Reader question: Pay off debt or keep the cleaning service?

photo-279Today’s reader question has to do with both money and time. The reader, who works full-time and has two young daughters, explains the situation like this: “The woman who used to clean our house has moved on to a new job and now we are without. We are also in the process of paying off our debt, which was scheduled to be paid off in 18 months. I was thinking that perhaps I could use the $200/month we used for the housekeeper and put that towards the debt to accelerate the payoff.

“On the other hand having a housekeeper saved me about 4-8 hours a week of cleaning. I've calculated my time to be worth about $50 an hour. I really like having a clean house, somehow it gives me piece of mind. I'm leaning towards having some sort of cleaning done weekly still but I’d love to hear your point of view.”

In a lot of personal finance literature, this would be a straightforward answer. Debt is bad! A cleaning service is a luxury! Ergo, nix it and put the money toward accelerating the debt payoff!

I don’t think that’s the only answer, though. For starters, the question need not be framed as cleaning service vs. debt. It looks that way because the cleaning lady left, so our reader -- who is likely doing her taxes and thinking about her family’s big financial picture -- would have to make a conscious decision to hire someone new. So she’s looking at this as a new expenditure in the context of her overall finances. But here are some other ways to look at this.

First, there’s nothing inherently wrong with keeping the cleaning service and paying off the debt as scheduled. I’m not a big fan of debt, but 18 months isn’t bad, and if there is a plan to pay it down in that amount of time (which it sounds like there is) it’s pretty manageable.

This is especially true when you consider that her financial picture could look different in 18 months for reasons beyond retiring her debt. Her youngest daughter will be in or close to school age then, which means lower childcare bills. That’s not a 100% certainty, as they hadn’t ruled out having a third kid, but that is an entirely different calculation, and a much bigger one than the cleaning service!

The reader and her husband had both started new jobs relatively recently (they moved a little over a year ago). Most people don’t get raises and promotions immediately, but in the next 18 months, that might be more of a possibility. If keeping the cleaning service would help her feel more focused at work, and more likely to score said raises/promotions, then it’s a reasonable investment.

Of course, there may be ways to keep the cleaning service and pay off the debt early, too. Maybe it would be possible to find $200/month somewhere else. If not $200, then maybe $100. Personal finance literature is full of ideas for ways to find extra cash here and there. It could be a combination of buying cheaper groceries, changing the thermostat slightly, carpooling, doing an in-home date night instead of going to a restaurant and paying a babysitter, visiting the library for entertainment, etc. This reader has a good, professional job, and I’m guessing that there’s a bit of wiggle room somewhere. If you want to cut something, it’s better to cut something you don’t care about than something you do.

She can also look at the income side of the equation. If her job doesn’t forbid it, maybe there’s a way she can find a freelance gig that would net her $200/month in significantly less time than the cleaning service saves her. Maybe it would net her $2000/month and she could retire the debt even quicker! That’s not low-hanging fruit in the way that brown-bagging lunch would be, but it’s worth a look. After all, there’s always a limit to how much you can cut, whereas (at least in theory) there’s no limit to what you can earn.

Finally, she can look at cutting the cleaning service, but it might help to view this not as an all-or-nothing thing. She could have the service come every other week. She could have it come weekly, but for fewer hours, and focus on the highest-traffic areas. She could consciously delay hiring someone new for a few months, and make a choice to live with more mess until that point. She could identify what cleaning task makes the most difference in her house, and do that (and have other family members help with it too) but not worry so much about frequent dusting or vacuuming.

What would you suggest?

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30 Responses to Reader question: Pay off debt or keep the cleaning service?


  1. ARC says:

    I’d give up a lot before getting rid of the 2x/month cleaning service. I like your idea of prioritizing the least-pleasant cleaning tasks and then having the service come for less time or less often. I’d probably choose bathroom cleaning, myself.

    There are also services like Homejoy that have a flat rate that may be cheaper, too.

    • Laura says:

      @ARC – For one of my books (I forget which one now!) I interviewed the owner of a cleaning service who said that he often has people call and cancel, and then they call back a month later and say “we canceled cable instead.” If at least one party in a couple has a low tolerance for mess, then a cleaning service winds up saving weekends and, sometimes, a marriage.

