Time value of money – DIY projects

Woman and daughter working in yard
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What’s your ideal do-it-yourself project? Ours is the place where creativity, enjoyment and thriftiness intersect. When all three elements are present, it’s like magic.

Sometimes, though, DIY projects don’t turn out the way you expect. Sometimes they cost more for materials than you save on labor costs. Sometimes they suck up way too much of your time to be worth it. Sometimes the emotional cost is too great.

“I once spent five hours diligently stenciling and coloring epic mountainscapes onto butcher paper to create some sweet homemade wrapping paper,” one blogger says. “What I didn’t recognize was that seeing my friend tear through it in 3.9 seconds would curdle my heart. Time spent was not time returned.”

What’s worth it—and what’s not?

It’s up to you to decide which do-it-yourself projects are worth your time. But some types of DIY projects tend to offer a better financial return on investment than others.

Home improvement: Often worth it. In nine of the 10 most common home repairs, labor is the biggest expense, in some cases wildly outstripping the cost of materials. Fixing a misaligned door, for example, costs only $5 for the hardware and anywhere from $30 to $125 an hour for the handyman. Tackling home repair and improvement projects yourself can dramatically reduce, say, the $9,000 average cost to renovate a bathroom or the $20,000 price tag for a kitchen remodel. The trick is to know which jobs are best left to professionals, such as plumbing or electrical work, and which ones fall within your skill range.

Car maintenance and repair: Usually worth it. If you have basic mechanical skills, doing your own car maintenance—changing the oil, air filters, spark plugs—can save you big bucks. A mechanic will often charge $75 or more an hour for labor on top of the cost of the part. Buying the replacement and installing it yourself can often add up to significant savings. DIY oil changes, on the other hand, may or may not be worth it; sometimes the lube shop’s promo deals are almost as cheap as buying oil for a DIY job. Consider going to a pro if a repair is complex, time-consuming, or pushes your skill level.

Gardening: Totally worth it. Digging in the dirt is one of those hobbies that people either love, or don’t. If you do happen to relish gardening, you can save yourself hundreds of dollars by growing your own vegetables. By some estimates, a 600-square-foot garden requires just a $70 investment and produces nearly 300 pounds of fresh produce, worth as much as $600! Gardening does take up a lot of time, especially in the beginning, but careful design can help you minimize the maintenance your garden needs.

Crafts: Not usually worth it. It’s rewarding to make arts and crafts that are also useful. Just keep in mind that materials for popular hobbies such as knitting, sewing or candle making often come at a premium. Knitting a simple sweater, for example, can cost more than $90 in yarn and other supplies, versus buying a $20 cardigan from Macy’s. That’s not to say you shouldn’t still do it. If you get a lot of pleasure or satisfaction from your hobby, it might be worth it—but we don’t recommend taking up sewing to save money on clothes.

The magic formula for DIY projects

Want to figure out whether doing it yourself makes financial sense? Easy. All it takes is a little research and some simple math.

The formula below can save you from getting in over your head or losing money in an attempt to economize. Just ask yourself these questions:

1. How much would a professional job cost? Before you decide whether a DIY project is worth it, find out how much it would cost to have a professional do it. If it’s a construction or gardening project, get quotes from contractors. If it’s a craft or hobby, shop around for the best price on a store-bought equivalent. If it’s a home or car repair, ask a mechanic.

2. How much will materials cost? Add up all of the materials you’ll need, including the cost of any tools required. You can often save money on DIY projects by using reclaimed materials and borrowing or renting tools instead of buying them. If you’re considering a home improvement project, add in the cost of getting a permit. Subtract this amount from the cost of a professional job to determine your savings. If you get a negative number, doing it yourself will actually cost more than paying someone else; this is often the case with hobbies such as sewing or knitting.

3. How long will it take? A DIY project is only worth it if your time investment doesn’t outweigh the money you’ll save. You don’t want to spend months and months on a project that a professional could finish in a day or two—or one that only saves you $100. But time is much harder to estimate than cost. Your experience and skill level play a role, as does the complexity of the task. You might be able to find decent estimates online of how long a job takes for novice, intermediate, and expert do-it-yourselfers.

4. How much will you save per hour? Divide your cost savings by the amount of time it will take to find out how much you’ll save per hour by doing it yourself. This is the “wage” you’ll earn by doing the job yourself.

Are you willing to work for that wage? Your answer will tell you everything you need to know.