Podcast: Outsourcing discussion

On today’s podcast episode, Sarah and I discuss what we outsource, and why, and how to do it effectively in order to save time. (Please pardon my tinny sound — ugh! I recorded in a room with an echo. I was trying to get away from my children while recording, but it’s possible the alternative was worse.)

We opened with a discussion of what our children eat. We will probably do another episode on meal planning, and children’s nutrition, because it turned out we had a lot to say about that (or at least me…I kind of rambled on. Sigh).

Then we discussed our philosophy of outsourcing. Basically, everybody outsources. Unless you are churning your own butter, or driving your own mail to Wisconsin, you outsource. It’s just a matter of degree. People treat the outsourcing of household tasks as somehow controversial, but I think this is largely because these tasks are perceived as “women’s work.” Indeed, one of the most outsourced household tasks is mowing/yard work — which is often “men’s work.” Turns out many guys who are away from the house much of the week don’t want to spend their weekends doing this.

It can be the same for many in-the-house chores. Sarah and I both outsource a lot: grocery shopping, a lot of meal prep, laundry (all in her case, the kids’ laundry in mine), general tidying. We order most things online (Amazon, Nordstrom, etc.). My big boys buy lunch at school.

We discussed cleaning services briefly, as both of us have experimented with them. My experience — my own, and what I’ve seen looking at people’s time logs — is that a cleaning service can give you a cleaner house, but it doesn’t necessarily save people a lot of time. It’s the little daily recurring tasks (emptying the dishwasher, picking up toys, folding laundry) that consume people’s time, and these generally need to be outsourced to a person who’s in your house frequently. That could be a separate housekeeper (which we had for a while; once we established a payroll for employing a nanny, adding another employee wasn’t too complicated), or perhaps it could be negotiated as part of a caregiver’s job description, if that person has some non-kid time on the clock. In Sarah’s case, her nanny’s schedule consists of several hours while both kids are in school, so she does pretty much whatever Sarah would do during that time if she were a full-time home-maker. If you employ an after school sitter, you might be able to pay that person to come 1-2 hours early to do some of the home tasks.

One way to outsource effectively is to track your time and see what is taking a lot of time (or a lot of mental space — sometimes those tasks are worth offloading too). Then you can prioritize these tasks, and maybe find the money somewhere else. Buy fewer things, and buy yourself time instead.

We also discussed the question both of us get from time to time about outsourcing household tasks: but what does this teach your kids? I think this question should only be asked in a house where there is a completely equitable, non-gendered split of such labor, and the kids chip in a lot too. Because otherwise, what you’re teaching your kids is that the woman in your life should do all household tasks for free. Whereas when such tasks are outsourced, you’re showing that they’re economically valuable, which is true.

(That’s not to say we don’t have the kids do stuff too — we do. They do some general tidying, putting away clothes, clearing the table, emptying parts of the dishwasher, etc. And my husband and I both do stuff around the house as well. None of this is an either/or matter, as it’s often made out to be. In a household of 6 people, including 4 kids, there is more than enough work to outsource a lot and still have a lot to do!)

What do you outsource? What have you found saves you the most time? Have you tried to outsource anything and had it not work? (We have failed on finding a service or person who will do the non-mowing yard maintenance: planting, weeding, etc.)

35 thoughts on “Podcast: Outsourcing discussion

  1. We have outsourced homework to our afterschool babysitter. There are some days that my husband or I get home early from work, but we don’t cancel the babysitter on those days. She helps with homework and math facts whether we are home or not. This saves so much mental energy at the end of the day, and it also provides us with built-in childcare on days that we need it.

    1. @Emily- homework is an interesting one. I am mostly the one who helps with it (and yes, math has been the subject that requires the most supervision) and there is definitely a mental energy requirement. My 10-year-old decided at 9:45 p.m. last night that he really needed to work with me on long division and I’m like Nooooo my brain is dead right now. We wound up doing it from 8-8:30 this morning.

