When Does It Pay to Outsource? You May Be Surprised

Cathie Ericson

Don’t have time to hang your new shelves? There’s an app for that. Hate waiting in line to ship a package? There’s an app for that too. Too tired to grocery shop? There are many, many companies—from Blue Apron and HelloFresh to vegan service The Purple Carrot and, one day soon, Amazon—that can take that burden off your, um, plate.

These days, you can offload just about any onerous household chore—even scooping your pet’s poop—for a price. And that’s the keyword. Because while it’s nice to have someone else iron your shirts and clean your house, you could do it yourself for free, just by investing a little effort and elbow grease.

At the same time, it can feel so good to pass off a dreaded task or two, which begs a vexing question: How do you know when it pays to outsource versus when you should roll up your sleeves and complete the work yourself? Here are six questions to ask yourself to find out.

1. Can you afford it?

It seems obvious, but it can be all too easy to get into the habit of having your dinner delivered—until you suddenly discover the added expense has blown your budget and you have to eat ramen until pay day. So before you offload months’ worth of chores, make sure you can comfortably afford it. (Seriously. Don’t pass go—or ask yourself the next five questions—until you’re sure it’s feasible.)

“It may not be the most fun hour you’ve ever spent, but before you outsource, start by creating a budget,” says financial advisor Kaleb McCarty, founder and CEO of Elite Wealth Advisors in Sarasota, Fla. “If you have enough to cover outsourcing some tasks, go for it. But be sure to prioritize the duties that take most of your time and energy, and outsource them first,” he says.

In other words, if you don’t mind cooking but can’t stand cleaning, that’s an easy trade-off. While you’re thinking about it, you might also realize that making certain sacrifices are worth it in order to afford outsourcing other jobs. (You’d be surprised how much tastier home-brewed coffee becomes when it means you don’t have to walk your dog in the rain.)

2. Does it cost less than what you earn doing something else?

It’s a simple equation: If you pay a maid service to clean your house for $15 an hour so that you have more time to work on your side gig, through which you can earn up to $50 an hour, that’s a clear win.

That’s the math Dan Henry, a 30-something marketer in Tampa, Fla., considered when he came up with a new rule: Anytime he needs to travel farther than a few miles down the road, he hires a driver. “I can spend that time working on my ad campaigns or on my book,” he says. “The value of what I get done in that time far exceeds what I pay the driver.”

Similarly, Angela Robinson, 31, a COO in Los Angeles, Calif., knows she earns significantly more in one hour at her day job than it costs to outsource her most-hated chores, which made the choice easy. Plus, she says, “I love my job, so I’d rather do that than cook or do laundry.”

3. Would outsourcing increase the quality of your free time?

“The thought of spending two hours redundantly sweeping the floor or scrubbing my sink is misery to me,” says Matthew Mercuri, 26, a digital marketing manager in Montreal, Canada, who says he gets a major psychological and emotional benefit from outsourcing his cleaning.

Turns out, he’s onto something: Research has found that buying yourself more free time is one of the happiest ways to spend your money.

“We tend to undervalue our mental health and sanity,” says time-management expert Laura Vanderkam, author of “I Know How She Does It.” It’s not always easy to quantify, she says, but if, for example, you hate driving around on weekends, it might be worth paying the express shipping charges for something you need quickly—even if the time versus money calculation isn’t a slam dunk. “You can make more money. You cannot make more time,” Vanderkam points out.

4. Does your inexperience mean a pro could complete the task in less time or for less money?

Many of us have wasted hours pretending to be handymen, only to have to call in the professionals, anyway—burning both time and money in the process. That’s exactly what happened to Robinson.

Last fall, she was skimming online forums to figure out why her laptop was lethargic, when someone suggested cleaning the fan to allow more ventilation. So she flipped over her computer, saw a bunch of screws and thought, “How hard can it be?” After watching instructional videos for three hours, she took the laptop apart and put it back together again—and it wouldn’t boot up.

In addition to having to buy a new laptop, she also had to hire someone to transfer all her data. “This was an expensive headache—about $850—that I could have avoided had I just outsourced my computer maintenance to a professional!” Robinson says.

Vanderkam says this is a classic example of when outsourcing pays. “There are many things we can do in theory, but will probably go badly. The time it would take to learn to do it well would not be well-invested, as you won’t have to do this particular task too many times in your life,” she says. “[For example], you could certainly plan your own wedding, but if you’re tight on time and know you’ll only get married once (you hope!), it might be worth it to hire a professional who has planned 100.”

Bonus: Aside from allowing the pros to get the job done right in less time, in some cases—like with a wedding or party planner—a connected expert can help you snag vendor deals you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

5. Do you have to invest in extra supplies to accomplish it?

Any project that requires a specific tool—from a level for hanging shelves to chafing dishes for keeping your appetizers warm—could be cheaper to outsource. In fact, that’s a chief selling point for menu delivery services: You no longer have to buy a whole bottle of an obscure, expensive spice that you’ll only use once.

You can also extend this logic to ready-made items in the supermarket, says professional organizer Barbara Reich of Resourceful Consultants. She says many times, you’ll find it’s cheaper to purchase the pre-mixed salad than to buy the seven ingredients you’d need to make it yourself.

6. Can you easily explain it to someone else?

If you’re the type who really wants to squeeze every mango to ensure it’s perfectly ripe, then having someone grab your groceries is probably not for you.

“There are lots of things that I probably could outsource, but I know it will take me more time to explain it—and it’s just easier to do it myself,” says Reich. For example, she says she is so efficient at managing her calendar that it makes no sense to ask a virtual assistant to help. “When it’s something you really want control of, it can be too hard to let it go and the time you spend supervising or redoing it isn’t worth it.”

Good candidates for projects to outsource are either large-scale one-offs—like a 30th birthday party that you can broadly outline, then let a party planner work her magic—or routine tasks, like invoicing, that someone can repeat regularly once they get the hang of it.

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