gift guide tools under $50

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Lately I’ve been thinking about how far away December 2009 feels.That was when I bought the Ugg-Duck. This was even the original listing photo, still used on the blog today (though it will change because of new paint):

original Ugly Duckling House home photo

Since then, I’ve ripped out carpet, removed wallpaper, learned how to skim coat a wall, put caulk on just about everything, and painted almost any surface that would sit still. I’ve rented (and used) saws that cut through masonry. I’ve daydreamed about tools like they were ponies and chocolate, something I never imagined I would ever do.

And I’ve learned a lot through all of it. It’s always been my intention to share things with you as I go, to help you learn the things that I have, and hope that someday all of this knowledge will eventually pay off for more than just myself.

So, as part of my attempt at contribution to blogland, I’ve decided to put my two cents in on a common subject: The tools every DIYer should own.

You can Google the subject and find other opinions quite easily, but many of the ones that I’ve read include tools I haven’t heard of or needed to use in these last two years. Maybe I’ll need them all someday, who knows? But in my experience, there are just some that have no excuse not to be in your possession during that crucial first year of owning a fixer-upper. Especially since so many of the need-to-have tools around the house are under $10 or even FREE! This list certainly isn’t a comprehensive one – there are too many to really do in one post. But even if you’re a beginner who has never picked up a tool before today, you can easily get all of the tools listed here in one trip to the hardware store without breaking the bank.

Caulk gun

One of my very first posts was about discovering (and learned what to do with) caulk. Old houses in particular become drafty over time, and the caulk that used to keep things airtight ages, turning brittle, shrinking, or simply separating from its surroundings as the house settles. That old caulk has to be removed and redone before anything starts to look or function better. The good news too is that caulk is cheap, comes in many colors, can be paintable/stainable, and fix otherwise very expensive replacement alternatives (a box of caulk on the exterior goes a long, long way to save me money instead of replacing all of that cedar siding!). As a result, lesson number one was this: Regardless of the type you’re using, caulk will always use a caulk gun. Since the original primary bedroom windows, I’ve used the same gun for sealing cracks in the cement (in prep for flooring installation), covered over holes that became more noticeable after painting the baseboards and trim white, using caulk adhesives for various spots in the house, exterior siding repair… the list goes on. Far and away, I’d say that this is the tool I use in just about every project.
Cost: As little as $3!

caulk gun

4″ putty knife

Between nail holes, screw holes, and random bumps to fix, a putty knife is your best friend. These putty or “tape” knives come in many widths, but unless I’m skim coating a wall, I find that I use my 4″ knife more than any other (the 2″ width is just fine for tiny holes, but the 4″ width works well for wall cracks too). Do yourself a favor and spend the extra few dollars on a flexible metal one so you can keep it around for years. Just remember to thoroughly clean it after each use – no one wants a rusty knife!
Cost: under $10.

Utility knife/box cutter

Whether it’s ripping out carpet, cutting open a new tube of caulk, or protecting your new paint job from peeling away with the tape, the utlity knife has endless functions. During the carpet removal, I bought an angled carpet knife with holes for your fingers to grip (which reminds me of brass knuckles – my only frame of reference for seeing a similar grip, but it was in a cartoon). Even though I have other straight box cutters around the house, this is the one I prefer.
Cost:  Even a good one is under $7.

useful box cutter

Claw hammer

Hammers can be used for just about anything, especially quick demolition or ensuring a tight lid on your paint cans. The convenience about a claw hammer is that it’s both something you can use to drive a nail or to pry one back out again. But don’t just go picking out any old thing; pick a hammer that has enough heft, but not so much weight that is a burden to carry around the house. A hammer has to feel balanced and stable in your hand. Since I have a small frame, I like ones with shorter handles that don’t twist my wrist back when I pick it up. Sixteen ounces is the gold standard, and synthetic handles provide a better grip than a wooden one.
Cost:  starting at $5.

Multi-tip or “ratcheting” screwdriver with Phillips head/flat head bits

There’s nothing wrong with having a plain Phillips or flat head screwdriver separately, but I really like the one I have that allows me to change out the head as needed for each project. The one that I first bought came in a girly pink and purple tool bag that I foolishly thought would be my starter kit. Not kidding. Here’s proof from the first night working in the house before I moved in:

pink tool bag

In a sense, I suppose that kit really was the beginning of it all (I’m feeling very nostalgic at the moment and may keep this bag just for that reason), but everything in the bag was pretty cheap. While I wound up upgrading most of the things that came in that first tool kit, like the purple-handled hammer or the overly girly tape measure, I love the screwdriver and all of the bits that the bag included. There was a set for flat head bits of different sizes in a rubber thingy to keep things organized and secure (I still call it a thingy, I don’t care what it’s actual name is), and another set for Philips head bits. Conveniently, these bits fit perfectly with my drill as well so I can change them out any time I need. The original bag and its contents cost me $20 on a clearance shelf at Walmart, but you can easily find a screwdriver like this without the feminine color scheme at a similar price elsewhere.


