"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Time/Money Conundrum (Hello Housewives!)

I wish I could find a certain essay I wrote several years ago. As part of my great unfinished memoir about my and Homero's quest to get married despite the best efforts of the U.S. government ("an epic story of love, separation, and reunion; spanning all of North America and the third part of a decade") I wrote a few pages about what happens to my husband when he crosses the Mexican border.

Succinctly put, the relative value and time and money suddenly switches places. In the states, for him as for most of us, time is worth more than money. I wrote the essay in the context of a long-ass roadtrip (from Vancouver B.C. to Oaxaca, Mexico, by way of Atlanta, GA and Tucson, AZ.). The example I gave - though there were many to choose from - was that whenever we needed food, Homero would never venture beyond the McDonald's on the off-ramp. For the same amount of money, if we had chosen to drive three miles into town and go to a grocery store, we could have bought five times the food; but no, that would be spending precious time. Better to spend twenty bucks to buy a single meal that only cost us ten minutes than to spend thirty minutes on a meal that cost five bucks. The rest of us can surely relate: if time were not worth more than money there would be no such thing as Merry Maids.

But once in Mexico, everything changed. Suddenly, my husband reverted to the value-scale of his childhood, wherein there was always an excess of time and/or manpower, but a critical shortage of money. Therefore, all of a sudden, it made sense to spend an hour and a half driving around and around some dusty one-horse Mexican town looking to save a few pesos on breakfast. Can you guess how crazy it made me, trying to adapt to these sudden switches? No, I'm afraid you can't.

I haven't read the latest book making the homesteading/DIY circuit "Bake the Bread, Buy the Butter," which attempts to quantify the time spent vs. money saved of dozens of different household tasks such as (duh) bread and butter making, making your own laundry soap, etc. However, I engage in such calculations every day, as, I'm sure, does just about every housewife in America. I find that my calculations have changed lately. In the "new economy" (read: depression) most of us find that sending out for pizza is a bigger deal than it used to be.

It used to seem that spending $40 or so on two large pizzas and a salad and a 2 liter of coke was a small price to pay for not having to cook dinner - for the sixth or seventh time that week. It just wasn't that big a deal: it didn't have moral connotations. These days I feel guilty if I send out for pizza - and not just (as I used to) for feeding my kids crap. Now I feel guilty for spending money when I could work for an hour and make a better meal at home. Does it matter that I'm tired? After all, that same $40 is a visit to the dentist for one of my kids (on the sliding scale, of course). Do I even have the right to spend a child's dentist visit on delivery pizza just because I'm tired? How fucking tired can I be? I don't have a goddamn job!

Well, that's what I've been raised to believe, anyway. In actual fact, I work some six to eight hours a day doing work that, if it were compensated at fair market value, would earn me some $134,000 a year ( Business of Life: The "Business" Value of What Housewives Do That We Take For Granted). That's according to U.S. government figures, and yes, it does seem inflated, even to me. I don't know if that's because I don't work as hard as the "average" housewife (likely) or if I've been so thoroughly brainwashed that I devalue my own labor even more than my husband does. I can say for certain that he doesn't think the work I do is worth $134,000 a year, considering that he puts in equal or longer hours doing much more technically skilled work (auto mechanics) and makes less than one third of that amount.

But all of that is "ordinary" mom-housewife work such as child care, bookkeeping, chaffuering, time management, cleaning, tutoring, and all that sort of thing. My personal calculations as the chatelaine of a functioning homestead have to include things like: what is the optimum number of chickens to keep to provide the greatest egg:feed ratio? How much time gardening does it make sense to spend? Given that gardening is a task that could easily expand to take up all my free time, and some of the products (i.e. raspberries) are ridiculously expensive whereas others (potatoes) are equally ridiculously cheap?

Is it worth it to raise a pig, or two pigs, or to breed pigs? Beyond the penny per pound price (Meat Math) how do you put a value on wading out through the knee-deep pig shit day after ever-loving day? For that matter, how do you put a specific value on avoiding partaking of meat produced in the hell of the factory farm system? What price conscience?

Should I buy new clothes for my kids? The calculations involved in this one seemingly simple question become overwhlming. New clothes that I can afford are manufactured by other children, in Guatemala or Palestine. Can I stand to dress my children in other children's sweat? My answer has so far been to buy secondhand, which involves a great deal of extra time spent sorting through enormous racks in warehouse sized secondhand stores. Time which could theoretically be spent in more productive ways...

As usual, I've started out with a theme and ended up with a buttload of questions to which I have no answers. My life seems to be made of questions. If anyone has any answers - or possible answers - or more questions ...


AnyEdge said...

I know you're not fond of advanced mathematics, but the Analytical Heirarchy Process was designed tohandle exactly these types of questions. It's a matrix based algorithm that is precisely designed to handle money vs. time type tradeoffs.

It was invented by Thomas Saaty, with whom I've corresponded. He's at least two generations our senior. Check it out here: http://www.sbuf.se/ProjectArea/Documents/ProjectDocuments/06F167EF-B243-48ED-8C45-F7466B3136EB%5CWebPublishings%5CHow%20to%20make%20decision%20AHP.pdf

AnyEdge said...

Sorry, let's try that again: Try it out here.

Hope said...

Thanks. I doubt I'll be able to
Make heads or tails of it, but I will go check it out.

Gail V said...

Your blog posts keep me endlessly entertained. You think like I do--and do much of what I do. I am the household calculator here, too, same decisions-- and it's going ok (oh, and I probably have 20 years on you).
Thus, I state, you are on the right track, not to worry. 'course there are all of those pesky "could happen"s. All the best to you, m'dear. BTW, DH is a mathematician, but does he apply it in any practical way? (no)