How Do You Afford Your DIY Lifestyle?

DIY is not always cheaper. Or better. Or sustainable. Or even very much fun.
Publish date:
January 7, 2013
money, consumerism

Make your own burlap accent wall. Silverleaf a vanity chair. Glitter your own shoes. Braid your own rug. These were among readers’ favorites in 2012 at popular DIY lifestyle blogs Bower Power, Centsational Girl and A Beautiful Mess, respectively.

DIY holiday gifts I’ve received have ranged from the classic treacle -– homemade jams in little mason jars with hand-printed labels and floral cloth covers –- to the absurd: chunky knitted tube top and matching knit miniskirt. (No, really.)

All it takes is 10 minutes on Pinterest to see that DIY is in. Those of us that don’t already grow our own food, make our own gifts or knit our own animal-inspired winter hats certainly wish we did, and maybe even feel a little badly that we don’t. We prove our desire for DIY by driving traffic in droves to eye-candy websites like Craftgawker and the hundreds of homegrown blogs that fuel them.

Doing it yourself is framed as a revolutionary act -– we can all eschew consumerism and stick it to the Man by simply refinishing a coffee table or painting our rewired, upcycled lamps jaunty shades of teal. Never mind the fact that homemade items are still in large part made out of purchasable goods.

But DIY is not always cheaper. Or better. Or sustainable. Or even very much fun. The reality is that the DIY “homesteading” lifestyle is socially problematic.

Not only is hardcore DIY yet another way for women to compare themselves and come up short (and it’s invariably women doing the gardening, homeschooling and afghan-knitting), it’s also a luxury reserved for those with the means needed to sustain it –- plenty of funding (hot glue and organic yarn are not free), and plenty of free time.

The face of the DIY movement is primarily female, white, and upper-middle class. Just like the freegans of the mid-1990s, DIY is not about doing it yourself when you have no other choice -– it’s about choosing to do it yourself when you could just as easily afford not to.

While some DIYers may be trying to make an anti-consumerist statement, it’s their very success in a consumerist society that allows them the freedom to make that statement. Without it, “DIY” isn’t an option. If you can’t afford to buy a $20 picture frame, you won’t be able to afford the materials –- and the time –- needed to build and decorate one yourself, either. It’s DIYers’ privilege that allows them to choose between buying and making that picture frame -– whereas everyone else just goes without.

An overly simplistic analogy, yes. But it’s worth asking why the egalitarian potential of DIY has largely focused on the aspirational and been confined to the realms of normative femininity. In a genre so clearly of and for the people, it’s disappointing that so few DIY blogs are truly subversive.

Where are our lavishly designed infographic tutorials about how to take your crooked landlord to court? Why so many lovingly photographed step-by-step tutorials for the perfect hipster French braid, but so few showing us how to obtain free birth control, apply for Medicaid or build a modern black box?

While there’s nothing wrong with beautifully handcrafted centerpieces, hand-lettered gold leaf wedding invitations or homemade vodka infusions, it’s frustrating that so few DIY blogs and web sites pose any real threat to consumerism, or to society’s expectations of femininity.

Shouldn’t the DIY community serve as an antithesis to mainstream aspirational femininity, instead of just reinforcing it?