 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…
A fat pack of lies about DIYing
You’ve seen this Cinderella story play out on a thousand Pinterest boards.
- Design blogs brag about the broken, butt-ugly bargain-basket finds transformed into show-stopping pieces.
- Home blogs offer step-by-step tutorials on how to add value to your investment with cheap, high-impact projects.
- Cooking magazines promise complex and nutritious restaurant-quality food from a pile of inexpensive raw ingredients.
- 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 common lies about DIYing I’m seriously sick of seeing. DIYers tend to gloss over a lot of hidden costs 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.
My intention isn’t to dissuade you from doing stuff yourself. Far from it—this bitch stans a sensible 7-inch wet saw! Rather, you need to learn how to go into projects with your eyes open to their true potential costs.
1. Initial investment
“These cute napkins only cost $2 to make! I just ran them through my $200 sewing machine, and boom!”
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. People out there trying to hawk blood-spattered bandsaws that remember the Carter administration for $70 when they sell brand new for $90. Animals.)
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.
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!”
Almost every DIY guide is guilty of assuming 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.”
This one really drives me batty. 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! It takes a lot of time and patience to find bargains. Search times comes out of your precious and limited stock of 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!”
… 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.
When I bought this table, I charged $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 partner/friend/brother who’s a contractor/plumber/carpenter/welder/magician do this part!” 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.”
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. One screw vanished like a fart in the wind. 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 moving—what if it didn’t fit in my new place? 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.
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 Lowes is a ship of fools?!
Because we love exposing lies about DIYing, here’s a few more:
- 9 Essential Tools for Apartment-Dwellers (and 6 That Are Kinda Useless)
- Wait… When Did DIYing Become As Expensive As Buying New??
- Bullshit Reasons to Live in a Tiny House, Refuted
This article is an update of one that was originally published on January 18, 2016.
25 thoughts to “5 Lies About DIYing I’m Seriously Sick of Hearing”
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.
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” $3,000. And then you find out that their brother is a master plumber, their dad is a general contractor, they got all the materials from dad’s job site castoffs, and the happy home owner is placing the house on the parents’ back nine, for free, forever.
Where is the lie?? Planning a DIY is always way more fun than actually doing it. And heck yea, ends up costing way more than planned. Thank you for keeping it trill!
In quarantine, I decided with all my unused time that I would sew a linen shirt from scratch. I don’t have a sewing machine, but the fabric cost 36$ and the thread cost 1. It took a full week of every evening spent sewing to make this shirt. Even priced at my city’s minimum wage, this shirt would have cost 560$ to make.
But do you have any amazing 16th century pirate shirt to show for it? I only ask because i’ve been dreaming of doing this exact same project, but can’t justify purchasing new linen when I have 500 existing sewing, knitting, home improvement projects in the queue.
My spring outdoor project is supposed to be building a chicken coop and raised beds using salvaged lumber from an old deck and fence. It sound like FREE! except I fully expect to pay another $400-600 in additional materials. Oh, and every weekend for a month.
After that maybe I can make my handsewn pirate shirt.
Thomas, I see you are suffering with the same deadly affliction as I was: Buffet Plate Syndrome, Home Improvement Variant. So many great ideas! So many piles of materials saved for them! Put them all on the plate! We can finish them all, right?! (Wrong. And I am now stressed by the fifteen piles of half-completed projects littering my home.)
I saved myself by setting a rule. I am not allowed to buy any new materials until I have run out of projects that can be completed using what I already have. I often get super excited about New Idea, and use that excitement to power through the Old Ideas.
And YEP. That’s exactly how it goes! It’s totally worth it if you get creative joy/satisfaction out of doing it, or can help preserve the environment by trashing old things + buying new things unnecessarily. But if cost savings is the ONLY metric? Yeah, no, just light that money on fire.
Dying to know what this linen shirt looks like tho. If you have a photo, email it to me! It’s kitty@ our URL!
I see you’ve met my friends! I can rely on them for lots of things- book recommendations, advice, tarot card readings, houseplant care, fun costumes- but for construction and plumbing I’ll need to hire a pro
Lmao are you part of my IRL inner circle?! Jade cuttings, yes; low-effort Halloween costume held together with hot glue, of course; installing cabinetry, n e v e r .
I really did remove the ugly ass carpet from my basement stairs and repaint the risers for under $40. I bought one can of paint and a small cat paw tool to do the work. It took 8 hours of work and I tore my hands up removing all the godforsaken tacks and I almost gave myself a concussion yanking up the carpet and falling backwards down the stairs due to the force. My body hurt. It HURT. But I had gotten a quote from a contractor who said it would be $3k for him to do the work for me so I actually think I made out pretty well on that one.
