Home Economics: Not What They Taught Me in High School

I’m sure I’m dating myself by telling you that I remember the days when boys in high school took shop and the girls took home economics. I don’t know what went on in shop class, but I know that home economics, as it was taught then in my school, was a joke. We did learn some useful skills like baking and sewing and how to set a neat table, but mostly home economics focused on being a servant to your husband, keeping things in order while he went off to work, and raising kids. And that took up about a quarter of the year. The rest of the year was like a study hall. Not exactly a class that turned out to be very useful for me or many other girls.

The dictionary defines economics as “the branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth.” Yet it defines home economics as “cooking and other aspects of household management.” Another definition reads, “A curriculum usually including studies in nutrition, the purchase, preparation, and service of food, interior design, clothing and textiles, child development and family relationships.” No mention of managing the production and consumption of wealth in a household, which is what “economics” is all about. Why is “home economics” not concerned with managing the wealth of a household?

I am a home economist, but not in the sense of that old high school class or the dictionary definition. My husband will tell you that my housekeeping skills are adequate, that I’m an okay but not great cook, and that I completely missed the classes on servitude. However, as the person who runs the budget in this house, I am top notch at managing and saving money. In other words, I manage the production and consumption of “wealth” (such as it is) in our household. Since this sort of thing wasn’t taught to me in school, I had to learn it the hard way in the school of life and screw ups. I think the term “home economics” needs a serious revamp that reflects what the home economist really does. Domestic tasks such as cleaning, cooking, and sewing are a part of managing wealth, but are no longer the only responsibilities of a home economist.

So what does a modern home economist do? Is there a job description? As with anything, it depends on your household, but here is what my job as a home economist entails:

  • Balancing the checkbooks
  • Making sure bills are paid on time
  • Tracking all aspects of the budget to ensure that we are on track with all of our savings goals
  • Monitoring spending and putting the brakes on if it becomes excessive
  • Watching for and contesting suspicious charges, errors in the accounts and bills, fees that should not be charged, and other items that often slip by unnoticed but can cost big money
  • Doing the taxes
  • Clipping coupons, shopping sales, and tracking prices to get the best deals on groceries and other items we need
  • Planning vacations/travel and shopping around to get the best deals
  • Doing a lot of repairs, chores, and maintenance myself and shopping for price quotes and reliable tradespeople when special skills are required
  • Shopping for deals and quotes on services like insurance, phone, and Internet
  • Being vigilant about finding new ways to save money, whether it’s switching providers, dropping services, moving to online services to avoid paying fees, etc.
  • Guarding against scammers and identity theft
  • Monitoring our credit reports to keep them clear of errors
  • Monitoring utility use and finding new ways to cut utility bills such as installing fluorescent bulbs, getting efficient appliances when replacements are necessary, etc.
  • Keeping abreast of developments in the financial world and evaluating new financial products and services to see if they are of benefit to us
  • Retirement planning

In short, the home economist does anything and everything he or she can to save money and make certain that the household income is managed responsibly and in accordance with the goals of the household. I take my career as a home economist seriously because I know that it is just as valuable to our monetary goals as our “real” jobs. It’s one thing to make money and throw it in a bank account. It’s a whole other ball game to manage that money down to the penny and make it work for you.

Since it’s tax time, I have all my receipts for the year spread around. I took a few minutes to do a quick and dirty calculation to find out how much my “job” as a home economist saved us this past year. When you take into account coupons, sales, switched services, quotes that lowered some of our costs, improvements that reduced utility bills, savings I negotiated on some supplies and home repairs, savings on travel, jobs I tackled myself rather than paying someone else to do them, and the many smaller ways I managed to save money over the year, my rough estimate is that I saved us about $30,000. That’s a lot of money. It’s the equivalent of a good part time job, which is what it really is for me. I have my “real” job and then I have my job as the home economist. And because my home economist job “saves” money rather than “earns” it, that $30,000 is tax free. If I had a real part time job, I’d lose a big chunk of that $30,000 to taxes.

My efforts make our income stretch much further than it would otherwise. We save much more and can do and have things that others miss out on. I hear people with incomes similar to ours bemoaning the fact that they cannot do the things we do. They don’t understand how we manage to live as though we make more than we do, yet we carry no debt. What they do not understand is that money does not manage itself. Without management, money has a tendency to disappear. It slips away in a myriad of ways. These people simply put their paycheck in the bank, spend until it’s gone, and then wonder where it all went at the end of the month. They have no plan and no caretaker for their money. However, when you have a home economist watching over your money, directing it to where it is most needed, and finding ways to save it, you can make your money go much further and do more for you. Yet when I suggest that someone take on the job of home economist, they say they don’t have time for that kind of thing and it’s not worth it anyway. “It won’t help,” they cry. If you could make your income stretch to do about one-third to one-half more than it currently does, wouldn’t that be worth it? It is to me.

