How to buy happiness

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?

27 thoughts on “How to buy happiness

  1. I’m a professor and our sabbaticals every 7 years are a semester at full pay or a year at 75% pay. I have budgeted to take the full year every time. Not only does it buy me a lovely second research semester with few set demands on my time, but part of our pay raises are merit based. If I get more research done in that extra semester it can partially pay for itself in increased merit pay over the next few years.

    1. @Sarah – you are definitely making the right choice, especially considering the long-term perspective that research is often the most rewarded part of being a professor. This sounds like the kind of thing that young professors would really need to be mentored into choosing.

  2. My husband and I discuss this explicitly, especially when we’re thinking about taking on new commitments. Very recently we started paying for hot meals for our toddler when he’s at day care. It’s not cheap relative to the price of food brought from home ($10 per day for toddler-sized lunch and dinner, vs $4ish from home). But then there’s the time it takes to prepare and pack those meals, to clean the dishes, to do the extra shopping – I ballparked this at 20-25 minutes per day, so if my time is worth $15 an hour, minimum wage in our city (it definitely is!!), we’re getting a good deal. In addition, the meals they serve are healthful and varied, so we can lean a little more heavily into our meatball / scrambled eggs / pasta comfort zone during rushed meals at home. I’m almost glad we waited so long to do this because now I can appreciate how very worth it this is.

    1. @Erica- I think this is a wise choice. Plus, as you noted, they are healthy and varied, and the hot and cold foods are at the right temperature (hard to do with stuff you bring from home if there’s not a microwave or freezer).

  3. My employer allows me to buy extra vacation time. So I have bought an extra two weeks a year (making 6 weeks in total here in Australia) for the last 10 years. I try and take the two weeks as a day here or there with nothing much to do, and the four weeks is real holiday going somewhere. Although I don’t make a secret of it, almost no-one notices that I take that extra time. So it hasn’t done my career any harm either.

    1. @Jennifer- this is a great example of trading money for time, and it’s great that your employer has this as an option. Though clearly they’re getting a deal since you’re still getting your job done and they’re paying for 2 fewer weeks 🙂

  4. A question for you: Did you hire a new person to manage your household for those 15 hours per week? Or did you change your current nanny’s contract to include those sorts of responsibilities as well? Have been thinking of hiring a household manager to do those sorts of tasks and wondered how others do it.

    1. @SB – same nanny, with new scope of duties. Since we already had an employee we knew and liked, this was a great option. Other people might not want to take on different tasks, in which case finding someone new might be smart.

  5. I’ve never liked the idea that money can buy happiness. I heard Jay Leno on a podcast say that rich people should never complain and, while I’m not rich, I thought that was harsh. I think it’s more of the bell curve, idea, right…income increases happiness up to a point and then you get diminishing returns. I’m sure there are many reasons for that depending on job and income level.

    Anyway, I think it’s really about having your life priorities right (family and friends), and then using money in a way that allows you to focus on those priorities and not lose them in the quest for more money. My company recently created a vacation purchase program. You can purchase 1 week of vacation for 1 week’s salary. When I was explaining this to someone, they thought it was ludicrous to spend that money. All I told them was that it created flexibility for people. You don’t want or need it? Don’t buy it. But for some people in certain phases of life, they need it and the time is worth more than the money.

    1. @Carolyn – I think the best way to put it is that money is a tool. It can buy happiness if you use it right. It can also buy misery, boredom, or a host of other outcomes, depending on what you do with it. The point of the HBR article is that it can be used to buy happiness if it is used to buy time, and if you then spend your time on high-quality activities.

      As mentioned in another comment, I think this idea of allowing people to purchase extra vacation is great. It gives people flexibility. The colleague who thought it was ludicrous is clearly buying into the mindset the HBR article mentions! (Maybe there is a good reason, like a high debt load and a newly unemployed spouse or something — but if you have some cushion, most people would be happier with 3-4 weeks vs. 2-3, even trading off the corresponding level of income.)

  6. I definitely connected with your tip about flying direct. My family are in the UK and I visit maybe twice a year. I often find myself looking at creative routes, but generally try to remember, it just isn’t worth it. The one time I cooked up a connection in Dublin, sure enough, there I was sprinting through the terminal, sparks flying from my suitcase wheels (well, nearly) – due to a late initial departure from San Francisco.
    As a work-from-home writer, I considered waving goodbye to my housekeeping service, but so far have clung onto this little luxury. It certainly makes me happy not to worry about cleaning, and since we’re just 2 adults here, we really don’t make much mess.

    1. @Pauline- We will drive to Newark (90 minutes from our house) in order to fly direct if necessary (if there aren’t good direct flights out of PHL, which is 30 minutes away). The odds of something going wrong with a connection are high enough that this is almost always the smarter move.

  7. One issue I always struggle with outsourcing is how to balance “management” with doing the task myself. I think your nanny is a great example of being able to fully out-source over time – you probably have to explain a lot less to her to get UPS returns, oil changes, etc. But thinking about outsourcing some of those tasks with a Task Rabbit or something else seems more trouble than it’s worth.

    I used grocery pick-up this morning from Walmart, and it ended up being a bigger pain than help (that being said, it was my first time, so it could get better!). So maybe I’m outsourcing wrong…

      1. I can’t speak of the OP but here is my experience with Walmart pickup. I’ve had issues where it took 40-50 minutes for the groceries to actually get to my car. This sucked when I needed to get home before my nanny’s work day ended. I’ve also had significant screw ups, like the time when they left out ALL my perishables (customer service of course refunded all my money, but I still had to make an unplanned trip to the store.) Most of the time everything is great.

