Why I’m Not Sure I Like Paying the Bills, AKA The Externalities of Housework

We recently answered readers’ questions on the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog, and one question has stayed with me:

How do you weigh the value of physical chores — such as laundry folding and snow shoveling — vs. psychological chores — such as planning the college application process and keeping teenagers on task for school? As the one with the psychological list, I find it is never done — and so I am never free to relax. And frequently annoyed with my partner when he is “done” with his physical tasks.

I thought of this question tonight as I was opening a stack of mail, paying bills, filing our life-insurance policies in my nifty accordian file and scanning for anomalies on our online bank statement. While I was doing this, my husband was assembling a meat grinder/sausage maker my brother gave him for his birthday (I know, don’t ask) and turning a pork loin into Italian sausages with porcini mushrooms, bacon and garlic.

I didn’t want his job. Those sausage casings were intense, and grinding meat is gnarly (though I’ll admit, the final results were delicious). But when his job was over, it was over. In contrast, I haven’t stopped thinking about our finances, or the fact that we recently bought a house and wiped out our savings and now have no cushion, or that tax time is fast approaching, or why our cell phone bill is so damn high, or whether the electric company is SURE we owe $350.

It’s the curse of the psychological chore, those chores that come with what economists might call externalities, or side-effects that you failed to consider. The classic example is a factory that pollutes, affecting all those people who live near the factory. That pollution isn’t considered when factory owners calculate the costs and benefits of building new plants and local governments weigh whether to grant the necessary permits (in reality, the pollution probably is considered and everyone just ignores it for decades until the town files a class-action lawsuit after everyone starts growing third nipples).

But getting back to my house. I handle the bills and most of the finances because I think I have the comparative advantage in them. I’m better at the money stuff than other things like washing the car and cleaning the stove. I’m good with deadlines; my husband’s good with details.

And yet for all my fancy-pants cost-benefit analyses, I forgot about externalities! I forgot about the polluting effects of the bills–the way they bury into my psyche and leave behind a steaming pile of anxiety. My husband is spared from all this. He can mop, make sausages and vacuum the back seat, then spend the rest of the day thinking of rainbows (somehow I’m sure he’d disagree with this–but hey, that’s what the comment section is for!).

Point is, don’t make the same mistake I made. When dividing the labor, consider ALL the costs and benefits, not just the obvious ones.

Posted in housework

9 Responses to Why I’m Not Sure I Like Paying the Bills, AKA The Externalities of Housework

  1. Sam says:

    I wish life was as simple as this article makes it out to be. In our household, we both are involved in tasks described. In other words, whoever is available or “free” to take on a task, that partner does it. If my wife has no time to cook, I do it. If I have no time to pay bills, she does it. The opposite is true as well. Is the work divided evenly? Not sure -we never take time to measure who does what. It also is not important. What is important is that both get the job done, and as well have some time for themselves. That makes for a relatively happy marriage where no one feels “taken advantage of.”

  2. r dupree says:

    I just discovered your book/website and have been following with some amusement the “division of labor”. Since we are coming up on our 44th anniversary, I thought an old geezers opinion might add something. From day one she, an accountant, has handled the money. I brought the check home and she made it last. For the first six years she was at home until the children started school and then to regain her sanity went to work part time and later full time. Every other chore was done by whoever had nothing to do. Now that we are retired the set division is this: she handles the money. I cook and cleanup afterward 99% of the time because I enjoy it and am fast (we owned neighborhood bars/restaurants/nightclubs until we reached the point where we could quit working at age 60). The other stuff is handled as usual. If something needs doing we do simply do it. It’s sort of like plugging holes in a leaky ship.

  3. Always cleaning. . . says:

    I’m not entirely sure that this analogy to externalities is conceptually correct. A negative externality occurs when the social cost is greater than the private cost (a private actor is not forced to absorb the full cost of their consumption or production, and therefore he or she over produces/consumes). So I don’t think constant anxiety over ongoing tasks counts because you still have to absorb the full cost even if they weren’t accounted for when you bargained for the division of labor. Even so, you may experience more costs than you anticipated because they anxiety is a spillover and maybe you should consider renegotiating to even some of the responsibilities given the unforeseen costs.

    Something I think is a good example of an externality is one that arises out of division of labor – when one person does all of the cleaning, the non-cleaner does not have to absorb any of the cost of his/her mess and therefore has less of an incentive to contain it (i.e. I tend to do the majority of the dishes, and I notice that I generate far fewer of them).

    • BenG says:

      I couldn’t agree more – there’s no clear externality here, just an under estimate of the full costs of the psychological work. But explain to me this, I do the budgeting, but spend as if I had little incentive to ‘keep it under control’. Is something lacking in the incentive framework, or am I irrational?

      • Paula says:

        you are irrational! no, actually, you sound extremely well-balanced. being able to manage the budget but not be constantly worrying about money seems fairly healthy to me (but you’re talking to someone who is still stressing, four days, later, about buying prescription sunglasses–talk about a luxury). I’m going to concede on the externality issue you and “always cleaning” raise, in the sense that it’s not generally a social cost. It does, however, occasionally become a social cost when the spillover anxiety from paying bills spills over into the house and all over my husband. for example, just this week he wanted to invest some money in a start-up business. i’m so anxious about our finances that my immediate response was no way, which led to a discussion, which led to an argument, which led to a lengthy negotiation the following day. point is, there was definitely a cost to him.

    • I’m in the same boat as BenG–doing the budget–only, my lack of concern for reigning in our spending comes from the fact that I am not the main breadwinner in our family, I think, despite the fact that I handle the finances. Hubs works more than I do, and is more concerned about spending :D

  4. Jeff says:

    Those sausages sound fantastic!

  5. Pingback: Who Does What? Not Always So Simple | Spousonomics

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