Dr. C’s Outsourcing Calculator


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?

Outsourcing life

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.

mr musculo
Mr. Musculo can help streaky windows disappear

The questions

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.

  1. How much does it cost to outsource the activity? 
  2. How much is my time worth? Specifically, how much am I paid per hour for my work?
  3. What is the nature of the outsourced activity? Do I gain any valuable skills by doing it?
  4. Do I abhor the outsourced activity? Where does it fall on the “I hate every second of this” scale?
  5. What is the alternative activity? What else could I do during the time that I would otherwise spend cleaning my house?

The calculator

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.)

outsourcing cost scale
Figure 1. Outsourcing cost scale

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.

valuable skill score
Figure 2. Valuable skill score.

Abhor score.

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.

Abhor score (illustrated by my personal tastes in music)
Figure 3. Abhor score (illustrated by my personal tastes in music)

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.

alternative activity score
Figure 4. Alternative activity score

The results

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!

4 Replies to “Dr. C’s Outsourcing Calculator”

  1. I like the four scales since it’s not just a financial decision. I do plenty of low $/hr work because I enjoy it.

    One thing that often gets missed though is the after-tax effect of the activites. I’m paying for outsourcing with after tax money, but my salary gets cut down by taxes, so the effective rate is lower. On just a financial level, your example breaks even, but when you weight it with the other stuff, it looks like a good decision.

    1. Good point on the tax issue. After-tax hourly salary would be a more direct comparison of true cost.

      In making an outsourcing decision, I think many people go through these types of calculations without even realizing it. I know I did.

      Thanks for reading!
      Dr. C

  2. I have been outsourcing to a cleaning service since late in medical school, and I absolutely love it. It is hugely good for my happiness, mental health, and relationship to know that my apartment will be cleaned once a week without requiring any input from me (aside from money).

    So far cleaning is pretty much the only thing we outsource. Unless you count eating in restaurants as outsourcing. Once we buy a house, we will likely do a bit of true outsourcing for some of the heavier yard work as well as most (all?) of the home repairs. But who knows…maybe we’ll become handy once we own a home?

    1. We have come close to outsourcing our yardwork, but the property is just small enough that I can’t justify it. Also, it can be quite difficult to go back to doing a chore oneself once you start outsourcing it, which is part of why I consider it so carefully before pulling the trigger.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Dr. C

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