Can money buy you balance?

I’m not a big fan of the phase “work-life balance.” It implies that the two concepts (work and life) take up equal space, which is not the case for most people. With 168 hours a week, if you sleep 8 per night (56 per week) that leaves 112 for other things. You’d need to be working 56 hours per week for work and the rest of life to be truly “balanced.” Most people — even those working full time — don’t come close. We work far less than we think we do. I like the “fit metaphor” from Cali Yost, because the exact proportions aren’t specified.

But anyway, I’ve been thinking of this topic lately in light of money. Namely, can money buy you a calmer blend of work and life? In what ways can money make being a working parent easier?

What I find most interesting about this is that it seems to follow a bit of an upside-down U-shaped curve in terms of the greatest stress about the topic. Here’s the reason: Money can buy you all sorts of things. But in pursuit of it, many people move away from extended family, who are often key to making things work without copious volumes of money.

We’ll picture a few different families in this post. First, let’s think about Jane. Jane is a single mom and has worked in a variety of low-paid jobs. She has two kids. This is a highly stressful situation. On the other hand, she lives in the same neighborhood she grew up in. She has an aunt who can watch her kids after school, and a cousin who lives with her from time to time — a somewhat taxing situation in its own right, but one that at least gives her a live-in sitter who makes sure the house doesn’t burn down while the kids are watching TV. The kids stay at their grandmother’s house on a regular basis too. So Jane makes it work. Most of the time. She doesn’t have paid sick days and she gets her pay docked when she’s late to work, which she’s certainly been when the school bus has been late, but since she doesn’t expect life to be easy, Jane has never uttered the phrase “work-life balance.” Indeed, if you ask her what she’d do with extra time, she says she’d get another job.

Then we have Kim and Bob. Kim is a school secretary and Bob works in construction. Bob works longer hours in the summer, but Kim has some time off then. Kim’s hours also closely track the school calendar. Let’s say they each work about 35 hours a week on average. When the kids were younger, they used a home daycare provider in their neighborhood three days per week. Bob’s mother watched the kids two days a week, and continues to pinch hit when necessary — like if a kid is sick. Or if Bob and Kim want to go out for the evening. They’re solidly middle class, and paying for day care ate up a big chunk of their income for a few years, but now that the kids are in school, they don’t have many expenses in this regard, and they have back-up to cover all kinds of emergencies (and fortunately, Bob’s mother is pretty sprightly).

Now let’s look at Stacey and Robert. He’s a lawyer and she’s an executive at a biotech company. They earn a bit above $200,000 between the two of them and have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. The challenge? His hours are unpredictable and she has to travel to her company’s other site in London multiple times per year. They moved to Boston for these jobs, but have no family around. They can’t do daycare because neither can be absolutely sure they can pick their kids up by 6, and if she’s out of the country and he’s at a client’s office somewhere else, everything gets out of whack. They have a full-time nanny — their second in two years because the first one quit due to too much unplanned overtime. They have some sitters they call in a pinch, and a cleaning service that comes once a week, but between all this (and high taxes in urban areas) they wind up living on a lot less money than their high combined salaries would suggest. Once, when Stacey missed her flight to London because Robert was out of town and the nanny called in sick last minute and she couldn’t get either of her other sitters to come (and stay overnight – the kicker) and then she took the kids to the park and got a phone call from the police because the cleaning service came but it was a new crew and she forgot to tell them she’d changed the code on the alarm (one of those “mental load” problems)… she broke down crying and started screaming to a friend about work-life balance and her lack thereof.

Then we have Christina and John. John is a professor at a small liberal arts college and Christina runs a successful investment fund. She took home $3 million last year. They have three children. Because she is a sensitive woman, she takes great pains not to indicate in any way, shape or form that she doesn’t think her husband’s job is as important as hers. So she’s decided to set their household help schedule based on her work, not his. They have three nannies, the most senior of whom acts as a household manager, coordinating the other two’s schedules, and that of the housekeeper who comes every afternoon to clean, do errands and cook dinner so it’s on the table at 7 pm, when Christina likes to eat with her children on the nights she’s home. At her fund, Christina is looked up to by younger women who ask how she does it. Christina also speaks at women’s leadership conferences about work-life balance a lot. But the talk is mostly about how she manages to leave the office by 6:30 three days a week which, if you think about it, needs to be viewed from the perspective that Christina runs the place. And she hasn’t emptied the dishwasher in six years.

