The Price of Time

I’ve mentioned this before, but I have two full-time jobs. This is partly by choice, because I actually enjoy my non-writing career, and partly out of necessity, since I don’t make quite enough money at either my non-writing career or via writing to let one or the other go. (It’s not just money. Being a full-time writer means paying $400/month for health insurance, versus $40/month via my day job. But you get the idea.) People ask me all the time how I do it, and I’m always a little perplexed by the question. I don’t have children, for one thing; any writer who does that and a day job deserves your awe, not me. I actually have a day job; I spent awhile without one a couple of years back, and that was no fun at all. Still, not gonna lie; it’s tough sometimes, juggling two demanding careers.

This is not helped by the fact that I suck at managing money. Not that I’m profligate or anything; quite the opposite, I’m kind of a cheapskate. But sometimes I’m stupidly cheap; I obsess over the minutia, don’t think of the big picture. Maybe this is typical of people who live paycheck to paycheck, but more likely it’s just me being dumb.

Here’s an example: in New York, apartments are small. It’s rare to be able to have your own washer and dryer. Usually you have to share a communal laundromat in your building, or in the neighborhood — and because it’s communal, and this is New York, you have to stay with your clothes if you want to keep them. There’s rarely any space for comfortable sitting and writing in laundromats, and even if there is, you might not want to whip out the laptop in mixed company if you want to keep that, too. My own laundromat is underground and has no internet access. So basically, doing laundry means 3-4 hours of mind-numbing, mostly-wasted time.

Yet I did this for years, because the alternatives were things I thought of as luxuries: namely laundry pickup/delivery or dropoff service. I’m a writer, I thought at the time; I gotta pinch pennies if I’m going to make it. I figured all these fancy-schmancy services were aimed at executives, who earned executive-level pay, or who didn’t want to get their hands dirty. But that was a false assumption; these services are aimed at busy people, who would rather spend their time doing other things besides watching the spin cycle. So I sat down and calculated how much more it would cost me to use dropoff service. The average price difference was minimal — it costs $5-7 more than doing it myself. $7 is significant; that’s dinner.

But. Doing laundry myself had a cost too. Not just the financial setback of detergent and a granny cart, but all those hours of writing time meant something. Yeah, yeah, time has intrinsic value, but it means something financially too, especially for a professional writer. In 4 hours on a good day I can write a rough draft of a novel chapter. If I get a $10,000 advance for that novel — not saying I will, just using a hypothetically round number — and that novel has 40 chapters (as The Killing Moon does), then that afternoon blown on laundry is costing me $250. That’s pretty damn significant too.

So I’ve had to reassess my life as a writer, and decide whether some things that I’d previously dismissed as too expensive on a financial basis were, in fact, costing me far more in the long run due to lost time. I made one of these choices a long time ago: I don’t have a roommate in my tiny NYC apartment, which is something most single people here don’t do. But I came to the conclusion that the amount of time I would have to spend on (possibly) arguing with a stranger, getting up earlier or going to bed later because I’ve got to work around someone else’s schedule, seeking new roommates when the old one left, and suing them if they don’t bother to pay what they owe — granted, all of this is the worst-case scenario — would cost me far more in time and stress than I’m willing to pay. (I’ve had good roommate experiences for the most part, but one very very bad one, and the risk of dealing with that madness again is too much when I’ve already got a dayjob and deadlines to worry about.) Having my own apartment still feels like a splurge. But it pays off in that home is a haven for me, where I have complete control over my environment. When I walk in, stress drops away — so even after a long, tiring day at the office, I can always get at least a little writing done, even if it’s only 250 words. Even the little wordcounts add up. And thus is a book written.

