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How to decide when it’s worth it to throw money at a problem

Sometimes, the cost of doing something yourself is more expensive than paying for some help. Here’s how to figure out when that’s true for you.

How to decide when it’s worth it to throw money at a problem
[Photo: Pablo Heimplatz/Unsplash]

Life is full of tolerations that could go away if we just spent some money on them. But whether you’re cash-strapped or chronically frugal, those expenditures can seem impossible—or, at least, hard to justify. For example, you know you could convert that spare bedroom into a guest room or office if you could just find a free weekend. And why pay to hire someone to clean the house when you can just do it yourself?

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Sometimes, these questions need to be considered in a bigger context, says Harvard Business School professor Ashley Whillans, author of the forthcoming book TimeSmart: How to Reclaim Your Time and Live a Happier Life. Even when money is scarce, you need to consider an even more important resource: time. Whillans’ research found that outsourcing tasks you don’t like promotes happiness.

“If you go from doing it not at all to doing it at least a little, that’s going to produce a happiness increase about the equivalent of about making $10,000 more of household income per year. So it’s not trivial,” she says.

Assuming you have the means, consider these other costs and considerations before you decide whether or not a task is worth outsourcing:

Time cost

Fully 80% of people feel like they don’t have enough time to do all the things they want to do in a day, Whillans says. When you consider how much of your happiness you sacrifice for work, chores, or other activities, sometimes you realize that something’s got to change.

“We call this the Marie Kondo method of time use,” she says. “You want to be thinking about maximizing positive experiences and minimizing negative experiences in your day. That’s what labor economists call maximizing your you index. You want to spend a greater proportion of time in positive activities and less time in negative activities.”

So, think about the value of your time. How much would or could you spend to get that time back versus what would you pay to get the help you need to reclaim that time?

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Quality of life cost

The impact of tolerating inconveniences or excessive demands takes a toll on your happiness and well-being, says Brent Weiss, chief evangelist at financial advisory firm Facet Wealth. “The value of your time comes down to different things,” he says. “It costs X to do it, what am I giving up by actually doing that project myself? Is there some other kind of value that it can create by having someone else do it, so I can go focus on things that really are more important and matter most to me?”

If the situation is causing you to suffer or affecting your life or relationships, then finding a way to address it may be worth the investment now.

Opportunity cost

What are you giving up to save money? When you start to think about that question, you may find that frugality is the wrong decision, says George Kroustalis, senior vice president, financial adviser at wealth management firm CAPTRUST, and author of Secrets to Becoming a Financial Badass.

Let’s say you decline an invitation to a Saturday charity event because that’s the day you cut your lawn. If you don’t do your lawn, you could actually get fined by the town because of municipal ordinances. However, you know that there will be some community business leaders at the event who could potentially be great contacts for your career or business. Hiring someone to do that chore for you could free up time you use in a way that will pay long-term benefits.

Return on investment

Whillans suggestions looking at the potential return of various expenditures. For example, a student in one of her classes listened to her theories on the true cost of time and, despite being a student with limited financial resources, he bought a used bike. Instead of walking to class each day, the bike saved him 10 to 20 minutes each time he commuted, allowing him to take back more of his time. He also bought an automatic coffee maker that he could program to brew in the morning. The coffee maker acted as an alarm clock, as well as allowing him to skip the trip to the local coffee shop.

On a larger scale, think about how various upgrades could pay off. Perhaps an apartment closer to work could save you time and commuting expense, for example.

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Offsetting costs

When you spend money to outsource something, you may be saving money elsewhere, so consider those costs when you’re calculating your spend, Whillans advises. For example, if you think you can’t afford to take an Uber to work once a week, think about the costs associated with driving. The IRS mileage rate is 57.5 cents per mile, which are the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile, such as gas, wear and tear, etc. as well as the cost of parking and other commute-related costs. Once you deduct such “offsetting” costs, you may find that the true cost of the expenditure is less than you think.

Partial cost

Finally, “all or nothing” isn’t the only option. Sometimes, you can find ways to use the services you need occasionally to give yourself a break or take advantage of another opportunity. While Whillans says she likes the feeling of control that comes from day-to-day cleaning, she hates deep cleaning her home and hires service to do so once a month. Finding partial options that give you some of your time back can be a great solution, too, she says.

As part of your evaluation, look for other ways to save that will allow you to invest where it matters, she says. For example, ruthlessly evaluate your current spending and cut out buying things that don’t help you live better. Finding ways to barter—helping a friend or partner with something they hate to do in exchange for you taking on one of their obligations—can help you get out of tasks that are unpleasant, Weiss suggests. Prioritizing what you want to offload and creating a plan to afford the help you need or want is also a good place to start, Kroustalis says.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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