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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  1. 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!

    1. Thanks!

      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.

  2. In my first house (I was twenty-something) I did already a lot of repairs and building things myself (like painting, tiling, removing a wall and building one). I just went to a good shop (there where craftsman also worked) and asked what to buy and how to do it.
    That was before the internet. I learned a lot from it. Nowadays I’ve gotten a bit insecure and short of time, but your blog recalls the memory’s of being able to make things and the joy of it.
    I’m getting exited in doing things like this myself again!

  3. We’re having a house built this year. We, my husband and I, are accomplished DIYers! But, we know our limits! While I ‘know’ I could mud the drywall, I’m leaving it to the pros, because they will get it done much faster than I could!
    Now, assembling and installing the kitchen cabinets? Definitely in our skill set! We have friends and family who are very good with tools, who are chomping at the bit to help us! So, we will be doing this!

  4. As you’ve mentioned, you helped others so now they can help you. My sister is a professional hair dresser. We trade for things. She does my hair – I do her banking (I worked in consumer and commercial loan depts of a bank for ten years). I asked friends to help with my daughter’s graduation open house so I could visit with family and friends. And then I helped them. All of them thanked me profusely because they could relax and enjoy instead of running around like a crazy person. I know a lot of people that trade babysitting. Think about what you can do to help others and make some friends along the way!

  5. Mr FW – oh man – you got me. I called a contract to repair our slate steps. He was slow to respond. I was thinking, well, maybe I could take a class and do this. I pinged him – he is too busy. I thought – I will just wait – after reading this perhaps I need to get off my butt and actually investigate. Thanks for the push.

  6. Many years ago I read “Your Money or your Life,” by Joe Domingues. Frugal woods is a younger, hipper more modern version of the homesteading freedom that frugality unleashes. But the real power comes from unplugging from the media as a consumer and reconnecting with humanity to become a read member of the planet. Thank you for sharing your process of the simplicity that you have chosen, Babywoods will become the people that they were Intended to be and you will have created joy in your part of the world as educated, modern day homesteaders

    1. Totally agree with the comparison between Frugalwoods and Your Money or Your Life. In fact Vicki Robin (the co-author with Joe Domingues of the original book) published a new edition of YMOYL in 2018 and it’s a great read. Mr Money Moustache even wrote the foreword in the latest ed!
      V. Robin has updated most chapters in the latest ed. I strongly recommend Frugalwoods fans check out YMOYL as well.

  7. I use a lot. You can ask all sorts of questions, provide photos and there is always a string of professionals in the forums providing you with answers and how to’s. It’s totally free and is a valuable resource for us novices or know a bits.

  8. YouTube repair tutorials are my best friend! I recently replaced all the hardware in the tank of my toilet and the water supply line for under $40, using a YouTube video. It was a lot easier than it looked, and the hardest part was cutting out the old bolts for the tank because they had rusted together. It’s amazing how much information we have access to in this age!

  9. I agree for the most part but there are many people who work way more then 2,087 hours a week. That figure is a little low in my opinion.

  10. I am very proud that I changed the cabin filter in my CR-V last summer – after watching the You Tube video about seven times.

  11. On the Offer to Help note, you can pick up some good basic skills volunteering on Habitat for Humanity houses. There is a professional or retired contractor who runs the show and other people who are on the project on a regular basis. They will get you started on how to do things like mudding drywall, and you take over from there with the actual labor.
    Community gardens might be another place to learn quite a bit.

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