The many reasons--besides frugality--to do for yourself

By Philip Brewer on 9 November 2007 (Updated 17 April 2009) 11 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

Doing for yourself--cooking your own meals, making your own clothes, growing your own vegetables, playing your own music, baking your own bread--is sometimes justified on the grounds of being frugal. This often leads to an analysis as to just how frugal it really is. I don't think that analysis is very useful, primarily because doing for yourself is often a wise choice whether it's frugal or not.

Deciding whether it's better to do something yourself or to pay someone else to do it on the grounds of frugality, leads inevitably to the intractable problem of how much your time is worth.

One reason it's intractable because it's hard to extend any particular earning rate for an arbitrary extra number of hours per day, or even to conjecture that you'd be doing that paid activity instead of something else. Just thinking about it leads immediately to humor:

This guy is late getting home from work and his wife asks why. He explains, "I decided to save a dollar by walking home instead of taking the bus." His wife scoffs, "If you were going to do that, you should have saved ten dollars by walking home instead of taking a cab."

The more fundamental problem, though, is that it's dumb simply to suppose that activities that are only worth doing if they're worth being paid for. It's especially dumb when there are other activities (called "entertainment") that not only are not remunerative, but that we pay to do. It's wrong-headed to imagine a binary division between the things we get paid to do and the things that we pay to do. Most things in life are neither and ought to be.

There are many other reasons to do for yourself--reasons that are much better than frugality.

For me, the really important reason for doing for yourself, is that it lets you move a portion of household activities outside the realm of the money economy. That can be critically important during hard times--whether your own personal hard times, due to a shortfall in income or an unplanned expense, or hard times in the greater economy due to inflation, recession, resource depletion, or any of the many ills that economies suffer.

Aside from that, there are all the ordinary good reasons to do for yourself:

higher quality--If you do for yourself you can use higher quality ingredients or materials, do higher quality work, and produce goods (and provide services) that match your needs and your tastes. That's true of meals, clothes, home repair, house cleaning, child care, and so on.

more ethical--If you do for yourself, you don't need to wonder (or try to convince yourself that it doesn't matter) if your clothes and shoes were made by child labor, if your beef and pork came from animals raised in a feedlot, or if the jet that brought your fresh asparagus from Chile contributed to global warming.

deeply personal--A brief note will always say what you mean better than a greeting card. Only a fool outsources his love poems.

build and maintain skills--The time may come when it's important to be able to grow vegetables, repair a bicycle, knit a sweater, fix a leak, shingle a roof, plow a field, and so on. It's worth doing these things simply to know that you can.

more fun--I take great pleasure in making a loaf of sourdough bread. It may even be a dollar or two cheaper than buying a loaf of good bread at the store, but that's not why I do it. I don't do it because I bake better bread than the bakery either, although the bread I bake is more to my taste. I do it because I enjoy it, and that's enough of a reason even if the result is more expensive and of lower quality. Doing a craft adequately yourself will often produce more satisfaction than buying something made by a master craftsman.

There's nothing wrong with buying something made by a skilled craftsman. Free trade makes both parties better off. But "being better off" is the goal, not a mere side-effect. If you want to do something, do it. You don't need to conjure up a bogus rational of frugality. Most especially you shouldn't deny yourself the pleasure of doing for yourself just because the low-cost producer can squeeze enough productivity out of oppressed workers that you can buy the item cheaper than you can make it.

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Guest's picture

I like this way of thinking about it. Just this morning, I pulled the scarf I knit for myself last year. It felt good to make it, and it feels good to wear it. I'm glad I'm developing that skill!

Myscha Theriault's picture

I like this one Philip. It addresses the validity of developing a skill set of self sufficiency simply for the joy of it and how that skill set can come into play when we might least expect it. Good job.

Guest's picture
Guest

Regarding the making of clothing - imagine my horror when I discovered that the companies I buy fabric from really couldn't tell me whether they're run in a safe, environmentally friendly fashion. Batiks in particular can be prone to using toxic dyes which aren't disposed of carefully.

I would love to find a source of fabric that isn't produced in a sweatshop, is milled and/or dyed in worker-safe conditions, and doesn't contribute to polluting the environment.

Guest's picture
Guest

I used to think DIY is too much work, but as I get older I begin to realize that to get something done right you really have to do it yourself.

Guest's picture
Guest

Great article. People need to do more DIY stuff iwe want to save the planet.

Guest's picture

I'm a big fan of DIY projects around the house. My wife and I have slowly been remodeling our home for the past 2 years, and we have done the vast majority of the work ourselves. Sure, some of it may have taken longer than if we had hired a contractor, but we have saved a bundle of money by doing the work ourselves, and learned a lot in the process. On top of that, it's extremely fulfilling to look around at our beautiful remodeled house with the knowledge that we did most of the work ourselves.

Guest's picture
Lucille

People should not compare their efforts to what a comparable item might cost at Walmart, they should compare to what it would cost at an expensive store.

I used to belong to a historical re-enactors group. We were sitting around the fire one night drinking too much beer pondering the world. Someone brought up what would happen if the civilized world we are used to collapsed tomorrow. We started looking at the pre-industrial skills all of our friends had learned over the years. Most of us possessed enough skills to survive minus cars and shopping malls.

We have been looking for furniture for our house. We priced and looked at book cases at a bunch of furniture stores. Every last one, even some of the expensive ones were wood veneer or shoddily made. We started looking at woodworking plans and discovered they really are not that hard. So much of our new furniture is not going to be bought at the furniture store.

Guest's picture

People have recognized for a long time that mental accounting is a funny thing. The lost ticket parable is the classic example, although the article I've linked to talks about a bunch more. There's an increasing scientific interest in feelings as an expression of the parallel processing that human brains seem to do. Feelings integrate across all our experiences (or seem to, anyway) and often work better than trying to rationally calculate and weight factors. And, in the end, its how you feel about it that matters. So you can spend a lot of time trying to convince yourself that rationally you ought to be enjoying something, but I think sometimes its better to just go with the flow.

Guest's picture
Jess

I like this article a great deal. It's easy to get caught up in the frugality of your actions, and I'm finding that leads to discouragement and stress. Even if it's about money, it's not *always* about money. When I garden or bake bread, I sometimes catch myself thinking "I saved X amount on groceries because of this, I need to do it better and more," and forget that not only is it safer and better, but also that it's something I enjoy doing.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks everyone, for all the good comments.

Frugality is a good reason to do things for yourself, but it's hardly the only reason. Even when it's not cheaper to do something yourself, the other reasons (it's fun, the results are better/healthier/more ethical/etc.) mean it's often worthwhile.

Guest's picture

i really liked the article, and this concept of frugality should be promoted more.last summer i did my
roof repair all by myself. it want just for me but for using some skills i have in myself