In a comment on my previous post, reader Jenny posed a question about how to best invest in making life easier during what another commenter recently called the “rush hour” years. These are the years when you are building your career, and raising a young family. Time and money are both limited resources, though time is more strictly limited. You can make more (or borrow more) money. An hour passed is gone.
Jenny’s particular situation was that she’d recently won a small fellowship to help her complete her PhD. She worked about 25 hours/week while her son was in school, and planned to add 2-3 days of after school care or a sitter. She was also debating hiring housekeeping help, as she noted that the “big clean” could take hours on Saturday. The question: when funds are limited, how can you get the most outsourcing bang for your buck?
I think there are a lot of ways to look at this situation, and there are a lot of factors that go into it. One is the age and number of your children. Obviously, if you have children under age 13 or so, they need care if you are not in the house. If you can do some work at home, then this is more nuanced. A 6-year-old might be in school from 9-3:30 (or 9-5 two days a week, maybe, with aftercare) when you could do the bulk of your out-of-the-house work, and then you might be able to ply him with movies/TV shows/video games for a few additional hours per week if you had extra things to get done (or trade off playdates with neighbors). A 2-year-old cannot be reliably distracted, and would need another adult to care for him/her, even if you were working at home.
Housework likewise can be done when older children are around, and is harder to do when younger kids are around. Unlike childcare, though, housekeeping is more elastic in its demand. You must have care for young children when you are not there. But you can let the dishes stack up, or let the laundry go undone, let the beds be unmade, etc. You can all eat sandwiches for dinner nightly. Much housekeeping is preference, not requirement. That said, I know many people feel much more comfortable and in control of their lives when their physical living space is neat. I would definitely encourage people to lower their standards (don’t pick up the toys every night! They will just come out again the next morning!) But I know it’s not always easy.
Another factor: housekeeping comes in different varieties, and that affects the efficacy of outsourcing. A cleaning service will do the vacuuming, dusting, and scrubbing of toilets. They are less likely to do laundry, pick up clutter, do the dishes, or empty the dishwasher. One complication I often see is that people decide to outsource housework, and they hire a cleaning service, but they don’t actually free up many hours because it’s the nightly kitchen cleaning, and laundry folding, that actually constitutes the bulk of housekeeping. The cleaning service gives them a much cleaner house, which may be a good in its own right, but doesn’t actually save them time.
In a situation like Jenny’s, my suggestion for getting the most impact is to combine the childcare and housekeeping into one role. I’d suggest hiring someone to come to the house an hour before her son gets home from school, maybe three days a week (e.g. M, W, Thurs). This person could spend that first hour picking up, doing laundry, starting dinner, or even running errands if necessary. Then this person would spend the next 2 hours caring for the kid after school. This would give Jenny an additional 6 hours of childcare, and also free up time that would be spent on housekeeping, for the price of about 9 additional hours of labor per week. (Alternately, this could be 8 hours over 2 days). It doesn’t entirely solve the problem of the “big clean” on Saturdays, though it might lessen some of the need. But this might be a good place to lower standards. Set a timer for 90 minutes, assign all family members some tasks, and see what happens in that time. If it doesn’t happen, it probably isn’t that urgent (especially if laundry and such are happening M-F). If Jenny needs additional time to work, she can open up a few nights per week after her son goes to bed, or give him some screen time on weekends, or trade off with her husband. If she’s currently at 25 hours, adding the 6 hours of after school care, and then a few hours at nights or on weekends gets her to 35+ right there. Allocated well, this should make a big difference in productivity.
What would you suggest Jenny do? If you’ve decided to allocate additional funds to childcare or housekeeping, how have you split it?