I’m Not Cheap Enough for a Six-Hour Laundry Session

One of the most profound ideas in economics is household production: the idea that people can choose how to do things by combining their time and their purchases — and then utilize substitution depending on the prices of each.

There is more than one way to take a vacation: it can be short and expensive (by air to Provence) or long and cheap (by camper to a nearby lake).

I don’t often think about these decisions in my own life, but doing the laundry in our apartment in Germany made them starkly clear.

The washer-dryer combo in our bathroom is tiny:


Worse still, it is very slow — to the point where completely doing three loads takes about six hours of intermittent attention; that’s a lot of time, but the only cost is soap.

Fortunately there is a laundry with lots of dryers and washers 20 yards down the street. I figure my wife and I can make three short trips in an hour and a half and get the whole task done for 10 euros ($15). It’s an easy choice: we substitute money for our time.

We are not often presented with such clear choices, and I do believe most people get it right (value their time properly) most of the time; but I’d bet that there still is a tendency to take a time-intensive approach (like our six-hour laundry) more often than is justified by the prices of purchases and time.

M Todd

Would depend on your laundry patterns. If you are the type that waits until you are out of laundry and do it all at once then multiple washers and dryers will save you time.

The down side is you are locked into doing laundry and waiting for the cycles to finish.

If you do laundry as you go, the single washer is the more efficient means since you do not have to wait for the machines. Since your clothing is secure in your own home you are free to do other tasks even outside of your apartment. Plus no one is waiting to use the machine so you could put a load in the washer before bed, and dry it in the morning. That way half the task would be done while you sleep.

If you add up all the "actual" time doing laundry the single home unit would be the most efficient for actual time you are locked into doing laundry.


I always find these value of personal time extremely funny because nobody ever takes the time to come up with a real, and honest value of their time. So let me do it for you.

There are 168 hours in a week. You work 40 hours and are paid for such, let's assume $20/hr as a median US wage. This leaves 128 hours of the week which are your free time. Now the question is who is paying for this time. Well you are of course. How much do you get to pay yourself for this time? This would be the exact amount of your wages for the week, minus taxes and divided by your free 128 hours in the week.

So assuming taxes at 25% and a salary of $41600/yr or $20/hr we get

(0.75*$20/hr*40hr)/128hr = $4.69/hr of free time

Now let's assume 30% taxes on $104,000 or $50/hr

(0.70*$50/hr*40hr)/128hr = $10.94/hr of free time

Of course this only applies to hourly employees so let's do the numbers for salaried people and assume 50hr weeks.

With a salary of $104,000 per year and 50 hr weeks this is only $40/hr and you have less free hours in the week so the equation is

(0.75*$40/hr*50hr)/118hr = $12.71/hr of free time

I'm sure everyone will disagree with this so feel free to discuss just how you would value your free time, I'm keen to hear other's ideas on the subject.


ian jones

I'd rather not have a washing machine in the bathroom which I see as a space for contemplation. Is this normal usage of space in Germany?

It certainly offers a new way to multi-task.


I live in Europe and have a few comments. First, front loader machines can be tightly packed, in fact, they even work better that way as the clothes rub against each other, so maybe that machine is not as tiny as you think. Second, hardly anyone in France uses a dryer. Even people who have them, hang their clothes out to dry, so an efficient dryer is not a priority for most--I don't know about Germany. Even though I don't find hanging the clothes out to dry an efficient use of my time, I've come to refer how the clothes smell and feel when they are dried on the line. Since I have a family of four, I usually do at least one load a day, including linens. I run it at night (there is a special button that delays the wringing out cycle until you are ready, so that wrinkles can't form), hang the clothes out in the morning, and fold at night (I don't get out much!).


You can use laundry off peak time while watching a movie at home. I guess you don't go out every night, do you? It also saves you money.


I find this really confusing. Surely it costs more effort and time to actually leave the house, multiple times? Instead of loading and unloading the laundry manually, you're going back and forth down the street AND loading and unloading the laundry manually. Also, you're constrained to do your laundry when the shop is open, rather than any time that's convenient for you.

