The Logic Behind Hiring Household Help

by Thursday Bram · 14 comments

Once a week, a cleaning services comes by my house and does what I refer to as ‘the heavy cleaning.’ Floors get washed, bathrooms get scrubbed and just about everything in the house gets dusted. In theory, these are all tasks that I could fit into my schedule at some point, rather than paying someone to handle. In reality, for my household, this is the only way that cleaning much beyond laundry and dishes will ever get done.

The same is true in other households with other services. I know a family who employs a dog-walking service for similar reasons, families who bring in landscapers, a couple that entirely rely on their handy man and plenty of other examples of people who rely on household help.

The Logic of the Decision

On the math side of the equation, the decision is easy: I can earn more in an hour working through my own business than it costs me to bring in maid service. Furthermore, the tasks that the maid service completes require about an hour and a half for them, but take closer to three or four hours for me to do.

Of course, if you aren’t going to spend the time you save by bringing in some household help on work, the math gets a little more iffy. You’ve got to determine the value of your free time and judge whether it’s more important to have that free time or the money you would otherwise get. In a lot of situations, it makes sense to choose keeping the money over freeing up some extra time.

This isn’t a choice that everyone has. In order to bring in help and not do everything for oneself, there already needs to be a cushion in the bank account. It is a luxury to have someone come in and handle chores that you might otherwise do yourself. Choosing to spend money on that particular luxury, rather than another one is a personal choice. If there was some other luxury I truly wanted — a certain vacation, a fast car — I could stop maid service tomorrow and start saving for that luxury instead. It’s a personal choice and my personal view of luxury involves not having to clean the bathroom.

How Time Changes Things

A hundred years ago, the average middle class household had some sort of help — and it was more than a cleaning service that came by one day a week for a few hours. Of course, there weren’t nearly as many labor saving devices as there are now: TV dinners, washing machines and so on. We don’t need as much help as we did.

But there are also other factors in play. I’m young enough that my grandmothers both had a lot of those labor-saving developments in place, but they also had someone to help them out on a regular basis. One of my grandmothers held a full time job, but the other ‘only’ worked in the family business, handling the books and other details from home. I don’t think the idea of not having help ever crossed either of their minds. From conversations I’ve had, that was pretty much the case with most of their friends, as well.

Now, though, having help isn’t quite as culturally acceptable, at least in my experience. It’s even more common to have both halves of a couple working full-time jobs, but less common for even such busy couples to have some sort of household help. But there’s not a clear reason why, even beyond the fact that the cost of household help has gone up.

We’ve Got to Talk About Gender

For my husband and I, the fact that I worked out of a home office was the deciding factor. There was a certain level of expectation from both of us that, since I was home, I would handle more of the cleaning around the house. This wasn’t just his thinking, because I felt that since I didn’t have to commute or anything like that, I should be able to handle more. I also, on certain levels, did want to know that I was taking care of my home.

On other levels, though, I just about went out of my head. I was incredibly stressed, feeling like I was doing all the cleaning without any help at all. We could tell that we were headed for a problem if we didn’t find a solution. In a way, hiring a clean service was the cost we needed to pay to take care of some emotional issues that might have blown up otherwise.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Fred says:

    What makes me laugh is where some people only look at the money side of things when deciding whether or not to hire help around the house.

    For example, I hire someone to walk the dog once a day and also hire someone to do the yard work. Then I pay to drive to a gym to use a treadmill and lift some weights. Why? Because I’m not getting enough exercise outside my work.

    Not realising that walking the dog and doing the yardwork would go a long way to keeping fit.

    Also paying someone to landscape the yard. Fair enough to get someone to move large amounts of dirt etc. but the pride I have where I can go outside, look at my yard, and say to myself, ‘I did that with my own hands. Built that retaining wall, dug that garden bed, etc.’

