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Reader Question #19: How do I get my flatmates to do their fair share of the chores?

Dear Captain Awkward,

Here’s the short version of my question: How can I get my flatmates to help with the household chores?

Here’s the long version: I live with several other adults. They clean the common areas either not at all or on extremely rare occasion. I have lost every game of “kitchen chicken” (where you wait and wait and wait and see who gives in and does the washing up first) ever.

Part of this is because I was raised by a Joan Crawford-esque mother and grandmother who punished messy children quite severely. Part of this is because my flatmates just do not seem to care about the mess. At all.

Now, despite my upbringing I think I have quite reasonable expectations about cleanliness. For example, the bathroom should be thoroughly cleaned every couple of weeks and/or before/after a party. Dishes should be done within a day or two, especially since we have had a couple small pest incidents (though nothing major). Everyone’s personal bedroom is his or her own business. Yet even with these fairly relaxed standards I am still the one doing 90% of the work.

I have tried having an open and non-hostile conversation with the flatmates about chores (“Hey, we are all adults and everyone needs to do their bit”). I have tried humorous little quips and hints. I do not want to be a nag. I do not want to be a bitch. Basically, I do not want to be my mother. But I do not want to continue being the only one to scrub the loo or empty the dishwasher.

Can you help me, Captain Awkward?

Sincerely,
Tired of the Mess

Dear Tired:

I have a fairly simple and straightforward answer to this question.  In fact, we might set a CaptainAwkward.com record for brevity.

Hire a cleaning person.

I have lived in numerous roommate situations.  I have been the clean(er) person and the dirty(er) person.  I have lived in exactly one roommate situation that had zero conflict or hard feelings about household chores, and that was because the three of us hired a nice gentleman to come clean the apartment once every 2 weeks.  At $15/hour times roughly 3 hours divided by 3 flatmates times 2 cleanings/month, for an extra $30 out of my pocket every month I never, ever, ever had to clean someone else’s pubes out of the shower drain.

Now, we did our dishes regularly and kept the common areas clean of clutter because we were grownups and considerate of one another, but I think that having the place scrubbed every two weeks made keeping things clean the norm instead of something we did when company came over.

You can have house meetings and make chore charts and nag and complain, or you can go scorched earth where you put a person’s dirty dishes and other mess in his or her room instead of washing them yourself (uh, enjoy that small pest problem you have as it will soon turn into a giant raging pest problem), but if “Jesus Christ, we have BUGS, do your fucking dishes” hasn’t worked by now it won’t ever work. At the end of the day the other people you live with are adults and you have to assume that you can’t change their behavior.   If you treat “cleaning” just like any other utility that you pay for in common (heat, internet, electric, water, etc.) you can bring the stress level way down.  In between visits you can just take care of your dishes and your own mess.

Good luck,

Captain Awkward

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15 comments
  1. JAT said:

    There’s also moving out, though I know there are time when you can and times when you can’t. But people who never clean up after themselves would, in my opinion, in a better world, associate only with each other.

    • JenniferP said:

      Ah, yes, moving out is Phase 2 of this plan!

  2. Miranda said:

    I had the even better (for a penniless student) version of this – pay someone for a couple of weeks and then take over for a slightly lower amount. You get a clean house, you get money, you get exercise…

  3. Kathleen said:

    Whenever I was in a situation like this, the agreement was the one who does all the cleaning gets a reduced utility rate. For example, when I was living with two cleaning-impaired guys, I did all the cleaning but didn’t pay for phone or Internet.

    • JenniferP said:

      Ooh, handy! I can think of times I would have liked to just pay a little extra (and not have had to clean) or could have used extra money, but I’d want to make sure that what gets cleaned/how often, etc. is spelled out in writing. Basically what I’d worry is that the roommates would get even more laissez-faire because Cleaning Mommy was taking care of everything. But this seems like a great idea (also as proposed by Miranda) if you can make it work.

