15 Outsourcing Services to Make Your Life Easier
Simplify your hectic life by contracting out your to-do list, from clothing shopping to yard work to jingle writing.
We know. You’re busy. Sometimes it’s a struggle just to round up the family for dinner, let alone tick off all the tasks on your to-do list. A plethora of Web sites and apps promise to ease the burden. They’ll take care of household chores and administrative tasks, prepare meals, pick up a few essentials at the grocery store, shop for clothes, even mail that birthday card so it doesn’t arrive two days late. Our staff tested 15 outsourcing services to see whether they fulfill their promise to save you time or, even more important, make your life less stressful.
Get the chores done
One area where the app economy shows big promise is finding people to do small chores around the house. If you've tried to hire a plumber to fix a leaky pipe or a gardener to weed a flower bed, you know how hard it is to get anyone to commit to a one-off $50 job.
I have a long list of tasks at my house that I have been promising my wife I’d do at least since the last snow melted back in March—of 2012. One task near the top of my honey-do list was fixing a kitchen faucet with a leak that had been getting steadily worse over the past year. Now a new chore jumped to the top of the list: removing a small stump in our backyard. I had managed to cut down a junky tree, limb by limb, but the stump was better left to a handyman with a back that didn’t threaten to go out with the first swing of the pickax.
Using my PC, I set up an account on Taskrabbit, scanned the categories (delivery, cleaning, general handyman, moving, event help), and entered the task, my zip code, the day and time I wanted it done, and a credit card number.
First the stump: Under general handyman/yard work, three “taskers” who worked in my zip code were available to do the job. Their profiles, customer ratings and reviews, and hourly rates (from $35 to $80) were displayed. I went with Marcel, who charged $60 an hour and had a 99% positive rating. His profile said “ID verified,” and a perusal of his customer comments showed rave reviews—except for one star-crossed gig as a bartender. Taskrabbit also charges a 5% “trust and safety” fee, which covers a background check and insurance coverage of up to $1 million for property damage, bodily injury and theft.
Marcel immediately sent a text message thanking me for hiring him and, a day or two later, asked for a photo of the stump. He arrived via bicycle right on time, but he looked distraught when he saw the stump. “I thought it would be old and decayed,” he said. I gave him a succession of tools—pickax, chain saw, drill—and after an hour and 20 minutes, we agreed that he would come back later to finish the job, after the stump had rotted and softened. I put him to work pulling ivy off the side of my house. After two and a half hours of work, the bill came to $157.50. Taskrabbit had my credit card info, so payment was automatic.
I didn’t get immediate gratification with my faucet, either. I initially shopped for a plumber on Handy (formerly Handybook), which specializes in small plumbing and electrical jobs as well as in painting and household cleaning. But the online estimate to fix the leak in my faucet was two hours and $170, paid in advance. (There's a 24-hour full-refund cancellation policy and money-back guarantee; returning users pay day of service.) I didn’t see how fixing a leaky faucet merited two hours. On Taskrabbit, a search under plumbing turned up Craig T, at $69 an hour.
On the appointed day, Craig asked if he could come by the house early to see if I needed a part. He unscrewed the handle of the single-handle faucet and announced that it needed a new cartridge. He copied down a parts number and said he would check at a plumbing supply store.
I heard from him the next day saying “they are looking for the part.” Six days after that, he said he would have to come by, dismantle the sink and take the cartridge with him so they could match it. Craig didn’t charge me for the half-hour fact-finding visit, and when he reassembled the faucet, he slowed the leak to a tolerable trickle. I’m thinking I can live with a slow leak.
Although my test tasks weren’t completed, I would use Taskrabbit again. I like how easy it is to hire someone for small jobs and the fact that taskers are vetted. Taskrabbit has a wide range of other services that I might use to check off the items still on my honey-do list. —Mark Solheim
A do-anything service
Magic makes a bold claim: It will perform any task you wish as long as it’s legal. We brainstormed tasks to put this everything service to the test. An episode of M*A*S*H provided inspiration—the one in which Hawkeye arranges to have 40 pounds of ribs and a gallon of barbecue sauce delivered from Chicago to Korea. But in the 2015 version, we would ask Magic to wait in line for an order from the pit of barbecue guru Aaron Franklin, in my hometown of Austin, Texas, and have it delivered to the Kiplinger offices in Washington, D.C.
I created an account and immediately hit a roadblock: Magic has a wait list of more than 40,000 people. But if you pay $100, you can skip the line. I arranged to go to the head of the pack and swiftly hit a second roadblock: Magic would gladly fulfill our order, but it would have to charter a plane to deliver the goods. Total cost: $24,000.
I rapidly switched to Plan B: Focus on East Coast fare. I considered a cheesesteak from Philly but ended up ordering five crab cakes from Faidley Seafood, in Baltimore. I texted my request on a Wednesday and Magic assured delivery by lunchtime the next day at a price of $239.47. The crab cakes arrived with a driver named Lawrence at 11:20 a.m., 40 minutes early. The bill for the food and packaging totaled $79.95, meaning Magic charged an additional $159.52 for its part. (Shipping five crab cakes from Faidley’s overnight via UPS would have cost $114.50.) Magic’s cost is substantial, but if you’re in a pinch—say, because of a war in Korea—and you’ve exhausted more-affordable options, you might be able to justify it. —Miles Kruppa
In a fast-moving world, sometimes even two-day shipping can leave you tapping your foot impatiently. But a slew of new services are upping the ante, promising delivery in as little as one hour.
