Research shows that people who spend money to save time are better off.
Sometimes you have to admit mom was right. When my husband and I moved into a behemoth old Victorian in need of some love, she shook her head. “You’ll never have any time to enjoy the house,” she warned us. “You’ll spend all your time cleaning.”
Enthralled with the acres of hardwood floors, fireplaces in every room, and gorgeous trim you only find in houses of a certain age (this one dates to 1890), I laughed it off. We had moved from a 900 square foot home that took a team effort of just 20 minutes to get it clean enough for company and I couldn’t envision spending any more time than that. We’d just get a Roomba, we figured.
Within weeks I admitted privately she was right.
Within months I fessed up more publicly.
Soon I was the boring person who complains about how much time it takes to clean the house.
We tried various approaches; one room a day, x number of minutes per day, refrigerator lists, apps, paper planners with chore lists. But when there was always more to be done it came to seem pointless to even make an effort. So we’d let it slide. Then something would spur us into action; family coming to visit, hosting friends, wasting half an hour looking for something we’d misplaced, and we’d lose an entire weekend to mopping, scrubbing and fervent proclamations that this time we’d get clean and organized and stay that way.
Between those frenzied bouts of cleaning I’d find myself in one of two untenable situations. Working from home I don’t get to leave dirty dishes or the mountain of laundry behind each day. So I had to either look at it all day, which left me feeling stressed and overwhelmed, unable to focus — or just deal with it myself, which ate away large chunks of my work day and left me feeling stressed and overwhelmed. You see where this is going.
We needed professional help. But I felt guilty at even the thought. What would people think? My own mom cleaned houses when I was a kid and I helped sometimes. We’re not one-percenters by a long stretch; I’m a freelance writer plus Airbnb host with a full-time rental on our home’s third floor, and my husband works in HR and is pretty much an eternal college student. We share a car and are more likely to shop consignment and thrift stores than luxury boutiques. Thoughts of a housecleaner conjured up fancy people with shiny jobs and paychecks to match. Who did we think we were?
That feeling isn’t unusual, Ashley Whillans, assistant professor at Harvard Business School tells NBC News BETTER. Her research into how people navigate trade-offs between time and money has shown that people who spend money to save time are happier than those who spend it on material goods, significantly happier. But very few people – as in two percent, in an experiment — would actually spend a windfall on a timesaver.
But why? Blame that nagging guilty feeling. In ongoing research “we find that guilt really does undermine consumer likelihood of buying time — and the benefit you get from buying it,” Whillans says. Another possible reason, she says, is that people consider time abstract and money concrete. “Material purchases you can have right now [while] time saving benefits you in future. We always think we’re going to have more time tomorrow than today whereas money is equally valuable [anytime]. It takes some mental gymnastics to think about spending a resource that’s concrete now in a way that’s going to save some time in the future.”
I guess I’m good at the mental gymnastics because I couldn’t get the siren song of help out of my head, and we made the leap. My husband took the HR approach with an ad on craigslist and phone screenings. Meanwhile I called a woman whose card I found at the register of our local hardware store and asked her over. And she was the one. With a passion for helping people and a drive to launch her own full-time cleaning business, she took us on as one of her first clients. I liked her hustle.
M and I worked out the details; she’d come once a week, on Friday mornings. I didn’t tell anyone at first (aside from friends in our neighborhood, that is — we live in American’s largest concentration of Victorian homes so we’re all singing the same housecleaning blues).
And something magical happened after that first cleaning. I took a look around at the glowing floors, polished furniture and gleaming kitchen counter all previously cloaked by the dust ever-present in these old houses and strewn with the detritus of a busy life. And I could draw an easy breath. I knew living in a house in constant need of cleaning was stressing me out, but I didn’t realize just how badly until the worry was lifted.
The transformation in my outlook was remarkable. Now I could see the toothpaste splatters on the bathroom mirror or the balls of dog hair tumbleweeding across the floors and shake it off; rather than fretting about the impossibility of ever catching up, “M’s coming Friday, she’ll take care of it,” I could think, and return to my own work.
For the first time, my husband and I fell into an easy routine of keeping things picked up. We don’t consider it M’s job to pick up dog toys, do dishes or fold our laundry, so we make a point by Thursday evening to have the house clutter-free and ready for her. That deadline, and the freedom of knowing that’s all we have to do, that the heavy lifting will be done by a pro, means no more danger of letting things pile up — and a drastic reduction in arguing about who does what.
This approach is a definite benefit of working with a cleaner, says Ellen Delap, a certified professional organizer and president of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals. The schedule “gives you that little extra nudge that many of us require,” she tells BETTER.
Delap looks at enlisting outside help as a team model, she says. Whether it’s sending out laundry, hiring an organizer or cleaner or using meal preparation plans, “you’re just enlarging your team,” she says, freeing your time to do what you do best.
And what I do best is the work I love: writing, reporting, sharing stories. With several hours a week freed up from cleaning — not to mention a great deal more mental space — I’m busier than ever, in a good way. That’s because I make a concerted effort to use my newfound time wisely. After all, the adjustment to the household budget has to be covered by an increase in my earnings.
Those with traditional jobs and regular salaries may be able to look at a financial decision like this as a pretty straightforward assessment, says financial advisor Luke Meador. “They need to have a good budget, know how much disposable income is available, and simply prioritize spending. If it fits in your budget, and you don’t like cleaning, is it worth it?”
But for people like me, and every other person who is self-employed, it’s not as cut and dried. “In this situation you have some kind of hourly rate you can calculate,” he says. “[Ask yourself] what is your rate? How long would it take you to do the job? Is it cheaper to hire someone than to do it yourself?”
To be honest I may not make any more than M; we wouldn’t be ok with hiring someone at less than a living wage. Regardless, it’s worth it many-fold. The feeling of peace that settles over me when she leaves on Friday and I know we don’t have to spend our weekend cleaning is priceless. With a clean house and the responsibility lifted I’m more likely to invite people over and enjoy some much needed social connection, to spend longer with my dog on our walk to the park, and in general to do things that make me feel happy and healthy.
M’s contribution to our lives has been such a game changer that before long I couldn’t keep word to myself. Naysayer’s opinion be blasted, I thought, and I shared our experience with local friends on Facebook to sing her praises and offer to provide contact information. Within moments the messages were rolling in. It turns out many of my friends also needed help. M soon had several new clients and has set a timeline for leaving her day job to strike out on her own with this new business.
So, mom may have been right. But thanks to the new member of our team we’ll be able to enjoy the house after all.