Some thoughts on the return to traditional skills

I give several media interviews each month. As the economy changes, so do the questions. Recently, as you can imagine, reporters have been asking me what people can do to save money.

This question gets boring after a while. There are only so many ways a fellow can say, “Spend less than you earn by reducing unnecessary expenses.” Lately I've been trying to spice up interviews by promoting what I call “traditional skills”.

When I say “traditional skills”, I really mean the do-it-yourself ethic. It seems to me that during the 1990s and early 2000s, as the U.S. moved more toward a service economy, we became so specialized in what we do that we let go of “traditional skills” and began to pay others to do things that we might have done ourselves a decade or two ago.

One example in my own life is changing the oil in our cars. When I was in high school, my father taught me basic automobile maintenance. I could change the oil, I could change filters, and I could even replace my brake pads. I'm by no means a macho auto-shop kind of guy (quite the opposite: I'm an indoor techno-nerd), but I found these sorts of jobs rewarding. Somewhere along the way, I started paying other people to do this stuff for me.

I'm not the only one. Over the past generation, folks seem to have forgotten how to sew, how to garden, and how to perform basic home maintenance.

Obviously there are situations in which it makes sense to pay others to do things. Kris and I are going to pay somebody to repair our gutters, for example. I could do this myself, but I am swamped with work, work that will pay me far more than it would cost to have somebody else repair the gutters. This is a trade I'm willing to make.

In general, however, I think there's a tremendous money-saving opportunity for people to return to traditional skills, to begin doing some of these tasks themselves again. It pleases me that here in Oregon, at least, there seems to be a surge of interest in this sort of DIY ethic. I am shocked by how many of my friends now grow at least some of their own produce. (And more of them are beginning to raise chickens — and goats!)

But that's not all. More of our friends are canning now, and knitting, and performing home maintenance. They're learning to bake bread and to sew and to build their own patios. I think this is wonderful, and I think it's a great way to save money.

I've written about this subject many times in the past at Get Rich Slowly, and am sure to write about it more in the future. I also enjoy covering individual examples of these “traditional skills” in posts like these:

Knitting and sewing, auto mechanics and woodworking, hunting and fishing, baking and canning: all of these are making a resurgence among my friends and family. Maybe it's just the region in which I live, or maybe it's just a product of entering middle age, but the people I know seem to have a renewed interest in finding ways to do things themselves.

Have you observed something similar where you live, or in your own life? Have you begun to do things yourself that you used to pay others to do? Which things are worth doing on your own? Do you think it would be a good thing for people to begin doing more of these tasks on their own again? Or will this simply weaken the economy?

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Michele
Michele
11 years ago

I have been doing a lot of this lately – learning to bake bread, cooking from scratch, gardening. My husband has always been handy, so we rarely have to call a repairman. And my MIL sews, which I really need to learn. I do think a return to learning these skills is a beneficial biproduct of this down economy.

Emily
Emily
11 years ago

A lot of people I know want to learn to can, pickle, and dehydrate food for storage, plus grinding wheat, making bread, cooking from scratch, etc. I started a nonprofit group called Preserving Traditions (http://preservingtraditions.org/) that is based out of our local Grange (which is itself a piece of “traditional skills” heritage) so we can find experts in our community and learn these skills together. I’ve been blown away by the turnout – 20 people at our first event (noodlemaking) and 35+ at the second event (wheat and home grain mills). This is obviously a good time for coming together… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Emily (#2)
Somebody who knows what a Grange is! Emily, are you willing to take a moment to describe exactly what a Grange is and how it operates? This has puzzled me for years (though obviously I haven’t ever bothered to look it up). I see granges referred to (in lower-case) in American lit, and even (I think) in the works of Thomas Hardy. This leads me to believe they originated as rural support societies, but that’s just me guessing.

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

After spending my working hours on a computer, I enjoy the opportunity to really get my hands dirty or make something tangible. I wonder how many other people feel the same way?