Of all these families, Jane would, objectively, have the most reason to fret about work-life balance. She worries about a lot of things, but not that she’s working too much. Kim and Bob also don’t earn enough to afford a lot of help, but because of her regular hours and his extended family nearby, they do OK. The families you’ll hear talking about it? Christina talks about it from a sheer logistics perspective. She has built her home life team to the same exacting standards as her business. With both, she talks about the importance of hiring good people. But you’ll probably hear the most fretting out of Stacey and Robert. They earn enough to have very high expectations of how their life should be, but don’t earn enough to have it truly be seamless.

So I’d put it this way: money can, indeed, buy you a calmer life as a working parent. But for couples in certain lines of work — especially if one or both parties has to travel a lot and has irregular hours — it takes a lot of money to approximate the extended family or tight social networks that people often lose when they move in pursuit of highly paid jobs. That apex of the work-life-stress curve is where you hear a lot of howling, annoying as it often is to hear this from people who appear to be doing quite well for themselves. 

31 thoughts on “Can money buy you balance?

  1. Awesome post. How do you count travel/commute/mandatory wait time at work? For people in big cities without good public transportation from their residences (and residences close to good public transportation cost more), surgeons and attorneys who wait for operating room and court room availability and dental hygienists who have to wait for the dentist before moving on to the next patient, waiting is a part of work for most of us. I think if you consider hours-at-work plus commute time, most people in the top 20% of income approach or exceed 56 hours. (And maybe commuting isn’t work, but we wouldn’t need to do it if we didn’t have jobs.)

    We’re closest to the $200k dual income couple without family nearby and I think you have the stresses of that well-described. (We’re the $200k couple where the wife doesn’t work because it isn’t worth it.) I’m presenting at the Society of Women engineers banquet and my husband unexpectedly has to go cross-country. Regular babysitter is unavailable so I’ll be leaving my kids with an already-overloaded friend for the evening.

    Couple possibilities for future blog posts
    1) How does the age of parents affect their willingness/ability to pitch in? Working class people tend to have younger, more active grandparents. Many of my friends with parents young enough to help will NOT be young enough to help if their children also wait till 40 to have children. (Obviously, men tend to wait longer.)

    2) What happens when the toddlers and preschoolers become young adults? I hope (and plan to work) because the advantages of having a supportive home and family to help pay for college, provide room and board during summer, etc. outweigh the disadvantages of the preschool years. Will Jane’s daughter be helping to care for nieces or cousins by that age, rather than able to focus on her own education?

    1. @Twin mom- the parent/grandparent age question is going to be an interesting one in the next few decades. Maybe people will be healthier at age 80 than they are now. But my husband and I have noted that if our kids wait until the age he was when they have kids, he’s going to be in his 80s. Hope he makes it! But yes, I don’t quite see him embarking on intense grandkid babysitting at that point. If my kids have kids at the age I started, however, I could be a grandmother in my 50s. Quite a difference.

  2. I see your point… but I still can’t really feel sorry for your $200k/year couple, even though their life is closest to mine, so I know full well what the stresses feel like. I think they are making career choices that create a lot of their stress and that they don’t have to make. And even with the choices they’ve made, they have a lot of advantages over Jane. Consider, for example, their transport options. Stacey and Robert probably drive late model cars, and don’t really have to worry about them breaking down. If they do break down, they can just take a cab. Or take paid time off from work. Jane probably drives an old, less reliable car or relies on public transport. When something goes wrong, the decision to take a cab is probably not financial viable, so she misses work and if she’s lucky, all that means is that she loses a day’s pay.

    I see your point about the importance of family networks, but not everyone in Jane’s situation has family they can rely on, and a lot of people in Stacey and Robert’s situation have built up a “replacement family” of friends. My husband and I have at least two reliable people, unrelated to us, whom we could call in a pinch to watch our kids, even overnight. Of course, not everyone has that- my point is just that not all Janes have a support network and not all Staceys lack one.

    But anyway- this comments getting too long.

    I think my opinion boils down to this: our lives are a series of choices. One of the great things about having money is that you have a much easier time changing your situation by changing your choices. Without money, you can find yourself trapped by choices you made years ago, and maybe didn’t even know you were making.

