Updated on 09.03.15

‘Money Cannot Buy What Time Delivers’

Trent Hamm
couple strolling leisurely

As we get older, we often try to use money as a substitute for what we lack in time — but dollars are no match for days. Photo: Nick Page

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to read a wonderful article from Kevin Kelly entitled More Time, More Money. Here’s the idea behind the post:

I’ve traveled extensively for 40 years. In almost every style there is. Been pampered in first class: I remember a time in Bangkok where they put me up in the Grand Orient Hotel on the river and I was assigned a personal butler who sat outside my room awaiting my wishes. I’ve hitchhiked penniless, too. I walked a thousand miles on my feet one trip. Ridden a bicycle across the US, twice. Traveled as a couple in Europe, traveled with a family of five in Asia, travelled in a unwieldy group of 16, been on organized tours — and been on my own years at a stretch. I lived abroad in an old city. Once I was on the move every night for 9 months, and one time flew to Hawaii on a door-prize win! The point is I’ve travelled every way possible, and I’ve learned you need only two things (besides good health): some time and money.

Time and money. So much of life comes down to those two things.

I’ve always liked the way that I explain life to my children. As a child, you usually have plenty of time and plenty of energy, but not much money. As a younger adult, you usually have plenty of energy and plenty of money, but not much time. As an older adult, you usually have plenty of time and plenty of money, but not much energy.

What’s the point? People at various ages often focus on what they don’t have, rather than what they do have.

I’ll use myself as an example. When I was younger, I often fretted about not having enough money for some of the things that I wanted. That left me disappointed. I would have been far better off appreciating the abundance of free time and energy that I had back then.

Today, I often fret about the lack of free time that I have to do things that I want to do. It can leave me disappointed if I let it. I’m usually better off when I appreciate the fact that I have plenty of energy and a healthy income and that time will come.

When you are young you have more time than money. Not having money closes off some travel possibilities (forget Bhutan), and it forces you to go the long way around. With no bucks it may take you longer to get somewhere by local bus, but of course you will still arrive later. Without money your options are limited to where you can stay, or do (no hot air balloons!). Over many years and long stretches on the road, these limited options can feel restrictive, and tiring.

This sums up the challenge of having time but not money. You are limited in terms of what you can do and where you can live, but you have lots of time to invest in terms of digging deep into things and exploring new things.

This reminds me a lot of my travels during the summers when I was in college. I often went on camping / road trips with friends where we would camp at the cheapest possible place, eat peanut butter sandwiches, swim in country ponds, thoroughly explore some rural towns, and so on. Those trips had a much different vibe than the trips I take today with my kids, because back then I didn’t have much money, but without real responsibility I could easily burn away the days.

When you are older, you tend to have more money than time. If you have only a two-week vacation, you need to rush things so you can keep your job. You’ll pay to fly in to the hotspot rather than spend your two weeks in the back of the bus getting there. You’ll pay extra for the express train because it will save you a day — and its clean bathrooms will delight your 12-year-old daughter. Maybe you hire a guide to take you directly to the festival instead of wasting an afternoon wandering around. With money you can eat whatever you desire.

This sounds a lot like our trips today. With the responsibilities I have on my plate, from my professional commitments to my community commitments, from my parenting responsibilities to my tasks as a homeowner, I find it more and more difficult to have spare time.

Yet, at the same time, I’m in good financial shape. I have no outstanding debts. I have some money in savings and in investments. I am moving toward what looks like a secure retirement.

I can “box out” a certain amount of time to spend with my family and on purely fun things within those responsibilities, but it does mean that things are constrained. As much as I would like to, my commitments make it very difficult to just spend three weeks on the road going wherever I feel like going.

So, I substitute money for time, at least in some ways. I’ve flown my family of five to places that we could have driven in order to save us three or four days of road travel, for example. We try to compress “fun” into a relatively small number of days, and that usually means jamming a lot of things into a day, and that means less time for wandering and serendipity.

This isn’t just true when I’m traveling. It’s true in many parts of my life.

