Housekeeping vs. childcare: the utility of an extra hour

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?

34 thoughts on “Housekeeping vs. childcare: the utility of an extra hour

  1. I’m really glad you posted this. We can outsource housecleaning once a month, and with college costs on the horizon, I’m not sure even that will last forever.

    I’m lucky in that the childcare years are behind me, other than late nights (I have tweens and teens). As for housework, my standards are lax–very. I did all the “right” things in having my children participate in cleanup, etc., when they were little, and in the end, they’re still messy teens who don’t much care about clutter. They take care of their own lunches and laundry, and if neither is the way I’d do it, that’s fine.
    They rotate kitchen cleanup duty, which again is not to any standard of perfection but gets the basic job done. One reason we got the housekeeper is her visits force us to pick up the whole house. Nightly pickups would be nice, but most evenings, I’m driving to or from post-7 p.m. activities. That is just the reality of this stage in life.

    I guess my advice is to pick the deal breakers (clean dishes; clean bathrooms; etc.) and let the rest go.

    1. @Marie- that’s good advice. And if your teens are doing their laundry and dealing with their lunches then you’re good. Not everyone is going to have the same housekeeping standards, and that’s OK.

  2. We got a cleaning service that comes every other week. At first, it was stressful to get the house ready the night before or morning they were coming, but it’s gotten easier. Ours comes on Thursdays, so the weekend before I start reminding the kids they need to pick up their rooms and have a few days to remind them so it’s not last minute. Our 3 older kids (12, 14, 16) do their own laundry, all the kids (we also have a 7 y.o.) put their dishes in the dishwasher after meals, and they take turns emptying it. These 2 things make an enormous difference.

  3. This hit rather close to home. I have a 5 years old twins, an 8 months baby and on my fourth and hopefully final year of PhD. I have all your books, they are my enlightenment.
    I am lucky my husband is home temporarily and can watch the baby (the twins go to school from 8.50-3.15), but the housekeeping territory has been considerably abandoned for some times. I would just lower my standards to clean clothes, meal availability, in addition to basic chores such as (fairly) empty floors for the baby to roam safe and empty sink. I should really scrub my kitchen more often and sort things that always accumulate in surfaces, but always failed to do so. I know that some uses cleaning calendar and designated time for these chores but it is hard to stay consistent to do an elaborate cleaning.

    1. @Kristanti- I’m not sure about designating times for elaborate cleanings, or the cleaning calendar. Anything that is scheduled for a certain time will automatically rise up your priority list, whether it deserves to do so or not. Unless people are living in total chaos, they’re often better off deprioritizing housework. If you’ve got meals, and clean clothes, and the baby isn’t eating marbles off the floor, then you’re probably fine.

  4. This is always an interesting topic for me, especially as I’m finishing up my PhD dissertation while raising a 2- and 4-yr old and pregnant with my third… I am a big fan of your books and tried for a while to lower my housekeeping standards, but it didn’t work for me. I know you’ve pointed out in your books (I know how she does it?) that having rigid organization schedules for housework often takes up more time, but personally I find that it actually frees up my time. If I know that I have a nightly cleanup time then I don’t worry about clutter or dishes throughout the day. We used to have a housekeeper come in four times a week for 2 hours a day, which was amazing, but she is no longer available, so our current method is as follows: 15-minute cleanup/tidy with my husband nightly, occasional morning 10-minute tidy by myself after everyone leaves, and once-a-week bathroom/mopping floors/vacuuming. Deeper cleaning than that doesn’t happen for now. I also try to do paperwork once weekly. Laundry gets done as needed, often on one day of the week, and we don’t fold laundry – we have canvas bins and just throw all the clothing into there for the kids’ clothing and our underclothes. This was my husband’s decision a few years back and has completely changed the process of laundry for us. hmmm… as I’m writing this I am realizing that this would be many people’s version of lower standards, but as long as my house is reasonably tidy all week long and clean at least once a week, I’m happy. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you need to find the lowered standards that work for you.

    1. @AR – I agree on finding the lowered standards that work for you, and I think we’re getting at something similar. What constitutes a rigid schedule is somewhat a matter of opinion. I’m more bothered by people saying something like “do a small load of laundry daily” as a great tip — when I probe why, it turns out that they can’t stand to see things in the hampers. Some people can’t stand to see things in the wastebaskets either. Any clutter on the floor gets picked up as soon as it’s seen (possibly before the kid is even done playing with the toys!) Those are the sorts of standards that need to be lowered. It sounds like you’re doing less than half an hour daily and maybe 2 hours once a week, which comes out to lower than the average time devoted to such things.

