Why did I give my wife a vacuum cleaner for Christmas

It was actually a vacuum cleaning robot. That however did not change the impression on my friends faces when I explained to them what I planned on giving her. I am, however, convinced that had they listened to my arguments that they would have been more forgiving.

You see, my wife and I are both economist. We are the same age, we do the same job for the same company. The thing that sets us apart is that when she was young she worked 10 times harder than I. As a result, she graduated top of her class in high school, topped her undergraduate program and was later admitted to the economics Masters program at Cambridge. When She finished her degree she went straight to London and started work for the consultancy we both work for today.

While my wife was being sensible and gaining experience at a respected economic consultancy firm, I finally gave up my half-ass attempt of being a musician and started my undergraduate at the University of Iceland. Five years later, I had earned the same degree as my wife (from the much less prestigious, but decent, University of Otago in New Zealand).

Armed with a run of the mill degree, I moved to London in search of a job. Lucky for me, I got the a graduate role at the same company my wife had now been working for for five years.

To summarize: My wife has the same education as I do (from a better school), she has way more experience than I and is much smarter and more hard working than I am. As a result, she has a higher position than I do and earns more than I. As it should be, always.

My wife earns more than I do and, as a result, her opportunity cost of vacuum cleaning related actives is much higher than mine. In the words of a normal human: For every hour she spends vacuuming instead of working she forgoes more money than I do.

If I was hired as a household economist to advice myself and my wife, my advice would be that I (the very manly male human) do all the vacuum cleaning, because I have the lower opportunity cost of doing it. But, in fact it is the other way around. I hardly ever vacuum clean our home.

Why do I not vacuum?

Truth is, like so many men, I get along fine with dust. When I lived by myself I had made piece with the little flurry balls of dust under the bed and the cupboard. My wife, on the other hand, hates dust. Ideally she would like to have her home vacuum cleaned every three days, or so.

As a result of this mismatch of preferences for clean floor our home tends to accumulate dust. The level of dust is such that I notice it but it does not bother me much while it drags down my wife’s joy of life. And as the dust grows each day, she eventually grabs the vacuum cleaner and cleans the place.

A quick confession. I don’t like dust. I like my flat more when it’s clean. My Wife’s intolerance for it is just so great that we never reach the point where I say, „enough, time to clean this house.“ Therefore, my wife is almost always the one to grab the vacuum and I free-ride on her higher standard. This situation is, using the word of the profession, sub-optimal.

A market for vacuum cleaning

In a normal week we spend around an hour a week vacuum cleaning (our home is not that big). The vacuum cleaning is roughly split 100 to 0 between us, with my wife doing 100% of all vacuum cleaning. We could of course solve this problem by hiring a professional, for personal reasons we decided against that.

Since the outsourcing market solution is off the table the other option would have been to establish a household market for vacuum cleaning. After all, the market failure is that no such market exists. Which leads to the question, what would be the outcome in such a market?

My wife earns roughly 30% more than I do. She could work one more hour a week (which is actually feasible as we both only work 80%) and pay me one hour of salary. From an economic standpoint this would be an efficient solution: My wife would no longer have to vacuum and I would receive up to 30% more than my normal salary for the hour of household work — and we would live in a nice, dust-free home.

But just because we are now the proud owners of a tiny robot doesn’t mean we are robots. We are just sensible enough to understand that too much rationality could kill the romance and opted against setting up this market. Unfortunately, our rational decision to be irrational means that the market failure persists. My wife vacuums too much, I too little and the house is dustier than is optimal.

But not for longer.

Robot to the rescue

Thankfully, some problems can be solved with either labour or capital. if it’s cheaper to buy a machine than it is to hire a person to execute the same task it is common sense to purchase the machine — the capital.

The robot vacuum costed me around 420 Euros. At the time of purchase I don’t know how long it will last but since it comes with a two year warranty I can assume that it will not die on my no earlier (if it does, the warranty will get me a new one). The robot should therefore save us around 104 hours of vacuuming, at minimum. Once we divide the 420 with the 104 we get that the maximum average salary we pay the robot is 4 Euros per hour — way less than either of us earns in our day job!

The gift was, however, never a vacuum. The gift was a solution. A solution to a teeny tiny market failure in our two people household market. A market failure that benefited me and imposed cost on my wife. After my wife opened her present and we sent the robot to work, I will be as well off as before and my lovely wife will be 104 hours richer. And 104 hours is no small amount of our most valuable resource — time.

Footnotes

  1. I wrote this article originally in my native language, Icelandic, in 2017. I have now translated it into English for a friend of ours who is contemplating giving her husband a vacuum cleaner, to solve a very similar problem. I have not properly proofread it, my time is deer.
  2. The robot is still, 4 years later, working and now servicing a larger home. Average salary is closer to 2 Euros!
  3. Finally, now that we have a small child there are way more crumbs on the floor and the amount of vacuuming required has at least doubled. This actually means that for the next few years the average cost is going to drop even more!

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