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Personal aides: Worth it?

YOUR MONEY

They don't have to cost a fortune, but this writer prefers a simpler life after trying a few

September 30, 2007|Julie M. Makinen | Times Staff Writer

The friend's birthday gift, unmailed for weeks. The dental appointment, put off one month, then two. The Jiffy Lube sticker on my windshield, telling me my engine was 2,000 miles overdue for an oil change.

It was a hot summer night, and I was driving home after another 11-hour day at the office, wearily contemplating my growing to-do list. How had I managed to let yet another week slip by without scheduling a haircut? That call would have taken two minutes. I couldn't find time in my workweek for a two-minute call!

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Personal assistants: An article in Sunday's Business section on hiring a personal assistant gave an incorrect price for the service at redbutler.com. For $165.95 a month, a subscriber gets 100 requests, not 40.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Personal assistants: An article in the Sept. 30 Business section on hiring a personal assistant gave an incorrect price for the service at redbutler.com. For $165.95 a month, a subscriber gets 100 requests, not 40.

If only I could pay someone to do this.

Wait a minute, I thought. Isn't this L.A., land of the personal assistants? And land of people who won't mock me for having a personal assistant? I could pay someone to do this! But it would probably cost a fortune. Or would it?

Once home, I did a little poking around on the Internet and, to my surprise, found dozens of options -- a full-time assistant for $1,000 a week (yeah, right), a la carte services at $25 to $50 an hour and something called a virtual assistant starting at $29 a month.

Naturally, I started with the cheap one, a new outfit called Sunday ( www.asksunday.com). For $29 a month, the assistants at Sunday would do 30 tasks for me.

The rules were simple: Each task could take no more than 30 minutes, and each had to be something that could be accomplished, ahem, at a distance: These assistants, I learned later, are mostly in India.

My first was John Locke. Actually, it was a guy using the pseudonym John Locke, a character on the TV show "Lost."

The assistance-at-a-distance model ruled a lot of things out. The assistants could not pick up my dry cleaning or go stand in line to mail a package.

But I was surprised at how much they could do. Once I had registered at the website, I uploaded some personal data, such as my frequent-flier account numbers, and the names and phone numbers of my dentist, hairdresser and doctor. If I wanted an assistant to make purchases on my behalf, I could also load credit-card information in encrypted form.

Sitting on my couch at 1 a.m., I dashed off a flurry of requests via e-mail:

* Contact all my frequent-flier airlines and inform them that I had recently changed my last name and wanted my accounts updated.

* Schedule a teeth cleaning for sometime in the next few weeks, any time before 9 a.m.

* Make an appointment for a haircut.

* Find out how much an airline ticket to Las Vegas would cost on Labor Day weekend.

Within 30 minutes, there was an e-mail in my in box saying that my requests were being processed. By noon the next day, the folks at Sunday had sent a list of flight options, a confirmed dental appointment and a date for my haircut.

There was a snag on the frequent-flier accounts: The assistant found out that only I could change the name. But thoughtfully he had prepared a list of what each of seven airlines required in the way of documentation and where to send my requests.

Quickly accomplished

Wow, three and a half things knocked off my list before noon. And it had cost me only $4!

Other subscribers to Sunday have found novel uses for the service. In addition to submitting requests via e-mail, you can call a local phone number and ask for something. In a bar and need to settle a bet? Have a Sunday staffer look up the answer. Lost and without your Thomas Guide? Call Sunday for directions. Need to call your cable company but don't want to sit through 20 minutes on hold? Have a Sunday assistant call, then patch you through once a human is on the line.

Driving to and from work, I would call for restaurant reservations or for help finding a rental car.

As far as it went, Sunday was helping me whittle down my to-do list -- although my hairdresser griped that the calls from Sunday were a bit insistent.

Yet there was still that unmailed birthday gift. The nagging Jiffy Lube sticker, guilt-tripping me each time I got behind the wheel. And there were new things joining my list every day: the dripping pipe in the kitchen. The light fixture in my den that fried out one day. A few items that needed to be returned to IKEA.

Clearly, I needed another assistant -- on this continent, in this city, with a car.

After a brief search, I settled on My Girl Friday Errands, a small husband-and-wife enterprise that provides help by the hour. I plunked down $554 for a 20-hour package, which comes out to about $27 a hour.

It didn't seem cheap. On top of what I was already paying for other "helpers" in my life (cleaning lady, $140 a month; gardener, $80; pooper-scooper man, $44; Sunday virtual personal assistant, $29), this put me at nearly $850 for the month -- just to pay people to help me manage my house and my errands.

But then again, if this service could help me dig out from under my big to-do list, it might be worth it. And that would relax me more than any $100 massage.

In addition to my list of undone errands, I wondered whether an in-the-flesh assistant could help eliminate the other big stress in my life: my hourlong, stop-and-go commute to downtown.

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