Balancing Money and Time

Two years ago, I made the choice to walk away from a career that I, in many ways, loved. The one thing that I did not love about that career is how it seemed to always be a black hole of time. I worked a bit over forty hours a week on average, spent more than an hour commuting each day, would often spend evening and weekend hours working on things, would go into work on weekends to deal with crises, and would travel for the job as well.

I earned a good salary, but when you actually figured in all of the time I was spending on that job, I really wasn’t earning all that much per hour and it was eating up most of my time.

The final straw, for me, was when I missed out on my son’s first steps while I was on a work trip to San Diego. My wife called me excitedly to tell me about it and, after I hung up, I couldn’t help but feel like I was trading this time for money.

My entire focus over the past few years has been to reverse that equation. How can I make as much money as possible from the time in my life’s margins? In other words, how can I maximize my earnings while still not missing out on taking my daughter to the park or playing Calvinball with my son?

I’ve lost some income in the process. A lot of income. I’ve turned down some pretty amazing opportunities along the way – a radio program, a television show, a syndicated newspaper column, just to name a few. All of these things would earn me quite a bit more money than I earn right now. But they would eat up time.

For me, the perfect balance of time and money is that I spend the minimum amount of time earning money and the maximum amount of time spending time with and taking care of my family while still earning enough for us to survive and thrive a little.

That’s my solution. But it might not be your solution.

If I were single, I would be much more focused on my work than I am right now. There are many, many projects I would take on because, frankly, some of the creative challenges really do excite me.

I simply know where my priorities lie and, right now, my priorities lie in the backyard playing Calvinball or in the kitchen making chicken florentine and roasted broccoli.

You have to find your own balance. What’s important to you? There is no right or wrong answer here – we’re all wired differently. If you spend the time right now determining what the priorities are in your life, an awful lot of “hard decisions” become not so hard after all.

Perhaps your current career is your priority. In that case, you absolutely should throw all your energy into succeeding. Spend your spare time learning new things that can help you – communication skills and the like. Have some down time, of course, but recognize that the down time not only helps recharge you, but can also help you build relationships.

Maybe building a new career is the priority. If that’s the case, treat your current job as merely a way to keep a steady paycheck coming in – a financial platform upon which to build what’s next.

Maybe your family is the priority. Your focus here should be on minimizing personal costs and maximizing every possible ounce of time spent with your family. Flexible hours are at a huge premium here and are well worth less pay. (I’m writing this article at 5:40 AM, for example, so that I can be finished with a few articles before my children even rise from bed, allowing me to spend the entire day with them.)

What’s the real lesson here? It’s all about time, not money. That’s the real secret of personal finance. We are constantly trading our time for money.

Our priorities come into play when we ask ourselves about where the limits of that trade are. Do we go on another career building business trip (which likely leads to a better exchange rate between money and time), but miss out on valuable time at home? That question isn’t really about money at all.

Yes, some money is a requirement, but the lower you make that requirement in your own life through frugal living, the more freedom you have in making time choices. I took a lot less money to get an incredibly flexible working schedule (and more enjoyable work for me, personally), but I was rewarded with a lot more time focused on what matters to me.

Living frugally made this choice possible. The more you can take money – and the need for more of it so you can buy more stuff – out of the equation, the more latitude you have for choosing how you want to spend your time. You can spend more time with your family. You can spend more time on your career. You can spend more time writing that great American novel. You can spend more time going on hikes.

Because time, in the end, is the one limited currency we have in life. We can always earn more money through the sweat on our brow. We can never make more time.

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  1. hotmar says:

    Great article, Trent!

    There is a real battle in our lives between money and time. We have to reflect about the results from our choice to live better, according to our moment in life.

  2. Kathy says:

    Time is so much more a precious commodity than money. If you lose money, you can make it back. When you lose time, you can never get it back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

  3. Johanna says:

    This is at least the third post this week in which you’ve talked about how little time you spend writing for this blog. As for me, I wouldn’t think it would be a good idea to talk at length to my customers (or the closest things I have to customers) about how little effort I put into doing my job.

  4. Marc says:

    Sounds like you play a good deal of Calvinball…

  5. What I’ve also learned is that this level of “balance” is a fluid thing.

    Ten years ago, I was sinlge and in restaurant management. I was perfectly content to work nites, weekends,and sometimes more than 80 hours per week.

    Now I’m married with a son, and I couldn’t imagine working that job.

    That’s another key, to adjust this balance and tweak it when we can as our lives go down different paths.

  6. Mark says:

    Johanna,

    Many times I read your comments and it is like “finger nails on a chalk board”. This is another of those times. Could you please just let one post go by where you don’t put your two cents in?

    Trent,

    I agree time is far more valuable than money. It shows that you back up what you say by the recent opportunities you have turned down.

  7. Shevaun says:

    I agree that it’s all about priorities–with the understanding that priorities shift over time. A few years ago, the top priority really was earning money for my family. I am an adjunct college professor, so I took on a double-full time load at four different schools on six campuses, in addition to tutoring in two school centers, private tutoring, and teaching workshops for local businesses. I worked 6am -10 pm M-F plus 8-3 on Saturdays and spent most of Sunday grading. I missed a lot of precious time with my daughter, but we had a roof, heat, and groceries. This was my first priority.

    Now, I’ve been able to pare down to a normal full-time load split between two schools. I teach (in the classroom) M-F 8-12, then grade papers, meet with students, and prep lessons 12-3. I can get my daughter from school, come home and make dinner, and spend the evening with my family. I don’t work on weekends except during finals week. Frugality made this paring down possible. I often joke that I wash my ziploc bags in order to take Saturdays off. (of course, it’s not just the bags, but the lifestyle of making those kinds of choices all the time).

