J.D. Roth at Get Rich Slowly has some good articles on how to figure out your real hourly wage. The first one titled “How to Compute Your REAL Hourly Wage” is a good start to calculating this number, but it leaves out taxes. The second article titled “Beyond “Real Hourly Wage”: How Much Time Does Stuff Actually Cost?” gets closer to a more accurate number, but I personally think you should do it a little differently.
J.D. talks about deducting your fixed expenses to calculate your real hourly wage to figure out how many hours things cost in terms of your disposable income. I think this is a good number to keep in mind, but you should also consider your hourly wage in terms of net income as well (income minus work related expenses and taxes). This net income hourly wage can help you see how much of your time is spent paying for your necessities and put those costs in perspective. This is mostly just an interesting experiment, but it can help you realize that your time is worth something and spending money means giving up your time.
However, what I really want to talk about is the discussion that came up following J.D.’s article about Things It’s Cheaper to Do Yourself. Some commenters contend that if a task would cost less per hour to outsource than you can earn in an hour then you’re better off paying someone else to do it for you. However, this logic is often flawed once you consider reality. This is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while, but J.D.’s article and the discussion prompted me to go ahead with my post.
What Are You Doing Instead?
When I pay someone to change my oil what do I do while I wait? I’m usually stuck sitting in a waiting room or browsing through the store (if I’m at Pep Boys or Walmart). I don’t earn any money while I’m waiting, so I can’t say I’m saving money or time by paying someone else to change my oil for me. If I can drop my car off and go do some income-producing activity, then it might be better for me to outsource the oil change. Even then, I need to make sure that my net after-tax hourly rate is going to be large enough to offset the cost of paying someone else to change my oil. If it’s not, then I’m better off changing the oil myself.
The same can be said of many other activities we outsource. It’s easy to say, “Yeah, I’ll pay Jim $30 to mow my yard because it would take me 3 hours and I can earn $10/hour.” But this logic only works out if we take the time we would have spent mowing the yard and use it to earn money or provide ourselves with some other sort of value. This could mean enjoying a leisure activity or spending time with family. If mowing the yard would have prevented us from those (non-income producing) activities, then paying someone else to mow our yard might make sense depending on how much we value that time.
Sometimes It’s Better to Hire a Professional
Another exception would be projects that are better completed by a professional. If you do not have the ability to complete a project, then it’s probably best to pay a professional. You’ll save more money by having someone do it right the first time than having to go back and fix the mistakes you made trying to do it yourself. This can also be true if a project requires very specialized tools that we may never use again. This is the same logic we apply when we realize it’s better to rent a bulldozer to dig a hole than to buy it if we’re probably not going to use it again.
However, it’s sometimes better to do a job yourself because you’ll know the quality of your work. When you hire someone else, you can get unlucky and end up with a “professional” who does shoddy work. With careful research and good referrals, you can usually avoid such misfortune. But if you know how to do a project and can do it well, you’re likely to get better results by doing it yourself than by hiring a “professional”. It also might be worthwhile to do it yourself because you’ll learn new skills you can use again in the future – thus allowing you to do even more yourself and save more money.
What’s It Worth to You?
My point is that most of the time it makes sense to do it yourself. There are a few exceptions where this is not true, but simply valuing our time based on our gross hourly wage is flawed. We have to look at the value of our time spent in the replacement activity (the thing we’re doing instead of the DIY project). If the value of our replacement activity outweighs the cost of outsourcing, then we can safely say it’s better to outsource. This still neglects the benefits of learning new skills and the satisfaction that many people experience when they do something themselves, but that’s a very subjective benefit.
Just as every other personal finance decision needs to be considered in light of your personal situation, so does weighing the option of doing something yourself or paying someone else to do it. Depending on the value of your time, the activity you’ll do instead of doing it yourself, your skill set, and your desire to do it yourself, it may or may not make sense to outsource a project. Be sure you consider these factors before you say you’re saving yourself money or time by outsourcing.
“If the value of our replacement activity outweighs the cost of outsourcing, then we can safely say it’s better to outsource.” But your net hourly wage is not what that replacement activity is worth. Spending 10-14 hours each day getting ready for work, going to and from work, and being at work–“work” being my income-producing occupation–the remaining 10-14 hours in the day are worth a whole more than my gross or my “net” hourly wage from my occupation. I’ve found little besides cooking, cleaning, shopping, and driving to be worth doing myself.
Also, changing oil was a poor example because the cost of disposing of the used oil safely and legally is high in many (if not most) areas of the US. The local Jiffy Lube or whatever can dispose of the motor oil more cheaply because it’s doing so in bulk.
Thanks for taking the time to comment! Here’s my response to your thoughts.
“…the remaining 10-14 hours in the day are worth a whole more than my gross or my “net” hourly wage from my occupation.” This is exactly why I said, “This could mean enjoying a leisure activity or spending time with family. If mowing the yard would have prevented us from those (non-income producing) activities, then paying someone else to mow our yard might make sense depending on how much we value that time.” It all depends on how much you value that time or replacement activity or whatever you want to call it. My overall point is that people can often “earn” much more by doing things themselves than they can by working at their jobs.
As far as changing oil goes, I know that you can often just drop off the used oil at your local Jiffy Lube or Pep Boys for free. Additionally, you may be able to find someone who uses used motor oil to heat – as I have. Even if you can’t do that for whatever reason, changing your oil was just one example. If you don’t like that one, substitute something else – like eating fast food.
If there is a risk of an expensive failure (e.g., ruining something expensive by accident), then hire a professional. The professional can spread the risk across many jobs and build the risk into the price. If you do it yourself, you are taking all the risk yourself.
Great point, Michael! As I mentioned in the article, if you don’t have the skills it may be best to hire a professional. You provide a good way to determine if it’s worth hiring someone else or not. Thanks for sharing your comments!