    For instance, if I were Stacey’s friend, and she asked me for advice, I’d probably suggest that either she or her husband take a lateral move to a more predictable job for 5 years or so, until the kids are in school and easier to send to stay with friends in a pinch. With the careers you gave them, either one could probably make that choice without suffering big career consequences. They are choosing to stay in jobs that are relatively rigid and unpredictable in their demands, and yes, that will bring stress when they have little kids depending on them. But that is a choice, and at their income level, it is one they could choose to make differently, even if they had to trade a little income for more flexibility (for instance, Stacey could go work at a biotech w/o a second site, but that would probably be a smaller one, which might not pay as well).

    Anyway, interesting post!

  3. Spot on! I’m an instructor at an urban community college, my husband is a hospital-based physician … so we look more like Stacy and Robert – except that we have 4 small kids and I’m not trying to catch any flights to London. Based on the numbers, I really shouldn’t be working because childcare costs more than my salary. But then I’d lose my mind so I like to think that our current situation costs less than intensive therapy.

    I feel lucky to be in the situation I am in although it is harried. However, I do realize that is a personal choice. My students, on the other hand, look more like Jane. I’m also willing to take on the chaos of working with four little children because I know that as a working mom, I am a role model to my students. They don’t have the choice to give up their job(s) – never mind hire a housecleaner or even a reliable babysitter.

    1. I went to community college and then transferred to a state university to finish engineering school. You are doing an awesome service to working class students like me, even if childcare does cost more than you make.

    2. @Erin – very true. If your students see you working through the chaos of four little kids, they’ll be inspired to keep coming to class as well.
      Fascinating that no one’s talking about Kim & Bob, or Christina. Guess I should have written a shorter post and left them out!

      1. I think Kim and Bob and Christina and John have more robust systems in place, so they are less interesting. Basically, their work-life arrangements have more capacity to absorb the random crap that happens and upsets any careful plans you’ve put in place. But I’m glad you included them, because they round out the picture.

  4. I’ll talk about Christina for a minute. In my experience, how people like this “do it” is on the backs of overworked, underpaid, and stressed out assistants. I would like to hear from Christina’s nannies and office managers and secretaries. I also wonder what her kids think of it all, and what they are learning about entitlement and privilege.

    What you really need for “work-life balance” (or fit, or whatever you want to call it) is self-determination and control over your own schedule. Some jobs simply don’t have this, no matter how highly they are paid.

    1. @Karen – probably true. Just because Christina is leaving the office at 6:30pm doesn’t mean her teams are. One can imagine that she is tossing some edits on a presentation to her underlings on the way out the door with the instruction to “have it on my desk at 8:30 am.”

    2. Actually, I think this is a bit unfair, because it essentially says that the only way I can succeed is by being a jerk. I don’t think that is true.

      I am not in Christina’s strata at all- I’m closest to Stacey’s. But I am also only mid-career: I’ll be 40 this year. I have another 15 years or more of working ahead. I plan to go higher, and I don’t plan on becoming a jerk to do it. Already, I watch out for my team. I don’t see why I would stop doing that as I climb the ladder.

      Also, a good executive assistant to someone of Christina’s stature often makes six figures. Overworked, maybe- but not underpaid.

      1. @Cloud- I was hoping to hear more in the whole Warren Buffet secretary discussion about how much she made. A lot, I’m sure, and she is no doubt worth every single penny. I think where the whole jerk/management issue gets complicated is when you are managing people who are managing people. You can be very cognizant of how you’re treating the people who work for you. But then you also need to be cognizant of, and hold people accountable for the way they treat the people who work for them. A good work environment is one where the boss actually holds his direct reports accountable for their upward feedback. I suppose since Christina is fictional, we can give her whichever personality we want!

        1. If fictional Christina wants to keep her top-quality employees and they’re American citizens (which they must be if Christina wants to keep her presidential appointment chances open), then she is no doubt paying them efficiency wages, meaning well above market wages. Good help is hard to find and when you do, you pay through the nose for it.

          1. @NicoleandMaggie – oh yes, they’re US citizens. Christina heard a story of another woman in a similar income bracket whose presidential appointment was jettisoned when it turned out there was a lien on her house due to unpaid unemployment insurance premiums. She and John have a good payroll system set up.

