June 4, 2021

I’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.


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Being caught unawares can be upsetting.

It’s alarming to need a repair and not have the faintest idea what to do about it. You have to place your trust, and your money, in someone you don’t know to take care of it for you, and hopefully not take advantage of you. Women, in particular, can fall into this category, but certainly not exclusively.

As traditional gender roles continue to come under fire, there are many folks who would just prefer that they stay put. Women do these things, and men do those things. Never the twain shall meet. It’s tragic really.

I’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

I’m in my 50s and have always enjoyed learning how to do new things, and never let “gender norms” deter me. I am an avid tinkerer and DIY’er from way back. So far back that the “guys” at the hardware store or car repair shop gave me side-eyes and a hard time because I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about…because I was a girl.

Like the time I went to buy a chainsaw because I needed to learn to cut my own firewood. I was a single mother and didn’t have the money to pay someone to do it all the time. The salesman asked me if it was a gift. When I said, “No,” I was shown the chainsaw equivalent of a pink hammer.

Or the time that I had to have my rotors turned. The technician came out with a list of $1000 worth of work they “recommended” (read: upsell), including some things that recently had been done. I was already irritated that I had to spend money on this, but I looked him square in the eye, deadpan, and said, “I just came for the rotors. Do that and that’s it.”

The total cost was $200.

Savings of $800+ for not buying into their sales pitch.

Now, I don’t have the equipment or knowledge to turn rotors, nor do I want to, but I did do the research before I took my truck in. Not being in a position to be taken advantage of is the trick. Ladies, I am mostly talking to you.

Materials and Labor

The largest portion of any project is labor. Whether it’s a chimney sweep, car repair, or remodeling project, look at the entire invoice. A good contractor will break down a job into “materials,” the items and parts they need to complete your job, and “labor,” which is an educated guess on how long they think it will take them to accomplish the work. It’s called an “estimate” because unexpected things can come up.

For example, on a simple room remodel, once a wall is torn out, they may find a leaking water pipe or old wiring, meaning they have to stop, and you have to call someone else to fix that first.

Ah, the best-laid plans.

I had an old house that was built in 1870. This sort of “discovery” was actually expected. But I knew that part and was prepared for it…most of the time.

What is “Labor”?

Obviously, it’s someone’s time for doing a job. But what you’re paying for isn’t just their time, it’s that person’s expertise to know how to perform the work, in the correct order, the proper tools to use, and to complete the job to your specifications, or required regulations in some cases. It also must cover insurance in case they screw it up or break something, their income tax obligations (this is their employment), and hopefully, make a profit.

Good contractors should be able to explain each line item and stay within those parameters most of the time, barring major unexpected complications. They shouldn’t keep hounding you for more money or hand you a surprise final invoice that’s way over the original estimate.

Take time to learn “best practices” for that type of work.

Get Some Chutzpah

Confidence isn’t just about being secure in your knowledge, it’s also about being secure in your lack of knowledge. It’s okay to not know how to do something. It’s bad to pretend you do. Don’t let your fear of “looking stupid” cost you money.

Does anybody give you grief for using a recipe? No. Then don’t let anyone harass you for trying to learn a new skill.

I acquired much of what I know out of necessity and, if I’m honest, lack of cash. I would save up, hire a “guy” to, say, put up some drywall. Then, I would watch them do it and ask questions.

“What’s that stuff?”

“Why are you doing that?”

“What is thisthing called?”

I would look at the tools and supplies they used. Many people are happy to teach, but you have to ask. Sometimes they would get nervous and wonder why I was watching them, to which I would reply, “So, I can do it myself next time.”

I rarely trust someone enough to work for me without my near-constant presence. Sadly, there are many scammers out there and I have thrown much good money after bad, no doubt. This is one reason why it’s important to learn about your problem, all the pitfalls that could occur, and what to reasonably expect to pay to correct it. Knowledge is power and it can also save you a ton of money.

Because I have the audacity to question what I’m told, do the research, ask for adjustments based on my budget, get two or three estimates, and in many cases, do some or all of it myself, I have easily saved tens of thousands of dollars.

Besides, it can be fun!

Start Small

If you rely on a partner, friend, or family member to help you, think about this:

What would you do if that person were no longer around?

Preparation is never a waste of time. With our 24/7 access to any information we could possibly want, there is no reason not to endeavor to learn. The best part is it can be done in a non-threatening and non-shaming way. Thank you, search engines. Don’t be embarrassed that you don’t know something—take action.

Thankfully now, many store and shop policies prohibit biased behavior, but it still exists, and it’s also the place where scammers poise themselves to take your money. Ask lots of questions until you understand. Get several estimates so you can gauge the cost—they’re usually free—but can be wildly different. Compare notes.

If you do decide to embark on your own, be prepared to take 10 times as a professional would. Tools, knowledge, and confidence will be gained, and you can take on bigger and more complicated projects.

Start with things that aren’t critical to your everyday life. For example:

>> Paint a room

>> Buy a hammer

>> Build a flower box

>> Buy a shovel

>> Create a vegetable garden in your yard

>> Restore a piece of furniture

>> Rent a power tool and learn how to use it. Read the manual.

>> Watch several how-to videos before you start a big undertaking

Do it yourself. Be willing to make mistakes, or for your end product to look goofy. Be humble enough to see when you might need help, and ask for it. You’re learning and it’s exciting to have new skills and more self-sufficiency.

Yay, you!


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