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Should You Do It Yourself (DIY)? – When It Pays and When It Doesn’t


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Do-it-yourself (DIY) projects can be a great way to save money. And the Internet makes projects of all types and complexity seem accessible thanks to a seemingly infinite selection of instructional videos and blog posts. Everything from making a tufted headboard to building a deck seems easy, cheap, and doable.

According to Inc., although people have been DIYing since the dawn of humans, the phenomenon has exploded in recent years thanks in large part to social media sharing. So, why not DIY?

The truth is that DIY projects aren’t always easy or cheap, and they may involve technical work that’s best left to the professionals. (We suggest using HomeAdvisor to find reputable contractors in your area.) Although over 200 million people visit Pinterest each month in search of DIY inspiration, there’s a reason the term “Pinterest fail” has become popular to describe projects gone awry. The Internet can make a project look inexpensive and easy, but that doesn’t always mean it is.

While there’s nothing quite like the pride of being able to show off something you did yourself, or the satisfaction of knowing you may have saved a significant amount over retail, there are some factors to consider before deciding to do it yourself.

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When to Think Twice About DIY

If any of the below factors apply to your potential DIY project, you’re likely better off buying something pre-made or hiring a professional.

1. You Can’t Replicate the Quality of a Store-Bought Item

Sometimes, making something yourself allows you to save money while also producing something of much higher quality than you could find in a store. A great example is relatively easy-to-build furniture such as dining tables, coffee tables, or side tables. With just a few simple pieces – a top, some legs, and a support frame – you can create a great piece of furniture made of real wood for less than $100.

A similar-quality item at a store could set you back several hundred, or even thousand, dollars. If you opt to save money and buy a piece of furniture for $100 or less, you’ll likely get something of low quality that you’ll have to assemble on your own, anyway – and it most won’t be made of real wood. Sometimes, you do get what you pay for.

On the other hand, not everything homemade is of a higher quality; sometimes, the store version is the better buy. One great example is homemade detergents, which are rarely as effective as anything you can buy at the store. Pinterest is chock full of recipes for making homemade dish tabs and laundry detergent. A Pinterest addict myself, and fed up with spending $15 at a time on tubs of dish tabs, I decided to give the homemade version a try.

Most of these recipes involve using a combination of baking soda and citric acid, which creates a fizzing reaction when it hits the water. The recipes sounded easy and cheap, and sure enough, the dish tabs I made produced an impressive foaming reaction that convinced me they were working, although the baking soda routinely left a cloudy residue on my dishes.

Unfortunately, though my DIY dish tabs were considerably cheaper than any store-bought brand, I quickly discovered, after some online research, that I was throwing my money away. Any cleaning power that might have come from my dishwasher was due solely to the scouring power of its water jets and not my ineffectual dish tabs.

The impressive fizzing reaction has made DIYers like myself believe some kind of cleaning was happening. But because of the chemical nature of the two main ingredients – baking soda is a base, and citric acid an acid – they cancel each other out. This creates a fizzy reaction, but their mutual cancellation makes them no more effective at cleaning than plain water.

It doesn’t make a difference how much money you save if the money you end up spending does nothing for you.

Incidentally, this is the same problem with mixing baking soda and vinegar. These are common ingredients in DIY cleaners because baking soda works wonderfully as a scouring agent, and vinegar is excellent at busting through grime. But, while both can work well individually, when mixed, they cancel each other out because vinegar is also an acid.

It pays to know what works and what doesn’t; some combinations are downright dangerous. For more information on what not to mix when it comes to DIY household cleaners, check out this list from Good Housekeeping.

2. The Materials & Equipment Cost More Than Buying Pre-Made

I once ran into a fellow mom who balked at the cost of a kid’s Halloween costume and vowed to make her own version of that same costume in order to save money. While this tactic may work on occasion, especially if you’re an avid sewer and have a stock of supplies to pull from, or if the costume is relatively simple, I wasn’t sure she really understood what she was in for.

Depending on the type of fabric you’d need to purchase, not to mention the other supplies involved – thread, buttons, zippers, embellishments, and so on – she’d likely end up saving no more money than buying something pre-made from a big box store or, better yet, shopping consignment. I snagged my son’s Halloween costume this year for $8 at a consignment sale.

If you’re considering a DIY project that requires tools you don’t have, you must factor those into the cost. For example, you might be able to make an amazing farmhouse dining table for under $100 for the cost of wood, but it’s not so cheap once you factor in the cost of the tools needed to assemble it, such as a drill and circular saw.

I once decided to upgrade the look of our home by installing some picture frame molding in our hallway. Finish carpentry is notoriously expensive, and after studying numerous videos, I was convinced I could do it myself without too much cost or trouble.

