Is Household Help a Luxury?

by Kathy Fitzgerald Sherman

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Getting Life Under Control

Hiring a housekeeper as a money-saving strategy is an outlandish idea to most of us. But, as I discovered while researching my book, A Housekeeper Is Cheaper Than a Divorce: Why You Can Afford to Hire Help and How to Get It, hiring domestic help may actually be the best economic decision for a family.

Conflicts over housework are rapidly joining the "big two" causes of arguments (sex and money) in two-career families. Household chores which include tasks like grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, ironing, daily tidy-up, and heavy cleaning average 35 hours a week in families with children, a burden that is borne disproportionately by women whether or not they work outside the home. After trying, and failing, to get their husbands to take on an equal share of this workload, women are paying the price through increased stress levels, loss of leisure time, and damage to their marriages because of rising levels of anger and resentment towards their spouses.

The good news? Delegating the "third job that nobody has time to do" to a paid employee is an idea whose time has come. Although hiring domestic help is not free and the days of exploiting the "servant class" by paying artificially depressed wages through legally sanctioned job discrimination are far behind us you might find such a move makes sense for your family.

What to consider? First, calculate how much unpaid household work you're doing now (enumerate the tasks and make a time estimate for each one) and identify which of those would be easy to delegate because they require little decision-making. For example, closet cleaning involves dozens of decisions so isn't a good chore to delegate. But housecleaning, a straightforward task, is. Meal planning requires knowing the family's schedule and food preferences, so may not be the best chore to delegate. But an employee can cook from a well-written recipe.

Second, identify the new opportunities that would be possible if you had more free time. Could you earn more income? Further your education? Spend more time with loved ones? Improve your health?

What can you save by hiring help? If your new employee will cook, you'll save the high cost of the take-out food you rely on in a time crunch. You might even save the cost of marriage counseling if conflicts over housework have led you to a professional's office.

Next, ask yourself what it costs you not to hire the help you need. What are your health problems costing you? What will they cost you in the future if you don t get them under control now? What about your child's school problems? Maybe more time with you is what's really needed. What about the resentment that's building between you and your spouse? As the title of my book reminds us, a housekeeper is cheaper than a divorce.

Now research the cost of hiring the help you need. Since the going rate for housekeepers varies geographically, find out the norm in your area by calling a few "domestic help wanted" ads in your local newspaper and asking what's being offered. Be sure to add a ten percent allowance for employment taxes.

Some of the cost savings and benefits you've identified are concrete and measurable, while others are intangible. Subtract the tangible benefits and savings from your new housekeeper's salary expense. The difference your actual cash outlay should be weighed against the intangible benefits of hiring help.

If your money is tight, you may want to consider making some lifestyle changes to buy yourself this gift of time. If you smoke, how much help could you afford if you kicked the habit? What if you drove a less expensive car or moved to a simpler home? Survey after survey indicates most of us would rather have more time than more money. Yet, through our chosen lifestyles, many of us have prioritized standard of living over quality of life.

Conventional wisdom tells us household help is a luxury for the wealthy. But one of the most effective time-management techniques is actually a money-management technique: Pay someone else to do the tasks you don't want to do, so you're free to do what really matters and what you do well. Break the vicious cycle of spending for luxury items that don t free up your time and then having to work harder and longer to pay for them. Instead, spend your money on tools that will help you build the life you've dreamed of. Now that's the real luxury.

Kathy Fitzgerald Sherman is the author of A Housekeeper Is Cheaper Than a Divorce: Why You Can Afford to Hire Help and How to Get It

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