Monday, December 13, 2010

Time and Money

In the course of musing, writing, and blabbering, I'll frequently find myself stating that there isn't any logical reason not to go to the store and buy whatever I'm trying to make, grow, or raise.

Often, going out and buying it would me cost less in both time and money. And, yet, I'm resisting that course of action.

(As an aside: I'm led to believe that the cost we pay for something these days does not reflect all the externalized costs, so it seems possible that - while the retail price of a good makes it seem cheaper - it isn't really cheaper to just go out and buy it. It's a question that would be interesting to address. In a different post).

It's not a point I can rationally address, even in my own mind. I realize it isn't logical in our current system. Which makes it a difficult point to defend to anyone else, beyond simply saying that I'm not in love with the current system, wherein we spend our time earning money and then use the money to fulfill our needs and wants.

So many middle men. So much Wal-Mart (or, whichever less-detestable store you might prefer).

It makes me wonder if my time is best spent earning money to fulfill my needs, or if - for some things - it might be more efficient to spend my time fulfilling my needs.

Because that'd be crazy. Right?

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about the scarf I intend to make for my husband. He wants - and has wanted for years - a Dr. Who scarf. Specifically, one of the Dr. Who scarves shown on this website for people who spend a lot of time thinking about Dr. Who scarves:

Just how long has my husband wanted a Dr. Who scarf? Longer than I've known him. At least since college, when he asked one of his grandmothers to knit him one.

At that time, he was not specific enough in conveying his desires. Or, possibly, his grandmother had never heard of Dr. Who and just translated his request to, "I want a really long scarf."

On the other hand, now that I have attempted to fill an online shopping cart with the exact yarns specified on the knit-your-own-Dr.-Who-scarf instruction page, it occurs to me to think that, upon being asked for a ridiculously long scarf that would consume many skeins of yarn, his grandmother just bought whatever happened to be in the bargain bin on the day she went shopping.

End result: ten-foot-long scarf made of varying shades of brown.

It is a magnificent scarf. Truly.

But - while it is more than ample to warm someone's neck and, simultaneously, several other extremities - or, alternately, an entire small child - it is not a true Dr. Who scarf.

Wrong colors. Wrong pattern. Dr. Who would never wear it. Sheesh!

When I started crocheting, my husband initially expressed great excitement at the fact that I could now crochet him a Dr. Who scarf. Upon seeing the result of my early crocheting skills, he pronounced it nice, but not sufficiently like the Dr. Who scarf.

Which, as it turns out, is because a Dr. Who scarf must be knit and not crocheted.

Big difference.

Someday, perhaps, I will delve deeply into the rift that I have discovered between knitters and crocheters. It is, I have come to believe, among the great untold conflicts of our time.

Suffice it to say for now that history and literature are filled with such stories of warfare and strife: the Capulets and the Montagues, the Hatfields and the McCoys, Cain and Abel, the Earps and the Clantons, the creationists and the evolutionists, the Sharks and the Jets, or the Bloods and the Crips.

While less bloodthirsty (despite the sharp implements), the division between the knitters and the crocheters appears no less disdainful than these. Ware to those who cross between the two realms of yarncraft!

Okay. That's sort of an exaggeration.

Most people I've met who can do one can do the other. But they do so disdainfully, wishing they could get back to the one they love. And it is in this manner that I have embarked upon learning to knit in order to make my husband the scarf he has desired for almost 20 years.

What can I say? I'm just that awesome a spouse.

So, yesterday, as I was telling this tale of scarves and hostility to a friend, she asked why I didn't just look for a Dr. Who scarf on Etsy.

I looked at her blankly.

Not because I'm unfamiliar with Etsy (I have, as it turns out, my own completely unsuccessful Etsy store, thank-you-very-much:

But because, as I told her, that would defeat the purpose of the whole project. It would be contrary to my idiom.

As an aside, it turns out that there are several Dr. Who "inspired" scarves (not unlike the one my husband already has) on Etsy. Should you, like my husband, desire such a scarf, I recommend looking there.

I'm sure as heck not making one for anyone else.

The thought of simply buying my husband a Dr. Who scarf being outside of my idiom struck me as similar to my disinclination to spend his hard-earned money to purchase entryway furniture or new socks.

It's quirky and fun to make a scarf. But is there any way that knitting a Dr. Who scarf, or darning socks, or making a futon frame is a rational use of my time? Wouldn't it make more sense to convert my time into money through employment and just buy stuff?

Time is money. Right?

At some level, doing these things makes about as much sense as it does for me - a person with only the vaguest hold on economic principles - to try and answer this, essentially economic, question. And, of course, reality won't stop me in either venture...

If you've got a great gig, and can pull in some serious money with your time, it is logical to turn your time into money you can use to amply fill your needs and wants. You can fill lots and lots of wants that way.

But I don't have a great gig pulling in the big bucks. I'm a stay-at-home mom.

It makes me wonder if my time is money, too?

If you calculate the value of my time at $20 an hour, then the scarf (pictured below) that I spent 5 hours crocheting cost approximately $100 in potential income. Which makes it an outrageously costly scarf. Especially when I could buck my idiom and buy one at Wal-Mart for $12.50.
But I'm technically unemployed. So the value of my time - the amount someone else will pay for my labor - is, more or less, zero. Right?

