When I was a young man, I badly wanted to design and build my own stuff – even my own color television. One of my primary motives was a means to save money, of which I was sorely lacking. I was told by my elders that such thinking was incorrect. There was no way I could design my own television – that took a team of experts and that, in any case, I could not save any money in the process. I was better off to get a good paying job and just buy a television.
As I look back on that conversation, I have learned that the first statement was false, the second one true, and the third false. Let’s look at each assertion in more detail.
Building Your Own
In some ways I was ahead of my time. Designing and building a color television set was a daunting proposition back in the 1970s and 80s. Not impossible, but certainly difficult. Even with an electrical engineering degree the resources regarding color television design were slim to say the least. There was also no support from others for such a project when problems were encountered.
In modern times these limitations no longer apply. Anyone, regardless of degree or where they live, have – at their literal fingertips – the information, the accessibility to parts, fabrication resources and, most importantly, a community of other individuals who can help them in their project.
While it may indeed have been impossible to build my own television in 1980, it is no longer true anymore. Today, anyone can build not only their own television, but their own cell phone, MP3 player, tablet computer or anything else their heart desires.
Save Money by DIY
Can we save money by doing things ourselves? Directly, the answer is no. Indirectly, it is very possible. Why can’t we save money by making something ourselves? The answer is two-fold.
The first is due to the efficiencies of the division of labor. Take my color television example. Certainly an engineer who spends his workweek doing nothing else but designing one aspect of a television can do it better and faster than I can.
The second is due to the economies of mass production. My clumsy labor cannot begin to compete with robotic production lines and big lot purchasing economies. There is no way just in material cost (not counting my labor) can I build a mass produced object more cheaply than I can buy it.
These reasons don’t stop at high technology either. Many people believe you can save money on food by growing your own. Again, it simply is not true. Even though it might seem like a few seeds is far cheaper than the finished produce in the market, that is not taking into account all the tools, materials, and gasoline required to get them. We also must not forget crop failures and other learning setbacks and the toil they take.
No, the sad fact is that we cannot save money directly by doing things for ourselves. However, there are indirect savings that might occur over the long term as well as other cost benefits.
Earning the Money is Better Than DIY
This idea was the one I always had the most difficulty with. While in the strictest sense, it might be true (for the reasons I just cited), in reality it is not. Let’s look at the financial aspects first.
In most jobs there is not a simple trade-off between time and money. For example, as an engineer, my job was salaried. I could not take time off for less pay, nor could I work more hours for more pay. I was in a fixed box time-wise. Therefore, what I did in my spare time could not be easily converted into money, and I certainly could not convert any money into more spare time. In such a situation, the DIY outlook is a lot different. By doing something myself, I could convert my time that was worthless into something of value. This situation is indeed what many people find themselves in as well. Times are changing however, and more of us are going to need to find a way to make money without a job. In that case, it does pay to stick with what you do best and hire out the rest.
There are other financial benefits to doing things yourself instead of buying or hiring. The biggest one is taxes, since they tax us on what we earn but do not tax us on what we make ourselves (and do not sell). That fact can change the economies of DIY considerably. We are still left with the gross inefficiencies of small production however, so this benefit may not be enough to actually save money, but doing it yourself may not be any more expensive either – and it can be a lot more personally rewarding.
The last financial benefit of making something yourself is getting higher quality. For a piece of equipment that may mean something that doesn’t need to be thrown away and replaced when it breaks. In the case of growing your own food, it may save thousands of dollars in medical bills due to eating healthier.
These last benefits bring us into the idea of non-financial reasons for doing things yourself. These are the main reason for DIY, rather than actually saving money. Ultimately, they were the real reasons for my passion for making my own things, even color televisions.
The Deeper Reasons for DIY
When we consider doing something ourselves instead of buying it, we should not be motivated by ideas of saving money. There are much better reasons. If saving money is our only goal then it just might be a case of penny-wise and pound-foolish for the aforementioned reasons. There is more to life than making or saving money.
The old saying “if you want done something right, do it yourself” is still very true. By doing it yourself, you can obtain higher quality products that are more ideally suited for your own needs, and have the ability to repair it yourself instead of discarding when it breaks.
I have already mentioned the tremendous health potential when we grow our own food. This benefit extends to everything else as well. Industry caters to the lowest common denominator. The consumer patronizes those with lowest price. The result is cheap goods – both in price and quality. You can’t have high quality at a low price – you must choose. Given the customer’s preference for low price, higher quality goods are scarce. Sometimes you must produce them yourself.
Mass produced goods are all the same by their nature – they are produced in mass. Despite the vast array of choices, real choice where it counts is often limited. In my case with the color television, I wanted one with features that manufacturers would not provide. When you make something yourself, you can design and fashion it so that is highly customized to meet your particular needs. No manufacturer can even come close.
In addition to the quality and customization issues, repairability one particularly notable aspect. Not only are consumer goods designed to be thrown away when they break, but the means to repair them is often impossible. While it may take longer and cost more to make something yourself initially, it can provide savings down the road when you find it easy to repair something you custom built in the first place. It is much less likely to become obsolete since you built it custom for your needs.
Quality of Life
While the division of labor does lead to the great efficiencies we see today, it is not without its own costs – monotony. We can’t do the same thing all the time without diversion. Most people seek out entertainment, games or alcohol. Some engage themselves in a hobby. I personally find work to be the most rewarding. When you work at something you enjoy, you not only gain refreshment, but you have something of value for your time spent as well. A hobby is not substantially different and can indeed be the same. The hobby for the DIY’er is to grow and make the stuff he wants and needs rather than for entertainment purposes only. I think that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” applies to our monotonous factory style of work rather than to work in general. When our work is varied and personal enriching, what need is there of play, except on occasion?
Because I Am Human
I believe the most important reason is because I am human. Because I am a man and not an animal, my life cannot be reduced to mere needs such as food, rest and procreation. No, I need something more, much more. I need beauty. I need to express who I am. I need to create.
Working at a job and being a consumer is not much different than being an animal or a machine. When I instead use my hands and mind to learn, design and make something that is an expression of my own self, I am fulfilling the purpose for which I was created. Nothing less should suffice.
The Sum of the Matter
While growing our own food and making our own stuff may save some money, it also may not, and should not be our reason for doing so. Rather we should provide our own because we want to; because we were made to create.
The industrial revolution has brought us unprecedented prosperity. It has also brought us monotony and diminished who we are. I don’t believe these consequences are an inevitable result. Rather, I think they are just an interim aspect. As we enter into an even greater revolution, the limitations of factories and jobs will no longer apply in many cases. Instead of working at a job making blue widgets, we will make things out of our own homes again. They may still be widgets, but will come in every possible variation of color, flavor and feature. They will be an expression of who we are as individuals.
In making them, we won’t be reduced to the monotony of the assembly line, but return to being craftsmen – learning, designing and making. Never before in history has this been possible in such a widespread manner. Now it is possible for us all. Embrace it.
Start making your own stuff.