The Great American Soap-off (aka the laundry time-suck)

Most of the chapter titles in 168 Hours are fairly vague (“A Full Life”). But one is quite specific: Don’t Do Your Own Laundry. The chapter covers getting all sorts of household chores off your plate, but I put laundry in the title because I think this is the household task that could most benefit from some different thinking.

According to today’s Wall Street Journal, “Americans Use Too Much Detergent” (it’s called The Great American Soap-Off, in the print version), and one of the reasons we’re using too much detergent is we do a lot of laundry, and hence think of ourselves as experts. Some 78% of household launderers claim to do 9 loads a week, which comes out to more than 450 loads per year. We have certain ways we do laundry, liking to customize the experience, which often involves using the amount of detergent we think is right (and usually isn’t).

But this raises an interesting question: why do people try to customize their laundry experience? I think it’s because it’s generally such a bad chore — Sisyphean, if you will, in that the clothes just get dirty again — and we do so much of it that we’d go crazy if we didn’t try to imbue some meaning into the task.

Personally, I hate doing laundry. If you do, too, then you should try to spend as few of your 168 hours as possible doing it. How? The same ignore/minimize/outsource strategy you can employ with any other task that doesn’t fit into your core competencies, or that doesn’t bring you joy.

Ignore: The most cold-turkey way to get laundry off your plate is to simply stop doing it. Eventually, other family members may realize that you aren’t doing their laundry any more, and they may start doing it themselves. Or they may not, and then this will be an interesting exercise in problem-solving for everyone!

Minimize: This is probably the more practical approach. While some household management books recommend doing small loads of laundry every day to stay on top of things, I think this is ridiculous. Then you are always doing laundry, always using a spare 15 minutes to fold shirts instead of doing something more meaningful like writing in a journal or reading with your kids, and people become used to wearing the same two pairs of socks. Buy enough socks and underwear that you can go weeks between loads. Re-wear clothes. Jeans in particular don’t need to be washed nearly as often as some people wash them. Especially if you’ve got little kids, they will get their shirts dirty immediately after you put them on, so there are no bonus points to be gained for the fact that they were clean for 2 minutes at one point during the morning. I re-wear exercise clothes. What do I care if my shirt smells at the start of a run if it’s just going to smell more 5 miles in? Using these strategies, my family (which includes 2 small children) requires about 4-5 loads a week, rather than 9, though I’m not entirely sure about this because of the third option:

Outsource: As I write in 168 Hours, I started outsourcing my laundry as a 23-year-old single gal, sending it to the wash-and-fold around the corner. In Manhattan, there’s one of these on every corner, but I have found people who use laundry services in cities from Philly to Honolulu (many dry-cleaners offer this as a side line). If you really hate doing laundry, this is not a bad option. If you have a regular babysitter, you can negotiate doing the kids’ laundry into your rates, or if you use a cleaning service, you can ask about adding this in. Or figure out what it would cost to use a laundry service, and then offer some percentage of this to your teens to take on family laundry duties.

Yes, outsourcing laundry costs money, but doing it yourself isn’t “free” because it takes time. Time is worth money. You may be able to figure out a way to make more more money, but none of us can make a week have more than 168 hours. When faced with scarcity, economic efficiency dictates that we allocate a valuable resource to its highest-value use. Time, viewed in this light, should be allocated toward nurturing our families, nurturing our careers, and nurturing ourselves–not toward doing 9 loads of wash a week, unless you love laundry, or have chosen it as a profession (and hence it is your core competency!)

One thought on “The Great American Soap-off (aka the laundry time-suck)

  1. Thanks for this post. I personally do not mind laundry, but I do mind all the excess loads that get done, for the reasons you outline, but also for environmental reasons: the energy wasted, the extra chemicals going into waterways. We rewear a lot of clothes in our house too. Young kids don’t really sweat, & mine are wearing undershirts these days anyway, so their shirts are usually OK. Unless they sit in mud, I usually can get a few wears out of their pants too. Like you, I am willing to have kids wear somewhat dirty clothes more than once–a littlte stain from milk that fell off their spoon at breakfast doesn’t bother me. If my own stuff passes the sniff test, I wear it again too. I think airing clothes out a bit after wearing helps. The key, as you say, is to have plenty of underwear, and socks.

    I think habit induces people to wash a lot, but I know one mother who washes clothes every day b/c she figures they’re all germy from school. (I don’t even wash my kids every day, so obviously I’m not in that camp.)

    Then there’s overfolding! I only fold what I need to. Socks (mostly unsorted), underwear, pajamas–forget it, they just get smooshed into a drawer. I save a lot of time that way. And I do not iron. Ever.

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