How to Become More Self-Sufficient

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I was chatting with a friend about mechanics. He was having some work done on his truck and lamenting the upcoming repair bill.

We both agreed that new cars and trucks were harder to work on, but a lot of that was because we haven’t updated our mechanic skills since helping our grandfathers change spark plugs many years ago.

Looking back, it is remarkable how many things people used to do themselves. I remember my grandfather changing his own oil, shingling his house (even into his 60s), insulating his attic, installing new windows, laying tile, carpet, etc.

Now days, very few of us are fit to handle similar tasks (myself included). I’m actually a little bit ashamed of that. While fairly handy, there are several types of jobs I just can’t do.

Because I’ve never been a “car guy,” I wouldn’t consider myself mechanical. I’m terrified of anything electrical, though I did manage to tackle installing a programmable thermostat a couple years ago. I enjoy making sawdust, but wouldn’t have the foggiest clue how to actually build something beyond a very basic construction.

The root problem with all of this lack of hands-on education is that it costs us money. Any time something breaks, or you have an idea to build or replace something, you have to search Angie’s List or the Yellowpages for a reputable contractor or repairman. I’d much rather order a part online and make the fix myself.

How do we learn to become more self-sufficient? Well, since most of us are not born with natural instincts to find our way around an engine, or an attic, it’s probably a good idea to learn from the experts. Here’s a few ideas.

Hover Over the Repairman

My grandfather used to do this and it drove my grandmother crazy! I can hear her now, “Quit hovering over that nice man and let him do his job.” I suppose it was a little annoying to the repairman, but my grandfather was actually watching (and learning) so he could make the repair next time.

Go Back to Shop Class

My high school offered a wood working shop class, which I very much enjoyed. However, they did not offer a course in mechanics, which I very much needed. I can perform basic maintenance and repairs on my truck, but would like to learn more.

Many technical schools offer a course in engine repair, mechanics or similar. This could be a great way to expand your knowledge of mechanics to the point where you can fix your own car or lawn tractor the next time it won’t run properly.

Attend Workshops at Lowes and Home Depot

Most Saturday mornings, Lowes and Home Depot offer home improvement project workshops for anyone interested in attending. Recent workshops have taught customers how to winterize their home, install new countertops and how to inexpensively paint interior rooms.

Bonus: These two stores often offer kids workshops where you can bring your kids in and help them with a child-friendly project such as building a bird house, or a gift for mom closer to Mother’s Day.

Ask a Neighbor for Help

I was not blessed with a green thumb, but I have discovered a passion for growing fruits and vegetables. What started out as a small, square foot garden two years ago, should grow to a much larger, in-ground square foot garden this spring. In fact, in just a couple months I’ll be constructing the boxes and beginning to layout the new garden.

One thing I’ve learned about gardening is there is much to learn about different crops, planting times, harvesting times, watering schedules, etc. Several friends and neighbors have gardens, and this year I’m thinking of asking for a garden “consultation” from people who have had successful gardens for many years. I’ve found most gardeners are happy to share a few secrets with someone genuinely interested in learning.

To do this, you have to first get over the fear of asking for help (men are particularly affected by this). We don’t want to be a bother, or we are just too proud to ask for help, so we go it alone and spend twice as much time, money and energy trying to fix something our neighbor could show us how to fix in twenty minutes.

Hopefully, the end result of acquiring these new skills is that you can begin to do things for yourself, rather than having to rely on someone else. Then, you can begin to pass this knowledge on to children and grandchildren to continue a legacy of self-sufficiency that will serve future generations for many years.


  1. Although I disagree with the car portion, I have to completely agree with the rest.
    One of my biggest pet peeves is the statement “I don’t know how to do that” because it is so limiting. I have worked on real estate for 5 years now and most people are very surprised when I tell them that I learned almost everything I know from…
    Google! That’s right you can find in depth videos on everything from putting up a shelf to winterizing a house or installing a Sump Pump.

