Money Can't Buy You Happiness...Or Can It?

New research shows that money spent on freeing up more time from chores you hate is money well spent. And one stay-at-home mama says the research is dead right.
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If you look up the term "hot mess" in the dictionary, I'm fairly certain you'll find a picture of me circa spring 2011. I had just given birth to our third child—14 months after giving birth to our second child—and was so sleep-deprived, I could have been mistaken for Gary Busey's mugshot twin. My days were spent changing diapers, feeding babies, walking the dog, and trying to play with my then-five-year-old to ease the guilt I now felt after giving her two little brothers in a row. My husband, equally sleep-deprived, spent his days at work, earning money we would eventually use to order dinner because neither he nor I felt like firing up the stove and cooking.

Our house and yard didn't look any better than we did. There were toys atop a thick layer of dust, formula stains on the couches, and dog hair on the area rugs. Outside, the grass was approaching jungle status. For some, this wouldn't be a problem. For my husband Ben and I, both individuals who hate clutter, it was a nightmare. We tried dividing chores, but we were too tired to complete them. We tried doing overhauls over the weekend but didn't want to spend all our free time wiping down toilets. We realized that we needed help.

Help came in the form of outsourcing. First, we hired a landscaper to mow and trim our lawn. That gave us our first sigh of relief. Sure, money was tight, but we did the math and found that it really wasn't bad, especially when we considered the tradeoff: all the free time we would be getting.

We applied that same logic inside the house soon after. After researching costs, I approached him one evening and pitched getting a house cleaner. Turns out, having someone come in once every two weeks would cost us no more than two of our usual too-tired-to-cook orders out. He mulled it over, crunched the numbers, and told me to go for it. Again, the time we'd gain was well worth the money spent.

We're not alone in our thinking. A study recently published in PNAS and featured in The Washington Post found that people who pay others to complete mundane household tasks, often ones they don't like to perform themselves, have reported more satisfaction with their lives. Social psychologist Ashley Whillans and her team surveyed over 6,000 respondents across four countries and found that regardless of marital status, number of children and household income, those who regularly outsourced tasks they abhor and freed up more time to do things they like to be doing were found to be overwhelmingly more satisfied with life. It turns out that money, when spent correctly, can buy happiness—or at least it can help eliminate some of the stress blocking it.

When I first approached Ben about hiring someone, I felt horrible. Here I was, perfectly capable of dusting and polishing and was, after all, home all day. As any parent knows, however, being home doesn't necessarily mean time spent "being" anything—it's usually spent "doing" something. When I was feeding or bathing the boys, I'd look around at my messy house and feel guilty for not having a spotless home. When I was folding laundry or wiping down the counters, I'd feel guilty about not playing dolls with my eldest. It was a lose-lose situation. Hiring outsiders to come in and help was one of the best decisions we've ever made. We no longer fight over the length of the grass or the dust bunnies accumulating under the couch; we know that will all be taken care of in due time. For us, the peace of mind these services provide us far outweighs the monetary cost.

In my case, I figured that as a parent, I'm going to feel guilty about something no matter what. If I could eliminate a fraction of that guilt for a small fee, why wouldn't I? I choose to use those four hours that I could have spent deep cleaning my house doing something else, something that makes me happy. And I'm helping out the economy at the same time. 

Outsourcing brings me more joy than a one-and-done physical purchase does. I still like to buy things; I just like to have more time to do things I like to do more. I'd rather spend my time in the backyard playing catch with the kids rather than mowing it, on their bedroom floor building Lego castles instead of cleaning them up, and playing fetch with the dog rather than focusing on the drool and hair he just deposited on my couch.

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Our third child went into kindergarten this past fall. For a brief moment, I considered whether or not we should give up the house cleaner. It would be nice to have the extra money, after all. Then I remembered the arguments and guilt and quickly decided that I'd rather have a perfectly clean house one day every two weeks rather than anything I could buy at Target for the same amount. To me, happiness is measured not only in smiles and laughter, but also in hours and minutes. And I'd gladly pay someone to have more of the latter.

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