When I buy a loaf of bread at the grocery store, I’m buying convenience. It would cost less to buy the ingredients for a loaf that I could make at home myself, but that would require a time investment.
That same phenomenon is true of many of the things we spend our money on. Everything from a wrist watch (it allows us to conveniently know the time) to a jug of fruit juice (it saves us the time and effort of juicing raw fruit) boils down to a convenience purchase.
Many of the things we buy are purchased to save time and energy, not because of the product itself.
The reasoning is obvious: buying things for the purpose of convenience enables us to fit more into our day. Without the convenience of a waffle mix and a jug of juice, many of us wouldn’t have the time to make waffles and orange juice for our family for breakfast, for example. Without the convenience of a smart phone, many of us would struggle to keep up to date on many of our human relationships.
We pay more for these conveniences, of course. Without the need for convenience, some purchases would be completely silly. Other purchases, like that loaf of bread, arises solely out of a need to save time and energy.
When we pay for that convenience, though, what does it buy us?
I was curious about this question, so I took a look at the results of the American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. It estimated that the average American adult spends time like this:
Working and work-related activities – 8.8 hours per day
Sleeping – 7.7 hours per day
Leisure and sports – 2.6 hours per day
Other – 1.6 hours per day
Caring for others – 1.2 hours per day
Eating and drinking – 1.1 hours per day
Household activities – 1.0 hours per day
Let’s assume that convenience purchases have no impact on the time spent sleeping in a given day. Aside from that, the idea that we spend money on convenience has an impact on virtually every other category listed here.
For example, the extra expense of convenience leads many of us to work more than we might otherwise do. Many families have a dual income arrangement, with both partners working full time (or more). Often, this need for income is connected to their life expenses, many of which are inflated by convenience costs.
Convenience purchases likely open the door for more time for the “leisure and sports” and “other” categories, as well. Of course, if you drill down into those categories, you begin to see some interesting patterns, such as the average American spending 170 minutes per day on average watching television, which accounts for more than half of leisure time. (Our household happens to be a largely television-free one, but I can certainly understand the appeal of watching an hour or two of television in the evening to unwind and relax.)
So, what can we get out of all of this?
My conclusion is a simple one: at least part of the struggle that many people have with personal finance is deeply connected to time management.
When people stack too many responsibilities into their lives, they’re looking for shortcuts in other areas of their life and, often, they’re willing to pay extra for those shortcuts.
For example, I would love to fix a wonderful breakfast for my children each morning, but the demands of that morning (often due to a lack of organization the night before) often results in a simpler breakfast or one assembled with the aid of convenience purchases, which are inherently more expensive. Poor time management costs me rather directly in that case, but it happens indirectly all throughout the day.
The extra costs of items purchased for convenience theoretically provides more free time in my day, but the extra cost requires a greater focus on work so that I can earn enough income. This, in turn, requires even more convenience items, especially if I want other elements in my life beyond work, basic life maintenance, and sleep.
The only solution I can see to this problem is to make a conscious effort to simplify one’s life through a mix of better time management and elimination of time and energy commitments.
For example, in a given week, we have some sort of family commitment every single day right now. Those commitments directly reduce the time we can use to do things like make a loaf of bread from scratch or make a batch of homemade laundry detergent or prepare a meal from raw ingredients. In order to pull off all of those commitments, Sarah and I both need cell phones so we can communicate and synchronize those demands.
Like a lot of Americans, we’re overcommitted, and like most of those overcommitted Americans, it’s costing us in the form of expenses that are incurred for the sake of convenience.
In my view, the most important step we can take right now to improve our household expenses is to dial back on our commitments and get a better grip on our use of time. Fewer commitments means more opportunity to make inexpensive and delicious home-cooked meals. Fewer commitments means fewer miles on our vehicles. Fewer commitments means more time to engage in low-cost leisure activities with high personal value. Fewer commitments means less decision fatigue and thus smarter choices while shopping or making other financial decisions.
If we can improve our handle on our time and energy, we’ll naturally have a greater handle on our money. This is a topic I plan on digging into with greater detail in the coming weeks on The Simple Dollar.