    I also a a friend that says that he doesn’t need to know how to work on a toilet. I tries to explain to him that working with tools fixing things is a fundamental attraction for women because it means that you can take care of them (or at least the things they don’t want to take care of like TOILETS!)

    But I would definitely add Google to the list of ways to learn.

  2. My husband and I are pretty handy. In fact, the primary reason is because of the lack of reliable trades people in our area. I finally hired a guy to paint part of our house this fall and 2 days later it peeled because it was too cold when he painted. Grr…

    I personally have a rule of trying to learn one new thing a year. Yeah, my first bathroom tile job took me 4 weekends to complete, but the next time around, it will go much faster. Nothing is hard, but as a beginner, things do take more time to learn and you have to be okay with that.

    If you think about learning just one thing a year, over a lifetime, you’ll become as handy as your grandfather was. I already see a big difference in our skills after 10 years of owning a fixer upper. We are working on another one now and it’s going much much faster this time around.

    • Owning a fixer-upper is a great way to improve your own skills, and let the kids pitch in. If they want their bathroom painted and new tile put down, guess what? They get to help!

      • If I (an older single woman with no tile experience) can put down a one inch tile bathroom countertop, most anyone should be able to learn how.

        Use books and videos from the library – I did 🙂
        Or check out the same online.
        Manufacturers of products also have helplines and online guides!

        The library is my bestest friend for help!

  3. According to Mr Handy (my husband) cars are increasingly difficult to work on because they have so many computer chips. Companies assume that you will not work on your own car- and place things in terrible areas. My car has a battery in the front of the wheel well. You have to almost take off the tire to get to the door in front of the battery (which has little due hickys that break easily)!
    Otherwise, he can do just about anything- hence our last house was remodeled.
    His father was a plumber. His brother a machinist.
    I count my lucky stars often!

  4. Great post; having the skills to get work done around the house can not only save money, but can be enjoyable. My husband and I know some car basics, but We would definitely wouldn’t call ourselves mechanics.

    A slight twist on it could be bartering skills that you’re good at and enjoy with friends and family. My husband is great with computers and electronics and he’ll help out anyone who needs his talent. We’re fortunate that our friends have different talents and are willing to trade.

    Even if you don’t have a skill, trading some of your time to do general labor can be a win-win. As you grandfather did, helping out & watching is one way to pick up a skills. Plus your friend gets assistance with their projects.

    Yeah; it’s still work, but I like that you’re getting something productive done, savings some money, and you’re spending time with a loved one.

    Self-sufficiency is a great way to enrich your life and help others.

  5. on the car repairs you can get books for your specific model which will tell you everything you need to know to make most repairs- my 20 yo son has saved us thousands by just reading the book and researching online. He had no other training on auto repair but he just takes his time and follows the directions-

  6. Hi Frugal:
    I’d have to agree that some car repairs are more difficult on new cars, but many of the day to day stuff remains just as simple as it ever was. I’ve got a 2010 truck that I still change the oil and do most of the work on. I dont find it that difficult because I got a very stripped down model which makes it slightly easier to do work to it. As Mindy above says, buying the manuals can help a great deal (check ebay).
    As for the self-sufficiency, I try to give everything a go – If I mess it up, I’ll have to pay a repairman/woman anyway, so I may as well give it a try.

  7. There’s a lot of stuff we forgot to do or never wanted to learn, since we can always get someone to work with. If the repairman is having a smaller hourly rate than I have as a web designer, then I don’t need to waste billable hours doing his job.

    Years ago I used to work on my bicycle alone. I am a woman, but always interested in “tech” stuff, so I’d spend hours with repairs and tweakings. One day I decided to go to a friend of mine, who’s got a lot of experience. He finished work in 20 minutes (work that took me at least 6 hours) and set everything so well, my bike war working perfectly. The price I paid was so small, I just wanted to kick myself for wasting my expensive work hours on such menial jobs.

