Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Buying Time

As I mentioned in my last weekend reading post, Liz over at Mom-101 had an excellent post last week asking "What don't you do?"- i.e., when you "do it all" what actually doesn't get done? When I thought about my answer to that question, I realized that a lot of the things I don't do are things where I "buy time".

I've written before about how having enough money to buy some conveniences is one of the things that I think makes me a happy working mom. In fact, buying time is one of my favorite things to do with my money these days. When I did the time tracking exercise as part of my "life reorg", I was horrified by the amount of time I was spending on chores, so I set out to find more ways to buy time, using some of the ideas in the 168 hours book and also some ideas of my own. Some of the ideas didn't work for us- for instance, grocery delivery didn't end up saving any time. But, I think the basic premise is sound, and I am still looking for new ideas. So I thought I'd post a list of some of the ways I buy time, and see if any of you have new ideas for me.
  • The biggie is the housecleaning service. We've recently decided to increase the frequency and get the cleaners to come every other week instead of once a month. This was a result of our big argument about chores. I finally convinced Hubby that it just isn't worth the money we save to try to do the cleaning ourselves- either it doesn't get done, or one of us thinks the other is slacking and we waste time and energy arguing over it. We still do some touch up cleaning and a smattering of "deep cleaning" chores, but soon, I won't have to worry about who is going to dust or clean the bathrooms.
  • I buy a lot of things on Amazon. Really. I rarely go to Target, or even the drug store, anymore. I signed up for Amazon Mom, which gets me free Prime shipping as long as I keep buying things like baby lotion and toddler wipes. I was reluctant to sign up at first- I was sure there would be a catch. There isn't, as far as I can tell, and I am glad I signed up. Here is a list of some of the things I've bought on Amazon in the last few months:
    • A new watch (my last one fell off at some point and I didn't notice)
    • Art supply boxes to organize the abundance of crayons, markers, and stamps Pumpkin now owns. I think I'm going to buy another one and a matching box for papers.
    • Princess band-aids. God forbid we run out of these.
    • Markers and a book of mazes for a birthday gift for a day care buddy.
    • The Paper Bag Princess, which I paired with a princess coloring book for a birthday gift for another day care buddy.
    • A Farm Animal Train Set to add to Pumpkin's train empire (a birthday gift for her).
    • The Brome 1055 Squirrel Buster Mini, because Petunia likes to watch birds in our backyard, and the stupid big birds broke our last feeder.
    • Quick Fix Meals- to add some variety to our meal rotation.
    • Biokleen Bac-Out Stain & Odor Eliminator. We relied on this product heavily during Pumpkin's potty refusal stage, and have now discovered that its pretty good at getting out various food stains, too.
    • A fishie bath mat so that we could start giving Petunia baths in the big tub with her big sister, allowing us to consolidate down to one bath time.
    • I could go on, but you get the idea. Just about the only thing I won't buy on Amazon is clothes for me- it rarely turns out well.
  • I don't clip coupons or compare prices across different grocery stores. We go to the store nearest our house and the only coupons I use are the ones the store gives us. We do a Costco run once every couple months or so, mainly for beer, diapers, graham crackers (still beloved by both my girls), and various paper products. And we go to Trader Joe's about once a month, too, since they make the only American breakfast cereal Hubby likes and they stock New Zealand cheddar cheese (which is very tasty- try it sometime).
  • I make use of a variety of convenience foods- as I outlined in an earlier post.
  • I'll pay more for things like frying pans and dishwashers to simplify kitchen cleanup. I still love my scanpan and dishwasher.
I am very aware of how lucky I am to be able to buy time like this. I know a lot of people think that it is hard to combine motherhood with a career in science or other demanding field, but I think the working mothers who have it the hardest are the ones working in jobs that don't pay enough to allow them to buy a little time, particularly since those jobs often also don't have paid time off and flexible schedules. When we discuss policy changes that might make the life of the working mother a little less stressful, we need to be sure we don't forget about those women. Buying time won't buy our way out of the family-unfriendly policy mess we have now.

