How Not Doing Chores Living Abroad Added 36 Additional Years of Free Time to Our Lives
Writer's forward: Why people in places such as Mexico, Panama, Belize and Nicaragua are willing to work for expats for less than if they were located in the US or Canada is the subject of another article. Suffice it to say that those of us fortunate enough to be from Western industrialized nations have hit the “Where You’re From Jackpot” through no particular virtue of our own. We were just lucky to be born in the US, Canada, etc., and to be able to use US or Canadian dollars to pay housekeepers and gardeners abroad less than we would have to pay them if we were all located in Chicago or Toronto. My only comment on this phenomenon for this article is that, for reasons that include because we have been so fortunate, we have a moral obligation to treat those working for us with respect, dignity, and generosity.
Earlier today, at the exact same moment that my wife and I were enjoying the scenery during our relaxing, unhurried walk with our dogs, the hard water stains in our bathrooms were being removed, our laundry was being done, our floors were being mopped, and the weeds in our yard were being pulled.
Had Jet and I somehow mastered “simultaneity” or found a quirk in the space-time continuum in order to be in two places at once?
Hardly. What we did didn’t require any scientific breakthroughs, but for us, it was almost as impactful. So impactful that, by my calculations, it has added more than 36 very happy years of free time to the combination of my wife and my lives.
Here’s how it works.
When we moved abroad, we rented a house. Included with the rental (which was extremely well priced), and at no additional charge, we received the services of a housekeeper for four hours a week and a gardener for about nine hours a week. When you rent in Mexico (in this case, in the well-known expat destination of Ajijic,) this type of arrangement is not unusual, and has been the case in all the homes we’ve rented in this area.
It’s quite reasonable (but not mandatory) to hire the housekeeper for an additional four hours per week for 200 pesos, which is about US $10. Even though I’m not one to spend money easily (just ask my wife), this seemed to be a very good value, so I coughed up the additional $10.
If you add it up, you’ll see that my wife and I are receiving 17 hours of services per week. That’s 17 hours per week of someone else doing the stuff my wife and I would otherwise have to do. That’s why we were on our walk this morning, enjoying that scenery, instead of scraping hard water spots with razor blades, dumping Clorox into a bucket, etc.
If you live in the US or Canada and unless you are fairly wealthy, you can’t afford to pay for the 17 hours per week of household and gardening services we receive for an additional $10, so I’ll explain to you how it is.
It’s really nice.
More specifically, it’s like re-living your childhood but with some crucial differences. Having the housekeeper is like having the mother you always wanted to take care of you, but with her doing the chores with a smile and not making you feel guilty about anything, all while your dad is telling you to go and have a good time while he pulls the weeds. How’s that for an alternate reality?
Our housekeeper is named Yolanda. Just yesterday, Yolanda re-arranged the shirts in my closet because, in her estimation, they were beginning to be a bit messy, and she’s constantly putting what she considers to be my randomly dispersed things back where they belong. She even sewed a tear on my wife’s blouse and on two pillow cases. Yolanda takes personal responsibility for how the house looks and functions, and has justifiable pride in the result.
Our gardener Pablo also takes personal responsibility, and not only acts as a gardener, but also as a general repairman. All we have to do is mention that something needs to be done or ask Pablo’s opinion on something, and before you can say “gracias,” he’s out fixing it. After sourcing and buying all the materials, he’s installed new parts into a sink and put up a fence for us.
Having Yolanda and Pablo do these kinds of things was a bit unnatural for us, because for 30+ years of home ownership, it has always been me who has been the one responsible for any repairs and maintenance, while my wife Jet was always responsible for cleaning and general garden care. Some people may find it to be a difficult transition to have others do this for them, but we suppose we’ll have to get used to it. At least we’re trying.
In defense of our old, chores-laden lifestyle, I should add that we were never really that upset about having to do chores in the past for two reasons: 1) we generally act as adults; and, 2) we couldn’t conceive of any alternative.
We do here, and we do now.
The first person to open my eyes to the wonder of not having to do chores was Mike Cobb, who is an expert in living abroad. When I spoke with Mike about the advantages of living in Nicaragua, I expected to hear about the low of cost of living, great weather, etc., but he surprised me by continuously bringing up how he and his wife, Carol, didn’t have to do chores, and telling me how much free time this opened for the things they valued most, like spending more time together as a couple and with their young girls.
On an intellectual level, I knew that what Mike was telling me was similar in other countries, because on our site, Best Places in the World to Retire, we have hundreds of answers by dozens of expats on the question of the cost of housekeepers in Mexico, Panama, Belize and Nicaragua, as well as more answers for each area within each country. It’s just that, until you experience not having to do chores for yourself, you don’t really appreciate how great it is.
Here’s how I concluded that not having to do chores would add more than 36 years of free time to Jet and my lives. Here is our daily average breakdown of things we do, adding up to 24 hours:
Work and work related activities: 8.0
Shopping, driving, doing errands, etc.: 1.0
Personal activities like showering; exercising; talking to each other, family and friends; taking care of the dogs, etc.: 2.5
Reading a book, magazine, or newspaper or watching TV: 1.5
Unallocated time that would have included doing chores: 2.0
If we multiply our daily unallocated time that would have included doing chores of 2 hours by the 7 days of a week by the 2 of us, we end up with a total unallocated weekly time of about 28 hours. Our housekeeper and gardener spend an average 17 hours per week helping us, which is over 60% of our previous total unallocated time. If we each live another 30 years (60 years total), this means that my wife and I would have the equivalent of about 36 happy, unallocated years added to our lives; years we can use to take that walk or do pretty much anything we like, like enjoying the garden in the home pictured to the right we had earlier in our trip, and which was maintained by a husband and wife team that came by three times per week.
Our only regret is that we didn’t do this when we were younger.
- For most couples, the woman would do the bulk of the chores discussed above, so one could argue that it would be the woman who would gain the most from having household help. For example, using my numbers, my wife Jet did about 70% of the chores above, which would mean that she would receive the majority of the gain, so in this case, she would benefit from 25 years of happiness devoid of chores, while I, on the other hand, would receive a relatively meager 11 years of additional non-chore happiness. To men who would see this as a problem, I would ask, “How happy are you when your wife is cleaning toilets?” and furthermore, “What’s it worth to your happiness to have your wife not cleaning toilets, and as a result, have her happy?” I suspect that the answer would be compelling.
- I know that we will not be working until we’re 90 years old (or at least I hope not), so the math I did was to illustrate the point. You may want to do your own calculations to see where you come out.
This article is part of a series of comparisons of life in the US vs. Mexico and other popular expat locations like Panama, Belize, Nicaragua and Portugal. Here are the other comparisons:
Forthcoming stories will compare stress and shopping.
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