Question of the Day: How to Get Roommates to Share in Cleaning?

A reader named Jason Stauffer writes:

I live with four guys in a house. We had no cleaning schedule until about a month ago, but the house was never cluttered, and was more than clean enough for actual women to feel comfortable visiting. Even the bathroom was clean enough for the girls to freely use it without vomiting. However since we have implemented our cleaning schedule the house has gotten into worse and worse shape. The toilet downstairs is even looking so bad I don’t want to use it. What gives?

Okay, everybody, let’s hear what you have to say about private vs. public incentives, moral hazard, and the general cleanliness of men.

Albert B.

There's also the problem of moral hazard and timing even if everyone does his job and the schedule works "properly."

If you're not the next person to clean the kitchen, you have every incentive to leave everything a mess since you won't be the one dealing with it. Thus, the kitchen will always be in as filthy a condition as possible right before a scheduled cleaning. Then, given the moral hazard problem, it will only be clean for a few hours right after the scheduled cleaning since everyone else will get back to making it dirty (including, potentially, the person who just cleaned!) provided they are not the next person scheduled to clean.

The crucial point is that the appearance or state of cleanliness depends more on people making as small a mess as they can and cleaning up in a timely fashion after they make a mess. Both of these actions are dis-incentivized by the cleaning schedule structured.



Twenty years ago, my two best friends and I moved into a house with three other guys. It turned into the Delta Animal House to the point that women were disgusted to go to the bathroom. I threw down the gauntlet with a written plan. It got worse.

Bottom line, we all had different upbringings and expectations. After 20 years of thinking about this, I figured out that three of us had mutual values and respect for each other. We loved each other (yes, in a brotherly way) to be there for each other. The other three did not give a rip. We did not lay out a true incentive to these other three to follow suit (yes -- Freakonomics taught me this). We laid out disincentives instead. It became a game of who could screw over the next guy worse.

When we moved out and moved in with a like-minded guy, we lived in the most clean and orderly place of my college career. Why? We were a little more mature but more importantly, we had the same cleanliness values and mutual respect.

So, sit down and see if you guys can come to a general consensus on what it is an acceptable place to live. Isn't the courting of women enough incentive? Sorry men, Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper can live in a hell hole and it would be considered charming. For us average guys, it makes us sociopaths and narcissistic D-Bags.



Completely agree with what the other commentors have already theorized - that one person was doing all the work, thought he could spread the load, and found that when the schedule was implemented, nobody was willing to help. I would ask Jason why he's so dirty because it's clear he's not the roommate doing all the work. I am also curious from the other roommates' perspective, did they think their house was kept clean by magic fairies, even though they did no work?


Does it make economic sense to do your own cleaning? Just hire Molly Maid to come in every two weeks and split the cost.


I agree with Jennifer. I think the fact that there is a schedule in place is an incentive itself to clutter things when it's not that person's turn. Previously I think there was some effort by every roommate to cleanup after themselves but after the schedule that need vanished and taken over by free will of making mess when it's not our own turn.


Men will be men... that said, there could be an explanation to this problem.

Assumption: Each one has a moderate sense of hygiene and prefers a cleaner environment to a dirtier one.

Now, prior to the schedule it could have been the case that all four had a certain private benefit (that acted as an incentive) to keep their territories clean and would regularly clean up after themselves after using a public area (bathroom). With the division of responsibilities, each one believes that they need to do only what has been allocated to them. Coupled with a lack of benefits and external incentives, each one is just concerned about getting the job done and getting on with it (private benefits are far less than public benefits). So, what's happening is that just for the sake of getting the work done, each one in essence is probably doing a mediocre job (eg: leaving one out of four dishes uncleaned, not taking out the garbage on time etc). And so, the house is looking filthier day by day.

Eventually though what might happen is that the person with the highest and strongest sense of personal hygiene will get fed up of the other three and either leave or clean the house himself!



I vaguely remember a chapter (was it in the first Freakonomics?) about how parents who were "fined" a small fee for arriving late to pick up their children actually ended showed up later and more often than parents who could not, presumably, "pay off their guilt".