Postmates will deliver items from local businesses ranging from takeout food to running shoes to a charger for your smartphone. The Postmates promise: delivery in one hour or less. To give the service a trial run, I used the mobile app to place an order from Whole Foods for two packages of cookies, a bottle of wine and three organic bananas. After adding the products I wanted to my cart, I watched as the app located a nearby Postmate (revealing his name, Samuel S., and a photo), tracked his progress and offered me the option to call or text my shopper if I had any changes to my order.
An hour after I placed the order, Samuel arrived with the goods—-one bag of cookies as ordered, and another bag of cookies and bottle of wine substituted with what the store had on its shelves (no luck with the organic bananas). Total bill: $32, including a delivery fee that starts at $5 and a 9% “service fee,” which goes to Postmates. Tipping isn’t required, and Postmate shoppers can’t accept cash, but you can tip within the app. For this particular order, the delivery by Postmates cost about one-third more than if I had gone to the store myself, but it could have come in handy if I was short on time.
Deliv promises to deliver items from upscale retailers. It has partnered with more than 250 stores, including Macy’s, Crate & Barrel and Staples, in eight markets to provide same-day delivery. Unfortunately, my attempt to use Deliv to order a toaster oven from a couple of department stores didn’t, well, deliver. “Same-day delivery” is supposed to show up as an option at checkout, but that didn’t happen at either Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s because the stores were testing a new checkout procedure. The same-day-delivery service would have cost an extra $15, or $5 if my order had already qualified for free shipping. —Kaitlin Pitsker
Prefab meals by mail
The last question you want to hear after a long day at the office (especially if you don’t have an answer) is “What’s for dinner?” A ton of options exist for getting fast food and even restaurant fare delivered, but meal-delivery services occupy a different niche: They compile the ingredients to prepare a home-cooked meal. Select the meals you want from their menus, and they’ll ship the recipes and fresh ingredients to your home.
I tried two: Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. For my family of four, I ordered two meals featuring ground turkey and salmon from Blue Apron and three meals featuring ground beef and chicken from Hello Fresh. Both services deliver in the continental U.S. in boxes outfitted with insulation and gel packs. When I opened the boxes, the meat and fish were cold. The services assume that you have basic pantry items on hand (notably olive oil), but they provide premeasured spices and recipe-specific items, such as teriyaki sauce, sesame oil and honey, that you might not have.
During my deadline week at work, when we would otherwise have eaten the same old spaghetti or takeout, we ate healthy food that earned four thumbs up from my husband, two teenagers and me. Recipes were easy to follow, but I still spent an hour cooking each evening, and neither service provides a kitchen-cleanup fairy.
You must sign up for your meals a week ahead of time. Blue Apron offers a two-person meal plan ($9.99 per person for three meals a week) and a four-person plan ($8.74 per person for two or four meals a week). Hello Fresh requires you to order a minimum of three meals per week for two or four people, starting at $10.75 per person if meat or fish is on the menu or $9.08 per person if not. Both are subscription services (no extra charge, and you can cancel anytime).
When I comparison-shopped the ingredient lists at my local grocery store (and included its $10 delivery fee), I found that I actually saved $8 on groceries with Blue Apron. But Hello Fresh was pricey: $25 more than I would have spent at the supermarket. Not having to think about what we're having for dinner? Priceless. —Patricia Mertz Esswein
Freelancers for five bucks
Fiverr is an online community of freelancers who advertise small jobs starting at five bucks apiece. The site’s vast array of “gigs” include everything from writing search engine optimization–friendly copy to making a video of a puppet promoting your business idea.
I endeavored to add a little pizzazz to the Kiplinger brand with a catchy original jingle. While shopping for songwriters, I discovered that not all $5 jingles are created equal. Each gig’s page lists the details of the basic job, plus extras. For instance, one listing offered a 15-second instrumental jingle at the base price. If you wanted 10 more seconds and vocals, you’d pay another $20.
I eventually settled on a page belonging to Ryan Heenan, whose base gig included a professional-quality, 30-second jingle on the ukulele with custom lyrics and harmonized vocals. I charged the $5 plus a 50-cent processing fee to my credit card (the site also accepts PayPal and nonrefundable bitcoin payments) and sent Ryan a paragraph describing what Kiplinger is all about. Five days later, the jingle was ready for me to download. Not only did he capture the essence of our mission, but he even managed to pronounce Kiplinger correctly (it rhymes with singer). Click play to listen to the jingle. —Ryan Ermey
Never belated again
Perhaps, like me, you suddenly remember a birthday or other special occasion, rush out to buy a greeting card, scrawl a message and pop it in the mail, hoping that it won’t arrive embarrassingly late. Electronic cards have tried to sub for real cards for years, but we all know how unfulfilling they are. So companies including BlueBirdCards.com, CardStore.com, Postable.com and Touchnote.com will help get real, not virtual, cards to your friends and loved ones, allowing you to skip the trip to the store and post office.