  5. We are past the years of needing childcare, so in this season the question is do I spend money on cleaning or food? I decided I’d rather have someone clean twice a month, which frees up time to cook at home like I want to do. This has given me time to cook some extra meals for the freezer, which frees up even more time. I cook on Thursdays and the cleaning lady comes on Friday every other week. Of course I clean up after the cooking, but I don’t worry about the mopping or scrubbing the stovetop.

  6. When my kids were small, I got home from work at 4:15, but left them at day care until the last minute (6:00). That gave me an extra 1.5 hours five days a week, with no kids in the house, and because my husband worked second shift, no man in the house, either – it was all me! I got a LOT accomplished in that time slot.

    1. PS – I paid daycare by the week, rather than by the hour, so leaving the kiddos there the extra time cost no extra $$$.

      1. @Ruth – When I only had one, and he was in daycare, I definitely used that time for exercise and the like. Once you were in for FT coverage you were in, so there was no extra marginal cost. If it was nicer weather I could take him out early and use the jog stroller, but that wasn’t so pleasant for big chunks of the year.

  7. This is really fantastic, excellently nuanced advice.

    This is maybe a little off-topic, but something I grapple with frequently is how my mother, who was a stay-at-home mother, views my home. You mentioned lowering standards, and I fully agree that this is reasonable and helpful. But my mother almost has the opposite perspective, that since I work (and in her mind should be able to afford almost unlimited household help), my house should be cleaner than if I were at home full time. There’s a whole lot of issues there with defining “at home full time” and other things, of course, but it is interesting to me that she argues that my home should be nicer because I work.

    We recently had a discussion about how she thought I should hire help to get the laundry done. But it doesn’t really make sense to me, as we don’t necessarily have enough clothes to make it a full week without repeating any of them, it seems kind of personal for someone else to put the clothes away in our drawers, the kids need to learn how to do their laundry, etc. Laura, I think your thinking through in this post how an hour of household help doesn’t necessarily equal other hours of other sorts of help is really useful for thinking through the prospect of hiring laundry help.

    And of course, the most interesting aspect of all of this is seeing what a stay-at-home mom from the 80s expects of a flexible-work mom of the 2010s.

    1. @H – Hmmm… I think adding the relationship dimension opens up an entirely different can of worms. In general, it’s not a great use of time to anticipate what other people might be thinking about small stakes matters and then worry about it. Other people might be thinking entirely different things. For every family member who thinks the house should be cleaner, another thinks a clean house shows you don’t have enough going on…

      1. @H – Funny, even though I work a professional full-time job, I think my Mom would think that it’s extravagant of me to hire a house cleaner once a month. But, maybe I am assuming she would think that way based on comments she’s made about other people. Honestly, I did too (at least at first), since we’re generally really good with managing our money and saving. I snapped out of it after having my second child and realizing that while I was still (kind of) keeping up with everything, it didn’t make sense for someone at my income bracket to spend a good portion of my leisure time cleaning. There’s something to be said for using money to live the life you want (within reason) vs always trying to save as much as possible.

  8. I’ve been forced to lower my standards. I used to be a stay-at-home mom with an impeccable home and then I went back to school to finish my degree and now I’ve been back to work full time for the last three years. I have a cleaning lady every other week, but as you said, it doesn’t solve the day to day stuff. Add in the fact that my husband is not the tidiest person, but he now works from home full time and two teenage boys who are always at activities, plus two dogs and I recently realized I can only do so much. I do laundry almost every day so I’m not a slave to getting so much done on the weekends and the kids can do their own. My kids are getting older and I can’t spend so much time cleaning when they will be out of the house before I know it.

  9. I find this discussion very interesting. My twist on it is to consider what your child gets from the childcare or cleaning services. We’ve had a cleaning service in the past. It stressed me out in terms of scheduling and for paying for cleaning when things were missed, so it didn’t work as well for us. I’ve lowered my standards, and my kids are now older (8 and 10 years) and learning to clean themselves. The learning experience would be smaller if we had a cleaning lady.

    Extra childcare also has its advantages of extra socialization in a group setting or special one-on-one attention.

    1. @Maureen – Yes, this would be another dimension to consider. I could see arriving at different answers for different kids on the childcare question. An extroverted sort might enjoy an after school program where she could play with her peers. An introverted sort might prefer to be home with a sitter so she can decompress from school in her own space. From the household perspective, though, having an extra adult around in the house (e.g. a sitter/nanny) is often more helpful. An after care program can’t really start dinner for you.

  10. My first question would be: why not get the father to help you? Dividing the chores already takes away half of that time.