But I also hear women whom I know are as well-off as I am say that they can't afford some of the things I do. That may be true- just like you never really know what is going on inside someone else's marriage, you never know the true state of someone else's finances. However, there are choices I make that compensate a bit for my refusal to clip coupons or comparison shop. As I mentioned in my comment on Liz's post, I don't get manicures or pedicures. Heck, I don't even paint my nails. I don't see the point. I only manage to get my hair cut about three times a year, and I use Suave shampoo and conditioner and Pantene hair gel (each about $2-3 per bottle)- and I swear I can't tell the difference from when I used to use the expensive stuff from my salon. I'll admit that my hair could use slightly more frequent trims, but a braid works well for the last month or so before I finally get around to going in for a cut. I don't have a huge wardrobe, and I tend to buy with an eye for quality and styles that will last.

It is all about choices, really, and the right choices will be different for every individual. But I think we have to own our choices and be aware of the trade offs we're making. There is an old adage in project management and software development- you can have two of the following: fast, good, and cheap. In any project, you have to find the combination that makes the most sense for the situation: what is fast enough, good enough, and cheap enough to make the project a success? I think something similar applies to working motherhood. You have to balance between time with the kids, money, and time for all the other things in your life. The balance you come up with will depend on your situation, but it will always be a balance.

So what's the balance in your house? Do you buy time? If so, how?


    1. I am struggling with this now. We are in the process of buying a house (so, so different than buying in the US); we will incur more house expenses (mortgage more than rent, higher taxes, utility bills, etc) come summer.

      So I am considering taking my kids out of after school care--this means they will be home at 1:30. This seems potentially idiotic to me, because recently I have had plenty of work. But the work doesn't pay all that well, and having my kids home from 1:30 to 4 represents the difference between rent and mortgage payments.

      What it boils down to is that I am going to have to take my kids grocery shopping with me. *cries and huddles into fetal position*

      But if I can get better paying assignments I would love cleaning help. It sounds idiotic, but I simply am just not that good at cleaning/organizing.

    2. This is a great post- I totally agree that a well-paying job and the luxury to buy time goes a long way towards making work and parenting work. I buy time by
      a. living a 5 minute bike ride from work. This hood is expensive, and even with our relatively high salaries we've had to get a place that is at times a bit small for the 4 of us. I guess we save on gas and only have 1 car, but it's still a net expense.
      b. cleaner every 2 weeks
      c. a nanny who watches the boys from 12:30-5:00 every day. They still nap for 1-2 hours, and during that time she does some dinner prep (chops veggies) and laundry folding.
      d. except for really big purchases, minimal comparison shopping- just buy from the closest place when we're there. No coupons.
      The problem I find is my husband is sometimes slow to catch on to the time = money equation, and will for example choose to borrow a trailer (and hook it up, return it) to pick up a massive load of soil in two trips rather than have it delivered for $30. He hates to buy when he can make it himself, which I can relate to, but... to a point.

    3. Love this post! We also have cleaners come every two weeks. It's a life saver (both time and arguments). We don't bargain or comparison shop, and we don't buy things that can't go in the dishwasher or have to be dry cleaned. We'll get movies off of our "on-demand" channels even though they're more expensive than going to the rental store. DH buys tools he needs for household projects rather than renting or borrowing. We usually just buy new items instead of getting them fixed.

      I'm sure there are more, but I can't think of anything right now. It's definitely nice to have the ability to do these things though!

    4. Great post. My husband and I always talk about tasks in the "time vs. money" context because we both work in fields where we bill hourly (or in my case, in 6 minute increments) so we are VERY aware of what our time is worth. We're in the process of buying a larger house and my husband's response to the increased mortgage payment was (okay, I'll just bill 2 more hours a month). And it really is that simple for him.

      We have a cleaner who comes weekly and does our laundry. When we want "fast food" we generally order from somewhere nicer that will deliver.

      We buy from the closest grocery store (although it is the most expensive in the area). We pay people to do our taxes (although we are capable of doing it ourselves).

      Also, a great time saver for me is using our great library system here - I never have to go in and look for books for me - every time a I hear about a new book that sounds good, I just order it online and the library emails me went it is at my local branch. No more aimless browsing, and an easy way to keep track of all the great book recommendations I get.

      I don't buy a lot of stuff for us online - but I always buy gifts for other people on amazon because I can have it wrapped and delivered direct, saving me the trip to the store and the subsequent trip to the post office.

    5. There are a couple of ways we buy time at my house. The biggest one: we moved from a major US city to Podunkville, which bought us loads of time in terms of the pay, vacation benefits, and lifestyle.

