Some thoughts on the return to traditional skills

by J.D. Roth

I give several media interviews each month. As the economy changes, so do the questions. Recently, as you can imagine, reporters have been asking me what people can do to save money.

This question gets boring after a while. There are only so many ways a fellow can say, “Spend less than you earn by reducing unnecessary expenses.” Lately I’ve been trying to spice up interviews by promoting what I call “traditional skills”.

When I say “traditional skills”, I really mean the do-it-yourself ethic. It seems to me that during the 1990s and early 2000s, as the U.S. moved more toward a service economy, we became so specialized in what we do that we let go of “traditional skills” and began to pay others to do things that we might have done ourselves a decade or two ago.

One example in my own life is changing the oil in our cars. When I was in high school, my father taught me basic automobile maintenance. I could change the oil, I could change filters, and I could even replace my brake pads. I’m by no means a macho auto-shop kind of guy (quite the opposite: I’m an indoor techno-nerd), but I found these sorts of jobs rewarding. Somewhere along the way, I started paying other people to do this stuff for me.

I’m not the only one. Over the past generation, folks seem to have forgotten how to sew, how to garden, and how to perform basic home maintenance.

Obviously there are situations in which it makes sense to pay others to do things. Kris and I are going to pay somebody to repair our gutters, for example. I could do this myself, but I am swamped with work, work that will pay me far more than it would cost to have somebody else repair the gutters. This is a trade I’m willing to make.

In general, however, I think there’s a tremendous money-saving opportunity for people to return to traditional skills, to begin doing some of these tasks themselves again. It pleases me that here in Oregon, at least, there seems to be a surge of interest in this sort of DIY ethic. I am shocked by how many of my friends now grow at least some of their own produce. (And more of them are beginning to raise chickens — and goats!)

But that’s not all. More of our friends are canning now, and knitting, and performing home maintenance. They’re learning to bake bread and to sew and to build their own patios. I think this is wonderful, and I think it’s a great way to save money.

I’ve written about this subject many times in the past at Get Rich Slowly, and am sure to write about it more in the future. I also enjoy covering individual examples of these “traditional skills” in posts like these:

Knitting and sewing, auto mechanics and woodworking, hunting and fishing, baking and canning: all of these are making a resurgence among my friends and family. Maybe it’s just the region in which I live, or maybe it’s just a product of entering middle age, but the people I know seem to have a renewed interest in finding ways to do things themselves.

Have you observed something similar where you live, or in your own life? Have you begun to do things yourself that you used to pay others to do? Which things are worth doing on your own? Do you think it would be a good thing for people to begin doing more of these tasks on their own again? Or will this simply weaken the economy?

Updated: 12 March 2009

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