  2. Two out-of-house working parents, one 12 year old in high school. We both have demanding jobs that include some traveling a few times a year and some work on evening or week end a few times a month. Our careers are equally important and we split 50/50 on chores at home (seriously). Planning menu, making grocery list and cooking every night is husband’s territory, laundry is mine, kitchen/dish cleaning is his or my task on alternating days (been going on for 12 years!). Making appointment &
    going to them (dentist, doctor, car) is split 50/50.
    -We outsource
    1) weekly house cleaning since our son was 1.
    2)Lawn mowing, Fall leaves picking, Tree wraping for winter and spring cleaning of yard
    3) Snow removal from driveway (in Canada, its a very recurring task)
    4) son’s lunch is by school’s caterer since kindergarden
    5) after school care is at school (until he was 11)
    I am sure some people find it outrageous that we outsource so many things. Me: never cleaning a microwave or a toilet bowl = win

    1. @Nadia- snow removal! I need to get this on my outsourcing list. We don’t have a snow blower, so I was often doing it manually. My driveway can easily take 3-4 hours to shovel (and I know this, because I track my time). One might think this a more traditionally masculine task, but my husband has a curious way of disappearing when it snows, and then not being able to get home for several days because of course the flights are canceled.

  3. I see your point about how everyone outsources something. We definitely do not make our own clothes or grow our own food! That said, we don’t really outsource any of the things you and Sarah specifically discuss on the podcast episode (grocery shopping, meal prep, laundry, preschool dropoff/pickup, deep cleaning, general tidying, yard work, etc.). We do outsource about 40-45 hours a week of childcare to preschool/aftercare, as we both work full-time. We also get either takeout or prepared foods from Whole Foods about once a week, and we pay for anything around the house that would require any kind of DIY (neither of us is the least bit handy, so anytime anything breaks or we need to do any home maintenance, we call professionals!). I would probably like to outsource some of the other things, but when it comes time to look at the budget and think about what outsourcing would cost, we inevitably decide not to do it because it would cut into savings goals and/or other spending we like to prioritize, like travel. I think it’s important to think about outsourcing in the context of tradeoffs. I will say, one of the things you say that ring most true to me that is somewhat related to outsourcing is “lower your standards.” Yes, we don’t pay for a cleaning service, but by lowering our standards, we save time and/or money (probably both). That has been one of my biggest survival strategies for this season of life of having young children and full-time jobs, and I think it’s been more effective for my overall budget and time priorities than outsourcing in my case.

    1. @Emily- I’m a big fan of lowering standards. It really is a great way to free up time. The toys do not need to be picked up daily. Probably the laundry can go another day. A quick and simple supper (omelette night!) is just fine. Sarah had also created a list of things that just don’t get done, but we never got to that in our discussion 🙂

  4. “Basically, everybody outsources. Unless you are churning your own butter, or driving your own mail to Wisconsin, you outsource. It’s just a matter of degree.”

    Haha, I love that. I remember a conversation with my brother a few years back when he found out we had a biweekly house cleaner and he was shocked and said, “I would NEVER spend money on that.” I returned, “I would NEVER spend money on a giant TV” (as he just had to the tune of several thousand dollars). He was like, “…point taken.”

    Anyway, we have an almost-4yo and another one due in a month, and we outsource:
    – biweekly house cleaning
    – weekly lawn care (mowing, edging, overseeding, fertilizing, etc.)
    – gutter cleaning
    – fall and spring yard cleanups
    – a couple Target runs a year (via Instacart)
    – the vast majority of non-grocery shopping (through Amazon Prime)
    – meal planning (we use The Fresh 20)
    – weekday breakfasts and lunches for the kid (I refused to even consider any daycare that required parents to send meals and snacks)

    In a few cases, our outsourcing is a matter of time saved (this 100% factors in on the lawn care and shopping trips), but for the rest it’s largely about hating the task in question. Laundry and general household tidying just doesn’t take me much time and I don’t mind them, so it’s no big deal to me to handle those. I super duper suck at cleaning floors and it makes me despise the world and everything in it, hence the cleaning person for that.

