NEW YORK Think only celebrities, high-ranking professionals and the wealthy can enjoy having personal assistants at their beck and call? Not necessarily.
A growing number of Web sites are making it easier to outsource virtual errands overseas, making it cheaper to indulge in the luxury of never having to write another thank-you card or sit on hold with the department of motor vehicles.
Those who use the sites, for everything from ordering takeout to managing online dating, say the cost is affordable and a small price to free up their time even in the face of a sputtering economy.
Andrea Forker, a 28-year-old auction planner for a New York-based nonprofit performing-arts organization called the Kaufman Center, travels often for her job and uses a site called AskSunday.com to deal with lost luggage, security issues with credit cards and reservation problems all behind the scenes as she concentrates on work.
"These are the little nagging things that really suck up your time," said Forker, who is living temporarily in Argentina. "For what I consider my time is worth per hour, what they save adds up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars in the long run. I can give my undivided attention to my job."
Most people are hesitant to consider having a personal assistant because they don't think they can afford it, Forker said. But she and others argue that tedious tasks and inconveniences can be eliminated for the same cost as cable TV.
They may be right. The prices and packages vary from site to site: On AskSunday.com, users can pay $29 a month for 15 "requests," while the site GetFriday.com offers pay-as-you-go and monthly plans, in increments of 10 or 15 minutes. The monthly plans start at $120 a month for 10 hours.
Tim Ferriss, author of "The Four-Hour Workweek," uses what he calls a "small army" of virtual assistants for everything he can think of checking his e-mail, screening his phone calls, sending gifts to family and friends. He has even had a team find and schedule dates for him online.
Ferriss, who works for a pharmaceutical company, estimates that the services are affordable to anyone who makes more than $30,000 a year.
"When you look at something as simple as scheduling an appointment, it can take as many as four to five calls or e-mails," said Ferriss, 30, who lives in San Francisco. "These things always add up to about eight hours, or a day's work."
For someone who makes a salary of $30,000 a year, a day of their time would be valued at more than $100 making outsourcing well worth the investment, according to Ferriss.
"It's like having a three-day weekend every week, for the rest of your life," said Ferriss. "The payoff in terms of breathing room to focus on the things you want to do is incredible. But I think that right now, most people are not aware that this possibility exists. They assume it's a script for a comedy, but it's a very real option."
Ferriss said he realizes people may be wary of giving strangers their online-banking and credit-card passwords. He said that in the five years he's outsourced, he has never had problems with security issues but acknowledged that like shopping and banking online or over the phone, there is a chance of identity theft. He suggests using trusted sites like PayPal.com when possible, and using credit cards instead of debit cards to minimize any potential damage.
Some sites, like AskSunday.com, keep logins and passwords in a secured database so that its employees can use certain accounts but cannot see login or password information. All of the sites say the information they receive is protected.
Demand for virtual assistants for individuals and small businesses is climbing, according to research firm Evalueserve, which estimated revenue from such sites last year at $250 million and anticipated it would grow to $2 billion by 2015. The popularity of online outsourcing has sprouted successful sites, including YourManInIndia.com, Elance.com, and Guru.com.
Small-business outsourcing became popular in 2002. But person-to-person offshoring for personal errands has boomed in just the past two years, according to Alok Aggarwal, Evalueserve's chairman, adding that even the bleak economy won't slow the sector's growth.
"If you look at the people who use these sites for personal reasons, they aren't likely to stop doing what they're doing because of inflation," Aggarwal said.
Not all of the sites are based overseas. Elance.com, based in Mountain View, Calif., matches its users with American and overseas freelancers who register through the site. Rates are based on what the individuals charge.
Antonio Thornton, a 34-year-old marketing consultant, uses Elance.com to find graphic designers for his Web site. But he's also used the services to find vegetarian-friendly restaurants, organize his Netflix account and to plan a baby shower. Recently, he had a virtual assistant bid for swimming gear on eBay.
"I tend to be competitive when it comes to bidding, and it becomes totally insane," said Thornton, who lives in Atlanta. "I end up spending twice the amount I wanted to, because I am emotionally attached. Having someone else bid for me saves me not only money, but time and anxiety. I know they are looking for the best deal."
For Ferriss, life is bliss without that very everyday aggravation, and he's seen at least one long-term benefit from using virtual assistants they found him a girlfriend. And, of course, they've allowed him time to pursue his hobbies of scuba diving and tango dancing.
"Ultimately, time is the most valuable, nonrenewable resource that we have," he said.