  • Robert M. says:

    I moved to SE Asia 28 years ago and one of the things I stayed for is that I can get my complete house cleaned each day, the car cleaned inside and out each day, the dishes done when ever I or my wife cooks. Our clothes washed and ironed each day, bedsheets changed each week, washed and ironed and back in the cupboard within 2 days of being changed. The grass cut whenever we ask it too be and our pool cleaned and serviced twice a week.

    Cost for the houseboy or maid has consistently run over all of these years about 75 to 120 USD per month for each person.
    Pool guy charges us about 30 USD each month for servicing the pool twice a week and that cost includes the chemicals that treat the water.
    We have a handy man that can come in to our house and fix anything we want and he charges parts plus about USD 20 each time we ask him over.

    Have we thought about moving back to the States? Not seriously, where else could we get these kinds of prices in the States for these kinds of services? But they pay expats here hand over fist for quality work and people willing to work 10 to 14 hour days five days a week.

    I put my timne in and retired 10 years ago, I turned 55 about a week ago and havign the time of my life.

  • Ankhorite says:

    I’m very torn about this. On the one hand, I feel guilty, embarrassed, and suspicious. Guilty, because I “should” be doing things for myself. Embarrassed, because again, I should do all this myself, and cleaning is so intimate! Do I want someone seeing my household at its worst, and handling my intimate garments in the wash?

    Suspicious, because there’s a stranger in my house. Who knows if they are honest? Who knows if they’ll do a good job? If you’ve read Ehrenreich’s NICKELED AND DIMED, you know that the big maid services require their workers to use just ONE rag for both the kitchen and bathrooms. Ugh.

    But OTOH (on the other hand), my dear friend paid her way through college working as a housekeeper. She chides me for not making the job available to someone who needs it. I tried — I hired a lady friends were using — but she was nearly 80 and I couldn’t get past the shame of having a little old lady doing hard physical labor for a person four or five decades younger. Then again, if she *really* needed the money, I wanted her to have a way to make some…

    So I dither, and don’t make up my mind, and live in a cluttered and dusty house! Agh.

  • Andy says:

    I hired a cleaner (weekly) about 2 years ago. Initially I felt guilty about wasting money on menial tasks I could do myself, but soon realized it was the best $80 I spend. Gives me a lot more free time and the house is much cleaner.

  • Bob C says:

    Great article. Personally, I would choose to outsource a lot more household work if I could. I would use that time to spend more with my family, which I prioritize over having more work hours available.

    I am not sure about the assertion that in the old days most middle class had servants, though. Then again, I am not familiar with the domestic life or socioeconomic stats from 100 years ago. Perhaps there were very few middle class and everyone else was a poor domestic worker. It’s also possible that much of the recent middle class really isn’t middle class and/or that the middle class is very small ( most people identify as middle class even if they aren’t). I don’t know. In the more recent times, including the more recent “good old days” of mid-2oth Century it seemed more common that the typical middle class home had a working husband ( who didn’t even really need a high status job for the most part) and a work at home wife who handled the house work. Unless we are talking about socialites who had “help” so they could have high class leisure time ( and obviously I don’t classify them as middle class). Recently, more middle class households tend to have 2 working adults.. or 1 adult head of household, and it’s not unusual for the 2nd worker to make a wage that is barely above what it would cost to hire “help.” The same goes for people who pay someone else to raise their own children. Economically, there is not much benefit for many. The once a week or twice monthly cleaning service might be an exception, but I’m referring to the more constant use of “help.”

    Often, the “help” consisted of children helping the mother. I was trying to think of any middle class relatives of mine who could conceivably afford domestic workers, and I could only think of my Grandparents. My grandfather was self-employed and made money. My grandmother stayed at home ( and by most accounts wasn’t the greatest housewife or parent). Of course he had help at the office, but I doubt he ever hired household workers. That’s what the kids were for! My mother ( the oldest child) was probably the head maid. They had 5 kids and they all did chores plus more. I imagine that was fairly typical. And if they didn’t have kids, well they probably didn’t need outside help. I am certainly not criticizing anyone’s personal preference. As I said, if I had the means I would probably prioritize outsourcing domestic chores over a lot of things.

