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Thrifty After Fifty

How DIY culture can help older adults ease the burden of inflation

By Rashelle Brown

With inflation running especially high in recent months, we've all felt the pinch a little more than usual. But glance back in time and you will see that life's staples have become more expensive throughout history. It's a trend not likely to end in our era, and a phenomenon more keenly felt by those living on fixed incomes or retirement nest eggs.

A front porch while under construction. Next Avenue, retirement diy, home diy projects
Campbell’s husband and friends planning the next phase of building the porch  |  Credit: Sophia Campbell

Cutting back on discretionary spending — shopping, travel, dining and entertainment — will definitely save you money, but there's something else you can do to hold on to a little cash and still enjoy the good things in life from time to time: be thrifty.

Thrift Is Not an Ugly Word

If you think being thrifty is the opposite of fun, you're not alone, according to Christine Whelan, professor of Consumer Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"The way that I look at stuff is, anytime I need something, I'm definitely going to find out if I can buy it used or find it for free."

"When you say 'thrift,' people think of thrift stores right away," she said, "and after that, it's things that are old or broken, or maybe people who are stingy. But this is not about hoarding or buying only cheap things. It's about being conscious of how you spend your resources and whether that's in keeping with your values."

In a course titled, "Consuming Happiness," Whelan tells her students, "This is not something you have to do because you're on a fixed income or limited budget. When we think of it in terms of spending in line with our values, it becomes a choice we get to make each time we think about buying something."

Get Creative with Thrift

Nancy McPherson, a 57-year-old business process analyst in Burnsville, Minnesota, personifies Whelan's concept of aligning personal values with spending. "It's such a throw-away society these days," she said in an interview, "but the way that I look at stuff is, anytime I need something, I'm definitely going to find out if I can buy it used or find it for free."

McPherson, who is also an artist, applies this policy to buying household items and making home repairs, but also to gift giving. "I can't even think of the last time I bought somebody a gift versus making it," she said.

Her recipients can expect hand-painted cards, homemade and canned jams and jellies, or, if they're really lucky, one of her handmade cribbage boards. McPherson estimates that she saves thousands of dollars a year by making her own gifts.

Build a DIY Collective

A few hours' drive north of Burnsville, on a 17-acre farm in Wright, Minnesota, Sophia Campbell is the picture of thrift and self-sufficiency. When the 51-year-old IT manager and her husband bought the farm a couple of years ago, they'd hoped to renovate the property's 130-year-old farmhouse but were unable to get a permit to do so.

A finished front porch with a wooden floor. Next Avenue, retirement diy, home diy projects
The porch, nearly finished. Campbell screwed down every deck board herself  |  Credit: Sophia Campbell

Faced with the daunting task of tearing down the old house and building new, they smartly hired a contractor to do everything that had to meet code requirements but tackled nearly all of the finishing work themselves. Well, them and a small army of friends and family.

"I've got 37 cousins just on my mom's side of the family," Campbell said, "and many of them are skilled, so we get the family discount on a lot of stuff." But Campbell and her husband enlisted the help of their unskilled friends, too.

"A lot of our friends are city folk that don't know a lot about doing this kind of work, but they're all generous with their time and energy," she said. "They really just need direction. You don't need to have a high level of skill, you just need a willingness to learn and to get it done."

Be an Eager Learner

This highlights a couple of thrifty points. First, if you don't consider yourself handy, be eager to learn and willing to test your limits. The best way to learn a new skill is by doing it alongside a skilled person, but a close second is following along with a YouTube video. Searching for the specific task or project you're doing can net thousands of hits, though, so be sure you end up watching an experienced, licensed professional.


Second, for those things you can't do yourself, hit up your social network before calling a pro. Turning your social connections into a DIY coalition is one of the most impactful things you can do.

Know When to Call a Pro

"It's shocking how much slower the work goes when you stop paying professionals to do it for you!" Campbell chuckled. And, as we all know, time is no small consideration.

A mountain embroidered on a cloth. Next Avenue, retirement diy, home diy projects
A bag sewn from recycled curtains and embroidered with thrift store embroidery floss  |  Credit: Nancy McPherson

McPherson recently needed a new roof on her house but said, "I didn't do that because there are code requirements, and with the time I would have had to take off of work, it was way better to just have it done" by a professional roofer. "If my shed needed a new roof, though, I would never hire that out!" she quickly added.

In addition to the time involved, do-it-yourselfers need to consider potential disasters — financial and physical. For example, Campbell's husband experienced a potentially serious fall while working on the roof of their new house. Fortunately, he was tethered to a safety harness and was unhurt, but the incident prompted them to pay a pro to finish the job.

Acknowledge Your Limits

To get a sense of other things average persons shouldn't tackle themselves, we asked Jacy Elsesser, a long-time DIY expert and co-creator of the Fix It Home Improvement podcast and YouTube channel.

"You don't need to have a high level of skill, you just need a willingness to learn and to get it done."

"A surprising number of people lose their fingers and a couple of people die every year trying to replace the springs on their garage doors," he said, highlighting the fact that just because something seems simple, that doesn't necessarily mean it is. He also urged extreme caution when doing plumbing, electrical or anything involving gas lines.

With those types of projects, he said, "If you don't know exactly what you're doing, it can end up being really dangerous or costing you more when things go wrong and you have to call in someone to fix it."

His biggest piece of advice? "Take the time to read the manufacturer's instructions and the code requirements. I've learned so much from just reading the instructions!"

Get the Best Return for Your Time

While most of us won't tackle those kinds of big projects, Elsesser said we all could be doing many things to save money both now and in the future. DIY television loves to showcase big renovations, but doing basic, even boring tasks can also save you thousands of dollars each year.

A wood board with holes for cribbage pegs. Next Avenue, retirement diy, home diy projects
A wood burned cribbage board  |  Credit: Nancy McPherson

Many of Elsesser's videos cover routine maintenance of appliances, furnaces, lawn tools and water heaters. While the cost of hiring a pro varies widely with location, he estimates you can easily save 50% of what pros charge — and often save much more — by doing these things yourself. Plus, doing routine maintenance now can delay the big cost of replacing an item for years or even decades.

Saving 50% on maintenance and low-skill repairs is great, but you can save even more by simply cooking for yourself more often. In a 2017 Forbes study, analysts estimated that buying ready-made (think frozen) meals at the grocery store or using mail-order meal prep kits will save you half what it would cost to get the same meal out.

Small Savings Add Up

Cooking a meal from scratch bumps your savings up to nearly 80 percent. But I can tell you from experience that if you plant a garden and grow some of your own food, you can create many meals that cost just pennies per serving.

Whelan also suggest reviewing and canceling unused subscriptions. Casting a critical eye toward magazines, newspapers, music or video streaming services and automatic, recurring purchases from online retailers takes very little time yet could save you hundreds of dollars a year.

There are many ways to be thrifty, and we're often capable of more than we think. It really just comes down to four things: think about your values before you spend; be willing to dive in and do the work; be brave enough to challenge your perceived limits; and be smart enough to call in help or hire a pro when your experience, skill or time don't allow you to do it yourself.

Rashelle Brown
Rashelle Brown is a long-time fitness professional and freelance writer with hundreds of bylines in print and online. She is a regular contributor for NextAvenue and the Active Network, and is the author of Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss (Turner Publishing). Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @RashelleBrownMN. Read More
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