      I also buy time by being pretty organized. I used a lot of the tips in "Getting Things Done" (writing it down, doing things now if it will take less than 2 min, keeping a folder of things I'm waiting for from others) which has created more free time for me to do the things I enjoy, like reading cool blogs such as this one.

      We occasionally splurge on long meals out at nice restaurants, especially when we're on vacation. But we balance that by eating at home most of the other time.

      Shopping at thrift stores and accepting hand-me downs on kids' clothes also saves us $. We don't have a cleaning person, but have accepted that our house is going to be a bit dirtier/dustier than The Joneses. What we'll do if it is out of control is host a party so we are forced to deal with the mess.

    6. This post really resonated with me. I know, that even with my limited budget, I have managed to spend the money I do have in ways that free up more of my time to spend with Tate - because that is my priority. While I curse the fact that I have to scrub our tubs, it is THE chore I can't stand, Tate and I spent an hour yesterday playing while I finally put away all my laundry and put clean sheets on my bed. An hour I might not have if we didn't live where we do or he didn't go to school where he does. Cash poor, time rich I guess we'd call our little family of two. :)

    7. Yes yes yes. Whenever we start getting overwhelmed, we pull out our budget and see if there's any place where we are able to throw money at the problem in order to free up time for other stuff. We do everything on your list, without apology.

      I do LOVE grocery delivery, though. Placing the order online is a bit time consuming, but I can do it at night after the kids are asleep, so it uses "different" time than going to the store would take. Then I have it delivered in the evening between when I get home from work and when the kids go to bed, when I'm at home anyway. I do my usual evening stuff, I put away the groceries when they arrive, then I resume what I was doing.

      I don't do all groceries this way, but once a month or so I do a big order of anything bulky or non-perishable, which means that my normal trips to the grocery store are just for produce and meats, so they go very quickly. It ends up being a huge time saver for us.

    8. I have been begging my husband to let us hire a cleaning service, because to date, about 98% of our fights (pre-and post-baby) have been about my lack of cleaning ability. What can I say, I'd rather spend my time on anything else than mopping.

      I do buy time in a lot of ways though:
      1. we don't do coupons or comparison shopping. We shop at our local (more expensive) store because it's 2 minutes from our house.
      2. We buy gas wherever we see it. In Southern California, this can hurt, but I'd rather get gas and move on than look for a cheaper spot
      3. I not only buy convenience foods, fast food, and delivery, there are days when I shout their praises from the rooftops.
      4. We pay to have my son in daycare one day a week (and when he turns 2, 2 days a week) so that my husband who is home with him can have a full work day. Annoying, but necessary.

      There are others, but the gist is--I totally believe that there are times and places where spending money to give yourself time is the best thing you can do.

    9. We've gone the extreme route. My husband quit his job so that we would have extra time - so we're basically spending his entire former salary in order to have a whole person's worth of time. Small person is in full-time daycare, this was really just for us in order to have time. We're living in a very small space, don't own a car, I walk to school every day, we don't buy any convenience foods, vacations are just to visit family, home haircuts, hand-me-down clothes & library books. So I guess this is almost the opposite of what you're describing, but the end goal is really the same - we're trading money for time. And oh boy is the time ever worth it!

    10. I'm big into buying time (as you know!) Many of us could make more money if we tried. None of us can make more time. So things we can do ourselves aren't necessarily free, even if they're cashless, because they have an opportunity cost in time spent. The question is whether that price in time is one you're willing to spend when you look at it objectively.

    11. Anonymous11:38 AM

      Hubby and I really like the idea of buying time. As soon as we get some more credit cards and student loans paid down, we're getting a cleaning service and taking advantage of a few more conveniences. I'd really like to get our groceries delivered, but I haven't checked out the cost yet.

      For now, we do soooo much on Amazon through their Mommy program. And then Hubby makes a once-monthly trip to CostCo, and he picks up a lot of pre-made dinners in their refrigerated section.

      Hubby is also the comparison shopper in our family; he figures out where our big purchases (some food, diapers, etc...) will be the cheapest. Then he sets up automatic purchases for the online choices (diapers from Amazon were the best deal he found).

      Our coffee also comes automatically so that we don't have to remember...but we spend more on Gevalia since I'm a coffee snob. ;)

    12. the milliner7:16 PM

      We do a lot of the things mentioned. Except maybe the convenience foods. Kind of. Until recently we pretty much always made meals from scratch. We love food and cooking. But, we used to eat very late. Now that we are trying to eat as a family, it's just not possible.