  • Patricia says:

    My luxury is having good organic foods and keeping my family healthy – so when the kids were home every Saturday morning from age 3 on ( in a carrier before) we did a cleaning blitz. Everyone had a room and a bedroom to clean and polish.
    During the summer, everyone worked in the garden and orchard an hour a day. We live right downtown – not on a farm 🙂

    My children took care of their pets with loving kindness and earned the money to pay for their needs.

    Every week, I went to my Mother’s house and cleaned it, and my children traded off cooking a special family night supper with her on Saturday night and she helped them with college.

    My partner still cleans our bedroom and bathroom each week – I do the rest of the house now that we are just two. We both worked and exercised.
    I thought I would have a cleaning helper by this age – but then in 2008 we had no income….
    There is a trickle down effect of having cleaning help and supporting one’s community and neighbors that I like…but we have to celebrate the community building of our family – we really are a team

    now the luxury will be not to be financially dependent on my children as I age and to have health insurance.

    Being happy with what life gives you is good too 🙂

  • Dennis B says:

    Great article. I was brought up in a family where cleaning after yourself is very important. This includes cleaning items you own after use or cleaning the house on a weekly basis. I take pride at the fact that I have cleaned my car or that I’ve cleaned the house. Cleaning is very therapeutic for me. Having said that, with my busy lifestyle it has been awhile since I have cleaned my car myself. I find myself bringing my car to a car wash to get my car cleaned. As for cleaning the house I now struggle to find time to clean the house. I simply do not have the time required to clean the house thoroughly.
    My wife hates cleaning and she is the type that would prefer to get some hired help to get the cleaning done. As much as as I have a very different opinion to my wife about getting hired help I think our current lifestyle would require us to take that option. I still maintain that cleaning your own house has emotional benefits to making yourself be at one with your home. When you personally know what it takes to clean your own house you tend to have more appreciation of your own house.

  • Steve says:

    If you have the money, do what you want. My wife does it all. She is a stay home mom, and we have plenty of money. But it is part of her job and she doesn’t want to spend the money. We are at the airport heading to London, Paris and Ireland. The money we saved comes in handy.

  • Bianca says:

    I love your article! It has made my decision to hire some help even easier! Thanks!

  • Ginger says:

    I would love to have a cleaning lady or outsource some of the tasks with my rental property but my income is too low for that. When I can afford it, I plan to get one because it will help decrease the stress in my life.

  • Icarus says:

    Instead of getting cable we use the money to have a cleaning lady come in twice a month. It is a good ROI for us because the time not spent cleaning is put to better use, be it running errands or just hanging out and enjoying life. There’s also flexibility, if we run into a tough month financially, we can always skip a week and do the cleaning ourselves.

    Everyone’s situation is going to vary.

  • Justin says:

    If somebody can easily afford help and their time is valuable to them, I say bring on the hired help and don’t make any apologies for it.

  • Lynn says:

    If I could find a cleaning service I could afford, I would totally hire help. I don’t get the stigma of it, because to me it’s either “I can afford this” or “I can’t afford this”. People buy fancy dishwashers and refridgerators and stoves. Fancy washing machines. Honestly, what’s the difference? You’re giving someone a job in a nation that needs jobs. You’re getting personal care instead of trusting a robot.

    And, when you’re sick like me (or more appropriately, sick AND pregnant), sometimes cleaning isn’t something you CAN do. Just something you wish you could do. It has nothing to do with a smaller house, though possibly something to do with less stuff. Working on that part! 😉

  • KM says:

    I would never hire a cleaning service or a dog walking service or anything else that I could do myself. For some reason, I just have it ingrained in me that if I can do it myself, then I don’t need anyone else to do it for me. For me, it’s a matter of choosing what you can handle – if you don’t have time to walk a dog, don’t get one; if you don’t want to clean a large house, get a smaller one (of course, this has to be thought of ahead of time). No matter how busy I got, I would always make time for my family to have a healthy, home-cooked meal and a clean home. It’s not a matter of finances for me, but more about the principle.

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