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:
- Labor Shortages ARE the Father of American Business Ethics, Maury Povich Confirms
- The Ugly Truth About Unpaid Internships
- Raising the Minimum Wage Would Make All Our Lives Better
- It’s More Expensive to Be Poor Than to Be Rich
- Fast Fashion: Why It’s Fucking up the World and How To Avoid It
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. Maybe 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:
- 5 Lies About DIYing I’m Seriously Sick of Hearing
- 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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12 thoughts to “Wait… When Did DIYing Become as Expensive as Buying New??”
I feel like I’ve been complaining about this very thing for YEARS where it concerns sewing.
I’d love to learn more! At one point it was even cheaper! But now looking at nearly $10 for simple muslin, and practically nowhere sells anything but thick quilting cotton completely unsuitable for clothing- unless I want to drive two hours to the nearest big city to buy it, because I don’t know enough about fabric to order it online; suddenly the most basic necessities needed for sewing a dress come out more expensive than just buying a “high end” one online- even if you have to buy and send back 12 different ones (because fuck mass produced fashion and its inability to fit literally any body on the planet realistically).
But people keep cawing about the virtues of “making it yourself” and crowing about how it “saves money”, like DIY Gentrification hasn’t made prices skyrocket.
If it relaxes you to do stuff and/or is part of your grand financial plan, go ahead; if not, farm it out.
My lovely partner retired last year and is now able to step up the amount of stuff he does himself. He was always pretty handy, but now he doesn’t have to stuff all the chores into evenings and weekends. As an example: A couple of weeks he cobbled together a four-foot-high stand that will hold up two hoses from two different outdoor spigots. That way he can water our vegetables and fruits without having to uncoil and drag the hoses hither and yon.
Could he have bought something like that at the store? Probably. Did it give him tremendous frugal pleasure to sketch out what he needed and then nail it together? Absolutely!
Sometimes what he wants CAN’T be found. Another example: When I moved in he had a butcher-block-type table on wheels, with lots of space underneath it. Lots of *wasted* space. He likes to bake (and is teaching his young granddaughters), and was jonesing for a couple of deep bins under that table to hold flour and sugar. Nothing of the sort could be found anywhere. So he thought about it, drew pictures of how he might do it, and started sawing lumber. The two drawers are able to hold 25-pound bags of flour and sugar from Costco; they tilt outward (and can be held open), which is so much handier than scooping the stuff out of a canister. It’s made baking and cooking so much easier. So yes, we get a lot of satisfaction out of the project.
Just this morning I found him drawing plans for a new something-or-other, which is likely to be built using more scrap lumber and hardware (he’s got a ton of the stuff), and painted with paint he picked up for free at the city dump’s “used chemical store” (what he calls it; not sure what the city calls it). The fact that he can do this on his own schedule is part of the pleasure. He has vowed to stop taking book projects from a local publisher (currently on his third one), so he can do more DIY and actually *read* more books.
Moderation! It’s a thing. Do what works for you.
P.S. Watching him, I want soooo badly to be retired! It would let me read a crap ton more books than I already do, experiment along with him in the veggie and fruit growing, do some personal writing (instead of the kind that makes me a living), hang out with my BFF and my niece and nephews… But sigh, at least another decade in the trenches for me.
This! DIY-ing isn’t a huge money saver most of the time. Even so, I’ll still do it. It keeps my idle hands from finding things to buy on Amazon and Target.
One major gripe that I have (of the many) is how insanely expensive it is to buy secondhand furniture. I’ll go to Salvation Army and Goodwill, and their wares are expensive even on the 50% off days! And don’t even get me started on yard sales prices here in the Portland metro area. It makes the former Midwesterner in me grumble. We thrifted and refinished most of our furniture. By the time you take in account the cost to purchase the items plus paint and sandpaper and new knobs, etc., we probably could have picked it up at Ikea for less. But it’s all solid, well built furniture that looks awesome thanks to my husband’s skills and will last quite some time. So there’s that.
The only DIY that probably saves a little money is making my own bath salts and scrubs. I buy just the amount that I need of specialty ingredients from a local apothecary so there’s no waste and I feel like a fancy frugalista when it’s a treat yo’ self day.