It doesn’t matter who in the household is the chief economist. In our house the job falls mostly to me because I work from home and have the time and flexibility to deal with a lot of things. I have more time to identify weak areas in the budget and deal with things that can only be handled between the hours of nine and five on weekdays. My spouse contributes, too (since he took shop in school he has all the handy skills I lack), and he is fully aware of all aspects of our finances, but the day to day management is mine. I know some families who split the job evenly, with one partner managing utilities and groceries and the other handling retirement and savings. You can arrange the job however you want, but every household needs a home economist.

I don’t know if they still teach home economics in high school. I hope if they do that they have moved beyond sewing and baking. These are valuable skills, but are not the main things that a modern home economist is responsible for. Think how valuable it would be if home economics were taught with an emphasis on money management and household economics. Kids would come out of school better prepared to manage the economics of their households and we might have fewer people in debt. We might have people with healthier savings balances and who are better prepared for retirement. I know that a true course in home economics would have saved me a lot of trial and error as I learned to manage the finances of a household. But now that I have mastered the skills required, I am a very successful home economist. My only regret is that I wish I could have taken shop in school (instead of the bogus home ec course) since that would have added to my library of skills that I use to save money.

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10 Responses to Home Economics: Not What They Taught Me in High School

  1. SnoopyCool says:

    I completely agree. I’m working in an after-school program and I’ve got the “Home Ec” portion of the program (automatically assigned to me because I am a SAHM). You bet I’m teaching them budgeting and other things they aren’t learning in school!

  2. sandi says:

    Absolutely wonderful reading! Thanks for sharing. As old fashioned as it sounds, I wish all families would find a way for 1 person (not necessarily the woman) to be home while the children are being raised. You have just pointed out how it is financially feasable to do so.

  3. Yes, there are some high schools that still teach home economics / domestic arts.

    I insisted my college-bound daughter take at least one such course and she decided to take the beginning sewing class.

    The topics you are describing, however, generally fall under the “personal finance” courses and would be typically found in the business or math departments.

  4. Hilary says:

    I studied the woman who created the field “Home Economics” in college. She was a fascinating woman (the first to enter MIT!) concerned with scientific analysis of the environment (not confined to the home environment). The field has truly changed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Swallow_Richards

    I get what you are saying in this article, but I think focusing on the word “economics” takes it out of historical context. It’s quite the travesty that this fiercly intellectual woman’s legacy is something that is generally scorned by modern intellectuals.

    Also I think many economists would disagree with your definition – many economists don’t like to include the words “wealth” or “money” in their definition.

  5. Cindy M says:

    Okay, now I want to see what’s on your significant other’s list! Looks to me like you’re doing it all, ha-ha. Good column.

  6. joshie says:

    At my high school, we teach home ec to both boys and girls. We just do cooking and sewing (2 separate classes with different teachers) and in grades 11 and 12, hospitality as well.

  7. Ms. G, FCS Teacher says:

    Fast forward to 2010 – Home economics is Family & Consumer Sciences (FCS) even though it is still called Home Ec in many schools. Contrary to what is reported in this article, FCS also emphasizes consumer education – personal and family finances.

    “Family and consumer sciences (FCS) is the comprehensive body of skills, research, and knowledge that helps people make informed decisions about their well being, relationships, and resources to achieve optimal quality of life. The field represents many areas, including human development, personal and family finance, housing and interior design, food science, nutrition, and wellness, textiles and apparel, and consumer issues.”

  8. Ms. G, FCS Teacher says:

    I apologize, I did not mean “contrary to the article” – instead contrary to popular belief.

  9. Ms. N. says:

    I too am a Home Ec teacher, and I concur with the previous poster. While I live in Canada, where in some provinces it’s still called Home Ec (other provinces have other names), I can tell you that our programs have long ago changed to reflect the times in which we live. Our programs have been open to both sexes for many years–I graduated high school 20 years ago. In Food Studies, we focus on nutrition, budgeting, healthy eating, debunking popular food myths, and looking at the impact (economically, environmentally) of the food choices that consumers make. Textiles (sewing)students investigate the conditions under which their clothing is made, and the impact that throwing away clothing has on the world. Family Studies students research family models around the world; effective communication; child, teen, and adult development; as well as relationships and housing. Budgeting is a part of all of our courses.

    We still have the practical part of our courses, which is what students really respond to. Talking about vegetables is one thing, but when a student tries a vegetable for the first time in class, and discovers that they like it, or a student sees me in public years later and tells me how what they learned has impacted their life to this day–that’s why our classes are so important.

    It’s crucial to remember that while you may remember one aspect of your schooling, that just like times have changed, so have your schools. We don’t think that technology stopped in the years since we graduated high school, so why do we think that schools and school subjects have?

  10. Andrew says:

    Great article. Personally, I like the term “consumer science.”

    One thing that’s important to note, I think, is that while home-ec type courses are offered at most high school, they’re not REQUIRED. I guess I knew they existed, but I never took a home-ec class. I really wish I had. People seem to underestimate not only the work and skill that goes into running a household, but also the benefits you can get from doing it well.

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