Six Steps to Saving Money by DIYing Everything Like a Bad-ass Engineer

White car with dark spots on it from a bad paint job

In my freshman engineering seminar, there was one phrase forever drilled into my head: “Engineers Solve Problems (ESP™).”

ESP was the one thing that brought all the disciplines together – from six sigma-ing industrial engineers to code monkey computer engineers (engineers can be super cliquey).

So how can you be like an engineer? You guessed it – by solving problems. Why would you want to? Oh, man, because engineering is cool? No? Okay, how about saving money, time, and sanity? Yeah, I thought so.

Step 1: Destroy Mental Barriers

“But everyone solves problems,” I hear you groan, “What makes engineers special?”

Nothing. Expect for the fact that we’ve been told again and again that ESP, therefore every problem has a possible solution. Even wearing a lab coat can make people do better at basic, attention-related tasks – imagine four whole years of being told you can solve all the problems. Having the right mindset is huge.

Now, engineers are not immune to mental barriers. Fergus and I put off replacing the air filter in our car for weeks, and that was only half due to the cold weather. The important thing is to start questioning and to be aware of your own mental blocks. Build yourself up and trust that you can figure it out. Re-engineer your mental models

Step 2: Be Lazy

Why derive an equation from first principles when someone’s already done it? That is, someone else has probably already had the exact same problem and documented it on the internet, most likely complete with video or step-by-step instructions. Engineers are smart and nerdy, but we’re not martyrs. On that note, I’m going to call this step done.

Step 3: Ask for Help

But not too often. Who’s the subject matter expert? Surely you’ve got some friends or family members with the appropriate skills. If you’re stuck and/or very confused, ask someone. Especially when I was just getting started with coding, it was hard to google the solution, since I didn’t know the right keywords. Even a novice can usually help you out with finding the right search phrase, or for letting you know if you’re on the right track.

Make sure to do your research and try to find a solution on your own first. Use others’ time sparingly, as you might really need them later, and it’s simply good practice to be self-sufficient.

It’s a Trap!

Two different ones, actually. You see, if you never ask for help, you’ll spend time doing unnecessary work. You could write your own code library when the same one already exists, open source. Hours or days could be spent making a solution, only to realize someone already made a much better one.

On the other side, if you ask for help at the drop of a hat, you’ll never actually learn anything. Beyond annoying soon-to-be-ex-friends, this could also lead to wasted time and effort on your part – it could actually be less effort long-term to learn how to do it yourself. Every time you delegate work, there’s some amount of transaction cost. No one can read your mind, so you have to spend time explaining the problem. Plus, the first solution is probably not what you were looking for, meaning time-sucking rework is needed.

Screenshot 2017-03-12 at 7.10.00 PM

Step 4: Think of at Least Two Solutions

If there were two things I took away from college, they would be “Engineers Solve Problems” and this: always think of at least two solutions to a problem. That way, you won’t use the worst solution. If you already borrowed a foolproof idea in Step 2, you can skip this step. OR, you can come up with an evil mastermind plan just for funsies (Oh! It should definitely include a secret passageway! Do it!).

So much of our time is spent doing what is expected of us. Think of the “American Dream” with the white picket fence and 2 1/2 kids – or how many people buy a new car every 3-5 years “just because.” If we really think through situations, even just at the surface level, we won’t make the absolute worst decision. A huge part of how we save money is by questioning basic ideas like the dream of home ownership and eschewing what many see as a necessity to have one car per adult. 

The traditional solution would have been for us to buy as much home as we could afford and trade in our 2000 Camry for a Prius. We very much prefer our solution of renting for 0.2% of the purchase price of a typical single-family home in the area and driving our teenaged Camry into the ground. By the way, be sure to check out our investment property calculator if you’re in the market for a multifamily!

Step 5: Just Do It!

Another thing I struggled with when learning to code was learning to make mistakes. I didn’t want to waste time and effort on something I wasn’t sure would work. This is the biggest mental trap. The thing is, you’re very rarely (if ever) wasting time, as long as you’ve already cycled through Steps 1-4. You’re constantly learning, and you can’t discount the importance of that.

Everyday Engineering Quick Fixes

From fixing a tea strainer, making your own rags, to DIY phone cases and world domination – everything is just a problem waiting to be solved.

The two biggest benefits of this mindset are:

  • Saving Money
  • Maintaining sanity & saving time in the long run

Saving Money

This one is pretty straightforward — why get thai tea or bubble tea at a shop for $5 when you can make your own at a tenth of the cost (if that)? And think of the money on car maintenance you could potentially save by having a DIY/engineering mindset.