    Right now we’re thinking about redecorating the apartment. I can do this, it’s not something that requires a PhD. But the time I’d waste would be better spent working and earning more than this. Of course, it’s a nice thing to do something on your own, I’ve done small stuff in my apartment myself, but, if there’s much work do be done, I’d rather focus on my business and pay someone to do this.

    • For some reason I am sinply enthrawled by this conversation….
      I FULLy agree that some things are better paid for when the cost is lower than your hourly wage (This is pointed out in the book “The Millionaire Next Door”). But I also believe that a person should know how to do some home repairs and other estential things (I am a man and I know how to sew!) Just like you know how to fix your but but chose to have someone else do it.
      Because the truth is you never know when you won’t have the cash to get your bike/car fixed and it is the only way to get to work that day.

    • For some reason I am simply enthralled by this conversation….
      I FULLY agree that some things are better paid for when the cost is lower than your hourly wage (This is pointed out in the book “The Millionaire Next Door”). But I also believe that a person should know how to do some home repairs and other essential things (I am a man and I know how to sew!) Just like you know how to fix your bike but choose to have someone else do it.
      Because the truth is you never know when you won’t have the cash to get your bike/car fixed and it is the only way to get to work that day.

      • I don’t see why it should matter what your hourly wage is, unless you are taking time off of work to do it. If you are doing it in your off work time, you aren’t getting paid for that anyway….

  8. I learned so many useful skills from my parents, who, by necessity, bought houses that needed “work”. There wasn’t much that Dad couldn’t do, and I was his helper when I was young, and he became my source of knowledge when I got older. Knowing how stuff works is important, even though I’m now disabled and can’t do my own repairs, as I can appreciate a job well done from contractors I hire to fix things. I’d like to think I don’t get gypped as much.
    My kids are in their mid-20’s and have no desire to troubleshoot a toilet or do very basic car maintenence. I find it ironic that they’ve grown up in the information age and are able to filter out what they don’t want to learn. I’m still learning and am in awe of the Internet as a tool to share knowledge.
    I thought your comment about men asking for help was hysterical, because most men are quick to offer advice, but somewhat slow on execution, at least in my experience.

  9. My husband wasn’t very handy when I married him but I refused to pay for so many things that we could do ourselves. So we checked out how-to books from the Library, bought magazines (Family Handyman is especially good) and just did things. His first attempts at building bookshelves and cabinets were pathetic. Now he’s an industrial arts High School teacher and a fabulous cabinet and furniture maker. He taught himself electrical wiring and at one time worked a second job installing computer network cabling. He got books on car repairs and has saved us lots of money taking care of routine things. I do all the decorating: painting, making curtains, pillows and such; as well as sewing halloween costumes, and other holidays things. I make quilts for the beds and when the children were babies even made fitted flannel sheets for the crib. If you can read you can learn to do just about anything. And look for community education classes at local High Schools. My husband taught one in Utah and helped people make some wonderful things. Read, learn as you work, remember that your first efforts will be less than perfect, but keep going, NOBODY master anything the first time through.

  10. This is a great way to save money. Becoming self-sufficient is something I’ve tried to work toward, and have many plans for in the future. I’ve performed maybe half a dozen car repairs myself in the last couple years, most of which were easy to figure out if you do enough research. Internet forums are the best place to discover how to do things you didn’t know you could do. But you also have to be careful. Make sure the people you are talking to actually know what they are doing.

  11. This applies to women equally. My husband spent six hours and made four trips to various hardware stores in an attempt to fix a leaky faucet. A month later, it is still leaking. My turn. Also, do not be afraid to ask for help or guidance! I asked my husband each time who he spoke to and what he was told. He spoke to no one. He wandered the aisles all this time and didn’t get any help. BTW, he is a certified mechanic and welder….go figure!

    • Just a follow up. This a.m. husband moving couch, winds up pulling phone jack out of the wall. Sigh. Another thing for me to follow up on and fix.