    1. @Jenny- yep, it’s all about choices. We chose not to max out on things like housing because it frees up monetary space to buy ourselves time and build up savings too. Our cars are older than a lot of our friends’ cars. I also just realized I’ve been sleeping on a sheet with a hole in it, but that’s more my under-buying problem than actual thoughtful frugality.

      1. Laura, what’s one small hole in a double or king size sheet? I realised the same this weekend but turned the right way round you don’t even lie on it, let alone notice it and the rest of it is beautifully soft from wear and age! My brother was appalled and critical of our patio heater and its effects on global warming. But he regularly flies on business and on holiday and I haven’t been in a plane since 2002 – as you say, it’s all about choices.

  5. I enjoyed your take on the what will this teach your kids objection. A related one I’ve never understood is how will your kids know how to do laundry/dishes/etc–google? the instructions on the laundry machines? These aren’t that complicated!

    I don’t outsource many of the things you both do because I’d rather travel and I don’t want to switch careers to a higher paying one, but I found it useful to think about the possibilities.

    In terms of lowering your standards, I think it also pays to know yourself. I get incredibly distracted by physical clutter, so for me it’s worth it to spend 5-10 minutes of an hour picking up toys or papers or whatever to get the rest of that hour really focused on playing with my kids or working or whatever I actually want to be doing (and yes, I time this so I know exactly how long it takes (or really doesn’t take if I’m consistent! :-))

  6. About a decade ago, as a very junior attorney, I attended a work/life balance panel of senior women at the firm. Their universal response to “how do you do it all?” was an enthusiastic “outsourcing!”

    As a 27 year old with no kids, an 800 square foot apartment, and a 12 minute commute I balked at this.

    Now as a 37 year old with multiple offspring, 3000+ square feet to clean, and 2 daily hours of commuting, OH MY GOODNESS WERE THEY RIGHT!

    We have (1) weekly cleaning, (2) weekly lawn service with additional seasonal cleanup and mulching, (3) childcare that includes transport to soccer, piano, etc. and that does laundry and makes beds in the spare time. The annual expenditure is sizable, but it makes two-income, two-kid life doable. (And yes, we have the privilege that each income markedly exceeds the expense of outsourcing. Not everybody does.)

    1. @Kathleen – ah yes, that panel concept! I have attended a few of these (often after my talks, if the organization has decided to make a longer event of it). My favorite answer on one such panel was a woman who pointed out that her bonus alone, after taxes, was sufficient to more than cover her (high-end!) nanny’s salary. Often, work/life balance panels are framed from the perspective of how difficult it is to combine a big career with the rest of life, but we forget that these big careers often have some fairly significant upsides (at least in terms of $$)

  7. We outsource the grocery shopping, which is awesome. We haven’t done the others on your list as we are prioritizing debt repayment (my job is relocating in 18 months, and probably without me!), mainly to reduce the mortgage.
    So thanks for the podcast – my first reaction was that we couldn’t afford these types of outsourcing, but realized half way through the podcast that we just had a different priority at present.
    Also, no Amazon prime in NZ, so can’t take access of that.

  8. One thing I’d add to the podcast and discussion here is just that the outsourcing (and particularly the cost, when it’s hard for some of us to be ok with paying someone else for something we could do) is the most effective when we make a conscientious decision about what to use the saved time doing…. so, as you suggest, Laura, when we look at our time logs to brainstorm what we could outsource, we should also think about what we would have liked to do with those x numbers of hours we spent on what we are now going to outsource… whether it be exercising, reading, working, seeing friends, playing boardgames with the kids, whatever. Especially when it’s a stretch financially to add that outsourcing, I think being deliberate about the benefit is even more fulfilling and worthwhile.

