Buying time

Household spending on domestic services such as cleaners, cooks, nannies and dog walkers has more than doubled in the past five years to an industry worth more than $2.4 billion. And women are the ones most likely to be paying to buy themselves time, writes Jane Southward.

Jill Collins is a successful public relations adviser, used to guiding companies in how to manage their strategic communications. And while Collins is paid to be the queen of calm in the boardroom, at home she likes to have the same atmosphere with her husband and children, Christopher, 10, and Liv, 7.

Being a pragmatist, Collins accepted long ago that two full-time workers who often have evening meetings and regularly travel just could not do it all. Keeping the household calm and organised and two children active and happy wasn't possible without some help.

“You know Hillary Clinton's old adage about 'it takes a village' – well, that is the mirror to my life,” Collins says.

“We have a gardener (and god knows virtually no garden); a cleaner (essential) - who has been with us for nine years; an ironing service (critical) especially as they pick up from my home a basket of crushed and dishevelled clothes each Thursday and deliver back freshly pressed pristine garments each Friday.

“We also use an organic fruit and veg delivery once per week so I can alleviate the guilt and feed my children well and, last but not least, a carer for our children from 3pm to 7pm each day.

It's a busy life but it works because we have a terrific group of people around us who help us to do the things we don't have time to do.

“This village helps our family each and every day as we navigate the minefield of being parents with full-time (plus!) jobs.”

YOUR SAY: What services help you juggle your work and family commitments?

For several years Collins headed Edelman Public Relations, with its roster of blue-chip clients, and for the past five years has been running her own public relations company Barking Owl Communications with clients including the upmarket resort on Hamilton Island qualia and Anthology's group of high-end travel operations such as Bay of Fires Walk and Cradle Mountain Huts. She's a proud feminist who sees the value in both parents sharing the care of children. At weekends the family juggle swimming lessons, ballet and AFL games and attempts (by the parents) to steal some time to exercise themselves.

"It's a busy life but it works because we have a terrific group of people around us who help us to do the things we don't have time to do," she says, estimating the family spends $400 a week on services it outsources.

"Some are little (such as getting the fruit and vegetables) and others are so important (such as caring for the children after school), we agreed early on that we both wanted to stay working but also would pay what we had to to make sure the children were well cared for when we weren't there." 

A Sensis Consumer Report in March 2007 found that Australians were increasingly outsourcing their personal and domestic tasks to better manage their time. The report's author, Christena Singh, says almost half of Australian households are now outsourcing tasks.

“It's creating new opportunities for business. Interestingly, new services such as home organisation, decluttering and concierge services are becoming part of everyday life,” she says.

According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, household spending on domestic services, including cleaners, cooks and nannies, has doubled in the past five years to $2.4 billion and grew by 15 per cent in the 2005-2006 financial year. It seems that paying for someone, or many people, to banish the drudgery of your life is becoming the norm.

However, strange things happen when you ask women to talk about what they pay to get done so they have more time for the things that matter. It seems that women fall into two distinct camps.

One friend who works on national TV abruptly replies when I ask about what she and her TV star husband outsource: “I have made the opposite decision. I'm just back from shopping for dinner, collecting my kid's typhoid vaccine for his vaccination, buying a broom for the leaves and have so far resisted all suggestions in the stylist/dog walker/housekeeper category. So unless you count a once-a-week cleaner, I'm hopeless for this story!”

Another, a senior government bureaucrat with two pre-teens, replies: “Normally I would love to be included in a story but I really don't use any outsource services any more as my husband is the best cleaner and ironer in the world!”

A third, who packed up her three children under 10 and moved to a farm outside Byron Bay a few years ago, says: “This is exactly why we moved to the country. I want to be the one who makes the cakes for the canteen, who picks the kids up after school each day and who has the energy to read to them at night time. Sure, we are making half the money we made in Sydney, but we are happier than we have ever been.”

Others, however, proudly throw their feminist arms in the air and happily 'fess up about the services they use to keep their lives running.

