It has been 8 years since my first outsourcing.
The year was 2009. My wife and I had purchased our modest home a few years prior. Life was busy; my wife was in full-time medical practice and I was in the middle of residency training. Our house cleaning schedule was erratic at best, and we began to dread the few hours spent giving everything a once over. Slowly and grossly, we spaced out cleanings further and further due to our cleaning disdain.
The straw that ultimately broke the camel’s back was the addition of a furry black lab puppy to our home. Waiting 2-3 weeks meant an unacceptable buildup of furballs. We needed weekly cleaning, and we had neither the time nor inclination to do it ourselves.
We hired a cleaning service, and it was one of the best decisions we ever made.
Up until this point, I was quite reluctant to hire out any work that I felt reasonably competent doing myself. This included cleaning the house. What changed my mind, and what factors went into the decision to outsource house cleaning?
Just as large corporations (in)famously outsource manufacturing and customer service, busy individuals and families outsource undesirable or time-consuming tasks. Name a necessary chore—house cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, yard work, home repairs, pet care, even childcare—and someone will almost certainly do it for you if the price is right.
Author A.J. Jacobs famously outsourced much of his personal life to assistants in India, with amusing yet uncomfortable results. I have no aspirations to go that far; I would imagine few people do. But as I get older, tireder, and children-ier, I find myself more and more willing to throw money at undesirable tasks to make them disappear.
While I did not specifically “calculate” whether or not to hire a house cleaning service, I did implicitly and explicitly consider a series of questions before making this decision.
- How much does it cost to outsource the activity?
- How much is my time worth? Specifically, how much am I paid per hour for my work?
- What is the nature of the outsourced activity? Do I gain any valuable skills by doing it?
- Do I abhor the outsourced activity? Where does it fall on the “I hate every second of this” scale?
- What is the alternative activity? What else could I do during the time that I would otherwise spend cleaning my house?
By honestly answering these questions, we can create a calculator of sorts to help determine whether outsourcing a particular job makes logical and economic sense. Positive numbers for each individual “score” indicate an activity more conducive to outsourcing, and negative numbers an activity better done yourself.
Outsourcing cost score.
The first two questions can be combined to create an “outsourcing cost score” tailored to one’s specific circumstances and preferences. It is easiest to illustrate what I mean with an example.
We were able to find a satisfactory house cleaning service for $60/week. At that time, I was earning about $26/hour in my residency. To clean our house at a level similar to the cleaning service took us at least 3 man-hours of labor, or the equivalent of $78 dollars of work. From a purely economic perspective, it made sense to outsource this task.
To create a cost scale, I subtract the costs of outsourcing from my equivalent hourly earnings; with the above example, that number would be +$18 (78-60). Positive numbers indicate I can earn more in my hourly work than the outsourced activity costs. Negative numbers tell me that I cannot “work off” the high cost of outsourcing. Plotted on a scale, I can assign a score based on the disparity between these two numbers. (Obviously, one could alter the specific dollar amounts to fit individual circumstances.)
Valuable skill score.
Except for humility and a little exercise, not many valuable life skills are garnered from scrubbing toilets and swiffering floors (I’ll tell my children after a few years of house cleaning duty). Other activities, such as home repair and cooking, are more likely to yield skills and techniques that will be indispensable in the future.
I strongly dislike—just short of hate—cleaning my house. Some people I know actually like cleaning up (some of them have obsessive compulsive disorder). Other potentially outsourcable decisions—cooking comes to mind—I quite enjoy. Whether I would rather die than perform a task or whether I am reticent to stop doing it certainly impacts the outsourcing decision.
Alternative activity score.
Depending on the nature and time commitment of a chore, my options for what else I can with my time may vary. Chores that would otherwise suck up valuable weekend or vacation time are ripe for outsourcing. A less desirable alternative activity is work. If work were optional, many of us would choose to play hooky even if it meant conquering a not-so-fun chore at home. In a similar vein, undoable chores may suddenly become quite doable with the free time offered by an early retirement.
Some tasks are necessarily outsourced due to time and work constraints; pet care and childcare fall into this category in my case. For other tasks, one could calculate the weighted average of the above scores to determine if a given activity falls on the positive (outsource) side or negative (do it yourself) side. In reality, most of us will naturally consider these factors when making an outsourcing decision.
What tasks do you outsource? What factors do you consider when deciding whether or not to outsource? Should I be scrubbing my own toilets? Please comment below!