Frugal Life Skill: Learn to Fix Your Stuff

by Kevin on November 6, 2008

We technically have four computers in our home. One desktop, three laptops. That’s a bit misleading though because one laptop is ancient — we’re talking less than 700mhz of processing power — that a friend gave me a while back to play with. I never could get it working and now it sits in the closet. Rubbish. (Why haven’t I thrown it out yet?)

Anyways, that leaves us with two laptops (one each for my wife and I) and the primary desktop. I built the desktop from parts several years ago and have been continually upgrading it over time. The last major overhaul was one year ago right around Thanksgiving. Dual core processor, lots of RAM, and (angelic choir music here) a 22″ flat panel monitor. After using a 17″ CRT monitor for years it is a true sight to see. Working inside a desktop computer case isn’t half bad, but sometimes it can be a bit difficult. I spend good money on the components, but they last for around three or four years. The cost ends up being less and the quality higher than purchasing a new desktop from one of the popular brands. Plus it is something I enjoy!

Ominous Hard Drive Noise

Late last week, my IBM Thinkpad hard drive started making odd noises that made the computer geek inside of me nervous. It sounded like it was on the way out. I didn’t want to experience an outright crash like JD at Get Rich Slowly did. I pulled off the few important files (I keep everything really important on my thumbdrive) and made preparations. I’ve never replaced a laptop hard drive and was admittedly concerned about the complexity of replacing the drive.

A few searches on Lenovo’s support website (Lenovo bought IBM’s laptop division) came up with this amazingly simple illustrated guide to replacing the hard drive. Now all I needed was a hard drive.

Lenovo also has a parts search on the website. I quick search for my 40GB hard drive replacement turned up a cost of $328. Excuse me? That’s insane. I might as well buy a new laptop for a couple of hundred dollars more (or do without).

Frustrated, I turned to Google to find a hard drive and didn’t turn up much. I could go to NewEgg (my favorite parts retailer) to find a drive, but here’s the kicker: laptop hard drive connections (the way the hard drive connects to the machine) have changed over the last 5 years. There would be no guarantee it would work. I needed a ThinkPad hard drive. Curses.

As a last resort I checked eBay and believe it or not there were a bunch of hard drives for sale. In particular there was one vendor with 34,000+ feedback that was selling new drives for my specific laptop series with warranties. I was able to upgrade to an 80GB brand new hard drive for a total cost of $56.10 (including shipping!) thanks to a 10% off coupon from eBay.

The drive came yesterday and I spent last night repairing the computer. It was incredibly simple. I removed a total of five screws in the entire process and it slid right back into place. I didn’t even really have to open up the case. The total process took perhaps 15 minutes swapping out the drives and 2 and half hours loading Windows back onto the machine with all of the IBM recovery CDs.

Benefits of Fixing Stuff Yourself

Fixing it yourself saves money

Let’s take a look at how much money I saved by doing it myself:

  • Hard drive: $328 from Lenovo – $56.10 from eBay = $271.90
  • Repairs: I’m guessing here, but I’d say there is a minimum of $25/hr cost at a repair shop at roughly three hours = $75
  • Total savings: $346.90

You can learn something new

I’d never tackled any kind of laptop repairs in the past. Frankly, it made me nervous. This was educational and found out that laptops are very similar to desktops in terms of simple repairs like this.

Fixing it yourself can give you higher quality

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I built my desktop from parts. The result is a higher quality machine for overall less cost. My desktop will stay “current” with technology longer than a store bought PC.

In the end, I saved a bunch of money, doubled the size of the hard drive, and learned something new. It was a bit of a pain (primarily because of reloading Windows) and I wouldn’t want to experience it every day, but once every five years isn’t so bad. Here’s to hoping the laptop continues to serve us well for several more years!

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Mr. ToughMoneyLove November 6, 2008 at 11:35 am

Nice – but you are scaring the PC makers and stimulus fans. They don’t want you fixing stuff – they want you buying new stuff. Anyway, I was unaware of the huge price disparity on a commodity product like a hard drive. Now if only replacing my laptop display was so easy!

Kevin November 6, 2008 at 11:54 am

@ToughMoneyLove: The difference in price, I think, was because of how old the drives are. I guess they’ve got a dwindling pile of replacement drives… but it doesn’t make any logical sense to charge that much.

Russell November 6, 2008 at 1:24 pm

You make me think about something my friend has told me, “you have so much old stuff in your house”. She quickly adds, “but all of it WORKS”. Another advantage of repairing things, or replacing components, besides the cost savings you realized, is you’re more familiar with the item and can maintain it better.

Some items like your old laptop computer, or a CRT or TV that only has “green” for a color, probably have to be discarded. Our county has an electronics recycling day about twice a year where these items are collected, taken off to recover what can be salvaged from them, and the rest discarded properly.

I can do minor repairs to my motorcycle, replace electrical outlets or lighting fixtures, and some things I can’t do, at least I can buy parts and find a friend to help. My laptop hinges broke last year, and everybody said it’s 4 years old, throw it away and get a new one. They’re only $700 now.

First, I’m too lazy to reinstall the software, and second I’m too cheap to spend the money. I found the hinges online, and gave the whole pile of stuff to my buddy who just LOVES to tear computers apart. I’ve replaced the battery, the power supply, and doubled the memory myself.

One story that makes me chuckle is shopping for a CD changer for my home stereo, when my original CD player broke a few years ago. I went to Radio Shack, and the young lady who has worked in there for a few years, wanted to show me a unit that she said had the new optical interface. I said that’s not useful to me, my stereo receiver is older than you are. “OH,” she replied, “I’m 21 now.”. That’s nice, but “like I said”, I told her, I bought my stereo receiver in 1980.

Seb November 6, 2008 at 7:31 pm

That same things goes with cars, too. I can either pay a mechanic hundreds, or maybe thousands of dollars for labor, or I can spend a weekend afternoon and do it myself. You’d be surprised how easy some maintenance really is.

Gloria November 7, 2008 at 11:41 am

I recently replaced the left rear turn signal lamp on my car. Don’t know how much it would have cost to “take it in” to have a “professional” do it. A few years ago, I replaced the right rear turn signal lamp. The lamps came two in a package, so this time I didn’t even have to purchase the lamp, already had one left from before. Save money and have that sense of accomplishment.

Kevin November 11, 2008 at 11:31 pm

@Russell: You’re right. The more you work on it the more you understand how everything goes together. I try to stick to non-major stuff… I wouldn’t replace the head gasket on my car, for example.

I’ve also heard that stuff made “back then” is made better than what is on the market today. HVAC units and refrigerators especially. Used to be built to last years, now are designed to be replaced every 5-10 years. Sad.

@Seb: Yup. Although have you ever tried to replace an internal air filter (cabin filter, not for the engine) on a 1995 BMW? I did that in high school and let me tell you… leave that one to the professionals.

@Gloria: Simple enough, right? Lights are usually a couple of screws and some connectors. Unscrew, unclip, uninstall, do the reverse and you’re done.

Russell November 12, 2008 at 9:06 am

Kevin, I bought a refrigerator two years ago at Sears, and the salesman asked me about purchasing the extended warranty (service plan). I asked if I really need that, my mother has a Kenmore that’s 30-years-old and it still works fine. The salesman said, that may be true, but remember your mother’s refrigerator was built 30 years ago.

Gloria, one really great thing now is the free availability of schematics and parts list online, where you can learn how to remove and replace even “gimmicky” fasteners and connectors. Detailed maintenance manuals that used to be unavailable, or sold at auto parts stores, can often be browsed online at the manufacturer’s or parts house website.

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