For example, when my life started filling with responsibilities, I started substituting those lazy afternoons that I would spend reading a book with a quick stop at the bookstore. I would buy a book with the intent of reading it and I would feel good (at least for a while) having it on my shelf, but the reality was that I just didn’t have the time to read that I once did.

I did the same thing with other hobbies. I wound up with a stack of unplayed video games. I had a closet full of stuff that I bought because I wanted to do something, but I didn’t have the time and it felt like a reasonable substitute.

I tried to substitute money for time – and it didn’t work. Kevin Kelly says it perfectly:

Here is what I learned from 40 years of traveling: Of the two modes, it is far better to have more time than money.

So, why is time better than money? Kevin Kelly:

When you have abundant time you can get closer to core of a place. You can hang around and see what really happens. You can meet a wider variety of people. You can slow down until the hour that the secret vault is opened. You have enough time to learn some new words, to understand what the real prices are, to wait out the weather, to get to that place that takes a week in a jeep.

Again, it’s not just travel. If you have abundant time, you can spend an afternoon getting lost in a great book. You can spend a day fixing the brakes on your own car. You can spend a few weekends constructing a canoe in your living room. You can spend a couple of months backpacking across Europe. You can spend six months walking along the Continental Divide, as my cousin is doing as I write this.

Time enables you to do these things. Money alone cannot quite do it.

Money is an attempt to buy time, but it rarely is able to buy any of the above. When we don’t have time we use money to try to get us to the secret door on time, or we use it avoid needing to know the real prices, or we use money to have someone explain to us what is really going on. Money can get us close, but not all the way.

I have never met anyone on a high-priced tour where everything is provided, who did not tell me, “I wish I had more time.” I have seen millionaires look wistfully at time-rich backpackers and whisper, “I wish I were them.”

I wish I had more time.

Time is the one thing you can give yourself in abundance. It is often the one resource the young own. Ironically, if you exploit your gift of time as you travel, you’ll gain more than any billionaire can. Without exaggeration, you’ll earn experiences that no amount of money can buy. Seriously. Although it tries, money cannot buy what time delivers.

So if you have a choice, travel with more time than money. You’ll be richer.

Kelly’s comments on money and time leave me with a lot to think about.

Right now, my financial goal is complete financial independence. The reason isn’t security. It’s time. That goal is all about divesting myself of my professional responsibilities while still being able to have the income I need to live.

My goal isn’t to sit on a pile of wealth like Scrooge McDuck. My goal is to be able to just spend a week or spend a month or spend a year doing something, then having the freedom to walk away and do something else when the passion fades. My goal is to have the freedom to wander and to dig deep and to see the treasures of life that I probably would never otherwise get to see.

But why not do it now? For me, the biggest reason is my children. They need stability and security as they learn how to interact with the world.

If I were childless? It would be a different situation. In fact, right now, I’d probably consider taking a giant leap with my life, as I already have a solid safety net – not big enough to survive forever, but big enough to survive a few falls.

But let’s back up here. Most of my choices, in the long run, are about time. Right now, at this stage in my life, even if I wanted to, I could not have the broad, open pieces of time that I used to have. I have young children. I have a fair number of community responsibilities.

However, I know those things will fade over the next decade. So, right now, I’m planning ahead for that timeframe. As my many time commitments start to fade, I hope to be close to that level of financial independence that I would need to no longer have to work.

Another point: When I use money to buy a substitute of what time would deliver, it’s usually a pretty bad copy. Buying stuff never adds up to the experience that I wanted. Compressing too much into a vacation day takes away much of the joy of it.

For me, the solution to that problem is to enjoy the simpler things. To me, there’s no real benefit in paying for a substitute for free time because it simply doesn’t measure up. Instead, I look for ways to enjoy the experience of the time I have. Rather than buying a book, I’ll spend that 15 minutes just reading a chapter of a book, for instance. I’ll look for things to love in the mundane, like the feeling of warm sun on my cheeks as I walk our dog.

In the end, it’s really true that money cannot buy what time delivers. So, right now, I’m effectively saving money during a period in my life where I don’t have that kind of time (no matter what I choose) so that, at a later period, I can have that kind of wide open time.

So far, it seems to be working.

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