Joining the ranks of the do-it-yourselfers

WASHINGTON — Use it up — wear it out — make it do!

It's the credo that your parents or grandparents lived by. Posters from the World War II era screamed it at careless consumers and those without money to spend.

Now, as more Americans have been swept into what some have dubbed the nation's "Great Recession" — and many more worry it is only a matter of time — this mantra of frugality is again becoming a way of life: a call to thrift echoing beyond foreclosed homes and growing unemployment lines. For tasks such as home maintenance, sewing and gardening, people across the nation increasingly are taking cost-savings measures into their own hands.

"We are getting the real do-it-yourselfers now," said Debbie Hernandez, who has headed Home Depot's do-it-yourself clinics in Glendale, Ariz., for 13 years. "I hear a lot of people saying that at one time, maybe last year or the year before, they would have hired it out. But now they want to do it themselves because times are tougher, and the information is there for the taking."

Home Depot offers clinics in painting, tiling, toilets and cabinet glazing. Over the last year, store locations around the country have reported larger classes, especially in do-it-herself home repair, said Tia Robinson, a spokeswoman for Home Depot.

"Everything is tight," said Brian Arnett, whose ill-timed purchase of a condo in Reston, Va., left him strapped for cash. "I'm doing stuff to save money that I never thought of before."

For the 25-year-old computer technician, who is paying off about $50,000 in student loans, that includes opening the blinds instead of turning on the lights, shortening showers, cutting coupons and, on a recent morning, attending a do-it-yourself plumbing class at a local high school.

"I feel like I'm such a dork now," Arnett said. "I know that if I cut out $5 worth of coupons every Sunday, I've more than paid for the (newspaper)."

Arnett is far from alone in his efforts to save a little dough. Continuing and adult education programs across are enrolling more students in their home, auto and bike repair courses.

Arnett's weekend plumbing class in Fairfax, Va., had to be expanded to accommodate an increased interest.

"To take this class is only $75. To have a plumber just walk through your door is at least $90," said Jackie Hertz, 61, who got up early on a Saturday morning to learn some of the finer points of home plumbing.

In St. Paul, Minn., at least one continuing education program had to add another bicycle repair section after fuel prices surged last summer. And the Baldwin Park adult and community education program in Los Angeles has seen a 24 percent increase in enrollment in its sewing classes this year, prompting it to tack on about four more afternoon sessions.

"That class was actually started because our students wanted to make clothes for their family," senior director John Kerr said. "It was really an economics thing."

Of course, in the world of do-it-yourself projects and repairs, cost savings aren't guaranteed.

Dick Waters, a laboratory quality improvement specialist in Springfield, Ill., has spent 20 years patching up his 100-year-old house.

"Something seemingly simple like hanging up a picture can turn into replacing a wall, as, in fact, it has," Waters said.

During one infamous repair job, Waters set out to fix a dripping faucet, but after shattering the porcelain sink, ended up replacing the faucet, sink and much of the bathroom plumbing.

"The hope is that it will be cheaper if you do it yourself," Waters said. "But I don't think it has ever panned out that way."

Patrick Colmer, a plumber in the Washington, D.C., area, recently had a customer who tried to repair the gasket between his toilet and the floor and ended up splitting the toilet bowl in half.

"My main advice would be that if you are not absolutely certain about what you are doing, call a professional," he said.

At least some people are following his advice. At a time of plummeting car sales, motor vehicle repairs are on the rise, according to recent figures from the U.S. Commerce Department.

"Bad times are always good for us," said Robert Green, shop manager for Fairfax Auto Parts in Virginia, who added that he has been working longer hours to keep up with the increased business. "People start fixing their cars instead of replacing them."

In the last three months, Green has seen a roughly 15 percent increase in sales, which has amounted to a six-year high for the same time period.

The penny-pinching trend has not gone unnoticed by major retailers, which have watched their sales plummet for months.

"What we are seeing now is marketers really starting to shift what they are communicating," said Gary Bamossy, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University. "They are expressing the value of their product in dollars saved rather than some other emotional value like it being an elite brand."

Bamossy said the return to a quasi Depression-era take on consuming was not necessarily a bad thing.

"American consumers are the most-spending and least-saving consumers in the world," he said. "So I think this is a wake-up call for a lot of them."

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