  9. Laura and Sarah- timely post. I just framed this question to a physician mom finance group- more as a question about what tasks others offload to increase or preserve productivity/income. I know Laura’s literature on this very well and agree that more frequent help with daily tasks are where we need help. We have plenty, but we are not at all in a season of life where $ is free-flowing- we are in the expensive childcare + loan repayment + saving for a house stage. Either way, investing in outsourcing NOW will pay dividends as it allows both my husband and I to lean into our careers while having quality time with kids. Thankfully I read 168hrs 7 years ago 🙂 In the Fall, I spent ~100hours or so outside of my Cardiology fellowship constructing an application for loan repayment…and got it. It wasn’t just those 100hours that got me the $- it was years of investing time and strategy into my career development. But it is the first time that I have seen my time management strategies truly pay off for our family. To help me stay on track after kid #2 comes, our housekeeper will now come weekly and do the laundry folding/sorting. We will be looking for a nanny who can help with breakfast clean-up, dishwasher emptying, mid-week kids’ laundry, and general tidying up of kids’ stuff. Thanks to Laura for introducing me to this concept so many years ago!!!

    1. @Virginia – congrats on the loan repayment application going through. That is a great payoff of time invested! And yes, leaning into your careers in the early years can have huge payoffs later on. I’m so glad you found 168 Hours helpful for developing your time management philosophy.

  10. Last night I recalled two hilarious outsourcing, done via Task Rabbit.
    One was waiting in line at a trendy restaurant that didn’t take reservations. The couple went elsewhere to get a drink while some 23-year-old enjoyed playing with her phone for an hour or two in line, in exchange for $20 or so.

    The other: a single 30-something guy wanted bacon after a night of revelry, but he didn’t want to interact with anyone. So he had a task rabbit buy bacon… and slip it through the mail slot!

    Task Rabbit may solve your planting/weeding problem. Worth. A check!

  11. Don’t forget children as a potential labor pool to whom you can outsource the daily maintenance. 😉 We pay our 12-year old $6/week to straighten & clean all 3 bathrooms. We pay our 9-year old $6/week to sweep, vacuum, wipe down the kitchen appliances & clean up the dog’s poop in the yard. We pay our 6-year old $3/week to dust, clean up the dog fur on the couches & clean the windows where our dog slobbers.

    1. @Brooke – very good point! One’s own children can be an affordable source of labor. Of course, this gets into the whole allowance/chores discussion, which is its own set of fun (as I know from some of the comments and email I’ve gotten – I really didn’t think it was so controversial…)

    2. Yes! I was going to come comment on outsourcing to my children. We don’t pay them for doing household chores because I don’t want them to decide they have a choice to do them or not, but my kids (4 and 7) have a set of chores they do.
      For me, it’s not so much a time-saver right now as it will be later. It’s really as much about teaching them to be contributors to the household team (they are boys) as it is getting things off my plate I don’t like to do 🙂
      Right now, they pack their own lunches (within my guidelines — sandwich, fruit, dairy, but it’s their choice what from each category) and they empty the kid-safe stuff from the dishwasher. They’re also responsible for picking up their own toys and tidying up both their rooms and public spaces in the house, and helping fold/put away laundry.

  12. Great discussion on the podcast. One thing that outsourcing has been huge for with our family is preserving “marital harmony”. My husband works very long hours, I work full time and we have a son in full day preschool. We have a service that comes twice a week for four hours. That time is divided between deep cleaning as needed and “daily tidying” – dishes, putting away toys, laundry. Having two days off these daily tasks during the week – has made it so I am happy to handle the weeknight cooking and remaining household tasks. Eliminating discussions about who is doing what has been a huge benefit of outsourcing for us.