    To say, though, that I don’t love my students or that teaching is not my life’s vocation would be unfair, though. My customers–my students–get a better quality education when I have the sanity and time to devote genuine attention to them. That kind of attention isn’t possible when every single moment is spent producing. There needs to be time for reflection, too.

  8. Jules says:

    @ Johanna: maybe Trent just works really efficiently and doesn’t waste his time making asinine comments.

  9. GayleRN says:

    What Trent is doing at this point is a lot of recycling. I lost count a long time ago of how many posts have been devoted to this theme. I am starting to skip the days that are more of the same.

  10. Nicole says:

    It does have that Garfield theme… oh look, another comic about hating Mondays. There’s got to be a better way to space out the repeats. I’m especially weirded out when one of the time machine posts is followed directly by a “new” post on the exact same subject as the one year anniversary post. Or if there’s a theme for the week, then different posts could make it clear how they differ from each other… what aspects of time vs. money are being highlighted today?

    It has to be difficult having one person writing two posts a day every day. Eventually one must run out of stuff to say. I think that’s partly why a year ago posts seem to have had a lot more comments, but they’ve dwindled this year unless someone is complaining about a hot topic like race. (Though negative posts always make me stop checking TSD for a week or two.)

    I like the reader questions. I especially like the reader questions where one question is answered in detail. The mailbags are a little too overwhelming. I wouldn’t mind seeing this site have more of that kind of content if it’s going to keep up with the 2 posts per day. Not necessarily all reader questions, but more.

    I also like posts that focus on children… that’s the big thing that TSD offers that other good financial bloggers don’t delve into as much. (There are plenty of blogs by SAHM that focus on their kids and tightwad-like tips/recipes, but they’re generally not as general.) My favorite recent post was the one about kids and outside stuff– that really struck a chord and was fresh and new.

  11. David says:

    The totality of these comments appears to be that Trent spends too much time writing about how little time he spends writing. No one goes there any more – it’s too crowded.

  12. anne says:

    #11- david-

    i love yogi berra!!

    also, we could maybe say it’s deja vu all over again.

    noone’s asked me, but one thing i’d love to see here at your site, trent, is a way for the comments section to have threads- i don’t know how difficult it would be to set it up, but there are some people who leave comments here that i would just love to be able to have conversations w/.

    and it could be in keeping w/ what you mentioned in your next post, for example – having a money buddy. you could facillitate a lot of bonding w/ your readers.

    plus, it might satisy some of your loyal readers who seem to be getting bored and are itching for a change.

    i love your site and will keep coming back no matter what, of course.

    xoxo

  13. Gretchen says:

    This isn’t the first recent post where I’ve thought the point would be you were giving up the blog to focus on your family.

  14. Trent, I wondered about the nested comments option as well. It’s very easy to set up in WordPress (I don’t know what blogging software you use, though), so I’ve always assumed that you don’t have nested comments turned on because you don’t want to, not because you don’t know how. :)

    In some ways nested comments make the comments easier to read, but then on the other hand, they tend to make the comments section slightly more messy-looking.

  15. elderly librarian says:

    I resent the TIME needed around april 15 to do income taxes. It seems to be getting more and more complicated each year. What happened to the plan to simplify everything? What’s up with all these special tax rebates? Trent, can you do a column on that? The rebate opportunities seem to be so limited. What’s the purpose of these rebates? Is it to turn government finance into something more like best buy or home depot? My head is spinning. I don’t have time to decide whether to buy a new heating system or purchase a fuel efficient car right now. They really lock you in on these.

  16. Jillian says:

    How do you roast broccoli? Doesn’t it just dry out and go all crispy?

  17. Mary says:

    Long time lurker, first time poster. I really enjoy the insights about money management you offer, and this is an excellent example of a really basic, but often-overlooked, truth. Thanks!

  18. DOTTIE says:

    One of the reasons I read your blog is because of the tone you have of less work more family time. I think it is wonderful that you communicate that with your readers. Each article provides me with a little more in site and inspiration as I learn to do the same.

  19. Jeannette says:

    Trent
    I applaud your commitment to how you want to live your life in terms of time commitments to work and family\.

    One thing I do want to point out, and I’m sure it’s one you’ve considered, is the value of following up on some opportunities as they are offered (provided, of course, you are also interested.)

    It’s a funny thing about a professional career, regardless of the type. You have to act on opportunities as they arise, because they are rarely duplicated and there is such a thing as a “peak” time in a career.

    Although I respect your choices, I think you need to perhaps think a bit harder about NOT turning down certain opps that come your way now. You have a strong following and you are getting offers now for a reason.

    You may not have that opportunity in the future and this is something most people fail to take into account. It’s the reason people who often succeed very well in a field and “retire” early can do so. They took advantage of key opps as they appeared. And yes, there are sacrifices, but there always are.

    People will always be more important than a job/career, however, to have more time in the future, as well as needed resources, it is sometimes needed to commit more time upfront (as in NOW) to one’s work/career. There will be more work in your thirties than in later decades. For most people.

    If you can live with the fact that you may not always have such opps, then turning them down certainly works for you. But I hope you realize that life isn’t always on the upswing (hey, isn’t that the reason so many people get into debt in the first place? They keep thinking they’ll have a better job or get a raise…but it doesn’t happen.)

    PS: I would not worry too much about a decline in the number of postings when the baby arrives. Those who follow your blog will continue to do so. It’s quality, not quantity. Frankly, I’d prefer once a day if it’s something you really have that is new and you think is meaningful for your audience.

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