Karen Gray, head of Sales Integration at MBF Private Health Fund and mother of two teenagers, says using services such as home delivery and pick up for dry cleaning has given her hours of freedom to spend doing the things she wants to do with her husband and the two teenagers. And she is thrilled the agency also takes clothes for charity.

“I also have a cleaner, a handyman who we call on to hang shelves, fix things and clean out the gutters,” Gray says. “I am seriously considering hiring a housekeeper one day a week to take the pressure off. I'm interstate a day or so almost every week and when I am at home I go to meetings, sport or school functions almost every night of the week. We need the help to keep things running.”

Ruth Martin, group general manager finance at Stockland since 2007, is reluctant to speak at first, but then agrees, saying she sees a cleaner as fundamental for her family. The biggest time-saver she has is a relationship with Maura Englman, who runs Posh Boutique on Sydney's Macquarie Street, which offers a personal fashion service for business executives. At Posh you shop by appointment and arrive to find a selection of clothes in your size, style and preference ready for you to try on. Alterations are also done on-site and you're likely to be offered a glass of wine to ease you into the experience.

“Shopping can take so long,” Martin says. “I go to this one boutique because they know me and know who I mix with, so not only does Maura make sure I'm not wearing the same thing as my colleagues, she knows my style. She saves me so much time.”

Dial an Angel reports that the fastest growing sector of its business is aged care and palliative care, even though domestic cleaning continues to be the most in demand.

The company was founded by Dena Blackman in 1967 when she fell ill after giving birth and found no private services available and a government service that was too busy to offer her any help to look after three children under six.

Dial an Angel now has 10,000 “angels” on its books and 11 offices nationally with 50 full-time staff and its services include housekeeping, cleaning, childcare, in-home nursing, garden and home maintenance and pet care. The agency has 29,000 different rates and prices vary from service to service. Expect to pay $20-$35 an hour for nanny/housekeeping and domestic cleaning plus an agency fee of an extra hour for most services. Other specialists services such as elder care and registered nursing cost up to $60 an hour.

The chief executive is Danielle Robertson, Blackman's third daughter who has two teens of her own and who employs her own “angel” for 12 hours a week.

“I'd rather pay someone to do the housework I don't want to do so I have the time to attend things at the kids' schools,” Robertson says. “Family time is so important and people are so time poor, who wants to spend their weekends cleaning and gardening? They have to live.

“I had a nanny for eight years as there was no way I could cope at work and do it all myself. Now we employ someone for six hours a day, twice a week."

The weirdest request the agency has received for help was for someone to watch some ostrich eggs as they hatched and, in another case, for a German-speaking “angel” to look after a German-speaking cockatiel.

As to the most cost-beneficial services, Robertson advises people to pay for others to do the things they like least so they have time to do what they enjoy. Usually the least-liked chores are cleaning and washing, she says.

The use of night nannies is increasing as strung-out parents realise the value of paying someone $300 a night (minimum two nights) to get up to a waking baby. The Night Nannies agency reports that demand has never been higher.

Another growth area is decluttering and Shirley Del Prado, through her Sydney company Empty My House, has developed a speciality service clearing out deceased estates. While decluttering can cost about $30 an hour, clearing out a deceased estate can cost from $1000.

“Often people are too emotionally involved to do it,” Ms Del Prado says. “We know what to keep and what to throw out. We never throw out photos, though.”

Rosie Shilo, the owner of Virtually Yours, says demand is increasing for personal assistants and administrative helpers who work from their own office, not the client's.

For $30-$50 an hour, Virtually Yours will manage your diary, do bookkeeping or desk-top publishing, type transcripts or co-ordinate your home maintenance team.

“It's the most economical way to get administrative support because you only pay for the time your assistant is working and you don't have to create a space for them,” Shilo says.

And Virtually Yours even provides an administrative assistant to manage the people you are paying to organise your life. For $40 an hour, this just may be the way of the future.

How do you juggle your work and family commitments? What services do you buy-in? Is there a task or responsibility in your life you'd love to outsource?

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