There’s something satisfying about making my own soup, growing my herbs in my window sill and knitting a good pair of socks. I somehow feel more connected to the world doing physical tasks than I do when I’m on the computer.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

I think that the best thing about DIY work isn’t even the cost savings. It’s the sense of accomplishment. A lot of us work everyday in jobs where we show up, do some stuff, go home and get paid, but are sort of left with a feeling of “well, I did some stuff, not sure if anyone really noticed,” at the end of the day. It’s so immensely satisfying for me to take something that’s broken and make it work again. I’m an engineer (sort of — software engineer) by trade, and maybe that contributes to my feeling this way,… Read more »

Mike Panic
Mike Panic
11 years ago

Your article on making bread inspired me to go out and buy a dutch oven that night. Most of the winter I’ve been baking bread for myself and friends, and especially as a “thank you” if someone does something nice to me or a favor for me. The overwhelming responce from someone who I just gave bread to has been, “THANK YOU! Did you really bake this yourself? Do you have a bread machine? This looks like one of those specially crafted breads from a gourmet store, it’s so pretty.” It honestly tastes really good, is super cheap to make… Read more »

feminist finance
feminist finance
11 years ago

I wonder whether a lot of what you describe is trend-based or otherwise somewhat fleeting. For instance, most of the IRL people I know who make their own bread or grow some of their own produce or make their own pasta are doing it because they are foodies–mabe foodies on a budget, but just as frequently not. The ethics of eating are getting a lot of ink lately so it makes sense that people would be thinking more about those issues and acting on them a bit more. There’s also been a real trend over the past decade toward various… Read more »

Scott NJ DAD
Scott NJ DAD
11 years ago

There is another good reason not to do repair work on your home on a ladder. It is wildly dangerous, and could easily kill you.

Before anyone posts about how silly that is. My mechanic, who was probably in the top 5% of handy people, was working on a ladder outside his home, and was knocked to the ground, killing him. It was just a freak accident, the kind of freak accident that doesn’t happen to pro’s who have invested in the expensive safety equipment that the average homeowner does not.

Steve
Steve
11 years ago

It takes about the same time to change your own oil as to have someone else do it (if you’re just waiting in the lobby.) On the other hand for me, from many attempts while I was a college student with less money, I know that 75% of the time I would end up spending that much time again rubbing kitty litter into the driveway to clean up my spills! So, until and unless I can’t afford it any more, I will be getting my oil changed by someone else. OTOH, I don’t think hiring someone to do a task… Read more »

The Personal Finance Playbook
The Personal Finance Playbook
11 years ago

I’ve definitely noticed that the DIY movement is picking up steam with my friends and neighbors. Many of the people I know have gardens. I would also say that living a more sustainable, energy conscious life has become more popular with most of the people I know. Another trend I’m noticing – lower meat consumption.

Avlor
Avlor
11 years ago

I’ve always been one who loves to learn to do things DIY. Spinning my own yarn was one of my faves. I haven’t done it much in the last year. But I want to get back to it. It feels great to knit with your own yarn or embroider with your own thread.

Craig
Craig
11 years ago

I know a feel DIY things but have always wished to have learned more. I’m not as hands on as I would like to be and would need to hire someone for most fixes or repairs.

slowth
slowth
11 years ago

I haven’t noticed an increased DIY ethic in my group of friends and family. In fact, I told my Dad I planned on changing my car’s oil, he then asked incredulously, “Why in the world would you do something like that?” I told him I enjoy it, but he still couldn’t quite understand. My Dad is the most independent-minded person I know. Most people have a laissez-faire attitude towards their cars. Aside from a house, what else plucks that much money from our wallets? I say become well acquainted with your car, because it certainly won’t mind acquainting itself with… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
11 years ago

I’ve definitely noticed this in my life and the lives of my friends in their 20s and 30s (although NOT my family, interestingly enough). We’re working to develop skills (canning, gardening) that our parents had forgotten or ignored, and it’s hard sometimes to find the right resources to learn these skills. I just bought Back to Basics – thanks for the recommendation – and it’s great, but a little overwhelming.

RT
RT
11 years ago

We are and have always been huge DIYers. We have never paid anyone to do something we can do ourselves – including the remodeling of our house from flooring to a new roof. In fact the only thing on the house we’ve ever written a check for (other than permits) is the gutters. It was FAR cheaper to have a gutter company replace them than to buy them at Home Depot. Although for full disclosure I have to admit that I’ve started taking my car to the car wash a couple times a year. I don’t mind washing the outside… Read more »

Allison
Allison
11 years ago

I am starting my first ever subsistence farm this year so that I can start living off food I grow myself rather than spending gasoline driving to a grocery store to pay high prices for organic foods that are less fresh than I’d be getting from my back yard. I used to bake bread for fun, but now will be baking it to help save grocery money.