Sanity and Time

The less obvious benefit is time and sanity.

Clothing and tailoring are my favorite examples. You see, I’m a woman. If you’re a woman, you know exactly what I’m about to say. No pockets, thin fabric, tight-fitting styles – even if you are a fit model for your favorite brand, you probably still have issues when shopping. Clothes that actually fit and make me feel good have a huge impact on my sanity and wellbeing.

Let’s take the “women’s pants have no pockets” issue. Most of these pants actually do have pockets – all you have to do is unleash them (#freethepockets). One seam ripper, one minute, and you have pockets again. Pants too long? Learning how to hem pants is actually really easy, with dozens of tutorials available online. Even small or large-chested problems can be solved relatively easily with a simple needle and thread, without even the need of a sewing machine. It’s going to be hard at first, I’m not going to lie, but it gets really simple after a couple practice runs. It’s hard in the way that putting on new wipers took approximately twenty minutes for Fergus and me, but it took the guy at the auto parts store ten seconds. Practice, people.

Messy inside sewing, but it's imperceptible on the outside of the dress!
It doesn’t have to be professional, it just has to be passing!

The dress above was something like $11-$13 on sale, bought online. Waist? Perfect. Skirt? Swooshy as heck, just like I like them. The chest region? Crazy big on me, and the straps were far too long. I did a little bit of research and ended up just hacking my way through it. Now the dress fits me really well, if slightly tight now on the arm holes.

Now, I’ve had a dress with a similar design and problem tailored by a professional tailor. It looks slightly more professional, but it has the same issue with the arm holes. And you know what? It’s also not that neat-looking on the inside of the strap seam. My hacky tailoring was pretty much the same as a professional tailor, it saved me roughly $40, plus I could do multiple try-ons along the way to ensure an awesome fit. That dress I got from the tailor? I still had to alter it after the fact, no joke.

Step 6: Admit Defeat

Not always, mind you, but when appropriate.

Exhibit A: Re-Soling Failure

I have this pair of shoes that I love – comfortable, at least somewhat stylish, and easy to slip on and off. The only problem is that the outsole wears through so quickly, and they can’t be re-soled (I even asked the manufacturer directly to confirm). These aren’t cheap shoes, either. They’re a whopping $90 retail, and even on discount can be $70 or so. Coming up with a DIY sole repair solution can’t be too difficult, right?

Turns out there’s a reason cobbling is a profession, and another reason that a professional shoe repair store told me there was nothing they could do with my preciouses.

See, I took that as a challenge and tried to beef up the outsole where the rubber was wearing super thin. After all, the majority of the shoe was just fine and still super comfy. So I took some Plastidip I got at the hardware store and put a few layers on, judiciously spreading out the solution and drying each layer.

Shoes that are decidedly not repaired well
Now that I think about it, maybe I could glue the rubber to the cork outsole…

It worked well until it didn’t. The rubber kept peeling off the shoe, as there wasn’t really anything to bond the two materials together. Technically speaking, I could probably glue the new rubber with the old rubber to make it last just a bit longer…but in the end, it’s just not worth it. And Plastidip dries out easily and is expensive, y’all.

Exhibit B: Spotted Car

Now, there are some times where you suffer a minor defeat for your own damned good. See, as our car is a rebellious teenager, quite a few rust spots started peeking through. We found out that instead of paying someone half of what the car’s worth, we could fend off rust ourselves with some sandpaper, and a few cans of spray paint at the auto parts store (primer, base, and clear coat).

Now, sectioning off each spot of the car with paper just sounded like a lot of work and tape! Since we were dealing with small spots, we could surely cut some corners and do without. So, that’s what we did…and the small spots quickly turned into very large spots.

White car with dark spots on it from a bad paint job
Spotted car, anyone? Hey, at least we learned our lesson.

One of the perks of having an old car is that you can make the occasional mistake and learn something. We’re not going to make the same painting mistake again, car-related or otherwise. Now, a smarter version of our past-selves would have asked a knowledgeable friend, “Hey, do we really need to section off the rust spots with paper and tape?” in the first place.


Everyone can be a bad-ass problem solver, as long as you train and condition yourself, and especially if you get a little help from your friends, and it’s very important to be flexible and learn to admit defeat or refactor solutions as needed.

So what do y’all think – How do you problem solve? What awesome solutions have you come up with lately? Let us know in the comments!