Other worthwhile investments I’ve made in my time:

  • A DVR. I don’t watch many TV shows or movies, but I don’t want to be distracted by them if I happen to be in a really hot writing Zone at the time they come on.
  • A dishwasher. Yes, even tiny apartments can have one. And for about $250 I’ve bought myself 30 minutes every night that otherwise would be spent on washing dishes.
  • Got this for Christmas: a Roomba. I might never have bought this on my own, because I wasn’t sure how useful it would be, but since Mom was buying, I got one — and holy crap, I love it. Granted, I don’t spend a ton of time on cleaning; I tended to sweep once a week because I’ve got a cat, and vacuum every other week. (I have mostly hard floors.) But that’s another 30 minutes a week saved. And it’s cute! I named mine Lil.
  • Grocery delivery. In my part of Brooklyn, most supermarkets are small; there’s a good chance that one market won’t have everything I need, and I’ll have to schlepp to another one. Then I’ve got to get it all home — a daunting task on a day of bad weather, or if the subways are packed, or if I have a lot to carry. So instead I use any one of several services that bring the groceries right to my apartment. Costs $5 for delivery, which is a small price to pay for my time — and my back.

Here’s how this all adds up. Yesterday I went off to write at the local cafe. Turned on the dishwasher, started the Roomba. Along the way I schlepped to the laundromat and dropped off a load. I was at the cafe for maybe 7 hours; I got a ton of work done on a proposal which might turn into another book deal. And then I came home to clean floors, clean dishes that made making dinner quick and easy, clean clothes that I wore to work this morning — and just because the urge was still there, I got another 500 words written before bed.

This is not to say that splurging on gadgets or services will make you a better writer. It won’t, unless you use the time. And this is not to say that every shiny thing is a good investment. I’ve made mistakes. Bought an XBox with the Kinect sensor thinking that I’d use it to exercise, instead of blowing money on a gym membership and time on transportation/getting dressed/showering/waiting to use equipment. But what I didn’t factor in was fun. It was much more interesting to do a Cardio Sculpt class at the local Crunch back when I was a member — and because it was more interesting, I exercised a lot more. Now I’m thinking about joining a gym again, which means the money I spent on the Kinect was wasted.

All I’m saying is, keep the big picture in mind. If that shiny expensive thing will actually help you get that book done? Maybe it’ll pay for itself, in time.

13 Responses »

  1. i know this isn’t the point of your post, but the idea of a rooma named “lil” freaking made my day.

  2. Not being a city-dweller, I have different issues, but the points of argument are similar.

    How much time, sweat and so forth is it worthwhile for me to put into things like yard work and snow clearing? Last year we made the decision to hire a plow service instead of shoveling and snowblowing the driveway, and it was such a win. Next spring I think I will probably break down and call in a landscape company to clear out the huge mounds of downed tree bits in the back yard left behind by the hurricane and the halloween blizzard.

  3. It took me a minute but Lil made my day too. I fear your roomba now. <3

  4. I can totally relate to this. My writing is largely academic, but I have the not-uncommon problem of being an adjunct with little money and a demanding schedule — and a need to publish if I ever want to situation to change. We’re lucky enough to have a basement laundry room, which helps. But I live with my husband (and several cats) in a large, charming, rent-stabilized . . . studio.

    The best money I have spent, possibly *ever*, was to join a writers’ space. NYPL hours are too limited, and the university libraries I have access to often involve sharing a table with a couple of undergrads whispering about their math homework. I can’t write in coffee shops (distracting), adjunct office spaces are rarely functional for anything other than meeting with students, and home involves the whole husband/same room thing. Now I have a large, airy room with a total silence rule, plus a locker where my netbook lives, and since I joined last spring, my list of accepted publications has increased considerably. When I first thought of doing this, I decided I couldn’t afford it; now I realize I can’t afford not to.

  5. I totally get you here. I work a part-time job, work as a freelance graphic and web designer, ambitiously pursue a writing career, study Japanese, and constantly re-design my house to relieve stress. While it can be demanding to balance all of these different parts of life on my shoulders, it can also be fun. It’s important, I think, to have many different parts of life; it keeps your brain stimulated and active. Besides, doing the same tasks constantly is redundant and boring.