To put these services through their paces, I sent cards within the U.S. as well as to Australia. In each case, I selected a card from the company’s Web site, wrote a personal message in a font I picked and entered the mailing addresses. At CardStore, Postable and Touchnote I had the option of adding my own photos to some of the cards.
A traditional card sent within the U.S. costs just under $4. International postage is included at Touchnote; it adds about a dollar to the tab with the other companies. Cards generally take about three business days to arrive within the U.S. and as long as a few weeks internationally.
Some cards wowed more than others. CardStore and Postable offered a wide variety printed on quality card stock, with designs ranging from classic and thoughtful to cheeky and humorous. Touchnote’s services aren’t as robust, but it offered the easiest way to, say, share your family vacation photo on a customized card. —Kaitlin Pitsker
Menus via e-mail
I've spent years planning meals for my family, so the prospect of outsourcing some of the heavy lifting was appealing. I subscribed to eMeals.com, an online service that promised to e-mail me seven days’ worth of recipes each week. I’d still have to do the shopping, but I wouldn’t have to spend hours leafing through my recipe files for inspiration. The price was a reasonable $30 for three months, up to $58 for one year, with a free two-week trial.
The site was easy to navigate (you can also use an app). The most difficult thing was choosing among 20 dinner menu categories, from Paleo to Paula Deen. I settled on the “Health” plan. When I received my first batch of menus, I realized that I had to overcome years of ingrained habits (nothing too ambitious on a work night). Plus, my husband nixed dishes with black beans or lentils. The tastiest meal of week one: grilled lamb chops with a Greek salad.
To make the most of eMeals, it helps if you’re a newbie with no preconceived notions, or if you’re looking for, say, a low-carb or gluten-free diet. But the meals did inspire me to break out my grill pan on a work night, so next up is grilled flank steak with horseradish butter. —Janet Bodnar
Your personal shopper
Stitch Fix is designed for women (like me) who hate to shop and don’t have time to browse for clothes online. Customers fill out a detailed style profile that covers age, measurements, fabric preferences, budget and occupation. For a $20 “style fee,” you’ll receive a box with five clothing items and accessories. The $20 is applied as a credit toward anything you purchase. Buy all five, and you’ll get a 25% discount.
In my profile, I said I was interested in business casual/work outfits. I also said I was looking for fitted, colorful jackets that would look good on video or TV.
I didn’t have high expectations. Perhaps it was the question about whether I would wear animal prints or faux fur (no and no). I sensed that Stitch Fix was targeting the H&M crowd, not a woman who shops at Talbots—-when she has time.
My box arrived on a rainy day, ideal for trying on clothes. The selection was eclectic but age-appropriate. My favorite item was a sleeveless cobalt-blue dress that fit perfectly. The package also included two jersey-style jackets; unfortunately, the patterns were too busy for TV. A sleeveless blouse seemed kind of flimsy for $58; likewise, the sterling silver plate necklace was overpriced at $60.
You have three business days to return items you don’t want. You’re not obligated to buy anything, but the $20 style fee is nonrefundable. The necklace, jackets and blouse went into the handy postage-paid return bag, and the dress went into my closet.
Stitch Fix has gotten some static from online reviewers for price markups. I’m sure you can find lower prices at sales or discount retailers, but that seems to miss the point of this service. Shopping takes time, and for a lot of busy women, time is money. —Sandra Block
Hire a personal assistant
Paying someone to clear some of the pesky tasks off your plate doesn’t have to involve employing a full-time Jeeves. An online “virtual assistant” probably doesn’t cost as much as you think.
We tested a couple—Karachi (Pakistan)–based Efficise and U.S.-based Fancy Hands—which offer assistants to complete ad hoc tasks that take 15 to 30 minutes. With both services, you’ll pay a monthly subscription fee for a certain number of tasks. Fancy Hands costs $50 for 15 tasks. Efficise’s basic plan costs $45 for 30 tasks (reflecting cheaper labor costs). You get a dashboard on each site so you can organize and request tasks. Efficise also allows you to request tasks via e-mail; Fancy Hands accepts requests by phone or e-mail or through its mobile app.
I sent each service a smattering of tasks, such as providing background research on interview subjects and compiling a list of local dry cleaners that offered delivery service. Both handled the straightforward tasks with aplomb, with no discernible difference between the services. When jobs required a little more nuance, however, having a team of American assistants proved useful.
For instance, I asked both assistants to find a 76ers bar in Chicago where I could watch the NBA draft while I attended the Morningstar investing conference. My Efficise assistant simply gave me a list of sports bars. But not only did my Fancy Hands assistant find me a Philly sports bar, she also linked me to a group on Meetup.com that follows Philly sports in Chicago and told me how to contact them. When I asked both services to transcribe a short radio interview, my Efficise assistant did his best but left some blanks when the language got tricky. My Fancy Hands assistant transcribed it perfectly, down to all of my embarrassing “um’s” and “uhh’s.” —Ryan Ermey