13 thoughts on “Six Steps to Saving Money by DIYing Everything Like a Bad-ass Engineer

  1. I love a) this article, and b) that you’re an engineer! I didn’t know there was any way you could get more bad-ass in my eyes, and yet it just happened.

    Having the right mindset for creative DIY is so essential. We live in a 100 year old house, and since it has settled, most of the doors just… don’t close. I felt SO invigorated and proud of myself when I figured out how to fix them all (use stents to adjust placement of the latch holes) and my husband was ready to call a carpenter. It cost nothing and now I know how to solve a big problem!


    1. Aww, thanks so much! And you know the love and respect goes both ways. ?

      It feels so freaking awesome to solve problems! I imagine when living in an old house you have three choices (1) $$$ for handymen,
      (2) Go crazy, or (3) Solve your own damn problems. You definitely choose the most bad-ass option ?

      Oh, now I know who to ask about random carpentry issues! ?


  2. I think I’ve always had a DIY mindset because of how I was raised (if I wanted something I’d have to figure out how to get it). As an adult, I’m a big fan of “pressing a bunch of buttons and seeing what happens”. This is how I usually end up being the person at work who knows how to do something, just by looking for the Help link and reading through the instructions. It’s really that simple sometimes, but it always surprises me how many people expect to be shown exactly how to do something without making any effort on their own.

    The car thing made me lol. My dad totally tried to do the same thing to his car when I was little, and it ended looking way worse, like in your test.

    I also hem all of my own pants. One day when I was in college I bought a sewing machine and just literally started putting old t-shirts through it, just to practice my stitching. Now I’m pretty damn pro at sewing, if I say so myself.

    A failure for me that did not save money: I tried to copy my favorite ice cream at home. I spent, like $15 on ingredients, it took half a day to make, and it only yielded 2 scoops. I could have just bought the ice cream from the store for $8 and went about my merry way. But at least I can say I made my own ice cream. Like you, I feel a lot of pride when I know how to do things myself.


    1. I love that attitude! Thanks for reading and commenting with your own DIY stories. ?

      It’s so weird the mental block some people have with trying new things. On the plus side, it makes people like us that try new things more employable. And with much more tailored clothes, to boot!

      Haha, I’m so glad we weren’t the only ones that completely failed a DIY paint job. And omg homemade ice cream. We can make basic ice cream, but were once tried curry flavored ice cream, inspired by an iron chef episode. It…did not go well. We ended up adding way too much spice, as it was hard to taste it in the first bite. It’s just…the spice built up with each successive bite. ?


  3. Wow! I love this post. It’s so empowering. I am the opposite of an engineer, but what a fantastic mindset–ESP. I was painting my pocket bathroom door, and took the hardware off. Could not put it back on. Some metal thing fell out, and my first thought was, “buy a new one! Call in the pros!” But, you’re right. Getting on YouTube and figuring stuff out is not only cheaper, but empowering. And, exactly–not aiming for perfection, just getting stuff done. ESP, ESP. I am going to keep chanting this to myself! 🙂


  4. I really like step 3 – asking for help, but not TOO much help. This is actually a tactic I have been implementing in my own life over the past few years. I am learning that having an ego and not being willing to ask for help usually leads to me doing unnecessary work. If I’m around someone (especially at work) who has more experience than myself, my life becomes much easier and less stressful if I go to them for help after failing a couple times, instead of waiting until I fail twenty times to finally look for help. Awesome tips here, thanks for sharing 🙂


  5. Yessss mindset is massive for ANYTHING in life really! So powerful, in endeavours large or small.

    Your note about cars made me smile – for us there’s definitely an element of, it needs to be nice enough that we can take pride in it and feel the urge to take care of it, but not TOO nice because nicks, scratches and dings are inevitable.


  6. LOVED this. My roommate and I at our old apartment actually named our wifi network DIYDivas because we had to fix SO much of that apartment to have it work for us. We were obsessed with saving money since the price of paying a contractor to build stuff was absurd. I built a closet with reinforced brackets, but didn’t know I had to use anchor screws in drywall and ended up have the closet completely collapsed twice…lesson learned, but it was STILL SO WORTH IT!


    1. Ah, I love that Wi-Fi network name (and omg poor drywall closet — some lessons are painful XD)!!

      (1) The name is awesome in general
      (2) So many networks have the most boring name. I’m convinced every one that has at least a little thought put into the name instantly makes the world a happier place.


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