For Valentine’s Day, here’s a question: Is the key to marital romance outsourcing?

Two top economists, who happen to be a couple raising a daughter, think that paying others to do chores, including the bulk of childcare duties, may be an under-appreciated secret to stronger marriages.

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers are both successful Philadelphia-based economists well known for their work, especially in the areas of family dynamics.

Faculty members at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and now visiting fellows at Princeton, both work long hours and would naturally need full-time childcare for their 2-year-old daughter, Matilda. But the couple pay for more than that.

They also pay for their house to be cleaned, groceries purchased and to be driven to work, besides paying a nanny to work eleven hours, five days a week.

It’s an expensive arrangement (the nanny alone is paid $50,000 a year) that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Most working parents try to pay for the least amount of care they need.

These two have concluded that comprehensive outsourcing is actually the most economical decision for them. Not only does it free them up to devote more time to their professional work, but it also relieves the stress on the family and the marriage. “The emotional and psychic costs are much lower,” Stevenson told me.

Of course, this is an option for only certain parents with considerable incomes. But, Stevenson suggests, there are many families (she says perhaps those making more than $100,000) who might be miscalculating the costs and benefits of child-rearing duties. “Families tend to over-buy things and under-buy services given what psychologists have told us about how spending money impacts happiness.”

Even when they were students and before they had children, Stevenson and Wolfers, who were profiled this past weekend in the New York Times, decided to outsource as many chores as they could.

As graduate students they went into debt paying a house cleaner with a credit card. Their calculation was that their ability to focus on professional work would bring in more money, whether in real time or through the eventual benefits of professional advancement. It also, Stevenson said, provided the added benefit of avoiding time-consuming and energy-sapping fights over “who was doing what…When there are no chores at all, it changes the dynamic.”

Finger-pointing fights only get more frequent and more draining once children arrive. The answer for the economists, who have decided not to marry, was to increase their dependency on employees.

In the mornings, for instance, the nanny prepares their daughter’s breakfast, packs the diaper bag and is responsible for dressing Matilda for the day. That means Stevenson and Wolfers can spend their pre-commute time coloring and playing with Matilda.

The parents are on the hook for weekend childcare, but Stevenson said that since it’s a smaller portion of their time, the duties are considered by both parents to be more of a leisure activity than drudgery. “If someone is doing it 24/7, it is going to get much more frustrating.”

As for the costs, she said they look for low-cost activities and skimp on personal luxuries. She’s never, for instance, paid retail price for her clothes.

What about guilt? What about the desire to spend more, not less, time with your child?

Stevenson said the situation has allowed her to “maximize the quality time” with her daughter. “Yesterday, I was starting to unload the dishwasher when Matilda asked me to dance. I got a lot more joy out of dancing for 15 minutes with Matilda than I would have from a Starbucks cappuccino. And it cost me about a Starbucks drink to pay our assistant [to] spend 15 minutes cleaning up the kitchen.”

Stevenson is quick to point out that childcare cost-benefit analysis are highly personal and many families will come to different, valid conclusions. Still, she said, the public discussions on childcare and marital strength often miss this important part of the equation.

“What we fail to talk about is that the reducing of stress can help families stay together and it can help marriages be stronger.”

What do you think? Is more outsourcing the answer to better family unity? If it is a realistic financial option, is it a desirable one?

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