That makes me hesitate to suggest enforcing a "cleaning fine", but wouldn't that change up the payoff matrix? I am assuming the relationship between these roommates is of a significantly different nature than the relationship between either parents and their children or between parents and their children's afterschool caretakers. Namely, there is less emotional cost involved in disappointing your roommates than in letting down your kid or the nice stranger who takes care of him when you are late.

So perhaps a mutually-enforced fine, that increases with repeated infractions (until, presumably, the roommate in question can no longer afford to be delinquent).

Or, a large poster in near the entrance to the apartment that lists the person responsible for cleanliness that week, so that the first thing seen by guests upon entering a dirty apartment is the name of the person abrogating responsibilities.

Money and/or shame?



Ha. I am the clean guy at the moment; I live in a house with 8 housemates. The reason I moved in is that it costs 65% of what I would pay in dorms and the rooms are the size of 2-3 dorm rooms. I am in school getting my electronics engineering phd full-time and this house is a 3 minute walk to the campus.

So, in short, I am the guy who moved in last and cleaned most common areas of it. There was a fridge, for example, that was filled with food and no one ever touched it for 2 years 'because it’s gross'. The common areas were covered with a layer of dirt topped with leaves and dust. Anyway, it was bad.

The way I feel about a cleaning schedule is that it is not going to force anyone to do anything. We did introduce a schedule for taking out garbage recently, for example, but I don’t think it will have any effect. All in all, I saw an interesting trait: nobody in the house cared enough about the cleanliness of the house, but was unhappy about it. When I cleaned the house, everyone thanked me and I assumed that was the all I could get from those 8 housemates. I didn’t think anyone would even consider putting any effort in keeping it clean. Nevertheless, I started to see a change in their attitude: they started to do things to keep the house clean, such as replace paper towels on the holder I placed, replace toilet paper, buy cleaning supplies, etc. While this is not them cleaning it does show that they like the house being clean.
If there would be a house cleaning schedule introduced for everyone, they would generally find it somewhat annoying and would do their best to put in the least effort in keeping up with it. There is no magic to change people. I am convinced that there should be this one center force that drives any progress (I mean, in everything!). Others will follow, but thinking that a bunch of people can manage a task without a lead is a fallacy. This big mistake is surprisingly common in US… (that’s why school group projects are a somewhat idiotic idea ( I am convinced that the inability to manage anything en masse without a pronounced leader is a big problem that is prevalent right now in any kind of societies, not just housemates. I am sure this discussion can expand well beyond all-male houses. (the whole world, for example) ?


Dustin J

I had a problem similar to this once. We found that we had to tie it to money. Had to be enough to be memorable in the moment but not so much that everyone balked. I ended up writing a website for it that would send emails and texts to whoevers turn it was and would keep track of the points for everyone. It still turned into white noise eventually though and the mess would be clean for a while then fall into disarray. I had hoped for more from the site but I still use it for reminders, it is good at nagging but its not annoying enough to have much of an effect

Greg McConnel

We had the same problem at work with our common kitchen. A few years back, the fridge had so much old food in it, we had to bring in a hazmat team to clean it out. Literally, a couple of guys wore gas masks and rubber outfits in fun while throwing out mould-covered food. The rest of the kitchen was nothing to write home about either. I am an economist and actually see this as a 'tragedy of the commons' issue. If no one person owns the kitchen as private property, there is little incentive to keep it clean -- just as fisherman around the world have little incentive not to over-fish the oceans because no country owns them. I suggested we get around the problem by having one group at work (there are five) 'own' the kitchen for a month. That group has been responsible for cleaning the kitchen as per a schedule and the kitchen has actually been quite clean since. This case is a little different than the 'scheduling didn't work' scenario but illustrates something useful nonetheless. Scheduling can work in some instances. Cheers :)


Scott Blackburn

Seems like a classic case of Laws supplanting Norms to negative effect.