sh
sh
11 years ago

Ugh, no! Why make bread when I can buy 3 loaves of organic name brand bread at the bread outlet store for $3.50 total? I can fill my freezer for less than the cost of the same health food store bought ingredients. I don’t even cut my own hair – why would I change my own oil? The dealership I purchased from offers free tires and batteries for life, as long as they do all the maintenance. The cost of one or two free tires more than outweighs the savings of a few DIY oil changes. And DH is forbidden… Read more »

ryan
ryan
11 years ago

JD, You don’t have human children, and I wish you did because many of the issues that they bring to the forefront of these types of discussions can be important. That being said, as a father, one of the things that drives me crazy is when I hear people use the kids as an excuse for outsourcing basic services like housecleaning. As in “I could do it, but I want to spend time with the kids.” Their mentality is that it is not quality time unless it is specifically devoted to a kid-centric activity. Baloney! Playgrounds are great, but kids… Read more »

Emma Anne
Emma Anne
11 years ago

Tyler: “It’s so immensely satisfying for me to take something that’s broken and make it work again. ”

I am an engineer too. I like to say that I enjoy reducing the entropy in the world. 🙂 I am not very handy except for computers, but I have started cooking the last few years. And I have started considering gardening.

Gusten
Gusten
11 years ago

A lot of people I know do these kind of things as their hobbies. It’s a fascinating contrast to people having hobbies where they consume goods or services.

mhb
mhb
11 years ago

I don’t know if this is a long-lived phenomenon, but it’s something my husband and I (we’re in our mid-20s) can’t wait to do more of: we’re stuck in a Chicago apartment now, so what we can do ourselves is limited: I make all our soup and most of our bread from scratch, he’s always building/fixing things himself. DH and my FIL do all the maintenance on our car and theirs. Friends of ours here in the Midwest make their own clothes, grow their own food, etc. Our hope is to get as off-the-grid as possible some day. For us,… Read more »

mhb
mhb
11 years ago

@ ryan (#17): you’re cool. I’m glad you have kids. 🙂

chacha1
chacha1
11 years ago

@Ryan, I don’t have human children either but I agree with you … and what’s more, kids LIKE knowing how to do things. My parents put me and my sister to work early. We were always responsible for picking up after ourselves, we helped with the laundry and the cooking and the yardwork. We lived in the country with no compatible families nearby, and we certainly didn’t have household help, so being occupied by something constructive was pretty much a requirement to avoid going nuts.

slowth
slowth
11 years ago

sh, I doubt the tires provided by the dealership are free, since they aren’t NPOs. Basic car maintenance isn’t really about saving money anyway, it’s about knowing your investment and doing the job properly. Some find learning new skills or completing a task of your own accord satisfying in itself. Hard to imagine, but sometimes money isn’t the motivating factor.

Kris
Kris
11 years ago

I’m trying to do more DIY. Not so much in trying to save money, but because I enjoy it. I have started to make dog biscuits for my dog. She has a sensative stomach so I feel better doing this because I know what she is eating. Plus, it does end up being cheaper and she likes them. I have started baking our own bread. We eat rolls almost every night with dinner and it was getting expensive if I couldn’t buy them onsale or with coupon. So I got a recipe from a friend for homemade crescant rolls. I… Read more »

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Feeling a bit slighted here – when you said “Or, if you’re a two-wheeled commuter, visit Bicycle Tutor” you forgot about those of us on motorcycles… 😉

Annie Jones
Annie Jones
11 years ago

DIY is nothing new to my husband and me. Between the two of us, we do our own auto maintenance and minor repairs; home repairs, maintenance and remodeling; lawn care; some gardening; sewing; crocheting and knitting; leather work (my husband makes his own leather tool belts and such for work, as he enjoys it and they hold up longer than what he can buy); breadmaking; canning; yogurt making; appliance repair; haircuts; etc. Although I don’t do it on a regular basis, I have made my own wine, my own cheese and my own butter. We enjoy doing this things ourselves,… Read more »

ryan
ryan
11 years ago

@Finance Feminist, I laughed when I read what you wrote… “From my vantage point, there have been a number of factors that have made all sorts of crafts (knitting, cooking from scratch, sewing) more popular. Some of it is a prouct of third-wave feminism where younger women are now feeling more comfortable exploring and reclaiming these traditional tasks that previous generations found extremely restricting.” Of course I think all this DIY stuff is great, learn some skills, save a little money, do something constructive, etc. But I laughed because your words reminded me of an Onion article a couple months… Read more »

ryan
ryan
11 years ago

oh yeah, and I’ve been to Sausalito. It’s the PERFECT choice of a setting for a fake news article

Anne
Anne
11 years ago

Every time someone comes over to my home for the first time, I show off the ceiling fan that I installed all by myself. I bought the home after a hard break-up and the fan has sort of become a symbol (to myself) of my independence.

