Two recent articles in the New York Times got me thinking about why most of us really suck at saving money and more importantly why we suck at utilizing our time well. These are two separate but very connected issues. They are connected because after all we all know that time is money and money is time.
Both money and time seem like nonrenewable resources. Time actually is a nonrenewable resource. Although we don’t know exactly how much time we have, it’s a pretty good bet that most of us have between 70 and 90 years on this planet. And we each have 16 to 18 hours of conscious time each day. Just like oceanfront property, we can’t manufacture more time, we can only better utilize the time we have.
Money also seems like a nonrenewable resource for most of us. But it’s not really. In fact, thinking that money is a nonrenewable resource is probably one of the main reasons why people don’t use time better.
The first New York Times article, How to Pinch Pennies in the Right Places, gave a theoretical thought experiment. If you could save $10 on a $50 set of headphones, would you drive 30 minutes across town to get a better price at a different store? (Answer this before reading on.)
Or, if you could save $15 on a $400 television would you drive 30 minutes across town?
Research done by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1981 suggests that most people were more willing to drive across town to save money on the headphones than on the television. You save 20% on the headphones and only 3.75% on the television. But we don’t spend percentages, we spend dollars, and actually you’d be saving more money ($15) on the television than on the headphones ($10).
The same article discussed other research that suggested that consumers were willing to spend 20 minutes extra to save $3.75 on a $10 pen, but needed a savings of at least $278 on a $30,000 car to be willing to invest the same 20 minutes extra.
This of course is crazy! In the example of the pen people value their time at $11.25 per hour. But in the example of the car people are unwilling to make an investment of time that would pay them $834 per hour!
But we all fall prey to different versions of this. How much time do we waste surfing Amazon in order to save a few bucks on a product? Or to find a product that has 4 stars instead of 3 ½ stars?
This article also pointed out that people on the lower income level are less likely to fall prey to the percentage saved fallacy, because they care about each and every dollar. But I think the article misses a more important point – which is the real way to have more money!
Saving $10 or $15 on a purchase really doesn’t matter compared to lowering recurrent expenses. For instance, how much money do you spend each month on the following items: cell phone service, Internet service, cable or satellite TV, coffee drinks at your local café, restaurant meals, rent or mortgage, car payments? How much money did you spend on your last car? Spending $120 per month on cable TV comes out to $14,400 over 10 years. Nice late-model used cars can be had for $10,000-$15,000, yet many people drop $50,000 on a new car. Even just saving $30 on a less expensive cell phone plan means that you will save $3600 over 10 years.
(A number of years ago I looked at my recurrent expenses and realized that I was spending a lot of money on two business landlines, and on cable TV. I spent some time doing research and ended up purchasing a couple of Ooma telephone systems that when connected to the Internet provided completely free telephone service. I also put an antenna on my roof and switched to free over-the-air HDTV. The time invested was probably about 4 hours for all of the research and installation. But I saved almost $300 per month, without giving up anything I really cared about other than perhaps Monday night football (which is on cable TV only). My one-time four hour investment has paid me more than $10,000 in savings, which is roughly $2500 per hour! And I continue to save money each month.)
But the article also misses a more profound point, how to earn more money. People focus too much on saving money and not enough on earning more money, through work, entrepreneurship, education and training, and investment. In this era of the Internet there are 1 million ways to earn more money. And improving your education and training can help you earn more money in your current employment as well as well. Improving income opportunities lasts for life, while getting a good “deal” only lasts for a day! Or, if you can afford to invest money, then focusing your time on investing more successfully can yield huge benefits in total dollars. I know people that have spent the time to learn about investing in residential real estate, and who will retire with very nice incomes from the time they invested in acquiring and managing these properties.
Which brings me to the 2nd New York Times article, What Should You Choose: Time or Money? This is a fascinating and profound article. It summarizes research performed by Hal Hirschfield, Cassie Mogilner, and Uri Barnea which asked the question what do people choose, time or money? About 65% of their participants chose money over time, showing a small preference for money versus time. This in itself is not surprising or even particularly interesting. What’s more interesting is that those who chose time rather than money reported higher levels of happiness, even when the researchers controlled for participants’ amount of leisure time and income and money.
Realistically speaking, we are all in the business of balancing time against money. How we do this has significant implications in terms of our well-being and happiness. Research suggests that we should tilt in the direction of saving and valuing time rather than money if we want to maximize our happiness. There is ample research suggesting that experiences create more happiness than material possessions. And experiences take time (and sometimes money), while material purchases take money (and sometimes time.)
What can we learn from this research?
- When possible, tilt your decisions in favor of time rather than money. Don’t buy a cheaper house which requires you to spend many hours a week commuting. Don’t spend very much time in order to gain small savings in money.
- If you are going to invest time in order to save money, calculate your hourly “pay”, and only invest the time if the hourly salary is high. For instance, if it will take me 30 minutes to save 20 bucks, I’m earning $40 per hour. But if it takes me 30 minutes to save $5, then I’m earning $10 per hour. Try to be rational about these decisions and don’t pay any attention to the percentages saved, only to the dollar values and the time values.
- Time invested in saving money on recurrent expenses such as cable or satellite TV, car insurance, cell phone service, Internet service, etc. will always pay you a higher salary rate per hour. A few hours invested in researching less expensive alternatives and switching can save hundreds of dollars a month indefinitely which adds up to a very good return on your time invested.
- When you get excited about “getting a deal”, always calculate the true cost of the deal in time and in hassle. This will prevent you from driving across town to get a small savings or from spending too much time spent on the Internet looking for deals. (I am as guilty of this as most people, although I’m much more likely to spend time online rather than time in my car, even though both waste time.) Ask yourself whether on your deathbed you will be telling your grandchildren about this deal that you got. Remember that in the grand scheme of life, time is worth more than money. (See this classic parable about the poor fisherman and the entrepreneur.)
- Finally, remember that life is not just about time and money, it’s really about meaning and values. Spending money doesn’t really benefit you unless it ties into your core values and improves meaning in your life. That’s why even getting a multiplicity of small “deals” doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters more is whether you spend money to support your core values. That’s why grandparents sometimes pay for their grandchildren’s college, even though it’s an expensive proposition. And that’s why taking your family on a really fun vacation is a good investment as it leads to experiences and memories that potentially last a lifetime. (My siblings and I will always remember magical experiences from our family trips – playing telephone tag in the elevators of the Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, riding donkeys along a precipitous cliff in Grand Canyon, screaming “beep beep” on a narrow, twisting road in Spain when our rental car horn failed.)
- And even time should be evaluated in terms of meaning and values. Here in Silicon Valley a lot of people retire early. This isn’t always a good thing however. What I’ve seen is that they often end up spending time doing things that don’t really add to their happiness. For instance, they will design and build a custom house, usually quite large, which eats up several years of their life playing at general contractor and quality control inspector.
- Just as spending money intelligently is challenging, it’s even more challenging to spend time well. I struggle with this all the time. But I try to continually improve how I spend my time, for instance trying to focus more on writing these blog articles rather than watching television or reading a novel.
This article ended up being a lot longer than I expected, but I think these are profound and important issues for all of us to think about and to improve. Now it’s time for me to have some fun!