    1. Ah – as the person who originally asked the question, I just wanted to add that my husband does help, in fact. He does quite a lot during the week and on weekends, sometimes more than I do and always has, but he cannot afford to continue to do so. He needs to up his hours or at least his productivity. He goes on the academic job market again soon and has to use more weekend time for getting two books written and academic articles. In some ways, hiring a cleaner might be more to replace the hours he now helps than my own in the end… 🙂

    2. Good luck with getting the father to help out. My husband thinks he puts in alot of hard work washing clothes when all he does is start a load and then when they are dry dump them on the couch. As my kids get older I am realizing how much I really do everything, alongside working, and that it will never change.

  11. Interesting post and comments. I too am grappling with this. We had a cleaning service come and give us a quote a few months back, and while the price is more than reasonable, I just don’t know if what they are really going to do is going to make that much of a difference in my day to day life. The things that are more of a frequent thing like putting dishes in the dishwasher, laundry or even just tidying up the living room or basement wouldn’t really work well being done just once every other week. Frankly, when those things are done regardless of how dusty my baseboards may be, I feel way more relaxed than the other way around.

    1. @Monica- I’m with you on this one. It’s nice to have dusted baseboards, but let’s be honest, I wasn’t spending a lot of time in this particular category. So outsourcing it doesn’t save me anything. It’s like people claiming their tips will help you “save” $75k on groceries. Um, only if you were spending $75k on groceries!

  12. My current favorite way to get 1.5 hr/week back is the $5 for curbside grocery pickup.

    We pay for a cleaning service – the cost is pretty low because we are primarily having them scrub down the kitchen counters, sink, stove and floors, wipe down the bathrooms. We specifically don’t have them vacuuming, doing baseboards, etc. While this doesn’t save time (I totally agree with posts above) it does fill a sanitation need that hadn’t been met since my daughter was born. 🙂

    Another way I bought us some time was buying a nice running stroller ($400 one time charge) so that baby girl can come with me on runs and husband gets work done around the house in the meantime.

    Other than that we’ve had better luck outsourcing projects than routine work. Like mulching and landscaping.

    As to the discussion on lowering your standards, besides cleaning, I think keeping food prep simple, straightforward and repetitive is a great way to save a lot of time. I rotate the same meal plan over a 4 week period and the meals are really, really simple. So I get all the benefits of meal planning but very little of the input time.

    I also made a rule that I don’t participate in “bakeoffs” of any type. No homemade dishes for church suppers, no cookies for coworkers, no pies for bake sales, no self-catering for family gatherings. I ‘contract’ all that out via a local grocery/deli that does a great job. I love to cook, but this is just not the season of life through it.

    I get my car cleaned out by the place that does my oil changes – I pay a little more for taking it to the dealership, and I leave it there all day, but totally worth it.

    As for laundry, I’m still working on it, but my 2 year old has started putting her own clothes away!! Not the right ones in the right place, and not at my request, but I’m pretty proud of her anyway 🙂

  13. I am a person who needs clean surfaces to have a clear mind and fully agree that it’s the day to day stuff that’s the worst offender. I have recently been trying to load the dishwasher daily, even if I don’t run it. The kids or husband unload it. Just making a small bit of time/commitment to this has oddly, eased my mind about “OMG CHORES” because I’m not playing “chore chicken” with my husband to see who caves first and loads the overflowing sinkful of dishes into the dishwasher (which will then require multiple loads to get through). I know I’m going against the advice to working moms by just doing it myself, daily but it’s WAY less of a stressor to me that way. And I never ever unload it anymore, so I think the other folks in my home have noticed and stepped up 🙂

    Same for laundry, except I do it once a week. Knowing I have a Saturday “laundry day” makes it less of a mental load. I don’t think about laundry the rest of the week. If someone needs something before Saturday, they can wash it themselves. (This almost never happens.) There’s something to just picking a time and getting into a routine with it.

  14. I realized I never answered the question, though. I have a friend who combined the jobs of after school nanny with dinner prep and she really found that helpful. I personally pay a little extra for online shopping/delivery of groceries through Instacart because it takes me <10 min to click through and order stuff. SO worth the time saved of schlepping to the store and corralling kids.

  15. 1. Amazon–all toiletries/pantry items
    2. Grocery pick up-This really only works if you have a meal plan and stick to it. I suggest making it super simple.
    3. Daily run through. Wipe down bathrooms, load any loose items into a basket and distribute into correct room.
    4. 1x a week cleaning service that does floors, dusts, and changes sheets.
    5. All bills are paid online.
    These are my current tactics. My husband does almost all extra curricular kid related activities. This is how we split “chores.”
    When the kids were younger, I had the combo nanny/cleaning person. She described herself as my “assistant.” Which was probably the most accurate description of what she actually did. She kept the children in my home and maintained a (relative) level of cleanliness and helped prepare simple dinners. She took the kids to activities and even scheduled my dental appointments. She was an older lady from our church. As the children got older, she came over a few hours before school let out and straightened the house, started dinner, and helped with those crazy busy 3-5:00 pm hours. She officially retired last year, but will still come over and keep a sick at home child for me. She was surprisingly affordable.