  12. When I was growing up I used to be a handyman, but living in an apartment in the city with a very reliable car limits how many things I can cost effectively do for myself. I still build/troubleshoot/repair my computers and entertainment systems, cook, invest and save money by researching goods and services on the internet.

    Education is always a good thing, but I think self-sufficiency is a bit of an illusion in today’s modern society.

    • I can’t help but rebute your comment. I would agree that some more difficult things in life, like medicine and high voltage electrical work, should be left to the pros but…
      I think that many young people these days (and I am only 26) rely on other to do things that our parents would always do themselves. The great thing about marraige is that it allows for seperation of work and each spouse can become specialized in certain household affairs. In past generations that meant that most all of the tasks that needed doing could be done by the parents.

  13. I am the opposite of handy, but I did walk myself through replacing the thermostats and heating elements in our water heater. We also ask friends and family for help before calling handymen (my husband’s grandpa has taught me some ins and outs on a/c’s). I also hover behind handymen (even cable repair men), so I rarely have to call about the same thing twice. I can now replace almost anything in a toilet myself and know all the places to check before calling in cable problems, lol.
    My husband seems proud that his wife has gotten so handsy…ummm, I mean handy. 😉

  14. ooooo… you have to watch out for the “Hover over the Repairman” idea!

    Some people welcome the attention and opportunity to share their expertise, BUT some people (like my husband, the backyard mechanic) have a saying….”It will cost $X, triple if you want to help!” but he won’t say it to your face. It’s not that he is antisocial or guarding secrets or anything like that, he just finds it REALLY ANNOYING, he wants to get to it and do a good job without interuption (I even stay out of the garage when he’s working) looky-loos make him grumpy and distracted so the job takes longer. He loves working on things, just not in a group setting. So I caution all potential do-it-yourselfers to carefully gauge the persons tolerance for “company” before offering it.

    • This is very true. When I “hover” I tend to do so passively, without asking questions, etc…at least not anything that would slow them down. Probably a good idea to ask if it’s OK to watch and learn, and then do so or not based on the reaction you get.

  15. good post, but it’s definitely missing the best resource for knowledge (referenced above by commenter jay janes): google. i google every single repair/rebuild issue i come across. there are so many resources on the internet…videos, how-tos, forums…you can literally google anything. last year, we had a “check engine” light on in our vw that would not reset. two different mechanics couldn’t figure it out. i googled it, discovered a forum of vw owners with the same issue, and found out it was a faulty oxygen sensor. bought one for a couple bucks, printed out instructions to replace it, done.

    and this year, we moved to a new apartment that had carpets, which we pulled up to reveal beat-up hardwood. i googled “refinish hardwood floors”, rented a machine, bought some urethane…done.

    built a sandbox this summer too, thanks to bob vila’s online instructions. and we planted an herb garden with the help of california’s department of agriculture website.

    google has absolutely changed the game with regards to do-it-yourself. yeah, you can check books out of the library, or take a class for more advanced stuff. but for everyday and last-minute repairs, you can’t beat the internet.

    regarding the other points:

    1) i’m on board with hovering over experts, as well. when we do have someone do work for us, i’m attached to his hip, asking questions, helping if i can. i find most of the time, they like to share their knowledge, if you show interest.

    2) another great resource for cars is the chilton line of books. i had a 91 wrangler for years. kept the chilton book under the seat, pulled it out for everything. great books. photos and step-by-steps to do, literally, anything to your car. i used to love going to the parts store (or, for really obscure stuff, to the dealership) and asking for a specific part that cost 15 bucks or so, knowing that if i’d brought the car in, i’d be looking at a couple hundred dollars in bills.

  16. I’d like to debate the “if I can get more per hour doing my day job, it’s worth farming out the work”. Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but at some point, I feel like I’m not going to have as much earning power as I do in my peak earning years and at some point in the future I’ll be glad to have those skills.