  5. It may indeed be better in business and/or finance, which is where you put fictional Christina. My experience is in academia and small tech companies, where the assistants/secretaries are under big-business-like expectations while earning academic-like salaries. And as a result, yes, there is a lot of turnover in these positions, which makes it even harder on those left behind who end up covering when there is no secretarial help.

    I was surprised when I saw this kind of situation close-up. My expectations started out being more like Cloud’s. In particular, I bought into the idea that earning 6 figures would make almost any request or job duty tolerable–that is, that these assistants may be overworked but they aren’t underpaid.

    But I’ve come to believe that there are some things that money, no matter how much, just can’t compensate for, and lack of control over your own time and priorities is one of those.

    That’s also, I think, a big source of Stacey and Robert’s angst. There are too many moving parts in their lives and those moving parts are too unpredictable. You write that they can’t keep a nanny because of the unplanned overtime, and that really rings true to me. Do you think there is any amount they could pay the nanny that would enable her to tolerate the unplanned overtime, or is there a point at which money is just not the issue?

    1. Oh, I agree that having control over your own circumstances is important for happiness. Lack of control is actually one of the biggest predictors for stress in the workplace.

      I have seen some administrative assistants treated poorly. And I have seen others treated very well. The really good executive assistants can pick and choose who they will work for, and they usually have a lot more power in the organization than people realize.

      I definitely agree that there are job requests that a six figure salary do not compensate for. But- and here’s the thing that I think is missing from Stacey and Robert’s story- good employees can get away with saying no a lot more than they do. Stacey is senior enough to insist on changing the scheduling of that London visit to a time when Robert would be available to care for the kids. Robert could say he is unavailable for some of his random after hours meetings and suggest a better time.

      Maybe that is the biggest way in which money can buy better work-life balance- when saved and made into a good buffer in your bank account, money can make you a lot more fearless at work (because you are no longer terrified of being fired). And then you discover that you have more control than you thought you did, even when you are not the ultimate boss. Or at least that is what happened to me.

      1. First, thanks to Cloud for leading me to this very interesting and eye-opening post, and to Laura for writing it. I’ll probably share it at work tomorrow.

        Stacey and Robert’s story was just painful to read in some ways – it was so hectic and stressful. I agree with Cloud – I think there are things that both of them need to do re: work to make their lives more manageable, rather than just trying to throw more $ at their problem or rely on friends repeatedly.

        I guess I’ve come to an epiphany where I feel like no job is worth that kind of additional stress so either I need to change the job or find a new one. But maybe I’m just not as ambitious as Stacey or Robert.

        I just think that sometimes people overestimate the requirement to be “on” or working 24/7. I think it’s often the case that if you scale back just a little, for example, leaving to do daycare pickup by 6 (split between the parents), the world is not going to collapse. If you had to, you could make up another hour after the kids are in bed or something.

        I think employees need to draw those boundaries and THAT is what’s going to change our (messed up) work culture.

        1. @ARC- thanks for coming and visiting the blog! I think one of the things that happens in Stacey/Robert’s situation is that one party, and often it’s mom, then downshifts a bit. The guy has in mind that he needs to keep working at full speed, because that’s what good men do (“good men provide for their families” — even if Stacey is providing pretty well too), and so he actually undermines mom’s attempts to have everyone achieve more balance. “Oh, you can get the kids at 6? Great, because I’ve got some more work I could get done…” But then that has long term implications in terms of the family balance of power. Robert may also work with a lot of men whose wives stay home with their kids, and so he perceives himself as competing with men who have fewer constraints on their time. And since he is ambitious, he definitely doesn’t want to come in second at anything in the office.

          1. Aaaghh, the Internet ate my last comment 🙁

            I think Stacey and Robert need to have a talk – it doesn’t always have to be the woman who sacrifices. Many couples I know equally split work-interfering child duties like pickup, drs appointments and too-sick-to-go-to-daycare days.

            And in fact, even though I chose to work part-time (so overall sacrificing my career, i guess, though it was more for selfish reasons in my case of not wanting to miss anything at home), my husband takes more of the work-interfering kid activities because my work time is more precious.

