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.