Invisible Family Economics: The Value of Money Not Spent

by Suzita Cochran

Cochran Painting

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.

Other 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

Suzita Cochran is a child and family psychologist and mom of two boys and a girl 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.