            I guess you made up Robert and Stacey so they can have whatever personalities you ascribe to them, but in real life, something’s gotta give.

            My husband works with a fair # of guys with SAH wives, but it doesn’t prevent him from doing what needs to be done if our kid has something that needs to be taken care of.

          2. @ARC – that’s great that your husband doesn’t have Robert’s hang-ups. And of course I totally agree that it doesn’t have to be the woman who takes the hit on work-interfering stuff. I also just see it happen a lot, so I have been spending some time pondering why.

      2. I think control heavily depends on the industry. When things are going well in your industry, you have a great deal of control. In finance, or in semiconductors, or at Enron, if the company goes south at the same time you are in the throes if infant/toddlerdom, especially if you have a a child with a health issue/birth defect, you just DON’T have the flexibility/control you need.

        Unfortunately, for me and lots of other people, the choice about industry/area of expertise was made long before children. I expect government regulation of medicine, for example, will result in dramatic cutbacks in pharmaceutical and medical device companies. When 25-50% of your industry is being cut, the survivors won’t generally be the people who didn’t go to the sales meeting in London.

        1. FYI, I work in biotech, which is a mess even in good times, and my husband works in software. We keep our buffer set to ride out a year of unemployment of one partner w/o changing lifestyle much. I’ve been laid off twice, both on the shoulders of really tough economic times for my field. I was out of work 6 weeks first time, 4 months the second time. Some of that quick turnaround is luck, some of it is networking, some of it is being good at my job. I’m not saying that I will never find myself out of work for an extended period of time- I think that can happen to anyone these days. But I refuse to live in fear of that. For me, money buys my way out of that fear. I have enough buffer to figure out a plan B if plan A isn’t working out.

  6. ooh, and I forgot one thing. I think having a nanny who’s willing to do overtime encourages NOT drawing those boundaries to get home at a more reasonable time. I question the value a person really gets from that extra hour or 90 minutes at the end of a long work day.

  7. It sounds like you’ve done well. Part of this is geography. I and my siblings are rural folks who wouldn’t do well in a big city. This definitely limits our employment prospects and flexibility. I think your strategy works well in a metro area or even with a spouse with a flexible career, i.e. nursing.

  8. I am totally going to go back through and read all these comments. I do think in a perfect world all women who want to would have the chance to completely self actualize or at least try to every day and would also have the joy of holding a baby to their breasts, then having that bond that the woman who never empties the dishwasher probably doesn’t have. I don’t think a society–especially ours — is really liberated or free until this is the case. And I believe that all women who want this should have live in help — and the tax credits and whatever it takes for this to happen… family, grandparents, nanny whatever… and I think that we should support this, b/c it is the right thing.

  9. I’m a single mum with a toddler. I started 2009 as a married new mama. Then my marriage broke down. I returned from maternity leave to be made redundant. I had negotiated to return to work to be part-time, but that went out the window as I started looking for a job that would cover my mortgage.
    I don’t live near family and I can’t move back home because my son’s father would never let me take him interstate.
    So that series of choices I made? Apart from the original one of marrying the wrong guy, I’m not sure what I could have done differently.
    Don’t get me wrong. I had a good financial buffer in place which i’ve been able to maintain – I don’t have to worry about money. I have the most awesome family daycarer in the world… and she has taken my son overnight on occasion.
    I did some contracting work for a while before my dream job came up in a very family-friendly agency.
    Money is not the limiting factor in my life. Its time. I can recognise that money will resolve that in many small ways, but the big stuff? My house still looks like student digs – we bought it to fix it up, and I just haven’t the time or the heart to do it on my own. I’d really like to move, but the thought of house-hunting is completely overwhelming, let alone an actual physical move.
    For me, finding a daycare arrangement that was flexible and trustworthy was the key thing in making this work. I really think the trick is making more types of care available to more families.

    1. @Kazari – thanks for your comment, and that’s wonderful that you’ve found flexible daycare arrangements (overnight! wow!) But yes, when people are very busy, the absolute limitations of time tend to come into play more often than money. It’s not that I can’t afford to travel, it’s that I can’t stomach the thought of planning a trip right now. Sounds like you’ve got the same thing going with your house. Though you could outsource that — hire someone to make it look nice. If money isn’t a limiting factor, then you can look for ways to leverage money to make more time.

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