      • Kathleen said:

        In my case, I just informed them that I would no longer be paying utilities if I had to clean. They said ok. They weren’t spitefully sloppy, just path-of-least-resistance types. If paying extra for utilities would get me off their back about cleaning, they’d do it.

    • Directed said:

      That’s actually good advice.

      I can’t see people who can’t be convinced to do dishes before mold/bugs show up being ready to part with $30 a month, especially if cash is tight. Unless the writer and people like them can offer some ultimatum, what’s to stop them from treating the monthly charge like they do their chores?

      • JenniferP said:

        Nothing, really, but it seems more productive to try to get $30/month out of people and have an actually clean house than pour effort into trying to get grown-ass adults to change their ways and not have a clean house, and I’m telling you that money was tight for me (intern in New York City) when I had that arrangement and it was the best money I ever spent, ever, except for all the times I’ve hired movers.

        I should also add that the leaseholder on the apt. was very smart to draw up roommate/subletter agreements with us that specified that this charge was not optional, so it was set up from the start. It’s probably harder to go back and rewrite the rules in an established situation.

        Eventually the letter writer is going to move out, but until she can do that, this in my opinion has the best chance of working.

  4. Directed said:

    I don’t find this advise to be particularly useful. Your roommates were willing to do minor daily pick up and dishes, but the writer’s aren’t. That’s one huge difference right there–the writer is still stuck doing a lot of the work even if the service can do some of it. Also, $20-30 can be a lot for people who are already refusing to do anything. Even if they have the money to spare every month, what’s to compel them to spend it on something they already have shown they don’t care about?

    • JenniferP said:

      “I don’t find this advise to be particularly useful.”

      Fair enough! What do you suggest?

      I’ve lived with roommates on and off since 1992. College students, college professors, Americans, Europeans, Africans, women, men, neat freaks, slobs, stoners, and now a romantic partner. In 19 years of cohabitation, the only time I can think of where there was zero tension about cleaning in the house is when we hired a cleaning person.

      You just keep it cleaner when it’s already clean. If it’s getting cleaned thoroughly every 2 weeks, it can’t get that dirty, so if you end up doing some cleaning because you are the one who cares more, it’s not as bad. $30/month to never worry about it or fight about it again? Sure, they could all clean and save that money and in 10 years buy a pony, but since they won’t clean, might as well throw a little money at the problem in exchange for a more pleasant life. Maybe it won’t work out financially for the letter writer, in which case the other answer is for her to get her own place as soon as possible.

      • Directed said:

        Disposable plates are pretty great.

  5. Jo said:

    Scrolling back through your posts, I was pretty thrilled to find this one! And then pretty bummed when the advice isn’t workable for me.

    I have the exact same problem as the letter writer, but with the added fact that I have slight but noticeable trouble with anxiety, and have trouble not being anxious if the kitchen is untidy… have to tear myself away from cleaning in order not to be late for things because leaving it half done feels weird… can’t cook in the kitchen unless it is relatively tidy… I have told my housemates (who are also my friends) this. I have also told them I actually do not enjoy cleaning, I just dislike it marginally less than things remaing messy (which they routinely forget). And they still don’t do anything, with one in particular getting defensive and adding unspoken ‘you crazy person’ to all her replies when I bring it up. So for me the bigger problem isn’t the actual fact of cleaning but that my friends don’t seem to give a crap that it upsets me.

    In the future I probably will arrange to pay for a cleaning person… right now as a poor student it’s not only unaffordable but actually not the only issue.

    • JAT said:

      Are friends who are going silent “you crazy person” at you actually your friends? Tidy strangers would be more restful to live with, it seems to me.

    • JenniferP said:

      I agree with JAT – living with people who share your neatness level and who don’t call you crazy when you express your needs in an adult way is probably the long-term solution until you can afford to live alone or hire a staff.

      I’m also going to say, sadly, you’re the one who cares more, so the bulk of cleaning is going to fall to you. Because you care more. It’s not fair, but it always happens.

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