Once I got started, however, I quickly discovered that even though one website told me it was possible to hammer in the tiny finish nails by hand, attempting that with the plaster walls in our old house was not only laborious, but it just plain didn’t work. So I sprung for a pneumatic nail gun. I bought an inexpensive home-use version, but even this “cheap” model added an extra $100 to the total cost of the project.

Further, cutting the molding required making angled cuts of multiple degrees, as I wanted to continue the pattern from the downstairs hallway up the staircase and throughout the second-floor hallway. Although making simple boxes in the upstairs and downstairs hallways required only 90-degree angles, which is possible to do with a handsaw and a $10 miter box, the staircase boxes required angles only possible to cut with a real miter saw. When I realized a miter saw would cost me anywhere from $200 to $400, I gave up on doing the stairway.

Once finished, I was thrilled with the picture frame molding I created; it turned out to be a relatively simple project with dramatic impact, and I did indeed feel a great deal of pride in my accomplishment. However, in the end, to get the complete finished look I really wanted, which included molding that ran up the stairway, it would have made more financial sense to just hire a carpenter.

If you want to take on this kind of project yourself, it may only be worth it if you already have the necessary tools or can rent them for a reasonable price or borrow them for free.

3. It Would Take Too Much Time to Make the Cost Savings Worth It

Many DIYers fail to account for their time when considering the amount of money a do-it-yourself project might save. But time is money too and should be factored into the equation.

That’s especially true if you work for yourself, or are paid by the hour, and the time required for a specific DIY project could potentially result in lost wages. For example, if you’re a consultant earning $100 an hour, every hour spent on your DIY project represents $100 in lost income. Therefore, even though you might spend less money doing something yourself, in the end, you could lose more money than you save.

Even if your DIY project is something you’d be doing outside of work hours, it’s still worth considering how much time the project might take and whether the time investment is actually worthwhile. Although you may not be able to translate dollars into hours, there are other things you could potentially miss out on that represent an opportunity cost.

For example, for my son’s first birthday, I knew I wanted to throw a big bash. Money was an issue as I was staying home at the time and we were living on a single income, so I decided to make everything myself to save money – all the invitations, decorations, food, cake, and party favors.

Although it did save money, I grossly underestimated the amount of time it would take and found myself spending hours upon hours prepping food and party decorations instead of spending time with my son, who was the whole reason I’d taken time off work.

So, the next year when he turned two, I bought some Batman plates and napkins and a tablecloth from a big box store and served cheap hamburgers and hot dogs off the grill. His second birthday wasn’t nearly on the scale of the first, but he was thrilled with the inexpensive Batman paper goods and more than happy to eat hot dogs. Even better, I got the chance to spend plenty of time with the birthday boy.

4. It Would Cause You Too Much Stress

I have a long history with DIY projects, and yet I continue to notoriously underestimate the amount of time and work involved, something that causes my husband to roll his eyes every time I mention starting yet another project.

Time aside, DIY projects can also be a lot of work. They can be physically exhausting and frustrating when they don’t end up the way you want them to. They can also feel like yet another chore on your seemingly endless to-do list.

While you might take on a project to save money, if the project ends up stressing you out too much, the potential savings may not be worth it. If you have the available funds to hire a professional or buy something pre-made without incurring debt, and if you’re budgeting, saving, and otherwise doing all the right things with your money, there’s no reason you can’t use a little of your hard-earned cash to pay someone else to do the work.

I usually take on DIY projects because I genuinely enjoy them, yet even still, I’ve gotten in over my head. For example, I once spent a whole summer painting the entire interior of our house. Painting is one of those DIY projects that almost anyone can take on themselves as it generally doesn’t involve a lot of advanced technical skill and only costs as much as a few gallons of paint, some paint rollers, and some tape.

I’d painted plenty of rooms before, and though painting has never been one of my favorite tasks, I’ve also never minded it. Our old house, however, had painted molding and, in addition to painting the walls, which might have been relatively simple on its own, I also needed to redo all the molding.

Not only did I grossly underestimate the amount of time involved in painting so many rooms at once, but I also underestimated the physical toll and emotional burnout the project would cause. I injured my back and shoulder from so much bending and rolling, and I was so worn out from the whole ordeal, I vowed never to paint again. (So far, I’ve kept that promise.)

It’s become well worth it to me to hire professional house painters from now on, and though it may cost more, I see it as a positive use of my money because it saves me from all the stress. If a DIY project might similarly stress you out, wear you out, or even cause injury, your money might better be spent hiring a professional.

5. It’s Something That Should Really Be Done by a Pro

Sometimes, it might be worth it to you to hire a professional to save you time and peace of mind. There are also some projects that should simply never be attempted by anyone not trained for the job. These include any DIY project that requires an advanced technical skill you don’t have or that could be dangerous.

A job that could literally kill you, such as electrical work or roofing, should never be done yourself. If electrical work, for example, is done incorrectly, you could be electrocuted or start a fire. That’s the kind of thing best left to a trained professional.