        I’ve decided the pros are worth it (I like the products I get, and I LOVE the prices – I’m saving a ton over having peapod deliver) so I now go do the pick ups on Saturday mornings with all my kids in the car. If there is a long wait, we are all together and don’t have anywhere to be and they all have books and the littles can get out of their car seats. If they are out of stock of something we really need, I have the rest of the weekend to send my husband to the store to pick up a few extra things (and there are always a few things I didn’t realize we’d need when I placed my order, anyway.) And I never have to set foot in a grocery store, which I absolutely love. I make trips to Trader Joes or Costco when I feel like it, no pressure to do that on a weekly basis.

        1. @Tory, Anne, et al – I imagine like most other things this depends on how well the store is managed. A really good general manager will have the curbside pickup running smoothly, and the registers, and the restocking, etc. A more chaotic store will have big delays in curbside pickup…and everything else.

          I second the idea of staying out of stores with the kids. My husband wanted us all to take a family trip to Wegmans last weekend. I think he thought it was fun. I didn’t, but maybe I’m just more sensitive to my kids misbehaving than he is.

    1. OP Here (AW):

      I think my issue with Walmart pick-up may have been my expectations. The instructions were wonky (my app said to check-in when I got there, which I did, but then the sign at the parking lot said to call a number – and no one picked up at the store). And then there were three substitutes that ended up not being right for my us, so I ended up returning them and going in to pick my own substitutes. One substitute was regular orange juice instead of orange pineapple, which I could see fitting other families but wasn’t what we wanted. That being said, everyone was super friendly and helpful – I think we’re just pickier about what we purchase.

      I’ll caveat to Laura’s comment that I don’t have kids. Being in the grocery store is fairly peaceful for me – and really, a 30 minute max activity. So the tradeoff for me isn’t nearly as high as someone with children in the car and a lot less time. So perhaps it’s more of a life stage thing!

  8. Well, this was not something I planned but it did work out that way. My original plan was to only have my son in daycare during the school year since I am a teacher and thought “What is the point of having childcare when I’m not working?”

    I learned, much to my initial dismay, that most daycare centers require you to keep your child registered (and paying) year-round. If I pulled him out for the summer, I risked there not being any spots available in the fall. Rather than take that chance I kept him enrolled and figured that I might as well send him two or three days a week since I had to pay for it anyway. It turned out to be a godsend. I was able to use that time to go to my own doctor appointments, get to the gym, go grocery shopping and run errands without a little one in tow, and occasionally go to the movies to see something for grownups. My son got to play with other children and have a less frazzled and worn-out mother.

    This is my son’s first year in pre-school so now as I am typing I am reminded that I no longer have summer child care and need to start making arrangements now!

  9. Have you watched the Marie Kondo show on netflix? I’d love to see you address it. I only watched the first episode, but it focused on a family where they were paying someone to come do their laundry. The husband and Marie Kondo bullied the Mom into feeling inadequate for not doing it herself. If the cost of the laundry helper was a burden financially they never mentioned it. I was SO MAD at the TV! It seemed to me like this was a GREAT use of money to free up some time for mom to do higher-value things.

    I personally don’t mind laundry at all. But if I had the money to pay someone to do the dishes and otherwise clean the kitchen twice a day, I’d spend it in a heartbeat.

    1. @Tory- I haven’t watched it, but if that’s what happens in the first episode, whoa. Why not bully the husband into doing it? Or why isn’t he volunteering if he thinks someone in the family should do it? Sheesh.

      1. It was terrible to watch this episode actually. As so many women do, she took on the burden of housework because she only works „a few days a week“ out of the house and spends the remainder of her time looking after a toddler and a kindergartener. She explicitly said she hates doing laundry. The „reason“ her husband isn’t doing it is because he works „50 to 60 hours“ a week; though the way he said that made me think it may be worthwhile to keep a time diary for a while.
        The way women are treated in the show has actually converted me into your side of the Marie Kondo camp.

  10. I take some issue with some concepts in the article, starting with this statement: “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.”

    From my observation, most people who have a lot of money are not getting paid by the hour; they are on salary. Salaried employees are paid the same amount regardless of the hours they work beyond the mandatory ~40 hours/week. Therefore, the trade-off between leisure and work is not about money, but more about obligation. In the American economy, employers are doing more with less every year and pressuring, almost threatening, employees to meet goals that are out of reach without putting in extra hours on a regular basis.

    Very little acknowledgement is granted in this article around the pressures posed by employers in a salaried job. Stating that the employees “FAIL to use it [money] strategically” suggests that the employee has done something wrong in not buying vacation time. My last 3 companies had strict policies against this practice, and when “negotiating” vacation time, kudos to you if you are able to walk away from jobs because the company won’t budge on vacation policies. One former employer had a strict 2-week per year vacation policy for all new employees (non-negotiable) regardless of their work experience – I had 20+ years and 4 weeks vacation built up at a previous job which was inconsequential in negotiations.

    Some of the suggestions about outsourcing and working from home are practical, but how about acknowledging the part played by demanding employers who put workers in a position where they are continually forced to choose between failing at home and failing at work? My manager was literally brought to tears last week because she cannot keep up with the unreasonable demands from her leadership; and everyone knows that you get buried even deeper when you try to take time off. Some friends and I have made major sacrifices in our careers (switching jobs or careers, taking a much lower paying job, leaving the corporate world altogether) in an attempt to get our lives back. People who work long, hard hours are not necessarily doing it because they want more money; this wording makes them sound selfish, greedy, even shallow. Many people work long hours because it’s expected, and others are depending on them to meet “critical” goals. Most people want to do a good job, get a good review, be regarded as dependable and trusted employees…which hopefully opens doors for a long term, meaningful career. But it’s difficult just to take care of yourself and your personal relationships when you’re constantly reminded how much the company “needs” from you. THIS is what work-life balance is about, not a struggle over money.

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