There are only two things you can do to increase the amount of money you have: make more or spend less. This week we're concerned with spending less.
A Cleaning Co-operative
Everyone hires domestic workers as though it is a must. As I showed last week although their cash pay might be low, their effective cost is probably much higher due to wastage.
If you don't have kids it's unlikely that you can make efficient use of a worker. Half the time there'll be nothing for them to do. To address this have you thought about forming a cleaning co-operative? Get together with three friends and share a worker. You will immediately slash the cost of domestic help by two-thirds.
Not having constant support will mean you and your husband have to do more cooking and dish-washing yourselves but honestly how long does that take? I work 10 to 12 hours a day and I still manage to do all my own cooking.
Two days of domestic support is sufficient to get all your cleaning, washing and ironing done.
This idea is not that radical. Such an arrangement can be set up in many different ways e.g. you can have someone round daily in the morning whilst they work at someone else's house during afternoons.
If you have young children that need constant attention this obviously wouldn't work but if you're single, newly married or if your kids have left home it's a great way to spend less.
One of my uncles has a single domestic worker who does all the jobs: inside and out. My uncle and aunt cook their own dinner and only have a light lunch for health purposes. The worker prepares ingredients for instance by chopping tomatoes and onions but my progressive 60 year-old uncle prefers to cook himself.
I went to boarding school and whenever I wanted to buy imported snacks my father told me to "support home industry". I support this view if the industry exists. Telling you to shop abroad doesn't go against this advice. Malawi does not produce clothing, cosmetics of a verifiable quality or any basic cleaning agents. All these good are imported and sold at a hefty premium.
So if you travel to South Africa or anywhere else once or twice a year take the opportunity to buy these things abroad to make significant savings. One of my best friends, an Economist like myself, does this and she saves a lot of money because of it. If you budget to spend a certain amount only when you travel it enforces financial discipline on you. You're less likely to shop on impulse and much more likely to think before you buy.
I think it's difficult to shop for cleaning materials abroad if you travel irregularly but it can certainly work for appliances and clothing.
As a child growing up my parents always bought things abroad when they had the opportunity to travel. I would never have asked them to buy something in Malawi because I was taught how much more expensive it was locally. I became cost-aware at a very young age. If you can relay the same awareness to your kids it will stave off feelings of guilt when they ask for stuff and you say no.
What do you think about co-operating with friends and relatives to share workers? Do you think shopping abroad could work for you?
The House Girl & Your Money
As much as you might think you manage your money badly there is one group of people that manage it even worse: household helpers!
As far as they are concerned, you have an unlimited cash supply. They probably think you have a special tap in your bedroom that you just turn on and money comes splashing out. I am willing to bet that you spend at least 1.5 to 2 times what you should due to workers wasting and mismanaging your resources. If you have kids this will be even more.
I don't know how often my mother's cook has been told that she cooks too much but the feedback goes into one ear and out the other. There's a simple solution to this problem, weigh food out before cooking it.
Weighing food is not a sign of stinginess. I cook most of my own meals. To ensure I'm not over-eating, I weigh everything. If I'm cooking grains e.g. rice, pasta, quinoa etc, I weigh out 100g for my husband and 50g for myself; for legumes e.g. beans 40-50g each is enough.
Consider weighing out what needs to be cooked in this way. It's a sure fire way to eliminate wastage. If you receive unexpected guests you can always cook a little more.
Persistent Overuse of Everything
It's easy to observe say too much rice being cooked, but you might be surprised to find unnecessary overuse of everything else.
In producing sauces, for instance, I noticed that my mother uses fewer onions and tomatoes than the worker does. She can make a great sauce with just one tomato but the cook uses two to three at a time.
Just the other day I found her pouring oil into rice that had already been cooked and I reprimanded her for it. She claimed adding oil adds flavour to already cooked rice. What? This is completely not true.
Two weeks ago I bought 1.5 kg of washing powder. On the same day my mother bought 1 kg and my cousin 500g. That would last me a month to six weeks but within just a couple of weeks it's been completely finished. The solution here is to ask what needs to be washed, weigh out the amount of washing powder you think is appropriate and keep the box under lock and key in your pantry.
It's annoying to have to regulate everything so closely because your domestic support unit is so wasteful. However, if you want to build a decent wealth base you have to. Take care of the tambalas and the kwachas will take care of themselves.
I asked my friends how they think their workers waste money and was surprised by the strength of their responses. They all mentioned the above issues and some even added that their workers waste water and electricity by leaving lights and plugs on all the time.
Ultimately with our hectic lives we can't do everything ourselves and that's why we hire cooks, cleaners and gardeners. Whilst these people boost efficiency, they are also a huge financial liability and a major source of cash leakage. Rein them in. Train your workers properly, tell them what you expect and monitor how well they are taking care of your hard-earned resources.
For 2 years until early 2014 I wrote a weekly personal finance and business column for Malawi's leading media house, The Times Group. The target is middle-class, working African women.
This is a reproduction of the articles that appeared in the weekend edition of Malawi News.