    I consider the time I spend learning this stuff as an investment in my future retired self. When I’m not earning as much and not as nimble as I once was, I’d like to have that knowledge under my belt already. You know what they say about old dogs and new tricks. Plus, I don’t want to end up being one of those dummies who can’t figure out the most basic of things without assistance.

  17. As someone who has taught herself tons of stuff about computers (hardware, software), HTML coding, Web Page creation and other stuff, due in no small part to lack of funds to hire experts to do (and also needing something fixed faster than it took to get someone to make an appt and show up to do the work), I think it is important to strive for self-sufficiency. Within limits. But I know that I’m neither a computer expert nor a graphic/web designer. I don’t need to be a good graphic/web designer for my meager needs.

    However, I do need to know how to keep my computers and electronics operational, but I spend HUGE amounts of time doing this. I lose billable hours this way, but in our area, it’s hard to find anyone I’d trust with my machine. (We trust medical people we don’t really know with our bodies, but nobody with our computers, which are our work lifelines.)

    I have tried, time after time, to educate friends about their computers. Some are lazy and won’t learn anything as long as they can afford to get someone to fix it. Others, truly, should not be let near a computer to do even the simplest thing. This applies to other things like plumbing, etc.

    Right now, we live in an apartment where you are forbidden to do any handywork. It must all go thru the superintendent. This is an issue as he is a nice guy, but incompetent (we are always having to refix his fixes. And, no, we don’t tell him cause we have to live here. You never get on the bad side of the super.) We’d love to hire our own folks (we’re not allowed!) or do it ourselves. (Any fixes would be obvious, so the super would know.)

    You can educate yourself on some things and you should. But as others have noted, it is an issue of time and money. (As in if you make more than it costs, it makes sense to work and pay someone else for it.)

    THere is another issue: By hiring people you are keeping some parts of the economy alive. (Imagine if everyone were totally self-sufficient!)

    We have friends who work long hours and make very good income. They hire a landscape gardener for their home (several acres); they have two cleaning women who alternate; they hire a guy to clean out snow in the winter; And some other stuff. Each year, they contribute a very significant portion of the incomes of some of these service providers. Some of them would have been out of business by now if it were not for my friends. So, there are other sides to it.

    It’s all academic if you have no money to hire and must learn it. But understand, you can’t learn everything from books or google. Do not confuse your ability to create a workaround with the expertise of a real expert, whose real value is often not what he fixes, but how he uncovers the roots and cause of your problem, and helps you prevent them.

    One last bit: You should NEVER hover over people who are doing any work for you unless you truly need to be there to answer questions, provide needed input.

    You want to learn what they do? Then pay them to teach you how. It’s not their job to educate you HOW to do something, only HOW to prevent a problem from happening again.

    FYI: The sign of a good service provider? They will ask questions and help you uncover how the problem was created and then advise you how to avoid it. The best service people basically tell you how to never need them again.

    What this country needs is more of the old-fashioned (long gone) true handyman. Even building superintendents don’t know what they are doing these days, despite it being their jobs to know.

    A good service professional, and they are rare, is worth every penny they charge. Emphasis on “good” and “professional.”

  18. Someone may have already stated this, but don’t forget books. I bought a Chilton guide for our Expedition and was able to do nearly everything myself simply by following the book. There were only two occasions I couldn’t where I had a leak I hadn’t seen that shorted out a section of the electrical system (never would have been able to diagnose that, as diagnosing is the hardest part) and the rear airbags on the suspension ripped. That finally caused us to get rid of the truck. But, all other maintenance I did myself.

    Also, if you have a very handy father-in-law, have him come over to see the grandkids. Ten minutes before he arrives, start your project. When he gets there, hand him a beer and sure enough he’ll start telling you what to do. BUT, don’t let him do it. Defeats the purpose.