      • Yana says:

        Ha, I love the cleaning service example!
        And as for the advice, I would say choose the services that are important to you. A year ago we switched from Verizon to T-Mobile and are saving $100 a month. The coverage is not great in certain areas, but it’s great in the areas we care about. I am sure, every service that we use can be evaluated and saved on. But keep the service that is important to you!

        • Laura says:

          @Yana – recurring expenses are a great place to look. I know I have some subscriptions I should cancel. But it sounds like everyone here is in agreement on keeping the cleaning service!

      • ARC says:

        I had totally forgotten about that aspect of it – the relationship dynamics part. Having someone else regularly tackle the big cleaning jobs definitely eases any resentment that happens because my tolerance for mess and dirt is much lower than my husband’s. I think couples could circumvent this by talking about ALL the things that need to be done and actually dividing them up, but we always had a hard time doing this and sticking to it over time.

  2. Alison says:

    No insights here, just a very firm vote to KEEP the cleaning service! You are in an expensive, time-limited season of life. If it will help your mental well-being to have a cleaner, I would definitely do it, even if it meant extending the debt repayment to 3 years. I’m like the reader — I really do like a clean and tidy house. I have said, and still believe, that I would rather live on porridge than get rid of our cleaner! Such good value for money…

    • Laura says:

      @Alison – yes to the “expensive, time-limited season of life.” I try to remind myself of that. I’ve heard from people who’ve made explicit calculations with that in mind. They get extra help now and tell themselves that as long as they’re healthy enough to work in their 60s, they’re willing to work longer then to stay sane now.

  3. Connie C. says:

    Keep, keep, keep the cleaner. Cut back to less frequently if needed, but keep the cleaner in the budget. I feel so much better in a clean space and that makes me a much better wife, mom, friend, and boss!

  4. Keep the cleaner. I LOVE LOVE LOVE a clean house and always have a cleaner (many other things are negotiable, but not my cleaner).

  5. oilandgarlic says:

    I would keep the service. Right now, we’re down to 1x a month but even that makes a difference. So worth it. I have that extra time to just hang out with the kids and relax.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    My grandmother always told us the very last thing you ever give up is help. She’s right.

  7. Amy says:

    I was unemployed for 4 months recently, so I went through the exercise of cost-cutting. I ended up getting rid of the cleaners — not a wise move! I started my new job last month and am quickly realizing how valuable this service is on my time and sanity.

  8. Ali says:

    I frequently say my house cleaner is one of the absolute last things I would give up in an effort to trim our budget. It is so worth every penny. We do only have someone come every other week–for us, that’s all that is really needed. I still do a lot of cleaning myself (daily kitchen cleaning, constant floor cleaning due to life with little ones+dogs, etc), but not having to do real detail cleaning is sanity saving for me…and I don’t even work full time! In the grand scheme of things, how much would cutting the housekeeper speed up your debt repayment? I am guessing it wouldn’t make a huge difference. Or are there other areas to cut? We are cable free and it doesn’t bother us at all!

  9. Connie says:

    Keep the cleaning service. I had one most of the time until my spouse retired! It was always something to make me smile after working long stressful days in a professional position. My mother, a school secretary even had one of my college friends clean for her after the children left home. My friend needed a job and my mom needed the help!

  10. Tana says:

    I am going to go out on a limb and be the lone dissenter here. If the children are preschool, yes, keep the cleaning service. If they are school age, as mine are and as I was when my mom went back to work and my parents started a business which required very long hours, school age children and older can most certainly help with the cleaning. My kids are 11, 8 and 5 – they each have cleaning responsibilities they must do daily and weekly. For the weekly tasks, I rotate which I come and do behind them (bathrooms one week, vacuuming another week, dusting another) so it gets done “well” once a month.

    I read an article the other day about people who say they struggle with keeping house – I suspect their parents did everything for them or hired it all out. Keeping a house clean and tidy is a life skill, in my opinion, so once my children are grade school age and until they graduate and leave home, cleaning is their responsibility.