You’ll use a level time and time again. Trust me – not your eyeballs! When things are straight, and you know they are really straight, projects come together quicker. The level is crucial, even if is just an app on your phone.

using level

Cordless drill and battery

As someone who has exhausted the last bit of juice from a drill that has a misplaced charger, I can personally attest to the need for both a drill and a full battery. Drills range in price, but you’ll want to choose one that has enough voltage to get the job done but not so heavy of a battery that you struggle picking it up. Sure, a workout thanks to that 18v battery is great, but not when you simply can’t pick up that damn drill one more time. Go with 12 volts. Your arms will thank you.
Cost:  name brands starting at $30 and up.

Ryobi cordless drill


Tape measure (and a small keychain one for your keys).

Just like the level, you don’t know how much you need it until it goes missing. Buy one if you’re good at keeping track of things even when your house has five ongoing projects; buy multiple if you tend to lose sight of your keys at least once a week. Looking for a good one doesn’t need to be rocket science; it needs to be long enough and sturdy enough to stretch across the room without excessive yanking (or contorting yourself trying to hold it down so it doesn’t snap back and all over the room). Most available at the store are either unpackaged or packaged in such a way that you can easily extend them. A mini version for your keys is also helpful when you’re shopping for furniture or cabinetry and need to verify if the fit is right. Ikea even supplies them at the same stations you pick up your lists and mini-golf pencils. Heck, you can even usually pick one up at a craft fair, job fair, or other similar conventions as a cheap marketing toy.
Cost:  starting as little as a $1 or even FREE if you know where to look.

Paint key

With every gallon of paint you purchase, a paint stick and paint key are handed out for free. While a screwdriver or the back of a claw hammer can also work to pry the lid off a can of paint, a paint key causes less damage to the lid and simply pops it open faster. If you plan to use the entire gallon in one day, this really won’t matter, but if you plan on using the can multiple times, like for painting trim from room to room, a paint key will save you time and frustration. If you get gallons of paint as often as I do, you’ll accumulate quite a collection and be able to stash them all over the house.
Cost:  FREE

paint key
via Changing my Destiny

Rubber bands

I’ve already mentioned here how useful they can be around the house. And thanks to this pinned tip, there are even more out there that I didn’t even realize. Most of the time, you’ll accumulate rubber bands and not know how you did it, but I suppose in a pinch you can just raid your company’s supply closet (kidding, I’m not endorsing company theft here). Cost:  FREE, especially if you have sticky fingers.

There you have it. Ten great tools that every homeowner should own, and I bet if you tried to pick them all up at once, you still not might even hit $100 total. There are plenty of other tools that probably should be on this list, and I’ll try to get to many of them in a future post (maybe one in the $50 – 100 range, one about which tools you really should save up for, etc.). What do you think of the list? Got your own to share? I’d especially love to hear about any of them that you managed to get for free!

Psst: the links in this article contain affiliate links from my Amazon Store. I get a few cents if you were to purchase through it, which enables me to buy more tools to try out. So, yeah, Amazon is kind of an enabler. For shame (kidding). You can also go straight to my store to see more recommendations for products I love – even makeup!

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  1. Great list, I totally agree. I'm just at the beginning of the process you're going through, but I have already used most of these tools myself!

  2. Ooh, we have most of these things, but there are a few that we should probably get. Thanks so much for this list!:)

  3. I have that exact pink kit! It was a bridal shower present from a friend of my mom's, who I guess thought I would enjoy it since I did Americorps with Habitat for Humanity (which in turn meant I already had most of the stuff in there). I do love all the bits in the rubber thingy(!) and the allen keys and the little level. I think I have used the pink/purple hammer when I couldn't find (or didn't feel like getting) a bigger, better, badder one :)

  4. Thanks Sarah! I’m working on putting together a new DIY kit for my wife for her birthday. I already have the cordless drill, level, and basic tools. I love the rubber bands idea too, I never would have thought of that! Excellent blog and I’ll be sure to include it in my list of DIY blogs for her to check up on.

    Thanks again Sarah for helping to make my wife’s birthday awesome!