      I think I've perhaps discovered the magic formula for us in being able to eat at 6 or 6:30 every night, and eating the kind of meals we like to eat:

      -1 night frozen leftovers (spaghetti sauce, indian curry, etc. things we tend to make big batches of anyhow),
      -1 night something 'ready to eat' from the grocery store - a roast chicken or middle east 'tapas' of hummus, cheese, olives, pita, grilled veggies, etc. (if only I could find falafel somewhere on our route!!),
      -2 nights of cooking from scratch meals - one of them possibly in the slow cooker, and
      -1 night of leftovers

      I've used the system for 2 weeks now and it's working pretty well. We still get to eat the food we love, but prep time is WAY down. It took me a long time to figure that one out.

      The area DH and I don't quite agree yet is regarding dog walking. I think we should alternate the morning walks and late night pees, and have a dog walker do our late afternoon/early evening walk during the week. I totally think of it as a case of buying time to do both basic chores and fun stuff on weeknights. But he sees it as failing our dog.

      Housecleaner is also on our list, so that's definitely more of a priority than a dog walker.

    13. We shop over the internet for biggish appliances ( printer, iron etc), but unlike hubby I love going to the shops, although it is not always possible to find the time to do so.

      My main time suck is travel to work. I work 4.5 hours 4 days a week and spend 3 hours travelling on work days. If I didn't do anything productive with that time I would feel guilty and just a little depressed actually. I make sure I have my kindle with me and get through a book a weeek which I wouldn't otherwise be able to read at home.

      My MIL is our biggest time saver though. She helps us in too many ways to count providing a baby-sitting service regularly and (dare I admit to this?) even the occaasional cleaning serivce when we are away on holidays.

    14. YES. And more yeses!

      My eyes were opened one summer when I talked with Betsey Stevenson (famous economist) at a conference. She is a huge proponent of the personal assistant. Even when you don't have kids.

      She talked about how she has someone who takes care of all the details of her life... including putting cordless phones back on their bases. You can purchase "a wife."

      Now, we don't have quite the money for all of that and our positions aren't quite so high powered... but it was an eye-opening concept.

      When I got back from the conference I immediately hired a student to do all the things on our to-do list that had gone undone for years. Taking stuff to recycling, goodwill, etc. It was so freeing! It took maybe 20 hours of the student's time and $200 of our money and was like a huge burden had been lifted.

      Buying time is (for us) well worth not traveling on vacations or buying fancy clothing or cars etc. Every economy we make is worth having that freedom to us.

    15. I buy time too as much as I can... same things already mentioned like the cleaning service, shopping at the one grocery store, etc. The problem is that I really LIKE shopping. Its more fun to browse around and take my time than restricting myself to one store or shopping online. But I try to find balance. I still drive to the farther mall with better stores when I need work clothes for myself. But for everything else, I don't.

      I still say though that the money we pay our house cleaners is the best money we spend. I wouldn't give that up easily!

    16. I use a housecleaning service and they are a lifesaver. They come every other week, and if it weren't for them the bathrooms would never ever be cleaned.

      My husband just last week hired a lawn service for the summer. I've been urging him to do that for years--otherwise, he has to spend an entire Saturday or Sunday afternoon mowing the lawn each week. He spends a precious half day on a task he doesn't enjoy, the kids don't get to see him, and I'm resentful. We can afford it, so why not pay someone else to do it?

      We also use convenience pre-frozen foods. Costco frozen foods are awesome. Their frozen potstickers are a staple at my house, most of their frozen pastas are good, and I like their frozen appetizers, too. We've experimented with a meal delivery service and with "Dream Dinners"-type services (where you go to a store and pre-assemble frozen meals according to their recipes), but didn't much care for them.

      the milliner's weekly meal plan is very close to ours. We usually cook two or more meals over the weekend so as to have leftovers for the week. I ruthlessly freeze away leftovers so there is usually something in the deep freeze that can be thawed if needed. Emergency dinners are the aforementioned Costco potstickers, egg omelettes (Asian-style, with soy sauce and sugar) and pigs-in-blankets. We also have a rice cooker that can be programmed ahead of time, so I set that before I leave for work in the morning.

    17. @ the milliner - "But he sees it as failing our dog." That is too funny. :) I guess mommy guilt isn't limited to moms and children, huh?


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