    I did have a cleaning lady when I worked full time and before we had kids. While it was nice, when we moved, I didn’t find someone to replace her. Cleaning can be like exercise – it’s a great way to unwind after a long day/week and unlike exercise, you have the pleasure of a clean house aka visible evidence of having done something rather than just knowing “I jogged 3 miles.” I have friends who claim they do not work with their hands, that it is beneath them. However, when life goes to the dogs, it’s time to scrub the floors – there is so much value to be had in menial work, so many problems I’ve solved, so much tension I’ve released while doing menial tasks such as cleaning. It gives me the balance I need to do everything else, in many ways.

    So yes, I know I’m way out on a limb, but I would ditch the cleaning service.

    • Laura says:

      @Tana – I think this reader’s children are a little younger. I do agree that kids can learn to do various cleaning tasks, and learn more as they get older. Of course, then this raises the issue of standards. I’m not sure it would be fair to hold kids to the same cleaning standards as a pro would produce. So if this particular reader gets a calm feeling from a very clean house (some people do — as I’m learning from all the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up comments and obsessions out there!) then it’s unlikely that kid-tidying and doing the dishes will necessarily produce that.

    • Ana says:

      I had to comment on this because it was always in our plan to get rid of the cleaner when the kids got old enough to allow us to spend an hour or two a week cleaning and to help in whatever small way they could. Right now, I am thinking both kids >5 years old may be that time.
      Its not that I don’t think my kids could pick up housecleaning skills in their 20s, I just don’t want them to be “those kids” that think that housecleaning is not their job, that its beneath them and that it needs to be hired out. My mom cleaned our house and me and my sister helped some when we were old enough, but more than learning the actual “skill” of doing the cleaning I found it important to realize that work goes into maintaining the home and I was pretty lucky that my mom didn’t mind doing it for us now because eventually I would be doing it on my own.

      • Laura says:

        @Ana – I’m all for learning self-sufficiency, and I also think kids can learn to do a lot more than we usually ask of them. On the other hand, hiring something out doesn’t mean you think it’s beneath you. People hire out lots of stuff and don’t think twice about it. I could drive the package I’m putting in the mail for Ohio out there, but I’d rather pay the postal service to do it. I also sew pretty well but don’t make my own clothes. Neither implies any value judgment.

        • Ana says:

          Yes, fair enough. I didn’t express that exactly how I meant it. Yes, we outsource lots of things we could technically do ourselves. But unlike driving a package to Ohio or even making your own clothing, cleaning the house is something a lot (most) people do not outsource, and I just want my kids to be aware of that. If they aren’t exposed to it, they won’t really get that. Its not a value judgement on the type of work, you are right, so I shouldn’t have said “beneath them”, I guess I meant “apart from them”, as if it just magically happened and they aren’t expected to have any part of it.
          The other part to this is that I don’t mind cleaning. My husband and I used to divide and conquer and get it done in a couple of hours every other weekend (sometimes every 3rd if we were busy). I guess our standards aren’t that high. So to save $200/month that we could spend on other enjoyable things (I like the idea of the massage!), I would be willing to make that trade once our kids didn’t need constant attention. In short, once the cost of the cleaning service begins to exceed the value I get out of it, I will drop it. I don’t count my time in $/hour because I know I won’t be working or earning during that time.

          • Ana says:

            I do absolutely think the OP should keep the cleaning service if she’s got little kids and/or she hates cleaning and/or she can use that time to work or if not worrying about cleaning makes her more efficient at work. I agree 100% with you and everyone else on that.

          • Laura says:

            @Ana – fair point about people needing to know what goes into something happening. Even if you hire repair people for many jobs, it’s good to know what it involves so you can be an informed consumer. You could make a similar argument on groceries. You don’t have to farm, but it’s probably wise to know that a hamburger was once a cow.

            As for the $/hour it is an open question. Since I work for myself and have some ability to scale up or down (I have some clients who are happy to take more or less depending on what I make myself available to do) I really do see time as $$. When you’re salaried the link is less obvious — though the reader in question had mentioned in her email the idea of starting a side business, which will make the cleaning service calculation more straightforward. Four hours per week invested in the business could generate an obvious return.

      • The Reader says:

        @Tana and @Ana… My girls are 4 and 7. Even with the cleaning service they both have chores around the house. They both make their beds in the morning. On weekends, the little one gets the laundry (hers and her sister’s) down the laundry shoot. The older one, replaces the paper towel and toilet paper through out the house and depending on the weekend, she vacuums the bathroom and kitchen rugs. I definitely don’t want them to be “those kids” either, nor do I want them to think that having a cleaning service is the norm. I think knowing how to clean up after yourself and being considerate of others is a life skill and I intend to teach them that to the best of my ability.