With no schedule, the two norms were to "clean when dirty" and to "do ones fair share." Since everyone felt the norms, a failure to act had two effects both of which enhanced cooperation. One was a series of social enforcements (say, jokes about Roommate A being a slob) and two was an understanding that micro transactional debits would be reciprocated in other ways (that is, if one person cleans more often, he felt others would make up the fair share in other ways - say, by preparing more group meals or buying more toilet paper).

With the introduction of a cleaning schedule, you replaced the norms with the law of a cleaning schedule. This probably did a combination of three things. First, it removed the incentive of the cleaner roommates to clean disproportionately because a schedule breaks the "fair share" norm and so that roommate could not expect reciprocation in other ways. Second, it provided a less effective enforcement mechanism since failure to abide by the schedule was not as embarrassing as whatever social pressure existed under the norm. And third, it did not provide means of rehabilitation for failure to abide by the law - if you have a busy week and cannot clean, the schedule does not clarify who should clean next, when, and how to adjust for created unfairnesses.


Aaron Fletcher

Perhaps you should use incentives to help persuade your roommates to clean more. Try putting a price on each room that needs to be cleaned regularly. Whatever your total is should be added to the overall rent. Say all of the jobs add up to $400 a month. Divide total that with the roommates, which will add$100 to everyone's rent. From here you can draft/trade individual cleaning duties. For example- Bathroom $15 a month. This will require them to either do their cleaning or pay a larger portion of the rent. I would also recommend seeing how much it would cost to have a cleaner come in. Maybe it would be worth everyone just picking up an extra shift at work to have someone else do the job.


I'm living in a residence hall with three other guys. I'm the only one that cleans our communal bathroom. I really don't mind, though, because I want the bathroom to stay cleaner than any of the other three do. Essentially, I prefer the bathroom to be cleaned every week while my suite mates would only start to care about the state of the bathroom--and would only benefit from a cleaning--after about two weeks without one. Since I'm the only one that benefits from weekly cleaning I bear the entire cost myself.

Steve Nations

The most interesting thing about this blog may be simply the number of replies to the different types of posts. This one has a ton.

There is no doubt about it, from my college experience. Men are clean and take care of their place. Women are incredible slobs.


Had a problem with the house getting dirty, the roommate refusing to clean and me not wanting to clean because he wouldn't. There was a period of several months when he was living away from the house and I still didn't have the motivation to clean myself (shame on me). At that point I hired a cleaning lady which I paid for myself and upon my roommates return, her cleaning became just another bill we shared. The reason we pay is a financial penalty for not wanting to clean despite the need to.

A side note is that my roommate thought cleaning applied to clutter and I thought cleaning applied to dirt and grime which contributed to not being able to agree on cleaning pre cleaning lady.


Make every roommate pitch in to hire a housecleaner on a regaular basis (weekly, monthly, etc). It will make everyone much happier, and the apt will likely be a lot cleaner as a result.


All the Multi-person places I've lived, only one guy was a "clean freak". While I'm ok with clutter and dust collection (to a point) I like kitchen and especially bathroom clean. I don't want to have my feet wetted when I sit on the toilet, i dont think a modern indoor bathroom should smell like urine, but unfortunately most guys I've shared space with seem to have weaknesses in the vicinity of the porcelain...
Suspicion is like others, the real cleaners got tired of doing all the work and this was attempt to fairly redistribute. Only works if everyone ACTUALLY cleans. I suggest agreeing on cleaner, may hav to test to g a good one but worth the effort. General tidying in between, or really specific tasks (every Tuesday J cleans toilet area, meaning scrub inside and mop up exterior, every Wednesday F, etc) might keep it from becoming like an outhouse.


I have faced this exactly situation before when staying home with my brothers with no parents in the house.

The conclusion we arrived was the simplest:

Since no one would clean up after the other, each one woud take care of his own mess. Therefore all the mess YOU make, YOU have to clean. Then you become conscious about what you do.

When you implement the schedule, you don't care at all. When it is not your shift - you know you don't have to clean or face any consequence since it will be cleaned by someone else. If it is your shift, you can just stall until someone's shift come along.