Time and money are both scarce resources. They are also resources that can be traded. Time can be exchanged for money (which is what most of us do when we go to work) and money can buy time.
It would make sense that people’s willingness to exchange time and money for each other would vary based on circumstance. In my Year of Living Frugally post, I talked about carefully planning my meals around sales, cooking those meals myself, and making enough so I could bring leftovers to work during my first year out of college. A few years later when I had another in-office gig that paid much better, I bought my lunch every day. Different finances, different choices.
But according to a series of articles currently running in Harvard Business Review, most of us systematically err on the side of valuing money more than time. Indeed, series author Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and her colleagues have found that even people with plenty of money fail to use it strategically to buy time. This is partly because they have a lot of money. When you can earn a lot per hour, the opportunity cost of substituting an hour of leisure for an hour of working seems very high.
This is a problem, since there’s an argument to be made that time is more valuable than money. Empirically, Whillans’ research finds that having lots of time generally makes people happier than having more money (beyond a reasonable level of comfort). Or there’s this: you can make more money, but you cannot make more time. Once a second is gone, all the money in the world cannot buy it back.
The good news is that even if you aren’t worth billions, you can make some wise choices to buy happiness by buying time. Some of my favorites:
Negotiate for time. When starting a new job, or talking with your manager about a raise, try asking for more time in addition to more cash. Then when the cash can only go so high, double down on the time; this is often easier for a manager to give than money in a budget. What this means practically: asking for more vacation days, and/or asking to work from home twice a week. Telecommuting won’t cut your work hours, but it buys you back your commute which, statistically, is the worst part of people’s days. As for vacation, Whillans’ (and others’) research finds an extra week gives people the happiness boost of quite a bit extra in salary.
Fly direct (and at sane times). Modern travel booking software allows you to compare all prices and routes side by side, which means that it’s tempting to say “Hey, this would be $75 cheaper if I flew through Dallas!” Do not do this. Your first flight will be late into Dallas, you’ll miss your connection, and wind up losing most of a day on the deal. Also, the fact that the 6 a.m. flight is cheaper than the 8 a.m. one doesn’t mean you should take it. Try to use your imagination and picture your future self setting your alarm for 3:30 a.m. Then be kind to your future self.
Get stuff delivered. Sometimes shopping is fun. Plenty of people might enjoy a leisurely trip to a nice grocery store, for instance, or going to a favorite boutique when the new styles have come in. Sometimes shopping is not fun. Spending two hours of your weekend going to a store to buy a Lego set for your kid’s friend’s birthday party, or a certain kind of light bulb that the store turns out not to carry, is just maddening. Order online and get this stuff shipped.
Offload nagging tasks. Yes, you can get your house cleaned and lawn mowed, and those are both great ideas. But outsourcing can go beyond that. Our youngest child is in preschool five mornings a week this year. Rather than trying to get by on less childcare, we converted those 15 hours of nanny time into household/personal assistant time. Meals get made, customer service people get called, the van’s oil gets changed, the UPS store gets visited, contractors get let in even if I have to be somewhere. I highly recommend this. Even five strategically deployed hours per week could do a lot.
Invest in your hobbies. My husband often travels for work. So, back when we first had children and I wanted to continue singing in my choirs, we made the strategic decision to hire a regular sitter for my rehearsal nights. Now that I’m singing again, we’ve continued with this policy. I’m glad to have the room in my finances for this, but if you look at happiness research, getting together weekly to do something fun with friends would be a huge boost for just about anyone. It’s definitely worth driving your car for an extra year, if that would be the trade-off.
How do you use money to buy time?