Outsourcing chores by hiring a cleaning service or personal assistant might sound like the kind of splurge that a recession-era budget would quickly eliminate. But outsourcing certain household tasks can end up saving so much time and energy that the cost is well worth it—as long as you use your newly freed-up time wisely.
Jen Smith, author of the Millionaire Mommy Next Door blog, says that her housecleaner and personal assistant who takes care of bills and balancing the household checking accounts makes it possible for her to run her multiple businesses, which include financial coaching, writing, and managing Web content, while leaving her plenty of time to spend with her daughter. She and her husband also rely on Supper Solutions, a company that helps families prepare their meals for the week, for easy dinnertime prep. "The point of outsourcing is that you can accomplish more, without kissing your free time goodbye . . . . Because we outsource, we make money and have more free time," says Smith, who is based in Colorado.
Entrepreneur Erica Douglass, 27, pays a personal assistant about $500 a month, which frees up almost 40 hours a month for her to put toward growing her business. The assistant, whom Douglass found through craigslist, handles her laundry, writes thank-you notes, and does the dishes, among other chores. "By having a personal assistant do things like my laundry, I can more effectively use my own time to help both myself and other people," explains Douglass.
Hiring domestic help is nothing new; in fact, a century ago, it was more common. The Census Bureau reports that there were 1.4 million domestic servants in 1900, who helped with cleaning, cooking, child care, and other responsibilities, explains Mignon Duffy, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The most recent estimates put the number of nannies and housekeepers closer to 660,000, which is a steep decline from 100 years earlier. Duffy's research suggests that the number of domestic workers is now on the rise, perhaps driven partly by income inequality in cities.
[For more, see "10 Secrets of Millionaires' Money Management."]
Another factor: the growing number of women working and earning more, which makes it more necessary, and affordable, for families to hire domestic help. After all, if you're working 40 hours a week, it's hard to find an additional 17, which is the average number of hours spent by married women per week on housework, according to the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Sanjiv Gupta, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has found that women with higher earnings spend less time on housework, perhaps because they are more likely to hire domestic help. It's possible, Gupta explains, that women with higher earnings "place a higher value on their time," so spending time on housework is less appealing.
In addition to helping people earn more money, outsourcing domestic work allows people to enjoy their free time more. "People are spending more money on outsourcing lawn care services, but then at the same time, they are spending more on do-it-yourself gardening projects," says Craig Lair, assistant professor of sociology at Gettysburg College. In his research, Lair has also come across companies, such as SendOutCards.com and That's Gratitude, that offer to write thank-you notes for busy people.
[For more, see "Tim Ferriss: How to Work the Four-Hour Week."]
Before you hire domestic help, consider these six tips:
Outsource the chores that you hate. Smith recommends hiring someone to do the tasks that "sap your energy." She adds, "When you try to wear all the hats, you take time and energy away from doing what you're really good at."
Put a price on your time. Smith suggests calculating whether you could pay someone to do a task for less money than you earn. Douglass uses a similar strategy to decide what to outsource: Since she's self-employed, she puts an hourly rate on her time, which she recently raised to $150 from $50. If she can hire someone to do a task for less than that, then she does. (She uses websites such as www.oDesk.com to find people willing to perform tasks on a freelance basis.)
Invest in some upfront training. "You have to be aware you won't immediately get your investment back," says Douglass. But she says investing in some training, and writing down explanations for specific tasks, pays off. She spent an hour creating a binder to explain the weekly maintenance routine for her hot tub; now, she saves 15 to 20 minutes a week by not having to do the chore or explain to someone else how to do it.
Forget the guilt. After she got married, Stephanie Britton, 33, an engineer who lives outside of Atlanta, decided to hire a monthly cleaning service. Britton herself had been spending about four hours once a month cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming, and mopping and waxing the hardwood floors in the five-bedroom house. "At first, I felt bad. Since there's only two people, it shouldn't be too hard to clean up after ourselves . . . but it was hard," she says. Now, Britton, who writes the Ms. Money Savvy blog, has more time for her volunteer work, and she says outsourcing also helps her marriage. "It keeps marital happiness. I'm not nagging my husband about cleaning," she says.
Prioritize your spending. Britton is frugal when it comes to eating out and wasting money in other ways, so she can afford to hire the monthly cleaning service, which costs around $100 per visit. Douglass adds that if she had to choose between less stuff and less time, she would choose less stuff. "I would rather give up my house and live in a small apartment and have a personal assistant. It's much more valuable to me to spend money on people and gain time," she says.
Don't forget to pay taxes. You probably don't need to worry about taxes if you pay for just the occasional cleaning service, but in general, if you pay a domestic worker more than $1,700 a year, you also need to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. (In addition, unemployment taxes apply to anyone earning over $1,000 per year.) Some states require employers of household workers to pay unemployment insurance taxes and workers' compensation insurance. Be sure to check with the IRS and Social Security Administration when you file your taxes.