NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
Katie Ashton has a secret. The successful corporate attorney and mother of two in Chicago cooks, shuttles kids around, runs marathons and -- oh, yeah -- never fails to send a thoughtful, handwritten card on a birthday or an anniversary.
Before you decide you hate her, you ought to know that secret of hers: Redstampcards.com, a Web site that for about $3 a card will send your best wishes anywhere in the U.S., on time.
Outsourcing isn't just a corporate solution these days. Americans work 10 percent more each year than they did a generation ago, says Juliet Schor, author of "The Overworked American," meaning they have less time for chores, errands and family responsibilities. Of course, not everything can be delegated (sleeping and eating, for instance, are out of the question).
Fortunately, armies of entrepreneurial service providers have seized the moment and are offering to do the kinds of tasks you never thought could be hired out. For a fee, of course. Don't have a spare hour to wait for the cable guy? For $40, someone will wait for you. Your dog has to visit the vet the morning of the school play? That'll be $50.
Is it worth it?
The central question is whether these services are worth the price. What you pay should feel commensurate with the pleasure that you derive from getting the task accomplished, a calculation only you can make.
But another consideration is whether outsourcing your thank-you notes feels right. Perhaps not -- unless you consider the alternative, which, for the organizationally challenged, is not sending out a thank-you note at all. For many people, that notion is unthinkable, which justifies the outsourcing of even such a personal gesture.
"People figure they'll get to the personal stuff as soon as the work is finished," says time management guru Julie Morgenstern, author of "Never Check E-mail in the Morning." "Eventually they realize there will never be time for all that personal stuff, but it's not okay to disconnect from our personal lives either. That's when they finally say, 'I need help.'"
The new helpers come in two varieties, and business is booming for both. The first are specialists. Example: You can pay Mike Solito of Auto Buyers Consultants $400 to $600 to buy you a car. He negotiates 40 to 60 car purchases a month on behalf of his clients, twice as many as two years ago. Then there are personal chefs, who number an estimated 9,000 in the U.S. today, up from 400 a decade ago.
The second variety are generalists, or lifestyle concierges. Brooke Bechtold's Chicago client base, for which she does everything from buying gifts to hiring carpet cleaners, is growing 40 percent a year. There are even online helpers, who have their own group: the International Virtual Assistant Association.
Clearly, help is here. But first you've got to decide if you need it.
Figure out whether you have a problem. It's hard to let go of tasks that you feel you should be doing yourself and that you can do better than someone else. But if things just aren't getting done, you have two choices: Give in and delegate, or give up the ghost.
Pull out your to-do list and focus on the things you never seem to cross off. If the stuff left undone could cause more expensive problems in the future ("clean basement" comes to mind), then start outsourcing it. "Find a good piano tuner," on the other hand, is far less urgent, unless your child needs to practice. Skip it and save the cash for other outsourcings
Decide what's worth it. How much is an hour of your time worth? Dividing net pay by hours worked is too simple a calculation, says University of Texas economist Daniel Hammermesh, because your time is more valuable to you at certain moments than it is at others.
My advice: Whatever you get paid for an hour at work, double it to determine how much a precious weekend hour is worth. The other part of the equation is your aptitude for the particular task. The better you are at something, the less it makes sense to pay someone else.
Think twice. If you enjoy gardening but haven't had time to do any lately, don't run out and hire a landscape architect.
Keep for yourself the tasks you like, says Morgenstern. You'll derive less joy from saving time on those than you will by outsourcing the ones you loathe. You can't hire someone to stop and smell your roses.
Be creative. "I had some hesitation about hiring someone to teach my kids to ride a bike," says Dan Ciporin of Greenwich, Conn., who worked overtime all summer while relocating his job and family to the East Coast. But he found Aresh Mohit, a coach who had his eight-year-old riding a two-wheeler like a little Lance Armstrong after two $75 sessions.
A child's first bike ride may seem sacrosanct to many of us. But is it any different from hiring someone to teach your kid to play the violin? Ciporin concluded that it's not.
"I remember when I was a kid, my dad teaching me to swing a golf club and ride a bike," says Ciporin. "But recently I realized I'm not a very good golfer. Maybe if someone with experience had taught me, I'd be better at it today."
Online assistants pay bills and buy groceries -- and you never even see them
Virtual assistants, who serve you entirely via computer and phone, are multiplying. Not only has membership in the International Virtual Assistant Association doubled to 670 in the past two years, but use of AssistU.com, the most efficient way to find your own VA, is up 40 percent.
For you, the appeal is cost. VAs are like administrative assistants who supply their own work space, and while some may insist upon a retainer, most bill you only for the hours you use (rates start at about $25).
Is a virtual assistant right for you? Yes, if...
Your schedule is predictable. A virtual assistant is not yours and only yours, says AssistU.com founder Stacy Brice. They juggle the needs of other clients too. The more consistent your schedule, the better.
You prefer to work alone. Some employers ask their assistants for a Kleenex every time they sneeze. They need a nurse, not a VA.
You don't mind the post office. Hiring a VA for things like filing and other paperwork means there'll be to-and-fro shipping of folders.
You don't need someone to run in-town errands. Of course, your VA could find someone to do local errands -- but then you'd be paying a middleman.
Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's "Today." Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.