In my mind the economic equation is the other way round: launderettes (laundromats) are used by people who can't afford their own washing machines, and who have to put in the time to go there; and the middle class do theirs at home, at their own convenience. (And if you were very cash-rich and time-poor, you might have someone come and take all your dirty laundry away, sort and wash it, and bring it back.)

I feel as confused as if you'd said "I value time and convenience more than saving money; so I walk to the bus stop and queue for half an hour and pay for a bus ride, rather than using my own car where the only cost is fuel."



That looks like a normal-sized washing machine to me (living in the UK).

no.20 says that most Europeans wash their clothes every day - that would be very inefficient in terms of energy and water. Unless you have a family of 5 and every single item of clothing worn that day needs washing, the machine would be half-empty. Even a machine as 'small' as this one.


I interpreted "Three short trips in an hour and a half" to mean that you aren't waiting in the public laundromat while your clothes are washing.

If that is case, are you figuring in the costs of replacing your clothes when they are stolen from the unattended machine?

Dirndle Debby

@32 I'm happy to confirm your wrinkle.

The clothes definitely come out cleaner, though the thorough cleaning wears them more quickly.

David Rendall

Amen! I recently suggested that someone create a DDIY (Don't Do It Yourself) televison network to compete with the DIY (Do It Yourself) network. I think that doing it yourself is often a trap that ends up costing far more time than it saved in money.

I also disagree with a standard calcuation of the worth of one's time, suggested by one of the commenters. You can't simply use a current hourly wage. I think the real question is "what would my time be worth if I stopped doing these activities and dedicated time to activities for which I had both passion and ability?"

I think that too often we are limiting our earning potential in the pursuit of saving money.

David Rendall



This is a problem in liquidity. I may have 6 hours of time and value my time at $10/hour, but unless I have $20 I have to spend 6 hours doing laundry the slow way instead of $20 at the laundromat to get it done in 2.


Just to add one new wrinkle to this:

I've heard that while European laundry machines are slow, they get your clothes a hell of a lot cleaner. Can anyone who has spent some time living in Europe confirm or deny this?


The washer and dryers are small because most Europeans (and Asians) wash their clothes daily. They are slow because they are gentle on clothes and usually take only cold water.

You put your clothes in there after shower, turn it on when it is full. Walk away and go about your life. The next person takes a shower, put the washed clothes in the dryer and dirty clothes in the washer. Walk away and go on with life.

You don't have to watch the clothes tumble, you know.


One has to acknowledge as well the presence of liquid funds that would allow such a time-saving (arguably)manouver. If you operate with very little or no savings between pay periods, as I did months at a time in college, ten dollars can be stretched into a few day's worth of food. Ask most male college students in America if they would forego even one meal to do laundry; my money says they wouldn't. Faced with this choice, it makes sense to put in a couple of extra hours for the luxury of having ten more dollars when the next check comes. If you are gainfully employed (or on an expensive vacation), you may value your time differently.


My wife will tell me things like "I can't do XXX, I'm doing laundry." She has the same fallacy that you do and that is you don't sit and watch laundry, it is mostly downtime.


Why not do one load of laundry more often instead of three consecutively? Surely you'll be suck at home for some amount of time each day and can fit it in with a minimal extra time cost.


I'm with Travis Ormsby (and I'm sure we went to Grinnell together. . .). Time at home with laundry is time that I am working from home and the laundry is a nice break and excuse to detach myself from a machine.

Although I do miss my laundromat where you could get a draft beer while you were waiting.


Think about it with jobs, too. I'm housesitting for a friend, being paid fifteen dollars a day. This isn't an unreasonable price for the labor involved, but it is a terrible use of my time. I'm a professional with a career, and my free time is scarce and valuable. This housesitting takes up time during the two most valuable hours of my day, the hour when I wake up and the hour after I come home. Having a job is like throwing money away, here.


How about cooking & cleaning, versus take out? How about buying whole vegetables, versus pre-washed, pre-cut?


I just moved to New York, having to abandon the washer/dryer I had in my apartment in suburban Maryland.

I've been dropping the stuff off. I hate laundromats. I don't know if I can afford it long-term, though, so maybe I should get out of the habit. Really I should just be reading a book while I wait. We'll see what happens next time.