Other jobs that require advanced technical skill – such as plumbing, which could potentially destroy your home if done wrong – should also generally be left to professionals. While it’s true that some small plumbing projects, such as fixing a leaky faucet, can be done on your own, you should never attempt any major plumbing work as the repercussions can be catastrophic.

Another important reason to leave some types of home improvement projects to professionals is your home’s resale value.

I have a friend who, in order to cut costs, purchased a home without getting an inspection first. Unfortunately, she quickly learned after the sale had gone through and she’d moved in that much of the electrical wiring in her home had been DIY’ed by the home’s previous owner, who was not an electrician. The electrician she hired had to do some major cleanup work as a result. Had she sprung for the inspection, the inspector might have noted the shoddy work, and she might never have purchased the house.

Homebuyers pay inspectors to find every potential flaw with your home that might end up costing them money down the line. So, you want to make sure you preserve your home’s resale value as much as possible by leaving any major project or repair to the professionals.

When It Does Make Sense to DIY

Although there are pitfalls to look out for when deciding to undertake a DIY project, there are also some good reasons to do it yourself. Here are three.

1. It Really Does Save Money

Although baking-soda-and-citric-acid dish tabs may not be the most effective cleaning solution, plenty of homemade cleaners work just as well as, or better than, store-bought cleaners and can end up saving you a great deal of money while also being better for your health and the planet.

For example, vinegar, when used on its own, is a powerful cleaner that both disinfects and powers through grime. I use it regularly to clean soap scum from my bathtub, disinfect my laundry, and clear buildup in my washing machine, dishwasher, and even coffee brewer. And at just over $2 for a gallon-size jug, it’s also a cleaning bargain.

When considering if you should DIY, make sure you price out the materials and your time investment and compare that against the cost of buying or hiring. As long as you truly are saving money, and not losing it on something that will be ineffective or of poor quality, it can be worth it to DIY.

2. The Project Is Doable & You Will Enjoy It

As long as your DIY project isn’t something that will stress you out or cost too much money or time, there isn’t much reason not to go for it, especially if you already have the necessary skills and it’s something you’ll enjoy.

I, for example, have sewing skills, a sewing machine, and a ready supply of fabrics, thread, and other odds and ends such as zippers, buttons, and snaps. I also enjoy the process of creating something from nothing. So, for the first few years of my son’s life, I designed and made all his Halloween costumes. I loved doing it, and I was genuinely thrilled with the end products, which were always something custom.

Sometimes, a project might also be simple enough that even if you don’t have the necessary skills, you can learn them by watching videos posted on DIY blogs or visiting sites like DIY Network, Better Homes and Gardens, or This Old House. That’s how I learned to do picture frame molding, which, despite my previous lack of carpentry skills, turned out to be very doable after watching some videos and reading up on a few techniques.

Further, if you’ll genuinely enjoy the process and it won’t stress you out, that can be another good reason to go for it. Many, like myself, aren’t necessarily drawn to DIY projects to save money but for the sheer love of creating.

As Inc. reports, the DIY trend has tapped into the human need to create, and this is likely as much a driving force for its popularity as frugality. Jill Miller, an entrepreneur serving DIYers, tells The Week that she believes the people drawn to DIY projects are those who are stuck behind a desk all day and yearn to make something with their hands. Further, Scientific American reports that creativity is a necessary component of well-being and a meaningful life.

So, regardless of whether a DIY project saves money, pursuing it for the sake of creativity can be enough of a reason to do it yourself.

3. You Want Something Custom or Heartfelt

Sometimes, the cost of a DIY project won’t save you money and can even cost more than buying pre-made. It might be worth doing it anyway, though, if what you want to create isn’t something that can be bought in a store.

For example, for a friend’s baby shower, I made her twin daughters a set of custom pink Star Wars baby bibs, blankets, and a changing pad. Knowing she and her husband are Star Wars fans, I wanted to give them something Star-Wars-related but had a hard time back then finding Star Wars baby items that weren’t designed for boys. So, I made my own “girly” Star Wars baby things.

By the time I bought all the different fabrics, ribbons, and iron-on patches, I ended up spending far more than I would have on pre-made baby items. But I was perfectly OK with that because I’d done it to make something custom and not to save money.

Similarly, if what makes an item special to you or its intended recipient is the very nature of it being homemade, then that might also be a compelling reason to DIY. For example, anything that my son makes for me is a far more heartwarming gift than something bought at the store.

Final Word

In the end, there are far more factors to consider when deciding to do a DIY project than whether it might save you money. While money is certainly a factor, just as important can be your time, enjoyment, and skill level. Next time you’re considering a DIY project, make sure to weigh all the pros and cons.

Are you a DIYer? What projects have you done or are you considering? Are there any projects you’ve regretted taking on?


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Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.