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What to Do When the People You Live With Have a Different Definition of Clean

closeup of woman wiping dust from the table with a cleaning rag

For some, scrubbing the kitchen until it sparkles constitutes as “clean” and anything else is filthy. But you can find balance, even when everyone has a different definition of exactly what clean (enough) is.

Living with others can be challenging, especially when it comes to doing chores. Perhaps your roommate cleans the bathroom every few months, whereas you believe it should be scoured every week. Learning to come to terms with these differences can add strain to any living situation.

But it doesn’t have to end with everyone moving out, or harboring frustration and resentment. Here are some tips you can use to make things better.

House Meetings

You might think you’re too busy for a meeting, but sitting down face-to-face with your roommates, significant other, or kids will go a long way. If you’re dealing with a family situation, take a peek at our guide to running a smooth family meeting. Even if you’re dealing with roommates and not kids, we still recommend checking it out for some pointers.

Don’t rely on communication via email, text, or social media since it’s easy to misread intentions that way. You need to carve out a good 30-60 minutes where everyone will be present. Schedule it around pizza night, game night, or before your favorite TV show. This will help keep it light and fun.

Allow everyone the chance to voice their opinions. You might be irked that people leave wet towels piled up in the bathroom, whereas someone else might be annoyed that nobody wipes down the stove after cooking. We all notice (and are blind to) different messes in our homes.

Avoid having one person take charge or instructing others what to do. A real community thrives on equally sharing the responsibility. This will motivate everyone to step up and be an active participant in the household.


During your house meetings, you should create a list of what tasks need to happen, and how often. Printing off checklists can ensure chores are completed to a set standard.

Some households have great success with rotating chore charts. Divide your chores into broader categories, such as bathrooms, the kitchen, living spaces, garbage/recycling, and so on. Then print out a calendar, spreadsheet, or use an app to rotate jobs so that no one is stuck cleaning the bathroom forever.

The OurHome app (available on the web, and both Android and iOS) is a shared app that awards points for chores completed on time. A little competition can help kick people into gear!

However, some housemates prefer to split up chores into permanent positions. For example, if Joe is always complaining about the state of the bathroom, it might be worth having Joe be the dedicated bathroom cleaner, ensuring that the job is done to his high standard. If you enjoy (or at least don’t mind) taking out the trash and recycling, then that can be your permanent job. A permanent chore system uses people’s natural inclinations, assigning them duties for which they feel more passionate or obsessed.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and see which system works for you and your household. This is why regular meetings are crucial—to check back in, to see what’s working, and to make tweaks along the way.

Money as an Incentive

Let’s face it; some people are not motivated to clean, at all. It’s not in their DNA. Or maybe their parents never made them do chores. Either way, you can’t let total slackers off the hook.

If everyone isn’t on board with maintaining a clean house, then consider hiring a house cleaner. Once faced with the cost of a regular house cleaner, people usually step up and start pitching in. Or they fork over the cash to have a professional do it.

You can also implement a monthly “cleaning” fee, which everyone pays along with their rent. Once everyone completes their monthly chores, they are paid back that amount. And if someone doesn’t finish their tasks? Either another housemate can do them (thus earning extra money), or the funds can be used for community things, such as new plates, toilet paper, and so on. Assign one person to be in charge of managing the cleaning fees, but rotate this position to keep balance amongst the community.


Simple yet cozy small bathroom with light blue walls

Pleasing everyone is hard. If you want your house to shine, whereas your roommates only care if the microwave works, you might need to lower your standards just a bit. But you can also encourage your roommates to raise their standards, meeting somewhere in the middle. This is why writing out well-detailed cleaning lists is helpful.

What does a clean bathroom mean to you? If you want the bathmats washed, the mirrors cleaned, and the mold scrubbed off the shower curtain, then write that down. And be prepared that the result may be less stellar than if you’d done it yourself—but at least it’s a little cleaner.

Creating a universal standard for cleanliness is difficult given that people have different ideas of what “clean” really means. Taking advantage of each person’s natural abilities, as well as setting out clear expectations, is the best way to achieve success in a community living situation. If you can’t reach a compromise, consider pitching in for a regular house cleaner (or maybe someone to do a deep clean every other month).

Don’t let standards of cleanliness get in the way of creating a fun, peaceful environment. Try to respect where everyone is coming from. Keep things upbeat—maintaining a clean house is an exciting mission to share.

Jill A. Chafin Jill A. Chafin
Jill A. Chafin is a freelance writer, aerialist, dancer, food enthusiast, outdoor adventurer, and mama, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Read Full Bio »
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