        I guess its a balance I’ll have to continue walk as they grow older. But with the advancement of technology like the dishwasher, they will never really know the pain of washing the dinner dishes every night that I grew up with.

  11. Kathy says:

    I love reading your posts about issues like this, because you don’t make it black and white. You examine the little intagible issues that help to make us happy and satisfied with how our lives are going. I think this is more something women tend to do, rather than look only at the bottom line as men tend to do. I realize that’s a sweeping generalization, but it seems to hold true for many people I know!

    I’ve struggled with the cleaner/no cleaner issue off and on through the years (right now, we have no cleaner), and finally come to the conclusion that I know how to clean, I’ve done it for many years, and now I’d like to do something else with my time. So I’m in the process of trying to find ways to bring in money so I can hire someone!

  12. Linda M says:

    I’ve considered getting a cleaner but I’ve decided I’d rather spend the money on a monthly massage.

    • Laura says:

      @Linda M – now that would be a tough decision!

  13. Eric J says:

    Something that I don’t think was ever really addressed is scale… For instance, having a $200/month service isn’t a great concern (even if paying off debt) if they’re making $12,000/month and have made other sacrifices minimizing the amount of disposable income they’re using. But if their income is only $2,000 a month? Different story.

    Someone else alluded to it when they asked how big of an impact cutting the service would make to the time it took to pay off the debt… So right now the timeline is 18 months. If all they’re doing is throwing an extra $10 a month towards paying off their debt, we’re talking about laying off the service a single month to be done and over. Granted, that’s not likely the case, but it’s also not likely the case that temporarily stopping the service would have so little impact that they’re still looking at a full 18 months to pay off the rest of their debt. If stopping the service cuts that time down to only 3 or 4 months, it might be worth it to do the best you can in the interim.

    Something else that wasn’t really discussed other than mentioned in passing, but she claimed to have calculated her time to be worth $50/hour. The service saves her 4-8 hours per week — which it $200-$400 PER WEEK, or at minimum $800 a month! Sounds like a no-brainer to keep the service — BUT… What is she really doing with that time that gets freed up by having the service? Is she putting her skills to work and earning that $50/hour that she says her time is worth? If not every week, at least 4 hours a month?

    Taken from another point of view, is having her clean the house COSTING them $200-$400 a week? And who said that if they didn’t have the service that it would be solely her responsibility?

    There’s a lot more to the question than we really have to give a truly well-thought out response. It seems the vast majority of the responses here have been “emotional” — not that I’d expect anything different from the more emotional gender — but that’s not to say there’s anything “wrong” with those responses, only that it’s a single facet of a multi-faceted problem.

    I understand “mental health” (I work in a mental health hospital, after all), so I’m NOT “discounting” those responses… But there’s also an emotional toll that having debt poses — for both spouses — and it may be a “smaller” sacrifice to give up the cleaning service — for a SHORT period of time — to gain the “larger” victory of paying off that debt quicker.

    A budget is simply a written representation of your values, priorities, hopes and dreams and even fears… If having the cleaning service is a larger priority than getting out of debt — and keeping it doesn’t mean they have to give up an even higher priority (like food or rent) — then it makes more sense FOR THEM to keep it in their budget. But just because you might feel that it’s the best for you doesn’t mean that it automatically would be the best for someone else.

    • Laura says:

      @Eric – an interesting point raised in there: if her husband offered to take over all cleaning duties that the service had been handling, would she have the same perspective on this question? Possibly — in many families both parties consider it more valuable to spend weekend time together than to have one person cleaning. Or possibly not! But something to consider.

  14. The Reader says:

    @Eric, the extra $200 over a span of 18 months may pay down the debt earlier by about 1-2 month. So like you said, its looking like a no brainer.

    • Laura says:

      @The Reader – yep, I think tightening the time line by one month is unlikely to be worth the pain.

  15. The Reader says:

    @Laura, thanks for the advice! I love the idea of an unlimited income side of the equation, for some reason, I hadn’t considered that at all. And I really appreciate your readers’ inputs for the question at hand.

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