In an effort to be as frugal as possible, some of us have taken do-it-yourself a bit too seriously. Sometimes it makes more monetary sense to buy a product or pay for a service than go the DIY route. For example, anyone who's tried to change the oil on their car and gotten a face full of gunk knows using Jiffy Lube is well worth the extra cost. On the other hand, it's kind of ridiculous to hire a maid when money is tight and you have the time (and physical ability) to handle the job yourself.
In fact, there are times when doing it yourself can cost you more money than hiring a pro. There's a reason most of us don't attempt our own plumbing. (If only my landlord would read that last sentence!)
Before you begin a project, whether it be creating a product, doing a little home repair or selling some stuff on eBay, consider whether you're better off hiring an expert or just heading to the store.
1. Basic Clothing
Unless you're raising your own sheep, goats or alpaca, then spinning and weaving the cloth to sew up your own basic garments, you can't beat the bulk prices manufacturers get on cloth and other production supplies.
Come to think of it: You'll get the cheapest price if you use coupons for basic clothing components and skip feeding the animals altogether.
In days gone by, when you could buy computer components and assemble them yourself, it was possible to save substantially by going the DIY route. But it now takes a degree from MIT to beat the prices you'll find on an average laptop or desktop computer.
We all have one talented friend who whips up adorable kitchen curtains out of an old bedsheet, but livingroom curtains are an entirely different proposition. They're bulky, require a lining, must be properly weighted and the fabric is very expensive. Unless you're extreeeeemly handy with a sewing machine (a skill for which I envy you), it's cheaper to buy pre-made or hire a seamstress.
Unless you're as fast with a soldering iron as Billy the Kid was with a six shooter, you'll save more buy buying, particularly if you use electronics coupons, than if you try to DIY -- even if you use a kit.
Those who tend to tinker are an entirely different breed who should DIY for the love of it, not because they're trying to save money.
Don't even bother. Just head straight to a home center and buy what you need. Try to DIY and you'll end up buying more wood; mess some of it up with mistakes; waste even more by adding tongue and grooves; and probably cut end joints that leave a gap. Of course, this assumes you already own a table saw and router, router table and about $50 worth of bits. And don't forget to add in the time you'll spend cutting down the original tree and trimming it into planks.
The flattened housing market has made it much cheaper to buy a house these days than to hand your money over to a developer. Try to build a house yourself and you'll find materials and sub-contractor expenses add up. (You'll have to hire licensed plumbers and electricians to ensure your new house meets code requirements.)
Buying a house instead of building also helps you avoid the nightmare of dealing with bills that magically inflate and bouncing-ball deadlines.
7. Pet Food
Unless your pet has severe health restrictions that require a very specific diet, buying pre-made pet food is much cheaper than cooking up the stinky stuff yourself, especially if you make use of online deals.
Animals need protein, and most recipes require meat cuts that are far more expensive than that bulk kibble you can buy at a big-box store. Even buying a specialty product for finicky pets is cheaper.
If you insist on trying your hand at pet-cookery, remember dogs can't eat onions, grapes, garlic, mushrooms or uncooked potatoes. Cats can't eat onion, ice cream, chocolate, milk or raw pork.
8. Musical Instruments
A friend of mine creates violins that are absolute works of art. Each one takes Gary about six months of patience using expensive materials and years of experience. The finished product has a unique tone and he makes a pretty penny, which is why he never lacks for orders.
Unless you're Gary -- or someone like him -- building your own musical instrument is an entirely different matter. You might turn a light bulb into a rattle or buy a kit for a drum, but the wise frugalista will turn to a professional for a professional instrument.
Many processed foods require a large capital investment in specialized machinery, such as Pop Tarts and Cheerios. Others are made from the residue of other manufacturing processes, such as sausage, to which we common folk don't have access. So we'll just ignore both these categories for the purposes of this list.