Oh yeah, and it saved money and all that stuff. 🙂

Paula D.
Paula D.
11 years ago

I enjoy my DIY life. I garden, knit, I’m spinning my own yarn, cook most meals, and even though I could change the oil in my car if I needed to, that’s where I draw the line. Besides, oil and yarn don’t mix. Luckily, I’m of the generation that if I want to, I could also can and dry fruit (learned it from Mom). I’ve also gone on sewing binges and made my own clothes and quilts. I’m passing on as many of these abilities to the next generation (my son & step daughter). You never know when you might… Read more »

xtina
xtina
11 years ago

I like to do many so-called traditional skills, like cooking, gardening, knitting and sewing. These I consider to be hobbies of mine.

However, my husband and I also value our free time. For us, it’s always a balancing act between doing things ourselves and paying someone to do them for us, saving us time. For example, we gladly pay our housekeeper so we can save precious hours and aggravation on our weekends. I would also never consider spending hours a week baking my own bread when I can purchase delicious and reasonably priced bread at the grocery store.

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

yarn spinners,

I’ve looked into this but what kind of costs are involved? Is this a craft that the value is in the pride of doing and your own craftsmanship, or do you actually save money over standard yarn?

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

To answer your question succinctly, “No”. I don’t see more people doing for themselves, but I have tapped into the vein of people that are. For me, as Tyler put it, the joy of accomplishment goes hand-in-hand with the frugal benefits. I am not, in fact, useless. I am getting more and more accomplished every day. My husband is handy, oh, so handy: home repair, auto repair, computers, you name it, he can do it…we haven’t paid for home stuff other than having a house replumbed and carpeting installed…he does everything. As I watched him, I realized I couldn’t do… Read more »

Holly
Holly
11 years ago

It’s a fact that you are either a hands-on person or you’re not, and I don’t know actually how much this is influenced by parents. I am a do-it-yourselfer and neither of my parents have a creative/artistic bone in their bodies; my husband cannot do even the most undemanding of DIY tasks. I actually cried when he got up on a high ladder to hang our Christmas wreath because all I could do was picture him falling!! Why would you change the auto’s oil when it is so cheap and speedy to have the pro’s do it? It’s like dying… Read more »

Rose Fox
Rose Fox
11 years ago

I think it’s hilarious that you cite knitting as a way to save money. I’m finishing up a sweater for which I bought $12 worth of yarn (very cheap) and invested at least fifteen or twenty hours of my time. Since I get paid a minimum of $35/hr (usually much more, but let’s lowball) for freelance work, in one sense that sweater has cost me $537 and counting. Even if I discount the time investment, good yarn is expensive. The yarn to make a long, heavy cashmere scarf for my partner cost me around $100, which is more than that… Read more »

Carrie
Carrie
11 years ago

I certainly have seen this in my own life. I used to like the idea of cooking but my failures, the necessary clean up, and a hatred of leftovers turned me off of it and I ate out at least once maybe twice a day. Now I’m cooking or eating leftovers every day with maybe 3 meals (lunches and dinners) out a week maximum.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Rose (#36)
Good catch. I meant to cite knitting as an example of how to save money, but as an example of a traditional skill. I have some very slippers that Kris knitted for me that were probably very expensive. 🙂

AppleMan
AppleMan
11 years ago

I would recommend expertvillage.com for DIY videos. There are so many good clips on there for how to do stuff on your car. I would recommend one guy, Nate McCollough, for car maintenance videos. He takes you through everything in a slow and professional manner.