Hah. I also live in the Portland area but I used to live on the other side of the state. I worked at an antique mall. Our sellers would comb the local farms, yard sales, and charity shops for the best stuff then mark it up for the mall and THEN it would be bought by people who’d come from Portland because it was “so cheap”. So the vintage stuff being sold in Portland has mostly already passed through two or three hands and been marked up accordingly. Then there are the “vintage” stores that sell brand new furniture that’s been carefully distressed in curated stores along with a few actual vintage pieces and all priced like it’s one of a kind. Those places drive me up the wall.
Pro tip on what to do with your awesome but lightly worn clothing…. Invite 10 to 15 gal pals over for a “clean your closet” clothes swap. Trust me, the sheer size of the veritable mountain of clothing on the floor of your living room will be impressive. Add margaritas to the mix, and wait for hilarity to ensue. Imagine going shopping with your entire she-pack at a chi-chi boutique where you can strip down to your skivvies on the sales floor to try on clothing, all while getting tipsy, and creating a catwalk where everyone tries on the same feather boa, sequin beret and tropical muumuu combo (because damn it, someone should be able to rock that look). Everyone goes home with several new pieces for their wardrobe without having to pay a single nickel. Anything leftover then gets donated by the host. A couple of my favorite dresses were scored this way. You’re welcome.
Also, I nearly blew my diet soda out of my nose when I read what you did with legos. I wasn’t a lego fiend, but I did have a big cardboard refrigerator box as a kid, which I turned into, among other locales: a spaceship, a dungeon, and I shit you not, the tiger pen of a zoo. Lack of creativity and claustrophobia are clearly not going to be issues for kids who enjoy imagining being in confined spaces.
I love your writing. I regularly wade through a lot of personal finance blogs, and yours is always a joy to read. Dense and chewy nutritious information, all wrapped up in a zesty candy coating of wit and jest. Kudos.
There is definitely a difference between diying based on what you own already or find for free by chance vs copying plans. When you copy others diy plans chances are you won’t be able to find the same equipment for as cheap as e person who made the plan. Eg we are building a chicken coop but lumber is insanely expensive here (NZ) and all the pallets you can find on the roadside are very used… very. Buut we found a bunch of corrugated iron from an old shed on the roadside and we already had an old table. That’s not a diy someone could copy easily but it turns out that it is cheaper for us.
Ayuuuup. I think DIYs are most affordable when you work with items that are truly on hand. Case in point: I found a tire int he trash and decided to convert it into a chair. I had to go buy $40 worth of rope to finish this huge tire chair, and soon realized I could have bought a flippin’ beanbag chair for $10. Don’t let the obsession of doing a DIY consume you; it can be detrimental to your wallet!
I love this take and can confirm, yes, DIY is not always a real money saver. I built our farmhouse table (how cliche!) a year ago an the only reason we came out ahead on it was that our friend donated the lumber to us: the remnants of his rock climbing wall that a storm knocked over. The fact that it sat in the Phoenix sun for a year just made it appropriately weathered and old looking.
But if I had to buy the lumber myself? Eff that.
The table’s history is now my heuristic: DIY happens when I can get the stuff for free, or close to it.
Yeah DIY has always seemed like more time and energy than it’s worth most of the time. It helps that I haven’t moved in a few years so I haven’t needed things like new pieces of furniture! And for now my closet is still way too expansive so my priority there is to cut down on it period before I start DIYing clothes or finding things used.
The main exception I can think of is refinishing Craigslist furniture. We have gotten some really solid pieces off of rich people on Craigslist that are chipped to hell. Once you have a hand sander, it’s not a particularly expensive project and let’s you get much nicer furniture then you would have otherwise.
For some reason I hate shabby chic – probably because it just reminds me of being poor and having authentically shabby furniture.
(and when I say exception, what I mean is that even when you add in all of the stupid stuff you need to buy, you still come in way under buying the same expensive item new. You could certainly buy something cheaper new.)
The only thing I disagree with is the idea that spending less money on something equals the same quality. Like yeah I could buy a bookshelf for cheaper than the one I hand craft but at the same time I know the level of craftsmenship and the quality of materials in the DIY. I also think of DIY as a way to lessen my propensity of spending money – if I have to knit my own blanket before I’m allowed to buy one then I won’t go get the 200 euro one I’m eyeing for a long time.