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.