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.