Jen
Jen
11 years ago

I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned homebrewing (or winemaking, or meadmaking). If nothing else, we probably have better parties than most hobbyists 😉 After the initial set-up costs (around $100 when I started 5+ years ago, maybe more now) it costs around $30 to brew 5 gallons of beer (more if you’re getting fancy). 5 gallons = 640 ounces That’s about 53 12-ounce bottles, or about 9 six-packs. That’s the cheapest you will ever come by a good-tasting microbrew. My husband and I brew in a one-bedroom apartment, so “no room” is not an excuse. It’s also not particularly… Read more »

Roger - A Content Life
Roger - A Content Life
11 years ago

JD,

I had exactly the same experience – my Dad taught me basic auto maintenance. I think I stopped once I got a job and places like Jiffy Lube opened up.

I think you have a good point about DIY. And it’s so much easier now that you can find detailed instruction for almost any DIY task on the web.

feminist finance
feminist finance
11 years ago

@ryan
“Grueling Household Tasks of 19th Century Enjoyed by Suburban Woman”
I hear that! Sometimes I when I am, say, handwashing sweaters I flash back to watching 1900s House on PBS where the mom ended up taking her daughters out of school on laundry day because the task was just just too gruelingly hard for her to do on her own.

Dan O.
Dan O.
11 years ago

For those of you who change your own oil, this will make it easier/simpler. For those of you that don’t, maybe this will encourage you. Making an oil change painless is all about having the right tools for the job, and being prepared – both of which are very easy for anyone to do. 1.) Google “Pela 6000”. Get one of these oil extractors. It’s a manual pump that has a thin tube that goes into your oil pan through your dipstick tube and sucks the oil right out while it’s warm. Read about the use on Pela’s website. Cost… Read more »

Mark
Mark
11 years ago

It may sound minor, but someone showed me how to replace a window screen using a roll of screen and rubber spline. It’s a snap after doing a couple windows, and now I can fix a window or door screen in about ten minutes.

I replaced the screens in four windows at my house recently for less than $10 in materials. The cheapest price I could find locally was $20-30 per window (depending on size).

I taught a couple friends, and one even referred me to a co-worker who paid me $10 per window.

BPT - MoneyChangesThings
BPT - MoneyChangesThings
11 years ago

There are lots of videos online demonstrating repairs and the like.
Sewing is quite diseconomic, given that globalization radically lowered the cost of clothing. That’s why there’s a huge glut of cast-off clothing which gets sent to the third world and resold.
If you like sewing, go for it. But I doubt you could make a garment for less than it costs unless you’re very talented and it’s a wedding dress or something special.

BPT - MoneyChangesThings
BPT - MoneyChangesThings
11 years ago

PS JD-
have you ever written about food coops? that’s really a way to save money. In our coop in Philly, Weavers Way, you work 12 hours a year for membership. That’s certainly a way to earn a good discount on top quality food, probably more efficiently than growing your own vegetables and baking your own bread.

Chris from St. Mary's
Chris from St. Mary's
11 years ago

Holly @ 4:34 pm

You’re funny. My hair looks great with the L’Oreal hair color I buy. It costs $8-10 at the store, but if I can coupon during a sale, it’s $3-5 a box. I get compliments all the time on my hair. Now, I don’t cut my own hair, though.

I use to go somewhere to have it permed back when I had big hair. What I spend on my hair these days (cut more regularly) averages to about $34 every three months.

Cely
Cely
11 years ago

Knitting cost me more money than it ever saved, but I still do it (less frequently now) because I find it relaxing. Even before the recession hit I started doing some repairs myself, not just so I could save money, but also so I could save time. For example, a headlight on my VW went out. My mechanic is a 30-minute drive away, and is often booked. Knowing I’d have to wait for an appointment, then schlep out there and wait for the job to be done, inspired me to google the DIY instructions. $10 and 15 minutes later, the… Read more »

Terrin
Terrin
11 years ago

I hate paying somebody to do most things especially when I think I can do many of these things better myself. For instance, car repairs. Recently, I changed the shocks and replaced the timing belt on my Volkswagen. I am by no means a car mechanic. I, however, found a great blog on the Internet with devoted Volkswagen enthusiasts who walked me through the process. I know a few mechanics who were surprised I tackled this tasks. I also found that for many home repairs, a person with common sense will often do a better job then a professional. It… Read more »

Funny about Money
Funny about Money
11 years ago

The oil change business reminds me of the time SDXB (Semi-Demi-Exboyfriend) proudly finished up changing the oil in his truck, turned on the engine, and…SPLAT! He’d forgotten to put the cap back on. The entire garage floor was flooded with engine oil!

Hee heee! It took him the better part of the afternoon to clean up the mess.

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