  19. Just as important as you learning to do a project, is letting your kids and/or grandkids “help” or oversee…. They may actually learn something they will remember for the future, or they may learn how to look up the answers and find the help in books or online, but most importantly, they will see that if they chose to NOT be lazy, they can attempt most anything, and that one is never too old to learn a new skill.

  20. My dad is super handy and my husband’s pretty good too. They save money not only when they do things themselves, but they avoid getting ripped off when they do decide to hire someone else because they know more.

    For example, my husband and I had our 1991 Honda Accord aligned at Sears. DH told them specifically not to touch the rear wheels and only mess with the front. They said they would have to do both since they didn’t have a way to charge for just one (or something like that). I remember clearly getting the call from the shop that a bolt had broken and could not be purchased without buying entire component. They had called the dealership and found it for $120. DH told them not to touch a thing, went down there, looked at the bolt (their mistake that it was broken) and brought it home to verify. Long story short, we didn’t need the whole component, he found the bolt at NAPA for $2 (yes, $2) and got a discount from the manager when he explained his frustration.

    I kind of feel for people who don’t know or know who to ask. Not knowing costs extra.

  21. Someone may have already wrote about self-sufficiency schools. I run the SongCroft School in Washington. We teach skills such as growing food, raising livestock, alternative energy systems (last year we wired a small solar system), water catchement, food preservation, herbal medicine, wild foods etc… We are not the only school out there. Having a mentor that you can work with, especially over the course of a year or more, really helps people have a full and deep understanding of how to be self-reliant. It can give opportunities for hands-on learning of practical skills and is an all around awesome eperience.
    I am sure there are more such schools out there.

    We also offer a summer Farm Camp for adults and kids as well as a subscription newsletter that teaches skills.

  22. Mr. FG and I have learned how to do a lot of stuff just by reading…the internet and library books are such a great free resource for learning new skills.

    We were very proud of ourselves for repairing our washer and our dryer, especially since we’d never done any work like that before.

  23. I’ve found that most people, when you ask if you can watch as they work, not only let you look but expalin what they are doing. I learn best by seeing something done, so books aren’t first choice. Videos aren’t bad. A friend promised to take me foraging with her this spring. Great fun. There are so many skills to tackle, I’m looking forward to learning more.

  24. Thanks!
    You’ve provided some great ways we can become self sufficient. The times are really changing and with technology and consumerism we barely do anything ourselves. I am sure taking these tips I can be a handy woman in no time.

  25. Another good source on how to do things is youtube. My hubby and me have used it several times when we needed to do things ourselves to save money.

    Good blog post.

  26. I come from a long line of Do-it-Yourself-ers…the one thing that stands out the most from my childhood is that my Dad, Uncle & Grandfather would always let me help out with whatever project they were working on, and would explain to me the what, how & why of things…treating my not like the little girl I was at the time, but explaining to me like I really could understand or really cared…and eventually I did. It really instilled in me that feeling of being able to anything I wanted to! Now I realize it is important to recognize limitations, or make sure things are done properly & safely, but there is so much information on the internet one can research absolutely anything.
    My husband is a little more hesitant to take on projects because he is afraid he can’t do it…but I have convinced him to be more confident.
    He has worked alot of odd jobs that has helped him learn alot of new skills, such as laying carpet & flooring, installing roofing, landscaping & lawn care, and he worked with a guy who was building a house.
    After seeing the big demand for the lawn care business in our area he started his own business, which has gone very well over the last couple years.
    And this Spring he put a new metal roof on our house, saving us atleast $5,000 in labor! That is not bad for 3 days of work! And now he can set back and enjoy how great it looks, remembering that it was he who did that.
    I think he is now ready for moving on to bigger projects.

    We bought a used van & have been constantly doing minor fixes on it…by buying the parts online & then searching for helpful information, even times finding a video that shows us step by step, we have been able to do it all ourselves. That has saved a bunch of money too.

    Learning is always a good thing…learning to be more self sufficient is a great thing!