Invisible Family Economics: The Value of Money Not Spent

When I was working, certain things were easier—to explain, at least. When I got a paycheck, the amount that I brought to my family financially was right there in black and white. But not all things were easier when I was working. For one, I am not a skilled multitasker. I’m not even an unskilled one. 

I recently heard about a study that found that only a tiny proportion of people, something like 4 to 6 percent, are true multitaskers. This small minority actually improves on their task at hand while doing something else simultaneously. To me, these people are like superheroes, or at least similar to the bionic mentors of 1970s television. 

But this same research also identified another group, much larger than the first. These folks believe themselves to be competent—even skilled—multitaskers, when in fact their true multitasking abilities are nowhere near this level. But hey, we all use a little self-deception now and again. I’m not one to judge, I’m just repeating the research findings.

Finally, there is the group to which I belong: the uni-taskers. We know we’re not improving as more is added to our plate. And frankly, we don’t even pretend to enjoy keeping track of many tasks at once. 

Once I became a parent, my multitasking disability made my job outside the home much less rewarding. This is the positive aspect of my not working for income right now. I’m content to have far fewer daily items on my list. But the focus of this post is actually the other side of this coin. 

Now that I’m no longer drawing a paycheck, it’s much harder to see what I’m contributing to my family financially. And in these challenging economic times, I want to help ease the financial burden for our family of five. I feel like I’m helping out, but if someone asks me how, I don’t have a clear answer.

As I’ve thought more about my lack of clarity, I’ve realized that now, what I “do” for our family is more invisible than when I worked. And it’s difficult to describe what you can’t see. 

Daniel Pink writes about looking for the “negative spaces” within the big picture: “Peer past what’s prominent and examine what’s between, beyond, and around it.” He says that when we become aware of these negative spaces, the positive spaces will “snap into clearer focus.” 

Along these lines, one of the main ways I currently support my family financially is by creating situations where we don’t spend money. For example, when my sons wanted to learn more soccer skills than my husband or I could teach them, I arranged to babysit the daughter of our neighbor—a semi-professional soccer player—in exchange for some private soccer lessons. But it’s still hard for me to conjure up that negative space, in this case the money we didn’t spend on soccer camp.

Another invisible boost I give to my family is in the area of gift giving. In the past few years, we’ve had many “milestone” weddings, anniversaries, births, and birthdays, for which we’ve wanted to give gifts. Because I’ve been painting a lot recently, I’ve created most of these presents. But again—it’s hard to quantify what I bring in financially when the answer is, “The work I put in allows us not to spend money.” This response isn’t easily converted to an exact dollar amount.

When I consider my family’s needs and priorities, such as buying clothes or athletic equipment (bikes, balls, cleats) for the kids, this leads me to additional negative spaces in which I “work.” I’ve utilized the ever-helpful parent network to find sports or even pet care items that other families no longer need. (And we, in turn, provide families with usable items that we’ve outgrown.) I have one incredibly generous friend who hands down nearly all of her daughter’s gently worn clothes to us.

As for the rest of the things my family needs, I buy these items during our three-and-a-half month yard sale season (or on Craigslist). Some people adore “yardsaling.” For me, it’s more like work than a fun diversion, but I continue this undertaking because it meets so many of my family’s material needs. And I appreciate being able to recycle and reuse resources.

But again, in response to the question, “What do you bring to your family financially?”, I’m initially speechless. It would be enlightening to quantify in dollars every needed thing one attained without spending money: wouldn’t this technically amount to one’s “earnings,” but in a different way?

So, I guess I could take a stab at tallying the prices of everything I haven’t bought. But with the effort that I’m already putting into my invisible family savings plan, this extra job would come a little too close to multitasking for this uni-tasker.

What's your secret weapon for keeping your family finances on track? Add your comments below.

Suzita Cochran is a child and family psychologist and mom of two boys and a girl (ages 13, 11, and 8) who lives in Boulder, Colorado. At her parenting blog, Play. Fight. Repeat., she writes on topics such as helping kids “stop at enough” in today’s overflowing-with-options-and-items world.


Earlier posts from Suzita Cochran:

When Planning Family Vacations, Don’t Forget the Train

What Is "Enough"? Achieving the Right Balance in Our Lives and Families


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The question is: what is “saving money”, what is “normal”, and what is “extravagance”? A generation or two ago, people almost always ate at home and considered a restaurant meal a special treat. Only by redefining restaurant meals as “normal” are we able to think of cooking at home as an active way to save money. I recently read about a celebrity who was praised for re-using a tuxedo that he had already worn. (So eco-conscious!) Only by thinking of a tuxedo as a disposable item are you able to able to think that wearing it again could be considered an act of frugality.

Those people who have time to do their own cooking, child care, gardening, and other parts of daily life are making it more “normal” for everybody to be less dependent on money and more independent. You are changing the culture and helping define the status quo.

It is hard to calculate your contributions to your family in terms of dollars saved, but you could think of your contribution to the economy (your family’s and the community’s) in terms of helping to define what we buy and what we do ourselves.

Posted by Anne at June 3, 2012 at 4:54pm

I too am the “householder” in the family—my wife works for a wage. Facing the same challenge to explain how I contribute, I say, “My wife makes the money, and I save it.” Since our household of 2 income is around $50k, and our only debt is a mortgage, there is a baseline for comparison with other developed-nation citizens—and we’re doing just fine. All our important material needs are met.

However, in my search for a better metric, I’ve come to equate money-spent with carbon-spent, and my future “savings” will have to focus on carbon savings. For, whereas $50k per annum is modest by money income norms, it is downright luxurious and wasteful by world carbon expense norms. This is not an academic exercise, but an expression of moving towards a love of fellow humans, based on meeting them on the level plain of humanity we all share—prior to material aggregation!

Posted by M Mueller at May 7, 2012 at 9:21pm

There was a time I would zip through the Indigo drive thru on the way to work and get a cappuccino with extra espresso…every day. Then I added it up and was appalled at how much I was spending for this little indulgence. Now I brew my own and get such coffees maybe twice a month. I also used to buy lunch at work every day. Ditto on the expense. Now my unemployed husband makes my lunch. The final extravagance was dining out. When we were both working, we went out to eat several times a week. I remember being shocked when my therapist suggested we trim that down to twice a week! Those times have changed. Now we go out to dinner, on average, twice a month. It is, as it should always have been, a special occasion.

Posted by Sally Moe at April 27, 2012 at 11:11am

I think I know what you mean. The problem with saving money is that you can’t really add it up. It’s money you didn’t spend. And there are so many things that you could spend on that you don’t, it’s hard to say, “Okay, I definitely saved X.” When you earn money, on the other hand, you have a paycheck or cash, and it gives you a better sense of accomplishment. My blog pots have lots of weapons for keeping finances on track (although they are not secret- I have blogged about them here)..My story of Frugality: Breaking My Economic Dependence on My Job

Posted by Dale S. Brown, Guest Blogger, Center for New American Dream at April 21, 2012 at 10:19pm


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