    1. @Jennie- this is a good list. Amazon is a key time saver. A Target trip is 2 hours out of a weekend. If I’m going, it should be because I want to go, not because we desperately need some item.

  16. In my experience, hiring an individual to do house work is much more useful than contracting with a company that only performs certain services when they come each week. Our cleaning lady is fabulous. She cleans, does laundry, irons, picks up, makes beds, and is a wizard at organizing. She can put a disaster of a closet in HGTV order in an hour. And if that’s what I want her to do that week, she’s fine with it. She puts all our clothes away and has organized our drawers, which may weird some people out, but I think is awesome. She’s totally booked the rest of the week (no surprise there) but I’m sure if a spot ever opened up I could hire her to come once a week just to cook and put things away. My kids are 2 and 4 and we have another one on the way so the messes are constant and often not ignorable (a peed bed, milk all over the floor) so it doesn’t totally eliminate house work but it helps tremendously. She can do a way better job than me in way less time and it’s 100% worth the money. I would give up a lot of things before I gave up our weekly Ms. Lily.

  17. A weekly house cleaner is a necessity for us. But mostly because cleaning bathrooms, floors etc. is really the one job that neither me or my husband wants to do. However, when we had our house cleaner on hold during a home remodeling project we had no problem lowering our expectations to greatly reduce how much cleaning we needed to do! But, expectations can’t really be adjusted for the daily things, especially when kids are involved. Dinners have to be made and dishes done and on and on. It made a much bigger impact on us when we had a few weeks without after school help when our after school nanny graduated. I would much rather come home to settled and fed kids with a dirty bathroom than the other way around. I also agree the internet helps in so many ways. I rarely go to stores and order pretty much everything online. Last week I ordered our groceries online in 10-15 minutes from work, from a family owned local store! Bottom line though is that my husband is completely onboard. No issues if I am paying a little more to do these things because we both understand how these things positively impact our relationship and family.

  18. I like the idea of seeing what you can cut out first (for example, the rule in our house growing up, you weren’t allowed long hair until you were old enough to care for it yourself, my mum estimated that rule alone saved her 15 minutes a day…)

  19. Thanks to Laura for picking up my question and to everyone for your wonderful comments and insights into how you manage work, family and household in your lives. I have loved reading all of these comments and it has given me a lot of food for thought. We are looking at various local options but the main challenge is just how tight our budget remains as living costs are very high in our part of England right now and academic salaries and stipends quite low, alas. But we are looking at what is possible – either a combo mother’s helper who can do some cleaning and take care of my son 1-2 afternoons a week or the much cheaper afterschool program at school, plus a cleaner every week or two. We are also trying out food delivery services including a local woman who cooks meals and delivers them and it costs the same or less than if we did it ourselves and that would save a lot of time and energy. In terms of lowering cleaning standards, for years I did even less than now but found things just got too grubby and messy so I did not feel relaxed or organized (and we all have dust allergies so vacuuming and dusting needs to happen). I still spend below average amounts of time on cleaning, but partly that is because we live in a tiny house (700 sq. ft). I try to straighten up briefly each day, load/unload the tiny dishwasher, and my husband does laundry (and we fold together while watching something together one night a week), my son does his chores, etc. I don’t feel I can do much less really. As renters we are conscious of the condition of the house when we return it. I think you’re right that it may not save as much time as I think but having someone else do the main clean would leave more energy and maybe focus for other things (and less Saturday stress) and be able in good conscience spend some time on work and also still have time with my son on the weekend. Anyway, I am going to keep thinking about this as we try to make some decisions and really appreciate the helpful feedback!

    1. @Jenny- so glad all this was helpful! There are a lot of options, and a lot of variables, and it’s good to think about all of them. Unfortunately, no one gets a manual for figuring out how to make life easier – one reason I try to share people’s questions (and my questions!) on this blog.

      1. It’s fabulous to have your advice and some crowdsourcing wisdom. Your books have been very inspiring to me to get back into more full-time work and believe it is possible to do so and not just fall into black/white, all-or-nothing thinking. For a long time I felt it would be impossible to have a career and not work 70 hours a week and live in chaos. I am beginning to figure out how we might make things work and remain sane. I am still doing timekeeping after 2 months (most weekdays anyway) and have found this transformative – both in helping keep me on track with work and be productive (and not end up down Internet rabbit holes by accident) and in learning how long it actually takes me to do things. Your books have also helped me think about the week more flexibly (and not just 9-5, etc.), without feeling that full-time week means being doomed to years with no sleep and no time with my child. We’ll see how things go – but for now: Thank you!

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