Honestly, if I wasn’t willing to do this kind of work from time to time and only wanted to hire other people to do it for me I think homeownership would be a really bad deal for me. I grew up with a dad who possessed a fully stocked tool shed and he and my mom did lots of projects around the house. I had the expectation that if I was going to buy a house I was going to end up with a happy little collection of tools of my very own.
Oh lord, I feel ya. That is really tedious, neck-cramping work.
But the truth is that in addition to saving hella money (high five!), you probably did a better job than any contractor would. I just helped my SIL and BIL do this very thing. I did a first pass and felt good about it. Most pros would probably stop there. But knowing they had a baby who would soon be crawling, I went back and crawled around, pressing my fingertips over EVERY square inch. Found two dozen more hiding in tricky unseen spots. That’s another way that DIYing can be really worth it—a homeowner is more inclined to be thorough!
Am I the only person who thought the headline said, “5 lies about DYING…”????
Some people DIY because they have no choice, i.e., can’t afford to buy what they want. Example: My partner and I wanted a greenhouse because it’s hard to grow tomatoes and cukes in Alaska without one. It would have cost a fecal ton of money to have someone build it. So my partner built it mostly out of scrap lumber, discarded windows and a couple of storm doors he had stored. It was hard but it was worth it because Cherokee Purple tomatoes in Alaska, folks.
Others DIY because they love the challenge. I am at the point in my life where I want to do LESS work, not more.
The takeaway: No one should be bullied into doing something they’re not up to doing. Even if all their friends DO have a house full of scavenged and refurbished-into-beauty treasures. Showoffs.
lol – my first read was also “dying” – had to go back and look again – glad I am not the only dyslexic reader.
Ahahahaha you have no idea how I struggled with this nightmare word. Diying? DIYing? D.I.Y.ing? DIY-ing? D.I.Y.ing? There are fifteen ways to try it, and they ALL look like dying, typos, or dying by typos.
That greenhouse sounds amazing! Cherokee Purples are awesome. 100% worth any splinters y’all got while putting it together!
I’ll just leave this here, to prove you CAN garden in Alaska. Pretty pictures of food, y’all, except for Black Nebula carrots that looked like the monsters from “The War of the Worlds”:
My eyes have been OPENED!
Can y’all do me a favor and start putting the “This article is an update of one that was originally published on…” note at the top of the article? I love everything you write so much and apparently it sticks with me so well that I spend the whole article going “this is all too familiar! No, those glorious ladies who produce content more delicious than brie can’t possibly be plagiarizing someone else’s work!” I don’t mind revisiting old favorites, but it throws me for a loop when something I think is an original post sounds too familiar.
Also, I too totally thought the title was about dying. Guess we’re all in a bit of a morbid mood these days!
No prob, kiddo! We have a note at the bottom of this one (and the handful of others we’ve refurbished for republication) that says its original publication date. But it sounds like it would be more helpful to you to have that near the top!
Very true, I find what matters is the process and hopefully at the end you are proud of it, which you were. If you don’t enjoy DIY, don’t do it. As DIY definitely costs money and in the end it may not be anywhere near what you want to your point. I know I do a lot around my house as I enjoy it and am always proud afterwards. However, it costs money every time. I always and I mean always end up needing a new tool and having a few trips to the store as I missed something.
Yesssss! Thank you. Nodding vigorously to all of these.
My partner loves DIY, but heck the tools don’t come cheap. We also don’t have friends we can just borrow tools from. So we have reclassified DIY from ‘money saving’ to ‘hobby’ for accounting purposes.
And to add a final note: some of us don’t have the skills, or just the strength and coordination to do DIY without risking life and limb! I’m one of these (hyper mobile joints for the win…)
Once in a blue moon will one find an instance of Craigslist serendipity. I was browsing around eBay for a glass top/column pedestal table and saw it was retailing for about $75, which was a pretty good price compared to everything else. It just so happened that the person selling it not only lived in my area, but actually worked at the university I was doing my graduate degree in, so it was a simple matter of meeting in the parking lot and moving it from their car to mine. I hate to think what shipping that monstrosity would have been like!
So you’re telling me the secret to retiring early is to horde all of the empty tea tins I’ve been tossing and sell them on eBay?!
YUP to this. We semi-DIYed our renos (a family friend who is a contractor has been doing half the work and we are paying him) and the amount of equipment involved would have cost a goodly sum if he didn’t have it already — and I’m sure Home Depot has seen a lot of my dad’s retirement checks. Not to mention the fact that our SUV has hauled a lot of that stuff.
All that said: if I ever decide to go hyper queen, bring on the green polyester netting…