Several months ago, I betrayed everything I believe in and hired a maid.
My apartment is exceptionally hard to keep clean due to a unique confluence of factors. It faces a busy L.A. street whose steady flow of traffic kicks an inordinate amount of dirt, dust and grime in through my windows. The easy solution would be to keep my windows closed, but that makes my apartment unbearably hot—it gets hit with sunlight every waking hour of the day and sits directly above the laundry room, collecting all the heat emitted from the building’s two dryers.
My only solution then was to keep the windows open and fight the dust the best I could. But this arrangement quickly drove me insane. The dust would trigger my low-grade obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I’d soon find myself on my hands and knees, sweating profusely, duster in hand, scouring every surface in my apartment for every last speck of filth.
I quickly reached an impasse. I was wasting hours each week waging a futile war against the dirt in my apartment, but my desire to hire a maid and rid myself of the stress was butting up against my borderline pathological fear of spending money. My parents worried about money constantly (and loudly) growing up, and it instilled in me a rigid financial discipline. I eat the vast majority of meals at home and turn down social invites if attending them means spending more than my budget allows. I’ve paid my credit card bill in full every month for the past six years, save for a few months where I had unexpected emergency transactions. And I get a cheap thrill watching my savings accumulate and daydreaming about owning a home in the near future.
Most of all, though, hiring a maid meant breaking my guiding personal finance principle to never pay for something I could easily do myself.
Except it was no longer easy. The tension between my time, my sanity and my pocketbook had grown untenable. So I decided to wave the white flag and hire someone else to clean up, an idea that was once unfathomable to me.
I’m not sure what the opposite of regret is, but I know I felt it the first time I walked into my apartment after work and was greeted with a sparkling clean apartment that required nothing of me but to just enjoy its comforts.
Turns out I’m not alone, either. Spending money on a time-saving purchase is linked to greater life satisfaction, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More specifically (and germane to the topic at hand), the study found people who spent money on maids or ordering takeout (instead of cooking for themselves) reported lower levels of stress and higher levels of happiness and general well-being.
The study speaks to the fundamental tension between time and money. For most people, time and money are their two most valuable, scarcest resources, and life is an eternal struggle over how to allocate the two. For years, I almost always fell on the side of money as more valuable — and considered anyone who disagreed with me as a lazy, entitled prick. But hiring a maid was an active lesson that the calculus isn’t always so simple, and that the gains from outsourcing the more tedious aspects of your life are greater than mere time saved.
Personal finance isn’t just a struggle between saving time and saving money; it’s a struggle between saving money and maintaining your sanity. Nearly every person featured in Into the Black, MEL’s series about people who have paid down their sizable debts, talked about reaching a breaking point where they could no longer handle the demands of frugal living.
Some of them lost friends because of their frugality. Others succumbed to lifestyle inflation and started spending more after receiving a raise, while others abandoned thrift altogether to live a more stress-free life.
That’s exactly where I found myself one fateful afternoon staring up at the mountains of dust gathered on my ceiling fan several months ago. After years of living frugally — spending nights in, skipping friend’s bachelor parties, eating alone in my apartment, taking the red-eye flight because it’s $100 cheaper and hand-scrubbing all my cookware because I haven’t had a dishwasher in five years — I’d grown tired. The money I was saving cleaning the place myself no longer seemed worth the time and mental anguish required.
That’s not to say I still don’t feel a pang of guilt whenever I book my maid for another session, and calculate the money I’m “wasting” on the service. But frugal living can push someone to the brink of sanity. And after several years of it, I’m more than willing to spend the money to keep myself from that ledge.