In that sense, if I find five hours over the course of a couple of days in which I can knit a scarf, the labor is - essentially - free!

Score! It's cheaper for me to do it than it is to pay someone in a foreign sweatshop.

So... Which is it?

Well, I don't know. But it's clearly more complicated than just being $20 or $0, because - even if I could find a hypothetical twenty-dollar-an-hour job (which isn't, by the way, a stretch, since I maxed out at a GS-9 before getting knocked up and dropping out) - I wouldn't be taking nearly that much home.

A quarter will go to taxes - which I'm happy to pay, of course - and child care will run at least $5 an hour for my son and somewhat more than that after my daughter gets out of school in the afternoon.

I'd also have to pay for some sort of transportation to and from work and - for many jobs - a wardrobe that consists of something other than mom jeans. Now it looks more like I'm taking in eight or nine dollars an hour.

Which is, funny enough, what my landlord offered to pay me to shovel horse manure out of her barn.

Maybe I should rethink that gig.

When I ran this theory by my husband, he pointed out that shoveling horse manure out of a barn differs from an entry-level position somewhere else in that it isn't the first rung on a ladder to anything grander.

While I'm not convinced that a job shoveling shit is completely unrelated to my former career in archeology, I'll give him that one.

It would be wonderful if this moment in my life felt like I was working towards some sort of larger career goal. If I were, it might make financial sense to spend my time at a job that only netted eight or nine dollars an hour. It would be an investment in future earnings.

As an aside, I think that this is the hardest part of stay-at-home motherhood for me, a person who was once defined by career goals (which were not - as it happens - in the field of child care - the career most relevant to my current activities).

And the truth is that I don't have any GS-9, 20-bucks-an-hour job opportunities to turn down. I keep my eyes open, but I haven't seen anything local open up in my career field or for that kind of pay. So, even if I wanted to enter the job market, it's not clear that it would be in a job that would be a step towards something more grand.

Which brings me back to my scarf-based confusion. Which, by extension, is confusion about all the tasks I am planning over the course of the coming year. Are they liabilities? Activities that cost us the amount that I could (in theory) otherwise be earning through income-generating activities? Or should I view them as generating the amount we otherwise would have spent acquiring eggs, scarves, socks, or tomatoes?

Or should we even think of them in terms of time and income?

Should I toss it all off and view it all from the Bhutanese perspective of gross national happiness?

All this blather comes to a single crux: I wish there were a level at which I could make these activities logical. Speaking of them as "hobbies" diminishes the importance of the role I'd like them to attain in our lives. My intention is for us to consume a fair number of our summer calories from the foods we grow. I want for the eggs we raise to constitute a real, measurable unit of our food supply. Farther down the road, I'd be interested in raising a portion of the meat we consume as well.

In my mind, that's more than a sideline.

On the other hand, I don't want to pretend that making scarves or growing tomatoes is going to be my profession.

There is a vast gulf between a hobby and professional, marketable production and - in my mind, at least - within that gulf lies the realm of self-sufficiency. Producing enough to fill your family's needs, and maybe enough to share with friends in hopes of future reciprocity, but no more than that.

In this scenario, time doesn't equal money; it equals food, clothing, and shelter.

Maybe it's a delusion. But I'm going to call it a goal.

In the end, I don't know how to conceptually monetize of my time in this endeavor. Am I a financial liability? A benefit? Or is it a wash? Would I be better off getting a "real" job - in the event I could find one - than trying to raise chickens or knit things? Can this learning period be viewed as educational? One step on the way to a moment where my labor could directly fill wants and needs.

I'm not delusional. I realize that this entire discussion reflects my psychology more than it does my tenuous grasp on economics of the home. I was raised in a time and place where "success" is defined by money, and who you are is defined by your profession. I expected to have both a profession and an income at this stage in my life. I feel adrift and dependent without them. Attempting to provision our needs while staying home seems like an avenue to assuage these feelings in the absence of a job at which I could earn more than I would be paying out to replace childcare, cooking, and housework.

But then I return, in my mind, to a place where it doesn't seem crazy. Humans have done this. They have - for tens of thousands of years - worked to provide their own subsistence. Were it impossible, our species wouldn't have made it this far.

It is real labor, and it can be difficult and uncertain. But in a time and place where the wants multiply, the layoffs are unending, money invested in the market swoops up and down in value at the whim of events I can't control, and there just aren't all that many jobs around for an archeologist who hasn't worked full time in eight years...

Suddenly, forgoing turning time into money and, instead, looking to turn labor into subsistence doesn't seem quite so crazy after all.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Who - I grew up on that guy! The darleks (sp?!) - OMG - so damn scary, especially the old wrinkly one.

    When I was working in corporate, I CRAVED being a stay at home mum, except it meant having children - minor hurdle. I even had one of those "meaningful" jobs for a year, researching coral reefs and global warming but, believe it or not, that didn't do it either. Staying home, some sort of farming and gardening and feeling like I'm providing equal amounts to the household income that way - PERFECT.

    Although, if you do want to make $20.00 an hour, you can by starting a pet-sitting business if that floats your boat...I have the books of course! I even did it for a while.