    I’m going to take some of your above stated bullet points into consideration. I want to start asking myself, “what things can I splurge on to make freelancing easier, or change my commute to be less painful?” I live in LA, and the commute out here is an effing nightmare. It takes way too much time to drive, and so I try to use my in-transit time wisely. I’ll have Siri on my iPhone make notes of ideas, or I’ll call clients and schedule meetings. It makes the drive fly by, as well as helping me to get down on my never-ending to-do list.

    The part above that really hit home for me was having your own apartment, your own space. A complete, safe haven-like environment that’s controlled by you. I currently live with a psycho alcoholic roommate (an accident, I swear), and as soon as the lease is up I am getting a studio and meditating on the peace it will give me.

    Thanks for sharing your daily life and timely concerns. I think we all hear ya on this one!

    p.s. I absolutely love your books. :3

  6. Total agreement here. I am a cheapskate, but as you’ve mentioned, some initial outlays are so worth the money. I hate to become overwhelmed with gadgets, but there’s a reason some of them exist! Like, I adore my slowcooker… I get home from work and the last thing I want to do is cook. With one, I can eat relatively healthy, and quickly, which means I get to save my energy for writing or art and (theoretically at least) working out.

    Total envy of your Roomba… I have wanted one for ages!

  7. I totally feel you on this one! Especially the laundry thing. I grew up in NYC, and it’s just not part of the culture to pay by the pound for someone to do your laundry, when you can hoard quarters and waste your life away sitting in a dingy laundromat to do it yourself. (Okay, I think the machines don’t take quarters anymore, so I’m dating myself.) Then I met my girlfriend, who was an immigrant and didn’t have the NYC-laundry ways. She always dropped off her laundry, even though she only had $300 a month to live on after paying rent. I thought she was totally bananas. But it turned out she was right. It was really worth it! Unless you think your time is worth nothing, it’s not something to waste.

  8. THANK YOU for this blog post and for mentioning that $7 is significant. It is really hard to live paycheck to paycheck, have other pursuits like writing/activism/etc, and take care of your living space. And I always feel like I’m being silly for struggling with it. I think the hardest part is maintaining the mental space that allows you to occasionally buy yourself a new coat, or a gym membership or whatever it is that you need, while fighting the compulsion to not buy a sandwich because you could be eating cheaper mayo and crackers at home. Basically, it’s hard to take care of yourself and to let yourself spend money on things that take care of yourself when you’re living paycheck to paycheck and have no time.

  9. re the Kinect, I can’t find it, but I distinctly remember reading about a virtual keyboard for that which could allow to to stave off potential carpal tunnel if you connect it to a computer. Worth investigating, might recoup on that investment as well.

  10. Thank you for sharing an honest and practical perspective on evaluating the costs of time vs. money! On a bigger scale, writers have to decide whether they should travel to a certain convention to promote their work, or spend money on book swag, etc., but on a daily basis, it sometimes comes down to whether or not you’ll get more work done in a cafe for the price of a cup of coffee, or will save time by ordering dinner instead of making it yourself. I knew a writer who had several roommates and lived in a hole in the wall apartment, because if he spent less on rent, with all its associated inconveniences, it meant he could work part-time and get more writing done. Your mileage varies. Of course, weighing those financial decisions becomes more complicated if you’re also supporting other people…

  11. Jenmitch, Katherine, fortunately the Roomba Lil is a lot less rapacious than the fictional Lil. I want the house clean, not eaten!

  12. Love this post–found it via Gwenda Bond’s blog.

    One of the best investments we ever made (and one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever gotten) was a dishwasher, which my husband bought when I was in grad school and has paid for itself about a gazillion times over in time not wasted.

    The other thing that I’ve had to come to terms with is sometimes spending the money to get takeout or have pizza delivered, instead of cooking a meal, is worth the recouped work time. Like you, I’m constantly weighing those things in my head, and sometimes I make a decision that is ultimately not practical…

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