I noticed something very interesting this Christmas holiday. Many of my neighbors were putting up their own Christmas lights. This was a big change for our street. When we first moved into the neighborhood over ten years ago, everyone put up their own lights. But fairly quickly advertisements arrived offering inexpensive services to install and remove the Christmas lights. No one enjoyed getting up on the roof, and the economy was good, so most families started using local vendors to put them up. However, this year more people were out decorating as a family. It is something I am noticing a lot more of lately. Less people are using vendors and tradesmen, and more people are learning to do things themselves.
When I was growing up, my father had very little disposable income. Because of this, we learned how to do a lot of things ourselves. He taught me how to paint the house, how to repair plumbing problems, how to work on the car and obviously how to mow the lawn. While I complained a lot at the time about having to do all these projects around the house, I actually really enjoyed the time with my dad. Over the years, we developed a pretty complete workbench and a nice set of tools. Most of those tools are now hanging in my garage. When there was a task that we didn’t know how to accomplish, we would find a neighbor who would help, or talked with the manager of the local hardware store (this was a long time before Home Depot).
During the past few decades, we all have enjoyed healthy economic growth, which in turn has provided more disposable income. Most of us quickly recognized that it was much more practical to hire someone to handle household repairs than to struggle with them ourselves. It was also more cost-effective to hire a gardener than to spend our Saturdays working in the yard. We took our cars to car washes or used the mobile car wash rather than spending the time ourselves. The bottom line is that we outsourced much of this work – simply because we could. We rationalized that it gave us more time to spend together as a family. Ironically, we ended up spending more time on our own personal activities rather than spending quality family time.
However, the extended economic downturn has caused all of us to rethink this approach. We all have less cash at the end of the month, and are trying to save more in case things don’t improve soon. I have also noticed that the other factor impacting the use of tradesmen is that we now have unlimited access to free tutorials via the Internet. I recently had a leaky faucet and having lost most of my plumbing skills that I had acquired from my father, I stared at the faucet for 10 minutes trying to figure out what to do about it. I finally grabbed my notebook computer, sat it next to the bathroom faucet and searched on Google for “How to repair a leaky faucet”. In less than a minute, I found a 5-minute video that graphically showed how to fix, not just any faucet, but my exact model. Like most of you I have found videos for almost every household task imaginable. I now know how to: 1) clean my coffee pot, 2) fix a leaky window sill, 3) repair a broken light switch, 4) get rid of crab grass, 5) replace a glass shower door, 6) repair a toilet flush mechanism; and so on.
I am not here to forecast that tradesmen should all find new forms of income. However, it does seem to me that we are returning to a time when more people find ways to become generalists and learn how to do more for themselves. The combination of tougher economic times and the instant access to instructional information are creating a shift in behavior.
I also believe that there is a tremendous upside. You have no idea how much fun it was to wash my car with my younger son. Sure, I could have sat alone at the car wash and read the news on my iPhone while he watched SpongeBob SquarePants at home on television. However, l think the benefit of doing it together went way beyond the $20 I saved by not going to the car wash. As my older son and I took down our Christmas lights this year, I actually heard him say, “Dad, this is fun working together. Thanks for teaching me.” No, you can’t put a price on that comment. I am realizing that this shift may have much less to do with saving money than I thought.
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