7 Ways to Become A DIY Hero

Tools used for do it yourself fixes

Every DIY hero needs some tools!

Is your toilet making an ominous gurgling sound? Front door lock getting harder and harder to turn? Perhaps your doghouse lost a shingle or your light-switch no longer switches.

The normal (non-FIRE) busy professional will confidently tell themselves, “Self, you’re important and have a full-time job!  It’s not worth your time to try and fix that. Plus, you’re a klutz and what if you make it worse?”

Not worth your time. That’s a funny phrase. You’ll see people do this math: 2,087 work hours in a year and if you make $90,000 a year, then your time is “worth” $43/hour. It’s a tempting construction to tell yourself that you’re too busy with valuable activities to bother fixing and fiddling.

But here’s where this theory falls apart: if you aren’t working on fixing something, will you really be using that time to make more money? Or will you be sitting on the couch watching football/cricket/cat-wrestling? And if you’re aiming to live the frugal life, you’ve just got to do this stuff yourself. There’s no justification for paying a plumber $150 to fix a leaky toilet. It’s time to get back to the proud tradition of DIY!

And while the admonition permeates the frugal-sphere to “Just fix it yourself!,”if you’re like most Americans and didn’t grow up in a handy household, how are you supposed to know how to fix what needs fixin’?

While I consider myself a relatively handy fellow, it’s not because I spent the summers of my youth working construction. It’s because I’ve tried, failed, tried again, and laughed at my mistakes along the way. Here’s how Mrs. Frugalwoods and I hone our DIY skills:

  1. The internet is a bountiful font of information (and cat photos). Ever stumble upon an internet forum full of extremely passionate people eager to help others culture their own yogurt or groom their own llama? One of the great secrets of the internet is that there are niche communities for literally everything! Finding the one that you need is the trick. For example: Tiling a Bathroom. The John Bridge forum is all you’ll ever need. Searching for “name-of-job-you-want-to-learn forum” will usually put you on the right path.
  2. Offer to help anyone you know who is doing projects at their house. I’ve helped friends, neighbors, and acquaintances build decks, plumb bathrooms, and hang kitchen cabinets. Along the way I’ve seen them make all the mistakes that I now won’t make when working on my own place. Just make it clear when offering to help that you’re unskilled, grunt labor and want to learn. Everyone needs a happy helper on a job, especially one who brings the coffee on occasion. You only have to work with a professional carpenter once to learn enough tricks to save you hundred of hours of frustration in the future.
  3. Shadow a professional. If you do hire a pro to do work, don’t let them toil alone. Fetch tools, sweep the floor, get the coffee, whatever it takes to watch them work. Ask smart questions and praise their craft. True masters of trade are happy to explain the whats and whys of their work. Don’t be annoying, but also remember that you’re paying them and they’re working for you.
  4. Borrow home improvement books from the library. These are excellent reference materials and great help during planning stages. If you’re building a deck, check out a couple of deck books. If you want to pour a concrete patio, check out the concrete finishing book.
  5. Ask your local building inspector for advice once you have plans. If you’re planning an ambitious renovation project you’ll usually need to pull permits and get the project inspected. Getting the building inspector involved early is a good idea. Often they’re excited that someone actually asked them for help rather than trying to hide from them! YMMV of course, and it might be worth asking around your neighborhood before putting yourself on the inspector’s radar. But a helpful inspector who is personally invested in your project from the start is worth a lot.
  6. The 80/20 principle. As Mrs. Frugalwoods espoused, we operate our home improvements according to this metric. If the end result looks 80% better, don’t sweat that last 20%. In other words, be OK with getting some paint on the ceiling when you paint your own bedroom.
  7. Just try it! Short of replacing your electrical panel or roof, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be in real danger when working on your house. And, if you’re careful and do your research in advance, you’re probably not going to seriously mess anything up.

This last point is the key. There’s only so much you can learn from the internet or books. There’s no substitute for hands-on fiddling.

And nothing, I mean nothing beats the satisfied feeling of completing a project yourself. Doing something with your own hands yields a special flavor of pride. And wow does it feel good!

Photo courtesy of flickr user Peter Harris

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10 Responses

  1. Mr. 1500 says:

    Ha, I’ve done lots of tiling and I concur that those John Bridge forums are your best friend.

    I always get try to get friends and neighbors to do things themselves. The response is usually something like; “it just seems too hard” or “I’m not a hands on type of person” or “you’ve been doing this for a long time.” I then remind them that I’m just a white collar software developer and that the only thing separating them from me is a couple YouTube videos and a willingness to try.

    Nice post!

    • Mr. Frugalwoods says:


      A willingness to admit “I have no idea what I’m doing” and “I’m going to give it a try anyway” goes a long way!

      I think there also might be another hidden comfort in having a sizable emergency fund. For people living paycheck to paycheck, maybe they feel like they can’t afford to f’up a DIY job. For me, worst case scenario is that I just wasted some money on materials and have to call in an expert.

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