  13. We’re two working out of the house parents with some schedule flexibility. We look at outsourcing as a way to improve quality of time we spend together. We outsource:
    – House cleaning on Fridays (we’ve tried other days of the week but found that Friday helps us have a great weekend). That includes deep clean of bathrooms and kitchen, all floors, dusting, and then occasional things like windows or cleaning the basement. Our cleaner also starts two loads of laundry while she’s at our house.
    – We have a financial adviser. I know this isn’t for everyone and some people think the fees are a huge waste, but our investments have grown faster and we have recovered all of the fees and more since we went this route and we aren’t spending hours puzzling over the right decision and never being quite sure. That’s mostly mental energy, but it takes up time, too.
    – Child care at an amazing center.
    – Our favorite local grocery store doesn’t do delivery, but once a week, we place an order and picking it up takes approximately 3 minutes on my husband’s way home from picking up the kids.
    – We don’t have access to Amazon Fresh or similar services, but I became an Amazon Prime convert the moment I became a parent and I’ve only had to make a couple of emergency Target runs in the last three years.
    – We hire a neighborhood kid to mow our lawn and pull our weeds. He’s not a professional, but he’s reliable, knows the difference between a weed and a peony, and it’s fine.

  14. I appreciate the alternate perspective on what outsourcing housework teaches the kids. I’ve been very reluctant to do it, on the grounds that I don’t want to teach the kids that someone else can come along and pick up their stuff for them. Of course, what I’ve been teaching them is that *I* can come along and pick up their stuff for them. (I don’t have a paying job at the moment, so I can’t exactly justify hiring a housekeeper.)

  15. I dislike shopping in stores. Too much of a timewaster. I too order a lot online, but my struggle is with fresh groceries (dairy, fruit, etc.) How do you outsource grocery shopping? I live in northeast Wisconsin & I have not heard of that.

    1. @MB- I think major markets have it, but not everywhere. Most major urban ones are serviced by Fresh Direct type services. When I was in NYC, we could place an order for any grocery item and specify a 2-hour delivery window (so, say, Saturday 7-9 am).

      If you have a major supermarket chain near you they might do it, or at least have curb side type pick -up — place your order and they bring it out at a specified time. I haven’t tried that so I don’t know how seamless it is.

  16. I don’t outsource as much as you both do, but I do a little bit. I commented above about how I outsource to my children 🙂 I also have a 2x-month cleaning service — the clean house alone is worth it for me, whether or not it saves time.
    I’m more of a systems-in-place person than an outsourcer, partly because of the limited options (I live on a restricted-access military base, in a very-not-urban area). I like to automate or semi-automate most of my household decisions and tasks. I like to say “use the robots” — both literally and figuratively. We have a Roomba, and I use the timer settings on the dishwasher and the washing machine, but I also just have base fill-in-the-blank plans for things like meal planning, like Sarah mentioned.
    We live in an area that doesn’t have grocery delivery OR curbside pickup! I have managed to find a couple of sources for things to dramatically reduce my Target trips — Grove Collaborative is a great household-product subscription service, so I never have to remember to buy dish soap or toilet paper (use the robots). I tried a meal-planning service, but it was more work trying to customize it for our family’s tastes and time than it was worth, so now I just have a standard shopping list set up in store order and will add the few items I need for meals, so a trip takes 30 minutes.

  17. I know this thread is way old but I’m behind on podcast episodes. I wanted to comment particularly on outsourcing gardening tasks (beyond routine lawn care). I’ve had good success doing that with a local upscale gardening center / greenhouse. They are more expensive than alternatives… but since they show up and the alternatives don’t, is this really a fair comparison? Have had them mulch, replace landscaping plants, add new landscaping, etc. They don’t mind doing little one-off things.

    Another note, I live in a semi rural area where we don’t have a lot of the services you mention (grocery delivery!!) — BUT — I have a 10 minute commute. So maybe there are some offsets.

    1. @Byrd- very true that a short commute can cover for a host of ills. After all, you might have the time to do some of the things other people outsource if you’re not in the car for 2 hours a day!

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