9. Carrot Juice
My boss will argue about this one, but you pay $6 for a large bottle of Odwalla and a lot more than $6 for the carrots it takes to get that much juice. Naturally, it depends on the quality of your juicer. If you have one of the expensive brands that leaves nothing behind but dry skins, then you should be able to cut that price in half.
10. Cream Cheese
Even if you've got 24 hours to complete the entire process, you'll have a hard time tracking down "rennet." A pantry staple in my mother's day, rennet coagulates milk, causing it to separate into solids and liquids. You'll likely have to order it online and it's not cheap. Compare the price of making your own to Philadelphia Cream Cheese or, better yet, use Safeway coupons to buy their store brand, and there's no question which comes out on top.
Ricotta, sour cream, mozzarella, Parmesan, noodles, homemade spaghetti sauce and sundry other ingredients: The cost adds up with each layer. Sure, my recipe is superior to anything I've found in a box (if I do say so myself), but I've tasted a few commercial brands that were palatable and much, much cheaper.
12. Olive Oil
I spent two weeks one summer helping a friend press olive oil at his family's mill in Southern France. It was the hardest work I've ever done (and I cleaned houses for two years to scratch out a living). The results were delicious, but the family clearly had invested quite a bit of money in the whole set-up. Even if you're processing a small batch, the olives must be de-pitted and pressed within 24 hours of picking. That means you either have to grow the olives yourself or have an ample supplier.
While you could also go with the traditional method of pressing, using mats and vats and presses, that may be a bit too labor intensive. The modern method requires a horizontal centrifugal machine to separate the juice from the pomace, then a vertical machine to separate the oil from the juice water. If you've got a couple centrifuges lying around, have at it.
13. Peanut Butter
WiseBread blogger Elizabeth Sanberg ran a cost comparison and found it cheaper to buy natural peanut butter than make it, unless you insisted on an organic or all-natural product.
If you want to toss around your money, however, Sanberg included an easy recipe for peanut butter in her post.
For one or two people, it can be cheaper to simply cruise the supermarket salad bar than buy all the bits and pieces necessary to make a full salad.
Are you a handyman or woman? Good with computers? A natural number cruncher? Then don't bother paying someone to perform these tasks. But if your skills are limited in these areas, Google up the nearest help and open your wallet.
15. Auto Oil Change
Even my most mechanically inclined friend goes to a quick-lube joint these days because he doesn't know what to do with the used oil.
16. Formal Printing Jobs
A lot of people try to cut costs by using their home printers for formal invites, posters, complex advertising publications, etc. In the long run, it's cheaper to use a professional printer. You have a lot more options today than expensive print shops. To get the cheapest price, use coupons to custom print everything from promotional materials to banners to wedding packages.
In terms of overall costs, you save money on ink, paper and the time spent struggling to get everything just right before giving up in total frustration.
17. Greening Your Home
There are plenty of projects to make your home greener, like installing solar panels. Such projects can even save you money on utility bills. But much of the initial work is less expensive to hand over to pros to ensure it's done right the first time. Don't forget many of these projects will have to pass city code requirements and some most be performed by licensed professionals.
18. Selling Personal Items
Some things, like DVDs, video games and furniture, are easy to sell through eBay or Craigslist. But such higher-end products as antiques, newer cars and memorabilia are harder to price and move quickly. A consignment shop or eBay specialist can sell such items a lot faster and guarantee a better price, even after they've taken their cut.
19. Small Appliance Repair
There's a reason they call it planned obsolescence. The sad fact is it's often cheaper to throw out a malfunctioning appliance and buy a new one, particularly if you'll have to replace a part. On small appliances such as blenders and toasters, it’s not unheard of for a new part to be just a few dollars less than an entirely new appliance.
You still have to gather all the bits and pieces, but odds are a tax professional can get you a bigger return -- or at least save you from overpaying. Consider the upfront price as worth avoiding the potential back-end cost of fees and penalties. In 2009 alone there were more than 1,700 changes to federal and state tax laws. Do you really want to try and understand them all?
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